Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XI- The Serbian Empire Takes Over and Saves a Dying Byzantium in the 14th 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 13th and 14th Centuries AD. This story will begin with real events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter X- 13th Century

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Welcome to the 11th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger, the second to the last in this 12-part series! Last time in chapter X, we went over the major turning point of the disastrous 4th Crusade in 1204 which began the end for the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire followed by the 57-year period of the Byzantine Empire temporarily disappearing and turning into the Empire of Nicaea with Constantinople falling under the rule of the Latin Empire, the possible what if of the powerful 2nd Bulgarian Empire taking over Constantinople from the Latins before the Byzantines do, as well as Byzantium as the Empire of Nicaea eventually recovering Constantinople before they actually did in real history, which was in 1261. Again, as these chapters in this alternate history series are not continuous with each other in plot, this chapter will begin with what actually happened in real history, therefore the events from the previous chapter including the 2nd Bulgarian Empire taking over Constantinople in 1235 from the Latins, the Byzantines of Nicaea eventually taking it back in 1248, and the Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty still continuing and ruling from Constantinople rather than being overthrown by the Palaiologos Dynasty would not happen, instead we will start this chapter off with the Palaiologos Dynasty succeeding in taking over the empire and Michael VIII Palaiologos becoming emperor after taking back Constantinople by surprise from the Latins in 1261, afterwards taking over the throne by deposing and blinding the last Laskaris-Vatatzes Emperor of Nicaea, the young John IV.

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, founded by Michael VIII in 1261

After recovering Constantinople from the Latins and restoring the Byzantine Empire, Michael VIII vowed to put the empire back together and once again make it a major power, but at the end he only did what he could as the damage done by the army of the 4th Crusade back in 1204 when sacking and capturing Constantinople was beyond repair. The Byzantine Empire back on the map after 1261 now may have been restored as a functioning state but from here on, it would no longer be a major power of the medieval world like it was in the 12th century as discussed in chapter IX of this series before everything turned around in 1204, instead the post-1261 Byzantium despite still being called an “empire” would just be more or less a regional power in the Balkans together with their two neighbors to the north, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire and Serbian Kingdom, therefore making Byzantium one of the 3 kingdoms of the Balkans wherein all 3 will be in constant interaction with each other in the next century to come, the 14th century. Michael VIII would then be a rather controversial ruler as despite his iron fist rule, using dirty tactics to keep himself in power, and betraying his people by submitting his empire and its faith to the Catholic Church, he was still successful in keeping his empire together, restoring lands that they had lost to the Latins and other Byzantine Greek breakaway states like Epirus, and most of all using the smartest weapon of diplomacy by making alliances with powers near and far from them even it may have seemed unpopular. Though his reign was one of constant stress, Michael VIII still kept his restored empire strong but at the end, he also indirectly caused the gradual collapse of his empire as for one his policy of wanting to submit his empire’s faith to the pope caused great division among his people and more significantly, all the funds he spent on fighting wars in the west left Asia Minor, once the heartland of the Byzantine Empire neglected and undefended, which would therefore result in the rise of new Turkish powers in Asia Minor slowly taking over Byzantine land. Now back in chapter VIII of this series set in the 11th century, the Turks being the massive Seljuk Empire had been introduced as Byzantium’s new traditional enemy and although in the following 2 centuries that they had settled in and occupied Asia Minor itself becoming the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, they had turned out to be not so much a threat to the Byzantines, however in the 13th century the new powerful empire of the Mongols from the far east suddenly became a major threat and therefore had invaded Seljuk Asia Minor resulting in the dissolution of the Seljuk state there forcing many Turks to flee further west due to Mongol pressure in the east. With the power of the Seljuk Sultanate weakening due to the Mongol invasions, the Turks of Asia Minor seeing that their sultan could no longer protect them decided to break away and establish their own small states known as Beyliks in different parts of Asia Minor once under the Seljuks and the Byzantines before them. Following his death in 1282, Michael VIII was succeeded by his son Andronikos II Palaiologos who may have not been a worthy emperor but at least he turned to the worsening situation in Asia Minor which his father had indirectly caused and neglected, and though it seemed that most of these Turkish states or Beyliks in Asia Minor did not seem too much to be a threat, as most just wanted to rule their own small corner in Asia Minor, one of them which was located in Northwest Asia Minor right next to the Byzantine border ruled by the mysterious yet ambitious warlord Osman had the objective to permanently stay in Asia Minor, unite the other Beyliks, and establish an empire, and this exactly happened in 1299 at the turn of the century, and this Beylik of Osman would from this point on become the Ottoman Empire ruled for several centuries to come by the descendants of Osman.

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Flag of the Ottoman Beylik, future Ottoman Empire

At the beginning of the 14th century, the state of Osman that would later become the Ottoman Empire had already began invading the last remains of Byzantine territory in Asia Minor at the worst time possible as here, the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II had just disbanded the army and fleet as a way to save on funds, instead relying on foreign mercenaries rather than investing on a standing army. When disbanding the army at the worst time possible, Andronikos II responded to the new threat of Osman’s Turks in Asia Minor by hiring a strong but untrustworthy army of Catalan mercenaries which at the end resulted in an even more devastating disaster for the Byzantines when these mercenaries turned on them when being not content with their pay, thus creating further damage by pillaging the Byzantine countryside of Thrace. The economic crisis and starvation in Byzantium caused by Andronikos II’s weak rule and decision making would later lead to Andronikos II himself being overthrown in 1328 by his grandson after a 7-year civil war, and now the grandson Andronikos III Palaiologos as the new emperor would once again vow to turn all the setbacks his grandfather caused and again restore what was left of Byzantium to its old glory. With a strong and energetic emperor again in power which was Andonikos III, the Byzantines would undergo another revival period, except this time only to become a dominant power in Greece even taking back the rebel breakaway Despotate of Epirus but at the end, Andronikos III still failed to stop the Ottomans from taking over all of Byzantine Asia Minor. At the same as Andronikos III was doing his best to revive the power of Byzantium, both Serbia and Bulgaria to the north were also expanding in power and Serbia here in particular was ruled by a king equally ambitious and energetic as Andronikos III which was Stefan IV Uros Dusan who had a vision to turn the Serbian Kingdom into an empire the way Byzantium was. The Byzantines again would unfortunately face another great tragedy with the sudden death of Andronikos III in 1341 at a relatively young age and the worst part here was that he did not name an heir, therefore leading to another civil war to erupt in Byzantium, this time between the late emperor’s wife Anna of Savoy backing their young son John V Palaiologos and Andronikos III’s closest friend and general John Kantakouzenos who believed that he was promised the throne. The civil war which involved Serbia, Bulgaria, and even the Ottomans in Asia Minor now ruled by Osman’s son Orhan was then the breaking point for Byzantium which resulted in Byzantium weakened once more with its end already inevitable, but this civil war too benefited the Serbians as by taking advantage of the civil war, Dusan succeeded in taking a large percent of Byzantine territory including Thessaly and Epirus allowing him to call himself a “Byzantine emperor” despite the Byzantine Empire still being around, while at the same time this civil war also benefited the Ottomans in Asia Minor allowing them for the first time to cross into Europe as a result of assisting the side of John Kantakouzenos.

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Seal of the Serbian Empire, founded by Stefan IV Dusan in 1346

The 1340s too would see Byzantium facing a double disaster, as not only were they damaged by a deadly civil war, but in 1347 the plague of Black Death that would also spread to the rest of Europe and the known world had also arrived in the decaying Byzantium to further devastate it, while Serbia to the north under Dusan was not much affected by it which allowed them to further grow their empire. Now, one major possibility at this time is of Dusan now being the first Serbian emperor taking over Byzantium to save it from falling apart considering that Byzantium was already weakened by Black Death and the civil war, and true enough Dusan did in fact have ambitions to take over Byzantium, but at the end he never did due to his unexpected death in 1355 and lack of a navy to transport his troops. In real history, the death of the Serbian emperor Dusan in 1355 also marked the end for the short-lived Serbian Empire and not too long after, the once powerful Serbian Empire of Dusan that controlled most of the Balkans dissolved into various divided states ruled by different Serbian generals and nobles, thus the weakening and decentralization of Serbia would eventually result in their defeat by the Ottomans in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo. Now, it seems like a very unlikely what if scenario in history for Dusan to take over the Byzantine Empire and replace its Greek identity with a Serbian one, but Dusan if actually did manage to take over the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople itself with the help of a Venetian fleet, could this actually result in saving Byzantium from decaying thus reversing the Ottoman expansion into the Balkans? 

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this story is set in the 13th and 14th centuries, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

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Map of the restored Byzantine Empire (yellow), after 1261
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Map of the Balkans in the 14th century- Byzantine Empire (purple with eagle), Ottomans (green with crescents), Serbian Empire (gray with eagle), Bulgarian Empire (red with lion)

Now the 14th century where the Byzantine Empire already reaches 1000 years of existence but also the 2nd to the last century of its existence wherein the main part of this chapter is set in is often overlooked and skipped in most history books as well as videos, and podcasts featuring the history of Byzantium being seen as an insignificant part of Byzantine history. At this point, the empire has already been so severely reduced that there is not much to discuss about anymore, that mainstream history media in fact when getting to the late Byzantine Empire only discusses the temporary fall of Byzantium to the 4th Crusade in 1204 and its restoration in 1261, afterwards skipping more than 150 years of history and important characters already going to where the empire falls to the Ottomans in 1453. True enough, I don’t really find the 14th century history of Byzantium that interesting or fascinating, although it does have some eventful moments as in fact most of the happening in the 14th century is no longer in Byzantium which had already been so reduced in size and power but more in the Balkans and even more so in the rest of Europe as the 14th century true enough saw a lot of happening in the rest of Europe including the Hundred-Years’-War between England and France and a lot more as we now enter the late Middle Ages. In Byzantium, most of the excitement no longer has to do much with the empire itself but with what is going on around them such as the rise of the Serbian and Ottoman Empires wherein the now weakened Byzantium is caught in the middle of it. When it comes to the story of the Byzantines in the 14th century as we go deep into the late Byzantine era, most it is disappointing and if not even depressing with all their civil wars, defeats, social and economic problems, religious schism, blinding, court intrigue, and the plague of Black Death, and though a lot of these stories of civil wars and court intrigues puts a lot of color into the history of Byzantium, here in the 14th century it just happens too much that it all becomes too tiring, which is what I mentioned before in the article I made on ranking the 12 centuries in Byzantine history from best to worst, and this is why I put the 14th century this chapter will be set in as my second to the least favorite. On the other hand, the 14th century too had some interesting moments and interesting characters as well which will have a major part in this story, such as the last strong and visionary Byzantine emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341), his wife the power hungry empress Anna of Savoy, the ambitious general and later Byzantine emperor John Kantakouzenos, the Serbian king turned emperor Stefan IV Dusan, the equally powerful tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire Ivan Alexander, and the rulers of the new Ottoman Emirate which later on would become the Ottoman Empire. This chapter too will be the first time in this series that the Ottoman Turks would first be part of the story, and though the Turks being the Seljuks had already been a major part in this series ever since chapter VIII when discussing the crucial Battle of Manzikert in 1071 which began the Turkish expansion into Byzantine Asia Minor, it is only here when the Turks that will be the ones to bring the end of the Byzantine Empire which here are the Ottomans will first appear, as true enough the Ottomans which ended Byzantium in 1453 by besieging Constantinople only became an existing power just 150 years prior to it. Aside from the Ottomans, the Serbians too will have a major part in this story as the what if here is that if the Serbians took over Byzantium when it was at its weakest, then possibly the bigger threat being the Ottomans could have been stopped considering that Serbia had a  more powerful army and under the reign of Dusan the first Serbian emperor (1346-1355), Serbia basically controlled almost the entire Balkans, except for Bulgaria which was their ally who will also have a major part in the story. In addition, the well-known plague of Black Death which struck Byzantium and the Balkans in 1347 before reaching the rest of Europe will also play a major part in this chapter as this also escalated the fall of Byzantium, and with Black Death having a part here, this is the second time this series and the history of Byzantium faced a major pandemic, with the first one being the Plague of Justinian in 542 which was a big part of chapter III of this series, and like Black Death here was also a bubonic plague.

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Logo of my channel- No Budget Films

At the same time as well, this chapter will also feature a part in Byzantine history which I had made a major Lego film on last year for my Youtube channel No Budget Films which was the Sicilian Vespers in 1282 as well as a short Lego film featuring the civil war between Andronikos II and Andronikos III from 1321 to 1328, and currently for my channel as well, I am producing and narrating an audio epic series entitled The Last Roman Dynasty referring to the Palaiologos Dynasty which takes place where this chapter is set in, beginning with the restoration of Byzantium in 1261 and ending with its fall in 1453, and as of now I have already made 6 episodes wherein currently I have reached already the end of the 14th century. Now all the 6 episodes of this series I made so far set in the era of this chapter will be linked below.   

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Map of the spread of Black Death across Europe, 1347-1351

Links to The Last Roman Dynasty Audio Epic series, from No Budget Films:

Part I (1261-1274)

Part II (1274-1282)

Part III (1283-1320)

Part IV (1320-1341)

Part V (1341-1354)

Part VI (1355-1391)


Though this chapter focuses on 14th century Byzantium, it will start off right when the Byzantine Empire is restored in 1261 after 57 years of Constantinople occupied by the Latins of the 4th Crusade as a way to set the stage for what is to come in the 14th century, most particularly the decline and twilight of the Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologos Dynasty as well as the empire’s new identity as a culturally Greek kingdom which was established in the 57 years Byzantium was in exile as the Empire of Nicaea.

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Palaiologos Dynasty coat of arms

This chapter will start off with the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282) who in the previous chapter was a major character, but for this one we will be looking at his reign in real history seeing the last time Byzantium would be a strong and active power but his reign also sets the stage for what is to come in the 14th century as with his attention being focused on the west too much, it allowed Byzantine rule in Asia Minor which was once their heartland to collapse thus allowing the new independent Turkish Beyliks to rise, while Michael VIII in his reign had also done the controversial act of attempting to submit his empire’s faith to the pope which received great opposition from his proud Orthodox people, and though this act of union never really succeeded, it still set a new standard for the emperors succeeding him as many other rulers which were Michael VIII’s descendants too had considered submitting Byzantium to the Western Catholic Church to end the age old great schism between them and to also seek military support from the more powerful western Catholic powers, as the power of Byzantium had already faded away. Now, in this chapter the ironic thing but now the reality for Byzantium would be that they would be the ones asking for support from the west unlike how it was not too long ago wherein it was the other way around with Byzantium as the dominant power that other powers around them bowed down to. The great shift of circumstances for the Byzantine Empire from being a major power to becoming a weakened one gradually declining was the sack of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204 thus making it seem like a miracle that the Byzantine Empire still returned after 57 years even if it just returned as a shadow of its former self, as the Byzantium after 1261 would no longer be like it was in the previous centuries with a powerful professional army, advanced technology and extravagant court life, and territory covering the entire Asia Minor and the Balkans, instead it was reduced to basically a small Greek kingdom with an army mostly made of mercenaries, although on the positive side, the late Byzantine era after 1261 saw a period of growth in arts and culture which was known as the “Palaiologan Renaissance” named after the ruling dynasty and it was here when Greek culture flourished in the remains of the empire. As Byzantium downsizes in this chapter’s setting, the world of this chapter will also be downsized being now mostly limited to the Byzantines and their neighbors being the Serbians, Bulgarians, and Ottomans and occasionally the Italian maritime republics of Venice and Genoa too as they both played a part in the decline of Byzantium due to the Byzantines asking for either of them for an alliance countless times which resulted in either Venice or Genoa gaining more as in return for their support especially in providing a navy and troops, Byzantium had to cede what was left of their Aegean islands to either of them. What would then really define the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century would be weak and ineffective leadership as seen in the over 40 year reign of Andronikos II (1282-1328) although at least there was still some hope with his successor Andronikos III (1328-1341) whose reign would be one of Byzantine history’s last bright spots, but following his sudden death the same kind of instability would return to Byzantium with a devastating civil war, but apart from all the weak leadership, civil wars, and Black Death that would further weaken Byzantium, another major factor that weakened Byzantium was the age old cancer of religious schism and here in the 14th century it would be again on the question of submitting the Byzantine Orthodox Church to the pope for Church unity which may seem like a good and practical solution to solve Byzantium’s problems by getting the support of the now more powerful west though it was strongly opposed by the Byzantine people as back in 1204 they have seen the horrors of the Catholic westerners when they sacked Constantinople, therefore making the Orthodox Byzantine people strongly object Church unity with the people that wronged them. This story’s climax would then take place in the 1341-1347 Byzantine civil war which would not only be a succession war but one that totally shows how Byzantine society had already become so divided especially over social, political, and religious issues, but even worse was that it was fought at such a bad time as the Ottomans from Asia Minor were already a major threat to the Byzantines. This civil war at the end would then only further harm the existence of Byzantium allowing them to be an easy target for the now expanding Ottomans to the point that nothing could be done to stop the Ottomans which in fact would in real history end the Byzantine Empire in 1453.

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Stefan IV Uros Dusan, Emperor of Serbia (r. 1346-1355)

For this story however, I would consider that it could be the newly formed Serbian Empire of Stefan IV Dusan that could for better or for worse save Byzantium by expelling the Ottomans the moment they arrived in Europe even if it would mean that the remains of Byzantium would be absorbed into the Serbian Empire, thus this chapter’s climax set in 1352 would be another bizarre one just like in the previous chapter wherein the Bulgarians took over Constantinople. This chapter would then follow the same kind of what if like in the previous one wherein a foreign power would conquer Byzantium, which in the last one was Bulgaria under their tsar Ivan Asen II and for this one it would be Serbia under Stefan IV Dusan, although this time the Serbians despite being a foreign power would have a greater purpose to conquer Byzantium and this would not be to end its existence but to revive the power of Byzantium by joining it with Serbia as one empire, as after all Stefan IV Dusan in 1346 had not only called himself a “Serbian emperor” or “tsar” but “Emperor of the Serbs and Romans” with the part on the Romans referring to the Byzantines, and as an emperor Dusan patterned himself as a Byzantine ruler making him be Serbia’s version of the most influential Byzantine emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) as Dusan like Justinian I had also made a strong bureaucratic system and a codification of laws for Serbia. Now, at first it may be hard to imagine or unheard of for Serbia in the 14th century to take over the Byzantine Empire, but at the end the outcome would turn to be very surprising. Before beginning, I would also like to thank the Youtube channel Eastern Roman History for providing some good amount of information for this very obscure part of Byzantine history, while I would also like to thank the artists (Wlayko111, TheGreyStallion, Doqida, Androklos, Borivoje Mikic, Ediacar, FaisalHashemi, and JustinianustheGreat) whose works will be featured here in order to guide you viewers through the 14th century.

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Map of Stefan IV Dusan’s Serbian Empire at its greatest extent (dark green)

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter X- The 2nd Bulgarian Empire Captures Constantinople from the Latins in 1235

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- Justinian I the Great Saves his Empire from the Plague

Ranking the 12 Centuries of Byzantine History (My Personal Best to Least)

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

The Story of 3 Plagues Across the Centuries

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople

War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic- Everything About the Film


 

The Leading Characters:

Andronikos III Palaiologos- Byzantine emperor (1328-1341)

Anna of Savoy- Byzantine empress, wife of Andronikos III

Stefan Uros IV Dusan- King and later Emperor of Serbia (1331-1355)

John VI Kantakouzenos- Usurping Byzantine emperor

John V Palaiologos- Byzantine emperor, son and successor of Andronikos III

Orhan- Sultan of the Ottoman Turks (1324-1362)

Ivan Alexander- Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1331-1371)

Umur Bey- Bey of the Turkish Beylik of Aydin

Alexios Apokaukos- Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire

Matthew Kantakouzenos- Byzantine general and son of John VI

Suleiman Pasha- Turkish general and son of Sultan Orhan

Stefan Uros V- Emperor of Serbia, son and successor of Dusan 

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Byzantine art recreated- Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) and his wife Empress Anna of Savoy, art by myself

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Serbians (light blue), Ottomans and other Turks (dark orange), Bulgarians (green)


Prologue- The Restoration of Byzantium and Reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282)  

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On July 25, 1261 the 57-year rule of the Latin Empire that began in 1204 when the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople and brought the Byzantine Empire to its knees had ended when an army of only 800 Byzantines from the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea in Asia Minor took Constantinople back from the Latins by surprise in only one night. The Latin Empire of Constantinople however was already doomed to extinction as in the previous years, the Byzantines of Nicaea under their strong military emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) had already surrounded the Latins to Constantinople by recapturing most of Northern Greece and Thrace making it seem like Constantinople could have already been recaptured.

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Seal of the Latin Empire, established in 1204, died in 1261

The rest of the details on how Constantinople was taken back by the Byzantines of Nicaea had already been discussed in the previous chapter of this series, but to put it short Constantinople was recaptured in only one night wherein the outnumbered and overwhelmed remaining Latin forces as well as the last Latin emperor Baldwin II Courtenay fled Constantinople by sea using Venetian ships before the Byzantine troops burned down the Venetian warehouses as a way to make the escape of the Latins more difficult. Now the exiled Byzantine state of the Empire of Nicaea in which its capital was the ancient and rich city of Nicaea along a lake less than a day away from Constantinople at this point was ruled by the child emperor John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes who succeeded his father Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes (r. 1254-1258), the son of John III Vatatzesin 1258 following Theodore II’s sudden death, although since John IV was only a boy, the one actually running the empire was his co-emperor, the ambitious general Michael Palaiologos who schemed his way into power being actually the arch-rival of John IV’s father, and it was Michael who really masterminded the entire reconquest of Constantinople.

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Michael VIII Palaiologos enters Constantinople in triumph, 1261

3 weeks after the Byzantines took back Constantinople, the 38-year-old Michael Palaiologos himself went to it being the first time he ever saw the Byzantine capital and here the Byzantine Empire that disappeared for 57 years came back into existence as he was crowned as Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos at the Hagia Sophia which had been left in ruin and turned into a Catholic church by the Crusaders after 1204, but with the Byzantines regaining the city, the Hagia Sophia once again became an Orthodox church. Immediately after being crowned, Michael VIII saw for himself the damage the Latins had done to Constantinople which they never even bothered to repair even when holding Constantinople for 57 years, therefore in 1261 Michael VIII still saw buildings in ruins and rubble in the ground that had been there since 1204, homeless people everywhere as a result of their homes destroyed by the Crusader attack of 1204, and the worst part was that the population of the city dropped to only 35,000 compared to how it was before 1204 when it had about 100,000 as many fled the city to Nicaea, Bulgaria, and the other Byzantine breakaway states after the Latins took over in 1204.

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

Michael VIII then began his rule doing all he could to restore all the damage the 4th Crusade had inflicted on Constantinople and so he quickly ordered the restoration of the city’s ruined buildings while he also had a large number of churches, hospitals, markets, baths, and learning centers rebuilt although most of the artistic restoration was done under the care of Michael’s artistic wife Empress Theodora, but what Michael repaired himself was the sea wall along the Golden Horn destroyed by the Crusaders’ attack if you remember from the previous chapter, while he also made it an objective to repopulate Constantinople by having the people of Nicaea and other parts of the empire in Asia Minor relocate back to Constantinople. Though Michael VIII had already taken back Constantinople, there was still one immediate threat to him and his rule which was the boy emperor John IV who was still reigning in Nicaea and so at the end of 1261, Michael VIII decided to get rid of John IV by sending one of his agents to Nicaea and blind his young co-emperor.

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John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes (r. 1258-1261), blinded by Michael VIII

The 11-year-old John IV was then blinded and sent to one of Michael’s family’s castles along the Marmara coast of Asia Minor to be imprisoned for life making him forever unfit to rule, thus Michael VIII was the sole ruler of the empire and after all the blinding of the young emperor John IV was to secure the succession of Michael VIII’s infant son Andronikos Palaiologos to prevent challengers to his rule since Andronikos had already been crowned as his father’s co-emperor, as Michael did indeed want to establish his own dynasty. In 1262, the next thing Michael VIII needed to do to get the Byzantine Empire back on the map was to have its restoration be recognized by the other kingdoms of Europe including the pope, however Michael VIII’s Byzantine reconquest and restoration was not immediately recognized by many rulers of Europe, although the most powerful ruler of Europe at this time which was the King of France Louis IX did in fact recognize Michael VIII’s restored Byzantium which then gave it as much legitimacy as it needed.

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Michael VIII Palaiologos, restorer of Constantinople, art by Ediacar

In the meantime, the other two major Byzantine successor states formed after 1204 which included the Empire of Trebizond in the far eastern corner of Asia Minor along the Black Sea and the Despotate of Epirus in Western Greece too did not recognize the restoration of Byzantium, and when Michael VIII sent word to both of them to unite with the restored Byzantium, both refused to do so as Trebizond was happy with their maritime empire in the Black Sea while the ruler or Despot of Epirus Michael II Angelos who was a bitter enemy of Michael VIII still did not give up his claim on Constantinople.

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Byzantine-Genoese alliance flag

At the same time too, Michael VIII before the reconquest of Constantinople had sealed a permanent alliance with the Italian maritime Republic of Genoa and in return for Genoa’s support in providing the restored Byzantium with a navy, Michael VIII formally gave the Galata Quarter of Constantinople to Genoa, although this alliance with Genoa would also come at a great price as the Byzantines would now have to pay 87% of their revenue made from customs from ships passing the Bosporus strait where their capital is to Genoa, therefore making Byzantium no longer as rich as they were before. Meanwhile, despite Constantinople being taken back by the Byzantines and the Latin Empire fading away, the other Latin states formed by the leaders of the 4th Crusade after 1204 in what was once Byzantine Greece were still around which included the Duchy of Athens, the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean, and the Principality of Achaea in the Peloponnese Peninsula of Southern Greece, while Crete and many other islands were still under the rule of the Republic of Venice.

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Seal of the Latin Principality of Achaea in Greece

In 1263, Michael VIII sent an army of 15,000 Byzantines as well as 5,000 Seljuk Turkish mercenaries to the Peloponnese to conquer the entire Principality of Achaea back for Byzantium as back in 1259, Michael VIII’s forces had already defeated the forces of the Latin Prince of Achaea William II Villehardouin who had been imprisoned but soon after escaped and returned to the Peloponnese also known as the Morea. The Byzantine expedition to recapture the Morea from the Latins began in failure as the Byzantines forces and their allies were ambushed by the Latins of Achaea while the Seljuk mercenaries after not receiving their pay defected to the Latins causing further defeat for the Byzantines.

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Byzantine army mixed units in the 1263 Peloponnese campaign

At the end, the Byzantines only succeeded in taking back the southeast corner of the Morea (Peloponnese) which was the region of Laconia where the Ancient Greek city of Sparta was, though here the Byzantines would establish a new city around the castle of Prince William II found on the slopes of the mountain beside Ancient Sparta, and this new city would be Mystras, later an important learning and cultural center in the late Byzantine era. At the same time too as the Peloponnese campaign in 1263, the Genoese fleet being Michael VIII’s ally was defeated by a much smaller Venetian fleet in the Aegean and facing this kind of humiliation of being defeated by a smaller fleet in a surprise attack, Michael VIII decided to end his alliance with Genoa despite just beginning it 2 years ago, as he felt Genoa was weak therefore Michael turned to Venice instead as an ally believing them to be stronger, despite Venice being the one that brought the army of the 4th Crusade to attack Constantinople in 1204.

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Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium

With more challenges to face ahead of him, Michael VIII decided to make alliances with some of the most unlikely powers of the time and this included the new Mamluk Sultanate that was founded by Turkic slaves that overthrew the Ayyubid Sultanate back in 1250, thus taking over Egypt and Syria and later on taking over the Levant’s last Crusader state of Acre too, while the other power Michael VIII signed an alliance with was no other than the biggest threat to the world which were the Mongols. Now, what made Michael VIII consider making an alliance with the Mongols was that in 1265 the Mongols from the Golden Horde (the Mongol state in Russia) led by their general Nogai Khan went as far as to Byzantine Thrace to raid it wherein Michael himself led the army to confront them but failed to stop them, as after his officers fled out of terror, Michael barely escaped with his life back to Constantinople and so to settle the threat of the deadly Mongol warlord Nogai Khan, Michael had to marry off his illegitimate daughter Euphrosyne to Nogai while to further conclude peace with the Mongols, Michael also married off his other illegitimate daughter Maria who was Euphrosyne’s sister to the Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate of Persia Abaqa Khan.

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Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily since 1266

The biggest challenger to Michael VIII’s rule however came from the west and this came into the picture in 1266 being Charles of Anjou of the Capetian Dynasty of France, the youngest brother of King Louis IX of France, and in 1266 the ambitious Charles envisioning a Mediterranean empire and having the support of the pope invaded Southern Italy defeated and even killed the German ruler of Southern Italy and Sicily Manfred Hohenstaufen at the Battle of Benevento, and when taking over Southern Italy, Charles made his ambitions to take over Byzantium itself clear and from here on, Charles would be Michael VIII’s biggest problem. In 1267, Charles of Anjou made an alliance with all of Michael VIII’s enemies which were the former Latin Emperor of Constantinople Baldwin II, the Prince of Achaea William II, the Despot of Epirus Michael II, and the pope Clement IV to take back Constantinople and restore the Latin Empire as a much more powerful state compared to what it was before which is why it died out so easily.

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King Louis IX of France (r. 1226-1270)

In 1268, Michael VIII would experience some relief when his major enemy Despot Michael II of Epirus died which weakened Epirus as he divided his lands among his sons Nikephoros I Angelos who inherited Epirus and John Angelos who inherited Thessaly, but Michael VIII too would face another challenge in 1268 as here Charles of Anjou managed to take over all of Sicily which he made as his base in order to launch a naval invasion of Byzantium. Charles however could not really carry out his ambition to invade Byzantium as his older and more powerful brother King Louis IX of France was keeping an eye on him, and wanting to maintain friendly relations with Byzantium, Louis IX would not allow his younger brother to do what he wanted most, instead Louis asked for troops from Charles for his Crusade against the Muslims in Tunisia which deprived Charles of troops for invading Byzantium. Unfortunately, in 1270 Louis IX died of a plague in Tunisia when leading the 8th Crusade there- therefore becoming St. Louis after his death- and from here on there would be nothing to stop Charles anymore from invading Byzantium.

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The 1261 Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople, art by FaisalHashemi
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Coronation of Michael VIII Palaiologos in the Hagia Sophia, 1261
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Michael VIII Palaiologos Lego figure
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Charles of Anjou defeats the forces of Manfred Hohenstaufen at the Battle of Benevento, 1266
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Map of the restored Byzantine Empire (purple) by 1265
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Map of the Mongol Empire’s 4 Divisions in the late 13th century

Meanwhile in Asia Minor, due to Mongol raids from the east over the past years, the Seljuk Sultanate there that had been around since the late 11th century began to disintegrate and with the central power of the Seljuk state crumbling away, their Turkish subjects fled further west into Asia Minor wherein they would begin establishing their own feudal states there known as Beyliks ruled by different warlords or Beys to further protect their people seeing that the Seljuk sultan could no longer protect them from external threats such as the Mongols. These Turkish Beyliks that broke away from the Seljuk Empire would then soon enough easily settle in Asia Minor taking over a number of Byzantine cities meeting little resistance from the Byzantine forces as Michael VIII reassigned most of the armies in Asia Minor to Greece to fight against the remaining Latin states there as well as against Epirus. Now seeing that Charles of Anjou as the King of Sicily was more and more posing a threat to the restored Byzantium, Michael VIII decided to turn to the most unpopular but practical solution to stop Charles from invading, which was submitting the Byzantine Orthodox Church to the pope, thus reuniting both Churches that had been at a permanently split since the Great Schism of 1054- if you remember from chapter VIII of this series- and apparently in 1272 a council was being held in Lyon, France with talks to reunite both Eastern and Western Churches.

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Council of Lyon, 1272-1274

In 1274, Byzantine envoys travelled to Lyon presenting to the pope Gregory X a letter of consent from Michael VIII to submit the Byzantine church to the pope and after reading all letters, the Byzantine Orthodox and Latin Catholic Churches were once again united. Michael VIII then came to think that submitting to the pope was nothing more but a practical solution as with Charles being Catholic and Michael and his empire becoming Catholic as well, there would be no reason for Charles to attack Byzantium anymore, and to fully legitimize his empire’s conversion to Catholicism, Michael had the Hagia Sophia which back in 1261 he turned back to an Orthodox church be returned to a Catholic church again as it was under the Latins. The Byzantine people however strongly opposed Michael VIII’s Church union as they were proud of their Orthodox faith not wanting to submit to the faith of the Latins that had wronged them before by sacking Constantinople, thus when hearing that Michael VIII submitted to the pope, the people of Constantinople and the rest of the empire rioted. Michael VIII, once seen as the hero of the Byzantine people for taking back Constantinople from the Latins now drastically lost all his popularity becoming his people’s worst enemy as they believed he had betrayed them, as after all he took back Constantinople from the Latins but then at the end only chose to bow down to his enemy, the Latins by submitting to their religion.

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Michael VIII Palaiologos

Now to make it look like he really accepted the pope’s authority, Michael VIII had to respond to opposition against rule, especially opposition against his policy of Church unity with such brutality thus Michael VIII viciously persecuted all those that spoke either against him, the pope, the newly appointed pro-Catholic Patriarch of Constantinople John XI, or generally against the Church union which then gave Michael the reputation of a tyrant emperor as he ended up jailing thousands of those who opposed him and the union, while imperial officials as well as monks were punished by all kinds of methods from exile to blinding if they opposed this policy, and by the point the prisons became too filled up as more and more kept opposing the Church union, Michael had to go as far as issuing a death penalty for those who simply just read or possessed documents directed against him. Due to Michael’s harsh treatment to opposition against him and his unionist policies, many Byzantine Greeks in Asia Minor including nobles who still preferred to be ruled by the former Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty anyway rather than Michael VIII defected to the newly formed Turkish Beyliks. Those who opposed Michael VIII in Greece fled to the rebel Byzantine states of Epirus and Thessaly as their respective rulers the brothers Nikephoros I and John Angelos saw themselves as defenders of Orthodoxy in direct opposition to Michael VIII, even if both brothers still swore loyalty to Charles of Anjou, while at the same time Michael’s older sister Irene who he grew up very close to had also turned against him as being proudly Orthodox, she was disgusted with her brother’s submission to Catholicism.

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Charles of Anjou’s coat of arms

In the meantime, the last Latin emperor Baldwin II died in Italy in 1273 while back in Byzantium, Michael VIII renewed his alliance with Genoa as Venice chose to ally with Charles of Anjou instead, and while Michael was trying to consolidate the Catholic faith in his empire, he was also still busy in securing Byzantine rule over Greece by campaigning against the Latin Duchy of Athens and the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean. Sometime in 1275 the Duchy of Athens allied with John Angelos’ Thessaly defeated the Byzantines in battle, but later that year after a brave Byzantine counter-attack led by Michael VIII’s younger brother John Palaiologos, the Byzantines won a decisive victory over the remaining Latins at the naval Battle of Demetrias which secured Byzantine dominance over the Aegean once more, though John would retire from military service after this.

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Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185

In 1277 on the other hand, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire to the north of Byzantium after being devastated by Mongol raids from the north fell into civil war when Bulgarian peasants feeling that their ruler or tsar Konstantin Tih who ruled for 20 years was useless in protecting them from the Mongol raids rose up against him in favor of a charismatic peasant leader named Ivaylo– nicknamed “the cabbage”- who later managed to defeat the Bulgarian imperial forces and kill the tsar in battle, thus making the peasant Ivaylo become the new Bulgarian tsar.

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Ivaylo, peasant uprising leader and Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1278-1279)

Using the chaos in Bulgaria to his advantage, Michael VIII reconquered some of Southern Bulgaria for Byzantium while also backing a Bulgarian claimant which was his son-in-law Ivan Asen III, the grandson of last chapter’s great and powerful Bulgarian tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241), although the plan to put Ivan Asen III in the Bulgarian throne shortly after failed but Michael VIII being an ally of Nogai Khan of the Golden Horde who was Bulgaria’s northern neighbor further weakened Bulgaria by asking Nogai who was now Michael’s son-in-law to invade Bulgaria from the north, and as a result of this the incompetent peasant emperor Ivaylo lost his throne in 1279 to the Bulgaria noble or boyar George Terter I.

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Nogai Khan, Mongol general of the Golden Horde, son-in-law of Michael VIII

Ivaylo then had no choice but to flee to Nogai Khan in Russia to submit to him, however Nogai when receiving Ivaylo in 1280 killed Ivaylo claiming he did in the name of his father-in-law Michael VIII. In the meantime, the King of Sicily Charles of Anjou still did not take Michael VIII’s submission to the pope seriously and so in 1280, Charles sent an army to invade Byzantine Albania which succeeded in capturing the fortress of Berat, but in 1281 a Byzantine army led by the general Michael Tarchaneiotes drove off Charles’ French army and recovered Berat even capturing Charles’ French general Hugh Sully who was taken to Constantinople as a prisoner. In 1281 as well, a new pope was elected which was Martin IV, a Frenchman who was blindly loyal to Charles and so he saw Michael’s Church union policy as fake thus making him authorize Charles’ invasion of Byzantium while excommunicating Michael as well.

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Kingdom of Aragon flag

In 1282, now having limited resources to stop Charles’ invasion of Byzantium, Michael VIII had to again turn to what he was best at doing which was diplomacy and so he turned to an alliance with a distant kingdom which was Aragon in Spain, as Michael knew that its king Peter III was like him also an enemy of Charles of Anjou. Michael VIII here however could not really send a Byzantine army to stop Charles’ invasion as by 1282, the Serbian Kingdom to the north just got a new king which was Stefan Uros II Milutin of the Nemanjic Dynasty who also strongly opposed Michael’s Church union policy and when coming into power, Milutin saw himself as the opposition leader against Michael VIII in the Balkans as well as the defender of Orthodoxy.

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Peter III, King of Aragon (r. 1276-1285)

Now, the Byzantine army here in 1282 was no longer as powerful as it was back in the 12th century, therefore it did not have enough power to do an actual invasion of Sicily to prevent Charles’ invasion, so instead Michael VIII had to turn to Peter III of Aragon to invade Sicily and when taking the island swear allegiance to Byzantium. At the same time too, Michael VIII knew that the locals in Sicily were unhappy being under French rule as Charles brutally taxed them while his soldiers mistreated the local Sicilians that some Sicilians turned to brutally murdering French people in Sicily whether they were soldiers or civilians, and using the discontent of the Sicilian people to his advantage, Michael VIII sent money to pay off the local lords of Sicily to lead their people in rebellion against their French overlords.

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Uprising of the Sicilian Vespers, 1282

On Easter Sunday of 1282, the people of the city of Palermo in Sicily suddenly broke out in riot declaring their intention to overthrow their French overlords in which this event would be known as the “Sicilian Vespers”, and soon enough this riot escalated into violence when the locals killed off the French garrison of Palermo and as the year progressed, this local rebellion turned into a full-scale war which did in fact succeed in driving the French away from Sicily when Peter III of Aragon and his forces arrived. By the end of 1282, the Spanish Aragonese took over Sicily and promised to rule over the local population better than the French did, while Charles though still having Southern Italy was no longer a threat to the Byzantines and 3 years later in 1285, he died and thus the returning threat from the west to restore the Latin Empire had vanished.

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Fresco of Michael VIII Palaiologos

Back in December of 1282, Michael VIII Palaiologos too had died in a farm in Thrace at the age of 59, and though being an energetic, ambitious, and capable ruler while also an “evil genius” that put the Byzantine Empire back together as a functioning state, he also had the negative legacy of neglecting Asia Minor as by the time of his death, most of Byzantine territory there had slipped away to the rule of the Turkish Beyliks, and worse for him was that he died hated by his own people and following his death, the Orthodox Church which was again back in power refused to give Michael VIII a proper burial despite him being the man who took back Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, as they saw him as a traitor and heretic for submitting to the pope. Michael VIII after his death was then succeeded by his eldest son Andronikos II Palaiologos who then buried his father in secret at the dead of night outside Constantinople.

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Byzantine victory over the Latins at the Battle of Demetrias, 1275
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Ivaylo’s peasant rebellion in Bulgaria, 1277
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Territories of Charles of Anjou’s empire (blue)
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The Sicilian Vespers Rebellion, 1282
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Map of Sicily under Aragon after 1282, Southern Italy remains under French rule
Watch War of the Sicilian Vespers (2020) by No Budget Films to see the Sicilian Vespers story with the Byzantine story involved in Lego

The Reign of Andronikos II Palaiologos and Decline of Byzantium (1282-1320)           

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Though Michael VIII Palaiologos had a strong rule which put the Byzantine Empire back together again, he died leaving his son Andronikos II to inherit so many external problems, although on the positive side Constantinople was repopulated by a lot going from 35,000 to 70,000 by the time of Michael’s death. Rather than mourning for the death of Michael VIII, the proud Orthodox Byzantine people cheered that their traitor heretic emperor had died, cheering at the coronation of their new emperor Andronikos II as well, as Andronikos unlike his father was strongly Orthodox and was only forced to support his father’s unionist policy when his father was still alive, however unlike his father who was a strong yet ruthless military and diplomatic genius emperor, Andronikos II was a weak and soft intellectual and artist very much like his mother.

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Andronikos II Palaiologos Lego figure

Andronikos II then began his reign by cancelling his father’s infamous Church union with the pope and restoring the Hagia Sophia to an Orthodox church once again, which then stopped the Orthodox Byzantine breakaway states of Epirus and Thessaly from being a threat, although Andronikos II now had to face the external problems created during his father’s reign despite the Western threat of Charles of Anjou now out of the way after Byzantium’s ally the Aragonese took over Sicily. First of all, the biggest threat to Andronikos II came from the north which was Stefan Uros II Milutin of Serbia who was still intent in invading Byzantine territory in the Balkans, and despite his enemy Michael VIII already dead that in 1282 Milutin did in fact capture the city of Skopje from Byzantium making it Serbia’s new capital, but the bigger threat to Andronikos II was still the expanding Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor which were left unchecked as his father pulled out troops from there to fight wars in Greece and the Balkans.

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Stefan Uros II Milutin, King of Serbia (r. 1282-1321)

Another problem Andronikos II inherited was an empty treasury as his father spent it all on his wars and in bribing the local lords of Sicily to rise up against Charles of Anjou, and so to fill up the treasury once again, Andronikos II had no choice but to raise taxes, reduce tax exemptions, devalue the currency which was the standard gold coin the Hyperpyron created by Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), and worse of all dismantle the Byzantine fleet of only 80 ships to sell of their parts to raise funds. In addition, Andronikos II seeing that it was too expensive to maintain a professional army had no choice but to disband it and instead rely on hiring foreign mercenaries to fight his wars as well as relying on either Venice or Genoa for a fleet.

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Andronikos II Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1282-1328), son of Michael VIII

Just like his father who used diplomacy to solve some problems especially if it had to do with foreign powers, Andronikos II in 1284 following the death of his first wife married the 10-year-old Italian Yolande of Montferrat as a way to put an end to the claim of the small Northern Italian state of Montferrat over Thessaloniki as if you remember from the previous chapter, it was the Lord of Montferrat that took over Thessaloniki after Byzantium was divided in 1204 before Thessaloniki fell under Epirus and then to the Byzantines of Nicaea, and this marriage true enough put an end to Montferrat’s claim. In 1290, Andronikos II released John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes, the boy emperor Michael VIII had blinded back in 1261 from 29 years of castle arrest who then came out from arrest already as a middle-aged man, although Andronikos II still apologized to John IV for his father blinding him, although being already blind John had no more claim to throne but John was still allowed to retire peacefully in Constantinople where he would die many years later in 1305 at the age of 55. With the threat of the Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor increasing now that the Turks were increasingly capturing Byzantine cities in the Meander Valley including Philadelphia, Andronikos II sent his young nephew the general Alexios Philanthropenos to lead the campaign and recover what was lost in Asia Minor to the Turks in 1293 while also appointing Alexios as the commander or Doux of Asia. Alexios despite having limited men in his campaign turned out to successfully take care of the threat of the Turks in Asia Minor by scoring a number of victories against them in the Meander Valley between 1294 and 1295, even recovering cities the Byzantines had recently just lost, while taking a large number of Turkish prisoners as slaves too, that Turkish prisoners in fact became much cheaper to buy than sheep. Alexios’ victories however made him highly popular among the troubled people of Asia Minor that in 1295 they chose to recognize him as emperor rather than the reigning Andronikos II who they felt was too distant and oblivious to their sufferings, thus Alexios in order to save the empire especially Asia Minor from falling apart usurped power and seeing this as treason, Andronikos II had his nephew Alexios blinded, while Alexios accepted this fate anyway to prove he was still loyal to his emperor.

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Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos

The blinding of Alexios however turned out to be a terrible decision as without Alexios around anymore to command his troops in Asia Minor, there would be no more strong general left to stop the growing power of Turks and true enough with Alexios gone, the threat of the Turks returned; now if you are interested about the general Alexios Philanthropenos who could have saved Byzantium at this time from the threat of the Turks in Asia Minor, you can read the book The Usurper by Emanuele Rizzardi which I am currently reading now and is exactly about Alexios Philanthropenos and his campaigns in Asia Minor. Aside from the threat of the Turks in Asia Minor returning following the blinding of Alexios Philanthropenos, Andronikos II was again threatened in the north by Serbia, as it this point Serbia’s economic power had grown rapidly under King Milutin thanks to his development of silver mining in Serbia which therefore brought in more funds to raise a much larger army for Serbia that would be no match against the Byzantines. Seeing there was no solution to stop Serbia’s expansion except for diplomacy, Andronikos II in 1298 was forced to marry off his 5-year-old daughter with Yolande Simonis to the 45-year-old Serbian king Milutin, as well as to cede a large portion of Byzantine Macedonia such as the city of Ohrid to Serbia, which was then a success as Serbia would no longer pose a threat to Byzantium, and with this marriage Milutin and Andronikos II even became allies.

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Osman Bey, founder of the future Ottoman Empire, art by Doqida

The much larger threat to Andronikos II’s Byzantium however was from the east, and this was the rising Turkish Beylik of the rather mysterious Turkish warlord Osman, son of Ertugrul who unlike the other Turkish Beyliks were not that ambitious only wanting their small corners to rule as their own in Asia Minor, was highly ambitious as for Osman and his people there was no more going back to the east due to the pressure of the Mongols which forced them to migrate west, therefore they decided that they were to stay in Asia Minor to conquer the remaining Byzantine lands seeing the Byzantines as their weakest enemy. According to legend, Osman had a dream seeing his descendants rule the world and to make this a reality, Osman in 1299 made his intention to expand west and conquer Byzantine lands by declaring Jihad which then gave his people a purpose to fight the Byzantines and expand and to unite the other Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor as well under him in the name of Islam.            

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (pink) by 1300, art by TheGreyStallion

Right before the turn of the 14th century, the Turkish bey Osman solidified his rule establishing what would be known as the Ottoman Empire named after him and in 1300, Osman already began attacking the last of the Byzantine territories in Northwest Asia Minor, soon enough laying siege to the city of Nicomedia which was very close to Constantinople.

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Michael IX Palaiologos, Byzantine co-emperor, son of Andronikos II

In response to the first wave of Osman’s attacks, Andronikos II sent his son and co-emperor Michael IX Palaiologos who was at this point already a skilled general to counter-attack Osman’s Turks, but Michael IX’s army of only 2,000 with most being Alan mercenaries suffered a crushing defeat to Osman’s 5,000 army mostly consisting of cavalry at the Battle of Bapheus in 1302 located between the cities of Nicaea and Nicomedia, and though neither of the cities fell, Osman’s Turks still seized a large amount of territory in that area. With a large and powerful professional army of Cataphract cavalry soldiers and the elite Varangian Guards no longer around anymore, Andronikos II here in 1302 had to turn to hiring a large army of foreign mercenaries, and here he decided to revive the alliance his father made with Aragon 20 years earlier before his death, thus Andronikos II hired from the Kingdom of Aragon and army of 6,500 Catalan mercenaries known as Almogavars (originating from Southern France and Northern Spain) which were light infantry soldiers, and since they not only proved successful in fighting the French and driving them away from Sicily 20 years ago in the War of the Sicilian Vespers, they in the past decades were successful in fighting the Moors in Spain that by the end of the 13th century, the Christian kingdoms of Spain such as Castile and Aragon had already contained the Moors to their last holdout in Southern Spain which was Granada.

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Grand Catalan Company coat of arms

Since the primary enemy of the Byzantines here being the Turks were Muslims, Andronikos II believed the Catalans having experience fighting Muslims in Spain and succeeding could achieve the same results when battling the Turks in Asia Minor. Later on, in 1302 the 6,500 army of Catalan mercenaries known as the Grand Catalan Company arrived in Constantinople led by the sketchy Italian general Roger de Flor, a former pirate and Templar knight and already when arriving, the company’s general Roger demanded a lot from Andronikos II while the mercenaries turned out to be drunk troublemakers by starting a fight with the Genoese merchants in the Genoese held Galata Quarter.

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Grand Catalan Company army in Asia Minor

To avoid further trouble from the Catalans and to make them carry out their job, Andronikos II had them quickly ferried across the Bosporus into Asia Minor to battle the Turks, and in 1303 the Catalans under the command of Roger de Flor true enough scored a number of victories against Osman’s Ottoman Turks and later on against the other Turkish Beyliks in the south, however his victories made Roger arrogant that he even thought of establishing his own independent state in Asia Minor as he already went as far as to treat the Byzantine locals there as his subjects. In the meantime, after a short period of a succession crisis in the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, a new tsar came to the Bulgarian throne in 1300 which was Theodore Svetoslav, the son of Tsar George Terter I and in 1303 as well, Theodore began launching an invasion of Byzantine Thrace, thus the co-emperor Michael IX was sent north with the main Byzantine army to stop the Bulgarian raids while his father Andronikos II recalled Roger de Flor to Constantinople to prove his loyalty, but back in Constantinople Roger demanded for more pay to continue his fight as well as to be promoted to the rank of Caesar and Andronikos complied to it.

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Theodore Svetoslav, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (r. 1300-1322)

Meanwhile, Michael IX succeeded in repelling the Bulgarians in Thrace but at the Battle of Skafida in 1304, the Byzantines lost to the Bulgarians after crowding up on a bridge and with the combined weight of the Byzantine cavalry, the bridge collapsed drowning many of them, although Michael IX still escaped alive but his father had to sell of his jewelry to pay tribute to Theodore Svetoslav of Bulgaria in order to conclude a truce. Michael IX however began envying Roger de Flor for winning victories in Asia Minor while Michael was losing battles and so together with his father, they conspired to get rid of the troublemaker Roger, and in 1305 by Michael IX’s orders, Roger was assassinated at a feast in Adrianople by Michael’s Alan mercenaries.

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Roger de Flor, general of the Grand Catalan Company, assassinated in 1305

The assassination of Roger de Flor however only severed the alliance between Byzantium and the Catalans leading to a Byzantine-Catalan War, and so the Catalans with their Turkish prisoners from Asia Minor that they made into their allies decided to turn on the Byzantines avenging the death of their general Roger de Flor who they saw as an inspiring figure, thus the Catalans savagely turned to pillaging the Byzantine countryside of Thrace and later Macedonia to the point of burning it into a desert. In response to the betrayal of the Catalans that now endlessly pillaged Thrace, the co-emperor Michael IX in 1305 led a large army to counter-attack the now rogue Catalans but at the Battle of Apros in Thrace, the Catalans charged at Michael’s army with such fury that Michael’s Alan mercenaries fled in fear leading to a Catalan victory and Michael IX almost killed.

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Mercenary army of the Grand Catalan Company

The Catalans now defeating Michael IX’s forces had nothing stopping them anymore and so they continued their pillaging that even the monasteries of Mt. Athos in Macedonia, a very sacred site for the Byzantines were pillaged and burned by the Catalans, and soon enough even Thessaloniki was besieged by the Catalans although unsuccessfully due to its strong walls. The attack of Catalans then would be the worst tragedy the Byzantines would face since the Sack of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204 and again this one would be a tragedy caused by a Latin army, but the worst part was that with the betrayal of the Catalans, the Turks of Asia Minor which were thought to have been defeated by the Catalans became a threat again. Having no more troops to stop the Turks in Asia Minor, Andronikos II turned to allying with the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia to attack them from the east, but at the end this alliance still resulted in nothing, thus all of Byzantine Asia Minor was already doomed to fall to the Turks.

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Coat of Arms of the Palaiologos branch in Montferrat, Italy since 1306

Meanwhile in 1306, Andronikos II’s son Theodore with his second wife Yolande was sent to his mother’s homeland of Montferrat in the region of Piedmont to be its ruler as Theodore’s uncle which was Yolande’s brother died without an heir, and being the closest male relative Theodore traveled to Montferrat to rule it, thus from here on a member of the Palaiologos Dynasty would rule a small feudal state in Italy, although Theodore and his descendants would give up their Byzantine Greek heritage and rule as Italian feudal lords. Back in Greece, the Catalans by 1308 stopped their mindless pillaging when travelling south to the still surviving Latin Duchy of Athens when they were hired by the French Duke of Athens to fight against the breakaway Byzantine Despotate of Epirus, but when again not receiving their pay the Catalans betrayed and killed the duke and in 1311 the Catalan mercenaries themselves took over the Duchy of Athens now adding it as well as the region of Attica surrounding Athens as part of the Kingdom of Aragon which here included mainland Aragon in Spain, Southern Italy, Sicily, and now Athens.

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Osman Bey, sultan since 1308

Also, in 1308 the Seljuk Sultanate in Asia Minor finally dissolved after being around for more than 200 years since the late 11th century as their last sultan died without an heir, and with the Seljuk bloodline dying out, Osman inherited the title of Sultan, though not the remaining lands of the Seljuks in Central Asia Minor. In 1314, Michael IX led one more brave charge against the remaining Catalans and their Turkish allies in Thrace but once again, his Alan mercenaries deserted him, and now being tired of defeats Michael IX chose to retire for good from military service to live in Thessaloniki, while at the same time his stepmother who was Andronikos II’s wife Yolande was constantly scheming to get Michael IX away by constantly pressuring Andronikos make one of his sons with her as his successor, but fortunately for Andronikos and his son Michael, Yolande had died in 1317.

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

Over in Serbia, its king Milutin who was still alive in 1314 was at a conflict with his son Stefan Decanski, although with Milutin put down his son’s rebellion sending Decanski to Andronikos II’s court in Constantinople to be blinded, however Decanski was never actually blinded and in Constantinople his 6-year-old son Stefan Dusan who would be Serbia’s future king would learn Byzantine administration here which he would turn out to admire. In 1320, Stefan Decanski together with his son Dusan were allowed by Milutin to return to Serbia after Decanski wrote multiple letters over the past 6 years to persuade his father to pardon him. In the meantime, most of the major Byzantine cities of Western Asia Minor fell to the Turkish Beyliks such as Smyrna which fell to the Beylik of Aydin in 1310, while in 1309 the Byzantine held Island of Rhodes had fallen to the Crusader Knights of St. John now becoming the Knights of Rhodes after being driven away from the Levant by the Mamluks. In Constantinople, the emperor Andronikos II decided he could not do anything to save his empire anymore and so he just basically used funds to instead build lavish churches and monasteries only for the imperial family and while due to the pillaging of the Catalans, his people were starving and prices grew higher and higher with the shortage of food cause by it that no one could afford anything anymore.

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Grand Catalan Company arrives in Constantinople, 1302
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Byzantine army defeated by the Bulgarians at the Battle of Skafida, 1304
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All lands under the Kingdom of Aragon (yellow), Athens added in 1311
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Map of the different Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor following the dissolution of the Seljuk Sultanate in 1308

The 1321-1328 Civil War and the Reign of Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328-1341)           

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As the Byzantine Empire was falling apart with the last remains of Asia Minor slipping away to various Turkish Beyliks including Osman’s and its treasury almost bankrupt, the old Andronikos II continued to rule incompetently allowing his officials to be corrupt.

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Theodore Metochites, Byzantine politician and friend of Andronikos II

In these hard times for the empire, one particular imperial official which was Andronikos II’s friend and imperial advisor or Mesazon Theodore Metochites who was also a patron of the arts in fact even tortured people to pay up their taxes which he used to renovate the 6th century Church of Chora near Constantinople’s walls only to be used as his personal church and monastery, although it still holds some of the finest Byzantine style frescos of the Palaiologan Renaissance, which took place in this period as a kind of artistic Renaissance in Byzantium where humans mostly being religious figures depicted in frescos appeared to have more life and movement while architectural backgrounds too were introduced to frescos and mosaics, as prior to this Byzantine paintings basically just had a plain background making the subjects seem like they were floating in space, and here the frescos of Chora show one of the finest examples of this era’s art. Now, while it all seemed like there was no more hope for Byzantium as the empire and its people were suffering and only the nobility was prospering as seen with all their art and construction projects of churches and monasteries, only a miracle could save Byzantium from corruption and decay in the form of a strong leader who would usurp power and overthrow the incompetent Andronikos II and his corrupt court. This hero who would save Byzantium however would be a very unlikely one and this was another Andronikos Palaiologos, who was in fact Andronikos II’s grandson and son of the co-emperor Michael IX, and even more ironically the grandson Andronikos who was born in 1297 shared the same birthday as his grandfather the emperor who was born back in 1259, which was March 25. However, it is only fate that would turn the young Andronikos into this hero that would save the empire from falling apart as here in 1320, the young Andronikos was the stereotypical rich, popular, and arrogant young man addicted to partying, drinking, gambling, and women but in only one night, everything would change for the young “bad-boy” Andronikos. In this one night, Andronikos after losing a bet when gambling returned home with his younger brother Manuel forgetting to pay up his debts to the man he lost to, which was the father of one of Andronikos’ lovers, and so when walking back home, this man who Andronikos lost to suddenly had his guards placed above the roofs of Constantinople ordering them to kill Andronikos by firing arrows at him. Andronikos however immediately noticed the thugs were after him and so he ran quickly and turned into a street where they could no longer spot him, however his brother Manuel missed the turn and the thugs mistaking him for Andronikos shot Manuel with their arrows killing him. The young Andronikos however was devastated about his brother’s death that was not meant to happen, but when their father the retired co-emperor Michael IX who was in Thessaloniki got news of his son Manuel’s death, he suffered a heart attack and died as by this point, all the defeats he faced in battle made his mental health slowly deteriorate to the point that another misfortune could cause his death.

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Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos as an old man

The emperor Andronikos II on the other hand was enraged when hearing of his grandson Manuel’s death, and not knowing the entire circumstances behind Manuel’s death, Andronikos II immediately blamed his eldest grandson Andronikos who he believed was a good for nothing drunk for ordering his brother’s death, thus Andonikos II quickly decided to disinherit his grandson Andronikos and remove him from the line of succession, instead replacing him with Andronikos II’s son Theodore who here was already the Lord of Montferrat in Italy. The young Andronikos however did not respond well to being disinherited by his grandfather, and so in Easter of 1321 the grandson Andronikos fled Constantinople to Adrianople with his best friend the young aristocrat John Kantakouzenos to raise an army declaring civil war against his grandfather, thus this is where everything turned around for young Andronikos. Here in Adrianople, a large number of the empire’s young men volunteered to join his cause as Andronikos promised that if he takes over the empire from his grandfather, he will reorganize the empire and bring forth a brighter future for Byzantium, thus what may have first seemed to be a selfish act which was that of Andronikos wanting to take the throne for himself after being disowned by his grandfather became a radical movement to save the empire from destroying itself through corruption and neglect very much present in the current administration of Andronikos II.

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The grandson Andronikos declares civil war against his grandfather Andronikos II in Adrianople, 1321

The army of the grandson Andronikos then immediately marched to Constantinople to overthrow his grandfather and at their arrival outside the Walls of Constantinople, Andronikos II was overwhelmed with its size and determination to overthrow him, and instead of fighting them back or surrendering, Andronikos II did the cowardly thing of not putting up a fight and agreeing to simply just make his grandson his co-emperor and split the empire between both of them with the grandfather ruling Constantinople and the last territories in Asia Minor and the grandson ruling Byzantine Thrace and Macedonia. The agreement between grandfather and grandson however did not last as in the following year 1322, Andronikos II’s corrupt advisors convinced him to resume the civil war with his grandson, however the moment the grandson Andronikos seized the suburbs of Constantinople, his grandfather once again asked for a truce, thus the conflict was once again at a halt.

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Stefan Uros III Decanski, King of Serbia (r. 1322-1331), son of Stefan II Milutin

Meanwhile, as the weakened and impoverished Byzantium was at a civil war, over in the Kingdom of Serbia their king Stefan Uros II Milutin died in 1321 after ruling for almost 40 years and in the following 1322 he was eventually succeeded by his son Stefan Decanski becoming King Stefan Uros III, who had already reconciled with father after both were in conflict with each other in the previous decade. In the 2nd Bulgarian Empire on the other hand, their tsar Theodore Svetoslav died in 1322 and was succeeded by his young son George Terter II but just a year later in 1323 George II died childless, thus he was succeeded as the Bulgarian tsar by his distant cousin Michael Shishman who when becoming tsar became known as Michael Asen III to emphasize his relation to the Asen Dynasty that founded the 2nd Bulgarian Empire back in 1185. By around 1324 as the exact year remains unclear, Osman the founder of the Ottoman Dynasty and now its sultan now ruling over much of Northwest Asia Minor died at an old age and was succeeded by his son Orhan who like his father was also an ambitious warrior that wanted to expand their lands.

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Fresco of Emperor Andronikos II (left) and his grandson and co-emperor Andronikos (right)

Back in Byzantium, Andronikos II in 1325 formally crowned his grandson Andronikos as his co-emperor the same way Andronikos II crowned his son and young Andronikos’ father the late Michael IX many years ago, and due to the civil war, Byzantium ran out of peasants to work the field with many being recruited to the army of either the grandfather or grandson, and it is for this reason why the Byzantines no longer had a professional army by this point resorting to them hiring mercenaries, as many of the rich landowners of the countryside refused to let the peasants be recruited in the army as no one would be left anymore to farm the land.

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Savoy coat of arms

In 1326, the grandson Andronikos was married to the young Italian noblewoman Anna of Savoy, the daughter of Amadeus V who was the Count of Savoy, a small state in Northern Italy which just like Montferrat was also in the region of Piedmont. Eventually, mistrust between the grandfather and grandson Andronikos would erupt again when both turned to different allies as the grandfather Andronikos II turned to his traditional ally which was Serbia here under the rule of Stefan III Decanski while the grandson Andronikos instead preferred an alliance with Bulgaria, and so in 1327 the civil war resumed to a more intense level as this time it involved the armies of both Balkan powers Serbia and Bulgaria fighting each other in Byzantine Macedonia backing either side of the civil war. The side of the grandson supported by Bulgaria soon enough was on the winning side and in early 1328 the city of Thessaloniki surrendered to and declared their support for the grandson, thus the victorious grandson and his best friend and now general John Kantakouzenos marched west to take over Constantinople itself. In May of 1328, the grandson Andronikos and John with only a small army bribed the guards at Constantinople’s walls and when successfully doing so, they stormed into the imperial Blachernae Palace where they forced the 69-year-old Andronikos II surrender.

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Icon of Andronikos II Palaiologos, abdicated in 1328

Seeing his end was inevitable, the old and tired Andronikos II surrendered and abdicated, and thus he was put in chains and arrested, afterwards being forced to retire to where he really belonged to as a religious intellectual, which was a monastery in Constantinople wherein he would spend the rest of his days. The incompetent 46-year reign of Andronikos II thus ended with the undeserving emperor sent to monastery arrest while his friend the corrupt Theodore Metochites too was forced into monastery arrest ironically in the same Monastery of Chora which he had built, and here in 1328 began what would be a new age of revival for Byzantium under the grandson Andronikos becoming emperor or Basileus Andronikos III Palaiologos.          

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Mosaics in the style of the Palaiologan Renaissance with architectural backgrounds behind in the Church of Chora, Constantinople
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Fresco in the more realistic Palaiologan Renaissance style in the Church of Chora, Constantinople
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Byzantium (purple) and the rest of the Balkans in the early 14th century
Watch The Imperial Epilogue (2020) by No Budget Films to see the 1321-1328 Byzantine Civil War in Lego

Becoming the sole ruler of the Byzantine Empire in 1328 at the age of 31, Andronikos III gave up his excessive lifestyle as a young man to become a strong and energetic emperor the way his great-grandfather Michael VIII was for the good of the empire in order to put it all back together again. As Andronikos III became emperor, he appointed his closest friend John Kantakouzenos who helped him win the civil war as the empire’s grand general or Megas Domestikos and just shortly after the beginning of his reign, Andronikos III and John put their funds into restoring the Byzantine fleet which Andronikos II decades ago had disbanded and sold for parts.

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Orhan, Sultan of the Ottomans (r. 1324-1362), son and successor of Osman

In the meantime, the previous civil war between Andronikos II and Andronikos III again exposed the last remains of Byzantine Asia Minor to Ottoman raids led by their sultan Orhan, thus the important Byzantine city of Prusa fell to the Ottomans in 1326 becoming the new capital of the Ottoman Turks renamed Bursa, then following it both cities of Nicaea and Nicomedia being the last important Byzantine cities there were besieged by Orhan. To relieve both Nicaea and Nicomedia from being under siege by the Ottomans, Andronikos III and John in 1329 led their troops into Asia Minor to expel Orhan’s Ottoman Turks, thus both forces met at the Battle of Pelekanon, which started off successful for the Byzantines until Andronikos III himself was wounded forcing him and John to flee the battle. At the end of the day, the Byzantine forces suffered a crushing defeat to the Ottomans as most of the Byzantine troops panicked thinking their emperor had been killed, although despite losing Andronikos escaped to safety and when recovering from his wounds, he asked his closest friend John to be his co-emperor if ever Andronikos would die any time soon from his wound, John however refused the offer believing it to be too much for him.

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Andronikos III Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor since 1328, grandson of Andronikos II, art by myself

Although facing a major defeat to the Ottomans in battle, Andronikos III managed to score a few successes later on in 1329 by recovering the Aegean island of Chios from the Latins who since 1204 were still holding on to it after a short naval battle. Seeing that the Serbian kingdom under Stefan III Decanski was a growing threat, Andronikos III continued his alliance with the Bulgarian tsar Michael III planning a joint invasion of Serbia, which however only resulted in a major defeat for the Bulgarians against the Serbian forces at the Battle of Velbazhd in today’s Bulgaria where the Bulgarian tsar Michael III was in fact killed, and here the young Serbian prince Stefan Dusan, son of Stefan III proved his ability and fearlessness in battle. Due to the defeat of the Bulgarians to the Serbians, Andronikos III in 1330 turned against his ally Bulgaria by invading Bulgarian territory in Thrace seeing that Bulgaria was after all vulnerable after suffering a major defeat in battle. On the other hand, Andronikos III had the luck of being emperor in the year 1330, which was the 1000th year anniversary of the founding of Constantinople and therefore the Byzantine Empire itself by Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) in 330, thus making Andronikos III the only millennial Byzantine emperor in Byzantine history, however due to the lack of funds Byzantium had at this point combined with the wars they were fighting, there were no spectacular celebrations held in Constantinople in 1330, its 1000th year.

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Ivan Stefan, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (r. 1330-1331)

Over in Bulgaria meanwhile, with their tsar Michael III killed in battle his son Ivan Stefan succeeded him but only stayed in power for a year as due to his failure in stopping the Byzantine invasion in the south, Ivan Stefan lost a lot of his popularity and support, thus in 1331 Ivan Stefan was overthrown by his cousin the Bulgarian Despot of Lovech Ivan Alexander who then took over as the new Bulgarian tsar forcing Ivan Stefan to eventually flee to Italy, and Bulgaria’s new ruler Ivan Alexander would later turn out to be another one of Bulgaria’s greatest tsars. In Serbia on the other hand, despite their king Stefan III Decanski contributing to their victory over the Bulgarians at the Battle of Velbazhd, most of the nobility were discontented with his policies, thus they plotted to overthrow him in favor of his son Stefan Dusan who they saw as a more popular figure and so in 1331 after Dusan was proclaimed King of Serbia, his father was overthrown and later that year the deposed Stefan Decanski who fled was eventually captured by the army who switched their support to his son, thus Decaski was imprisoned and afterwards strangled to death by his son’s orders, and now Stefan IV Dusan at 23 became the King of Serbia. It also happened that in 1331, the Ottoman sultan Orhan finally managed to capture Nicaea from the Byzantines at least sparing its people by ordering them to evacuate, but from here on the city of Nicaea would never again be under Byzantine hands, while in the north now that Bulgaria once again had a strong ruler being Ivan Alexander, the gains Andronikos III made in Thrace were taken back by Bulgaria. In the following year 1332, Andronikos III decided to invade Bulgaria in retaliation for the Bulgarians invading Andronikos III’s newly gained lands in Thrace, and while preparing for his campaign against Bulgaria, Andronikos’s wife Anna of Savoy gave birth to their son in the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace, and this son was named John after Andronikos’ closest friend and general John Kantakouzenos who was with him in this campaign too. It also happened in 1332 that the former emperor and Andronikos III’s grandfather Andronikos II finally died as a monk after 4 years of monastery arrest in Constantinople at the age of 72.

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Ivan Alexander, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire since 1331

Confident of victory, Andronikos III led his troops against the Bulgarians in 1332 but here he was defeated by the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander at the Battle of Rusokastro as Andronikos’s forces of only 3,000 were outnumbered by Ivan Alexander’s army of 11,000. Due to his defeat to the Bulgarians, Andronikos III had to formally cede what Ivan Alexander captured in Thrace to Bulgaria while Andronikos too had to marry off his young daughter Maria to Ivan Alexander’s young son Michael, and in 1332 as well both Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria and Stefan IV Dusan of Serbia sealed an alliance together after Dusan married Ivan Alexander’s sister Helena, which would then make the Serbian kingdom and 2nd Bulgarian Empire have a lasting and unbroken alliance. Andronikos III after losing Nicaea did not want Nicomedia to its north to suffer the same fate of falling to the Ottomans, and so Andronikos agreed to pay tribute to their sultan Orhan, though Andronikos too had accepted an invitation to join a military alliance that consisted of the Papacy, France, Venice, and the Kinghts of Rhodes to combat the Turkish pirates in the Aegean as these powers too in fact recognized the rule of Andronikos III as he proved to be a competent ruler, and here Andronikos was to provide a large percent of ships to assist these other powers.

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Ibn Battuta, North African explorer, visited Constantinople in 1332

Another highlight of Andronikos III’s reign was that later in 1332, the famous North African explorer Ibn Battuta travelled Constantinople as part of one of his many adventures that would take him to the distant parts of Africa and far east Asia, and although no Byzantine sources ever mentioned the meeting of Ibn Battuta and the emperor, Ibn Battuta in his memoirs mentions meeting Andronikos III in Constantinople. In 1333, Stephen Gabrielopoulos the ruler of Thessaly which had been its own state since 1268 after breaking away from the breakaway rebel state of the Despotate of Epirus had died without an heir, and with a succession crisis breaking out in Thessaly, Andronikos III taking advantage of the situation sent an army to invade Thessaly before the Despotate of Epirus could beat him, and at the end Andronikos III’s army achieved a great success when putting the entire region of Thessaly back under Byzantine imperial control, and by having Thessaly which had a large population and fertile land, the Byzantine revenue would grow again. In 1334, a traitor in the Byzantine army named Syrgiannes deserted to the Serbians and in Serbia he convinced their king Dusan to invade Byzantine Thessaly, however Andronikos III immediately got word of this and immediately marched to confront Dusan, but before facing off the Serbians in battle, Andronikos III had one of his commanders named Sphrantzes infiltrate the Serbian camp and kill Syrgiannes.

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Stefan Uros IV Dusan, King of Serbia since 1331, son of Stefan III Decanski

With the traitor Syrgiannes assassinated, Andronikos III and Dusan concluded a peace treaty, as Dusan here did not yet have any intention to invade Byzantium, but to formally conclude peace Andronikos III had to give up the city of Kastoria in Byzantine Macedonia to the Serbian kingdom. After settling peace with Serbia, Andronikos III managed to reclaim the last Latin held city of Asia Minor which was Phocaea as well as the island of Lesbos from the Latins, and a lot of this success was due to Andronikos making an additional alliance with Umur Bey, the Turkish Bey of Aydin who at this point was building for his state a powerful navy. The Ottomans however still ended up breaking their truce with Andronikos III who offered to pay them annual tribute and in 1337, their sultan Orhan deciding that he no longer wanted to accept tribute laid siege to Nicomedia again and successfully captured it, thus here marks the complete end of Byzantine rule in Asia Minor, which had been Byzantium’s heartland for about 7 centuries now.

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Emperor Andronikos III and his wife Empress Anna of Savoy
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Serbian army defeats the Bulgarians at the Battle of Velbazhd in 1330, art by Borivoje Mikic
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Bulgarians defeat the Byzantines at the Battle of Rusokastro, 1332

       

Realizing that nothing much could be done anymore to restore Byzantine rule over Asia Minor, Andronikos III instead turned to focusing on Greece considering making it the new Byzantine heartland as he previously had already expanded Byzantine territory south by putting Thessaly back into Byzantine hands, and so in 1337 Andronikos III would do what he would be most remembered for, which was the conquest of the Despotate of Epirus itself. Lucky enough for the main Byzantine Empire, the Despotate of Epirus that had been an independent Byzantine state since Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204 had fallen into disorder as here in 1337 as well, the Italian descended Despot of Epirus John II Orsini was poisoned by his wife which made the wife the regent for their son the new Despot of Epirus Nikephoros II Orsini, and with this chaos Albanian tribesmen to their north raided and began occupying the territory of Epirus in Western Greece.

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Andronikos III Palaiologos, art by Androklos

Taking advantage of the situation in Epirus rather than recovering Nicomedia from the Ottomans, Andronikos III together with John Kantakouzenos led their armies consisting of their Turkish allies from the Beylik of Aydin marching them west to invade Epirus itself in 1337, and after expelling the raiding Albanian tribesmen with such brutality and capturing Epirus’ capital Arta, the entire Despotate of Epirus was practically back again under Byzantine hands for the meantime as when Andronikos and John left leaving their troops behind to secure Epirus, the people of Epirus rebelled against being under Byzantine occupation. With the Epirote locals rebelling, Andronikos III and John in 1338 rushed back to Epirus to put the rebellion down and to do this, they deposed the young Despot of Epirus Nikephoros II sending him to Constantinople despite his mother attempting to negotiate to still keep him in power as a Byzantine vassal, while the people of Epirus too chose to submit to Andronikos III or else be brutally massacred by them like how the Albanian tribesmen were the previous year. Andronikos III however refused these terms as if Nikephoros II were still a vassal, Epirus would still not be completely under direct Byzantine control, thus Nikephoros II was sent to Constantinople as a hostage while in his place a Byzantine governor was instead appointed to be in charge of Epirus, therefore ending the existence of the Despotate of Epirus which now was fully annexed back to the Byzantine Empire. With all the wars and conquests taken care off, Andronikos III now turned to settling political issues in his empire as well as in strengthening their ties to the other powers of Europe and so in 1339, Andronikos III considered a Church Council to discuss terms about Church unity with the Catholic Church like his great-grandfather Michael VIII did, however this said council never came to happen.

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Fresco of John Kantakouzenos as Megas Domestikos of Andronikos III

Andronikos III however was more concerned in military conquests than politics while John was the one more concerned with reforming the government and now with both the entire provinces of Thessaly and Epirus under direct Byzantine rule again, Andronikos began laying his out plans for future campaigns to reconquer the rest of Greece including the Duchy of Athens that fell under the Catalans and the still surviving Latin Principality of Achaea in the Peloponnese in order to connect the far-flung Byzantine territory of the Morea by land to the main empire itself. With Andronikos III’s military campaigns finished off for now, he would also do one of the greatest reforms of the 14th century as the empire was now at peace, and this would be a complete reform of Byzantium’s justice system that had decayed into corruption becoming bribe based during Andronikos II’s 46-year reign, although most of this judicial reform was carried out by John Kantakouzenos.

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Andronikos III Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1328-1341)

Andronikos III and John basically carried out this new reform on the justice system by replacing the disorganized old system of many judges with 4 “Universal Justices” with 2 being Church officials and 2 being government officials based in Constantinople as to make things fair, there had to be an equal number of judges to settle two different kinds of issues as people would have issues either concerning religious or political matters. To make the Universal Justices more approachable not only in Constantinople but in other parts of the empire, Andronikos III appointed an additional 4 Universal Justices in Thessaloniki and another 4 in the Morea. The Universal Justices however had turned out to not all be completely free of corruption as soon enough, a total of 3 of these Universal Justices were found guilty of corruption and accepting bribes, and to solve this issue Andronikos III simply fired these 3 corrupt justices and replaced them with new ones that were not corrupt. Though Byzantium was once again a strong and stable state thanks to the energetic rule of Andronikos III as well as his reforms, the age-old cancer of religious schism that weakened the Byzantine state still remained unsolved as in the latter part of Andronikos III’s reign, a new religious teaching which later became a controversy broke out, and this new teaching was known as Hesychasm and the one to first introduce it during Andronikos III’s reign was Gregory Palamas, a Byzantine monk from Mt. Athos whose new teaching was a kind of mystical practice that only required chanting a single sentence multiple times as a way to meditate, zone out, and get closer to God. Many of Byzantium’s aristocrats true enough supported this new meditation teaching, however this teaching was opposed by the Italian theologian Barlaam of Calabria, and to settle this controversy Andronikos III in 1341 held a council at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople but at the end, when he could not rule whether Gregory or Barlaam’s side was right, the issue remained unresolved.

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The Byzantine Empire (orange) during Andronikos III’s reign
Watch this video from Eastern Roman History to learn more about Byzantium’s last great revival under Andronikos III

The Climax Part I- The Civil War of 1341-1347            

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With the capable and ambitious Andronikos III Palaiologos running the empire, it may have seemed that everything was once again going well for the Byzantines especially now that they once again had the rich provinces of Thessaly and Epirus, which once again brought revenue to the empire. However, this short-lived age of prosperity and stability the Byzantine Empire was having unfortunately did not last long, as here in June of 1341 just 4 days after Andronikos held the Church council in the Hagia Sophia to discuss the new Hesychast controversy which still remained unresolved, he caught a fever and suddenly died at the relatively young age of 44 after a reign of 13 years. Despite ruling strongly and energetically, Andronikos III did in fact suffer from chronic malaria, and little did he know that this would cause his untimely death, and no matter how effectively he ran the empire, he made one fatal mistake which was that he never named his successor believing he would still continue to rule for much longer. Andronikos III luckily enough had a son John who following Andronikos’ death became Emperor John V Palaiologos, however John was only 9-years-old and was never even proclaimed by his father as co-emperor, therefore making his succession a disputed one as the grand general John Kantakouzenos too had a claim to the throne as Andronikos at one point considered making him his co-emperor.

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Empress Anna of Savoy, wife of Andronikos III and Regent of the Empire following his death in 1341, art by myself

However, by custom an underaged ruler was to immediately succeed his father and rule under the regency of his mother if his mother were still alive, and this was exactly the case here as Andronikos III’s wife Empress Anna of Savoy was still alive and following the death of her husband she immediately assumed control of the empire as her son’s regent. John Kantakouzenos who despite not wanting to accept the role of co-emperor before now accepted it as he believed he was the more competent one to run the empire and carry out the good work of Andronikos III which he failed to finish due to his sudden death. Shortly after Andronikos III’s death, John rushed to the Byzantine Senate in Constantinople asking them to approve his claim as regent for Andronikos III’s young son John V saying that he had every right to do it being the late emperor’s most trusted general, and before the senate was about to rule that John was to be the empire’s regent the Patriarch of Constantinople John XIV Kalekas stormed in showing a letter of proof that the late emperor named him the patriarch as the guardian of Andronikos III’s son in case Andronikos died, however the letter the patriarch showed was forged. The senate however at the end still ruled that John Kantakouzenos was to be the empire’s regent though not co-emperor but little did he know that there was already a faction that rose up to oppose him as regent of the empire and this faction was led by the empress Anna of Savoy, the patriarch John XIV, and the wealthy and influential politician Alexios Apokaukos who was previously a secretary of Andronikos III and at this point possibly the richest man in the empire now with the tile of Megas Doux. Now it already seemed that in just something like a second after Andronikos III died, everything began to already fall apart for Byzantium as with a strong ruler dead, Byzantium’s neighbors took advantage of the situation by raiding into Byzantine territory, thus here King Stefan IV Dusan of Serbia in 1341 launched raids into Byzantine Macedonia, Tsar Ivan Alexander continued raiding into Byzantine Thrace, and Turkish pirates from the Beylik of Sarukhan in Western Asia Minor went as far as to raiding the Aegean coast of Thrace. When hearing that the empire’s borders were in danger, John Kantakouzenos left Constantinople to expel them and in so little time he managed to drive away the Bulgarian and Serbian armies as well as the Turkish pirate fleet, but the moment he left Constantinople the empress Anna with support from the ordinary people of Constantinople as well as the patriarch and Alexios Apokaukos declared Kantakouzenos a public enemy while officially crowning the young John V as emperor, thus beginning another tragedy of a civil war for Byzantium right when everything seemed to be so going well for them.

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Alexios Apokaukos, Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire

Now, the one to actually blame for bringing the empire down when it all seemed like everything was going well was Alexios Apokaukos and basically only for the petty reason that he hated John Kantakouzenos for being part of the old landed aristocracy as Alexios despite being rich was born a commoner, therefore he believed that aristocrats like John had no reason to be wealthy except by blood. Now that John Kantakouzenos was declared a public enemy by the empress, his relatives as well as the wealthy aristocrats that supported him were forced to leave Constantinople otherwise be imprisoned and have all their property confiscated by the empress. When Kantakouzenos arrived in the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace, his relatives and supporters were already there awaiting him after they were forced out of Constantinople and to save his reputation, they proclaimed him co-emperor against the regency of the empress and Alexios Apokaukos. Now unlike the civil war of 1321-1328 between Andronikos III and his grandfather Andronikos II which was a smaller conflict that was basically a revolution to overthrow an old and corrupt regime, this one beginning in 1341 was to be a much a larger and more devastating conflict that had deeper issues involved including those regarding society and religion.

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Hesychasm, a religious teaching supported by the 14th century Byzantine aristocracy

In this conflict, Byzantium was split between the old landed aristocracy where John Kantakouzenos came from and their faction that backed John stood for more conservative and traditional Byzantine values which included Gregory Palamas’ Hesychast teaching which they saw as a sacred and mystical tradition, while the other faction in this conflict which backed the regency of the empress, patriarch, and Alexios consisted of the common people of the empire as well as merchants who stood for more progressive values and commerce including maintaining diplomatic ties with the Italian republics of Venice and Genoa, as well as Church Unity believing this new Hesychast teaching as heretical making them move more and more away from achieving Church unity. At the same time, the conservative and even racist aristocracy that backed John Kantakouzenos also distrusted the empress for being a Western Latin as she was Italian and in fact still Catholic as she never really converted to Orthodoxy when marrying Andronikos III, while they had also distrusted her son John V as emperor as not only was he a child but a half-Italian who was educated to have more Western European than Byzantine values, and ironically here at this point the world went the other way around with west seeming to be more progressive and Byzantium the one to be seen as more backwards. However, this conflict would begin with things going in favor for the faction of the empress as majority of the population being commoners backed the empress and regency and so did a lot of provincial governors while only Thessaloniki where most of the aristocrats lived as well as an independent Serbian magnate in Thrace named Hrelja backed Kantakouzenos. In early 1342, John Kantakouzenos together with his ally Hrelja marched to Thessaloniki to reinforce it with troops and defend it against the army of the regency but when arriving it was too late as an anti-aristocratic faction known as the zealots kicked out the aristocrats and took over the city in the name of the regency and the young emperor John V. As John and Hrelja were about to lay siege to Thessaloniki, the fleet of the regency sent by Alexios Apokaukos arrived forcing both of them to lift the siege and flee north, but John was still intent to continue the war despite lacking armies and so he decided to go to Serbia itself to seal a military alliance with their king Dusan, however on the way to Serbia Hrelja deserted John as Hrelja never really wanted to help John’s cause but instead to only gain some lands for himself with John’s help.

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Personal flag of King Stefan IV Dusan of Serbia

John Kantakouzenos in 1342 eventually arrived in Serbia to meet their king Dusan himself and at first Dusan was reluctant to help as here he was too busy growing the power of Serbia but when finding out that he could gain lands in Northern Greece by helping John, Dusan agreed and so together with John they launched an invasion of Byzantine Greece. John Kantakouzenos here would then end up betraying the memory of his late friend Andronikos III as here John desperately agreed to hand over to Serbia all the lands they conquered in Greece despite John and Andronikos III previously working so hard to put them back to Byzantine rule. Now with their alliance sealed, John assisted by an army of Serbian knights took over parts of Western Greece from the regency’s forces, but it was Dusan who was more successful here as he was able to capture all of Byzantine West Macedonia and parts of Albania. Worried about John Kantakouzenos’ progress, the empress wrote to Dusan to turn on John and send him to her in chains but Dusan refused believing that by being allied with John, he could gain a lot. Soon enough, both provinces of Epirus and Thessaly accepted the authority of John, although John’s base Didymoteicho soon enough was blockaded by the regency’s army which made John’s wife Irene who was there turn to asking for assistance from the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander and in return, Ivan Alexander sent an army to drive away the regency’s forces, and though the Bulgarians succeeded in doing so but not in capturing Didymoteicho which was after all part of their tsar’s plan. Rather than capturing Didymoteicho, the Bulgarian army instead turned to pillaging the farms around it despite their tsar not ordering them to do so.

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Alexios Apokaukos (center) and the Byzantine regency army
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Byzantine Thessaloniki, taken over by the ant-aristocratic Zealots in 1342
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Army of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire
Watch this video from Jabzy to see a summary of the 1341-1347 Byzantine Civil War

          

When hearing that the surrounding area of his base city Didymoteicho was under attack by the Bulgarians that turned against them, John Kantakouzenos who was still in Macedonia revived his old alliance with the Turkish Bey of Aydin Umur Bey who now had built for his Beylik a powerful fleet.

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2nd Bulgarian Empire army, 14th century

In early 1343, Umur Bey after being asked for assistance by John gathered his fleet and sailed from Southwest Asia Minor up to Thrace, where they sailed up the Evros River, arrived outside Didymoteicho and expelled the pillaging Bulgarians, and after doing their part the Turks of Umur Bey returned to their Beylik in Asia Minor. John Kantakouzenos in 1343 however began to fall out with his ally Stefan IV Dusan as when they both were laying siege to the city of Berroia in Macedonia held by the regency’s forces, John after his and Dusan’s forces succeeded demanded the garrison there to surrender the city to him and not to Dusan, which made Dusan furious especially since he was in this war to gain cities in Byzantine Macedonia. Feeling insulted and betrayed by John, Dusan here abandoned his alliance with John at once making John his mortal enemy and instead Dusan declared his support for the empress and regency as he believed they were easier to manipulate.

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Umur Bey of Aydin (r. 1334-1348), ally of John Kantakouzenos

Despite losing his alliance with Dusan, John still continued his attempt to besiege Thessaloniki and take it from the pro-regency zealots and lucky enough for him, his Turkish ally Umur Bey and his fleet came to his aid here and as John besieged Thessaloniki by land, the Turks with their fleet attacked from the sea. However, right when they laid siege to Thessaloniki, the regency’s fleet led by Alexios Apokaukos once again arrived coming to the rescue of Thessaloniki, but this time the massive size of Umur Bey’s fleet managed to scare Alexios forcing him to retreat from Thessaloniki, though at the end John still failed to capture Thessaloniki. John Kantakouzenos and Umur Bey then abandoned Thessaloniki and marched east into Thrace where a number of towns and cities switched to John’s faction, though in Macedonia Dusan was still left to freely capture towns and cities and so by this point, all of Byzantine Macedonia except for Thessaloniki fell under the rule of Dusan’s Serbia.

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Turkish army of Umur Bey, 14th century

As John and his Turkish allied army led by Umur Bey progressed through Thrace, the Turks burned and looted the countryside as a way to weaken Constantinople’s economy as its grain supply came from Thrace, and this pillaging was part of the plan to ruin the position of the empress in Constantinople. The empress Anna of Savoy meanwhile was now in dangerous position as the pillaging of Thrace caused starvation in Constantinople and with so much funds spent for the war, the empress now had no choice but to pawn the empire’s crown jewels to the Republic of Venice to raise funds, and desperately wanting military assistance from the west, Anna did exactly what her great-grandfather-in-law Michael VIII Palaiologos did many years ago which was to consider submitting the Byzantine Church to the pope. Anna still being Catholic at heart then wrote to the pope that she will submit herself, her son the young emperor John V, the patriarch John XIV, and Alexios Apokaukos to the pope’s authority and to enforce this Church unity she also agreed to do what Michael VIII did back then which was to persecute all those who opposed the Church unity, especially those who practiced the Hesychast teaching which the pope and the Western Church totally saw as heretical and nonsense.

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Tsar Ivan Alexander of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (r. 1331-1371)

In 1344, the empress Anna then concluded an additional alliance with Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria as Ivan Alexander too just like Dusan never really cared about which side he supported as long as it benefited him, and although Ivan Alexander was given the city of Philippopolis by the Byzantines in exchange to help the empress’ side, Ivan Alexander was not of so much help. At the same time, the independent Bulgarian bandit leader Momchil in the Rhodope Mountains of Thrace who previously supported John Kantakouzenos’ faction defected to the empress’ faction and in early 1345, John Kantakouzenos together with Umur Bey leading their respective forces clashed with Momchil and his forces in the Rhodope Mountains defeating Momchil’s forces and even killing Momchil himself. John however grew tired of all the battles and so after this victory, he attempted to negotiate with the empress to stop the war by sending Franciscan monks to Constantinople to deliver his proposal to the empress, but when arriving in Constantinople the monks were arrogantly stopped by Alexios Apokaukos who now here was busy building a new prison to house all those who opposed the regency most of which being John’s relatives and supporters. The turning point in the civil war then came here in 1345 as when Alexios here was inspecting the prison he just built wherein he now locked up a number of political prisoners, he was suddenly lynched to death by these prisoners who claimed they did it in the name of John Kantakouzenos, thus with the death of Alexios the side of the regency fell apart now that there was no more strong man to lead them.

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Byzantine army in the 1341-1347 Civil War

The death of Alexios then gave John Kantakouzenos the opportunity to march to Constantinople and take over it but before he was able to do so, his ally Umur Bey got word that the pope launched a Crusade against his Beylik to punish him for attacking Christian ships in the Aegean. As part of this Crusade against Umur’s Beylik of Aydin, the Hospitaller Knights and the fleet of the Republic of Venice attacked Umur’s territory forcing Umur in 1345 to rush back to defend his territory, leaving John alone once again. Desperate for an ally once more, John had no more choice but to turn to the most despised man by the Byzantines which was the Ottoman sultan Orhan who had for the longest time remained silent but had now possibly became the most powerful Turkish ruler of Asia Minor after he captured the last remains of Byzantine territory there.    

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A ship from Umur Bey of Aydin’s Turkish fleet
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The Crusade against Umur Bey of Aydin
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Byzantine army units of the 1341-1347 Palaiologos Civil War

          

The one who had been benefitting most in this pointless civil war the Byzantines had was neither the empress Anna of Savoy and the Palaiologos faction nor John Kantakouzenos and his faction but the Serbian king Stefan IV Dusan who after his alliance with John was severed became John’s most bitter enemy and when agreeing to help the empress’ side did not really help them but instead only did to his own benefit.

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Coat of Arms of Serbia’s Nemanjic Dynasty, Dusan’s dynasty

In 1345, Dusan managed to capture the last Byzantine held city in Macedonia which was Serres which stubbornly resisted Dusan’s siege, but with Serres falling into Serbian hands, all of Byzantine Macedonia was annexed to the Serbian Kingdom except for Thessaloniki which was left as a lone Byzantine city surrounded in a “Serbian sea”. With the city of Serres as well as all of Byzantine Macedonia falling to Dusan’s control, Dusan began to no longer call himself “king” but “Emperor of the Serbs, Romans (Greeks), and Albanians”, although in the Orthodox world which included Serbia, a ruler could not call himself emperor unless he was crowned by a patriarch, and so Dusan here having enough power to do so, he elevated the Serbian Archbishopric into the status of a Patriarchate making the Serbian archbishop into the first Patriarch of Serbia. The special day for Dusan then came in April of 1346 and this was when the unusually tall and strong King Stefan IV Uros Dusan Nemanjic who at 38 had long dark brown hair and large brown eyes was formally crowned by his newly appointed Patriarch of Serbia Joanikije as the first Emperor of Serbia with the Kingdom of Serbia was transformed into the Serbian Empire, and now Dusan would no longer rule as king but as “tsar” (emperor).

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Emperor (Tsar) Stefan Uros IV Dusan of Serbia, crowned as emperor in 1346

Dusan’s status as emperor was then recognized by the Archbishop of Ohrid, the Patriarch of Bulgaria, and his brother-in-law and ally Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria, and as Serbia’s first emperor Dusan gave his son Stefan Uros V the title of “King of Serbia” giving him rule over the original Serbian provinces known as “royal lands” before they expanded, while the newly conquered territories of Serbia in Macedonia and Albania were now known as “imperial lands” which were under Dusan’s direct control. Immediately after becoming emperor, Dusan already acted the way a Byzantine emperor did as not only did he wear the purple robes reserved for Byzantine emperors, but he also granted titles to his relatives and close generals, and most of these titles that he was granting were in fact those used in the Byzantium such as Despotes and Sebastokrator. At this point, it seemed that Serbia has gone such a long way as less than 200 years ago, when the Serbian state was founded by Dusan’s ancestor Stefan Nemanja (r. 1166-1196) the first Grand Prince of Serbia- who if you recall had a major role in chapter IX of this series- was just a relatively small principality in the Balkans. Back in Byzantium, John Kantakouzenos who now got military support from the Ottoman sultan Orhan who provided him with troops was now at the winning side of the civil war, and just a month after Dusan’s coronation as emperor, John having enough confidence had himself crowned as the senior emperor of Byzantium John VI Kantakouzenos in Adrianople.

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Theodora Kantakouzene, daughter of John Kantakouzenos and wife of Orhan

To fully seal his alliance with Orhan, John VI then married off his daughter Theodora who was only 14 to Sultan Orhan who was already in his 60s at a lavish ceremony in the port town of Selymbria outside Constantinople, thus here Orhan himself would cross over to Europe making this the first time an Ottoman ruler would so, although Theodora would end up just being one of Orhan’s wives in his Harem in the Ottoman capital Bursa in Asia Minor. Meanwhile in Constantinople, a part of the Hagia Sophia’s ceiling collapsed which the empress Anna of Savoy and her son John V saw as a bad sign believing that there was no more chance they could win against John VI in the civil war, and true enough shortly after his coronation and the marriage of his daughter Theodora to Orhan, John VI and his forces including Ottoman allied troops provided by Orhan arrived outside Constantinople’s walls, but rather than storming into the city they would camp outside it for months as John VI still being proudly Byzantine did not want the Ottomans to storm into their capital and pillage it.

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John VI Kantakouzenos, Senior Byzantine emperor since 1346

As the months passed, the population of Constantinople began to starve due to being blockaded but the empress still confident of her position had not conceded yet that she in fact tried to assassinate John VI twice in which both attempts failed. In early 1347, the empress’ faction now lost all support as the patriarch John XIV who was their loyal ally was deposed by the Kantakouzenos supporters and in the night of the same day the patriarch was deposed, John VI’s supporters tired of being blockaded opened the gates of Constantinople letting their emperor John VI and his forces except for their Ottoman allies to storm into Constantinople surrounding the Blachernae Palace where the empress and her son the young emperor John V were. In this story’s case to add some more detail to the scenario, as the 41-year-old empress Anna was at her bath still refusing to surrender, John VI’s forces had already stormed the Blachernae Palace demanding her to surrender at once, and here the now 14-year-old John V rushed to his mother who was still at her bath convincing her to surrender peacefully as nothing could be done anymore. The empress then immediately got out of her bath even if she was still soaking and after just covering herself up with a towel, she rushed out, but at least she had enough time to put on her nightgown before John VI would confront her and her son. The empress Anna of Savoy, her son John V, and the usurper John VI Kantakouzenos then confronted each other at the imperial Blachernae Palace’s main hall at the dead of night with the empress and her son in their sleeping outfits and John VI formally dressed in purple imperial robes, although surprisingly they all came to a peaceful agreement wherein it was agreed that John VI from here on would rule as Byzantium’s senior emperor for the next 10 years, and following this both John V Palaiologos and John VI Kantakouzenos would rule as equals, while the empress mother was to remain unharmed in Cosntantinople but still forced to stay out of politics.

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John V Palaiologos as a young man, Byzantine emperor since 1341, son of Andronikos III and Anna of Savoy, art by JustinianustheGreat

To unite both Palaiologos and Kantakouzenos families however, John VI had to marry off his younger daughter Helena to John V who was just a year older than her unlike Helena’s sister Theodora who had to marry a much older man. With everything settled down, John VI was then formally crowned as senior emperor by the new patriarch, though not at the Hagia Sophia but at the church of the imperial palace, and now it looks like Byzantine history had totally repeated itself wherein a usurping general becomes senior emperor and the rightful emperor is demoted while also the demoted emperor was forced to marry the usurper’s daughter to legitimize the usurper’ claim, as if you remember from chapter VII of this series set in the 10th century the exact same thing happened, as back then in 920 the usurping general Romanos I Lekepenos who like John VI here demoted the rightful emperor which was John V who back then in 920 was Constantine VII of the Macedonian Dynasty, and John VI like Romanos I back then sidelined the rightful emperor’s mother and legitimized his claim by marrying off his daughter to the rightful emperor, and ironically both the daughter of Romanos I back then and of John VI here was named Helena.

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Kantakouzenos family coat of arms

Though both John VI and John V stayed in power, things were not yet fully resolved as mistrust still continued with both factions where the supporters of John V and his mother still believed John VI would one day completely remove John V from power and possibly even blind him while those who supported the Kantakouzenos faction wanted John V finished off for good not wanting John VI to share power with anyone. The one here who resented the young John V most was John VI’s son Matthew Kantakouzenos who resented his new brother-in-law John V believing that his father preferred John V more as John VI allowed John V to be his co-emperor rather than giving the position to Matthew, instead Matthew was only given some land in Thrace to rule. Though John VI was already the senior emperor, it did not mean much as first of all the crown placed on his head was no longer the original pure gold one as it had been pawned by the empress to Venice, instead he was crowned with a cheaper gold crown, and in his coronation dinner, the food was no longer served in expensive gold and silver plates but in ceramic ones as the empress had to sell these gold and silver plates off too in order to continue the civil war even if her side lost at the end.

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Coronation of Dusan as Emperor of Serbia in Skopje, 1346
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Blachernae Palace, Imperial Residence of Constantinople
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The Land Walls of Constantinople, art by myself

 

The Climax Part II- Black Death and Dusan’s Conquest of Byzantium (1347-1355)         

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The moment John VI Kantakouzenos became senior emperor of Byzantium, everything would turn around for them as here in 1347, Byzantium now already weakened from the civil war was to face a double disaster, the first being the civil war of course but what was to follow it was even worse. This new disaster that would further bring Byzantium to its knees was the plague of Black Death or also known as the “Bubonic Plague” which was said to have originated in the steppes of Central Asia as a result of climate change that had dried up the grasslands there forcing rodents there to flee bringing the pests with them, and apparently this plague had already spread across India and China in the early 1340s, though in 1347 this plague would first arrive in Europe through Genoese ships coming from their trading port of Theodosia (also known as Kaffa) in the Crimea, in which the people there had already been infected as previously the Mongol army of the Golden Horde besieged it by catapulting bodies of those who had died from this plague. Now one of the first ports these Genoese ships carrying the plague rats was Constantinople and here in 1347, just shortly after John VI became senior emperor, people began falling ill and dying. Among the many in Constantinople who died from the plague of Black Death was the emperor John VI’s youngest son Andronikos who was only a young child as children were in fact the most vulnerable to the plague given the high child mortality rate back then. Though nothing much is recorded about the Black Death hitting Byzantium, Byzantine historians of this time such as Nikephoros Gregoras (1295-1360) and John VI himself who would write about it later on describing the symptoms of the plague which included swelling occurring all over peoples’ bodies as a result of the flea bites, followed by fever, vomiting of blood, hallucinations, and death occurring 2-7 days after contracting the plague.

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Aftermath of the Plague of Justinian, 542

Of course, this was not the first time the Byzantines faced this kind of pandemic being a Bubonic Plague as 800 years earlier, this exact same plague happened which was the Plague of Justinian in 542 if you recall from chapter III of this series wherein the emperor Justinian I the Great himself was a victim of the plague but survived it, and just like 800 years ago, the plague of Black Death in 1347 killed thousands each day at the end killing off 2/3 of Constantinople population regardless of age, gender, or social class. The plague too had hit the other parts of what remained of the empire such as the cities of Thessaloniki and Adrianople despite not so much being recorded about the plague such as the death toll in those parts, although the region of the Morea in Southern Greece was not as much affected due to its remoteness.

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Black Death in Byzantium, 1347

The Byzantines however despite the state of ruin their empire was in had a tradition of advanced medical practice as they had operational hospitals such as the Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople and experienced doctors, although this was still not enough to stop the high death toll, while most people without modern science existing still did not know what was the cause of this plague, and monks and nuns were the ones who were most at risk in getting the plague and dying as they were the ones taking care of the patients.

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A Black Death patient being treated

The one that would be hit worse by the plague however would be the kingdoms of Western Europe, although since this story mainly focuses on Byzantium and the world around them, I would not go too much in detail discussing about how the plague spread across the rest of Europe and how people reacted to it, but to put it short the rest of Europe was hit much worse that thousands kept dying each day to the point that there were no longer enough coffins and even spaces to bury the dead that those who died from the plague had to be dumped in rivers which even made things worse by contaminating the rivers which people drank from.

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Black Death plague doctor in Western Europe

People in the west even at this point still being more superstitious than the Byzantines came up with all kinds of absurd cures including whipping themselves and burning Jews alive who they suspected of starting the plague. The plague would go on for the next 4 years across Europe going as far as to Scotland, Scandinavia, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, while North Africa and the Middle East were badly hit as well, although at the end the most affected were the port cities as they were part of the main shipping routes, and by 1351 the Black Death killed off 75-80% of the population of France and Spain combined, 40% of Egypt’s, and 20% of England and Germany’s. The biggest change caused by Black Death was the dissolution of the centuries old feudal system in Europe as with countless peasants dying, peasants became of such high value that they would no longer be forced to farm the lands of their feudal lords but would instead be travelling across Europe to places where they were in demand especially in parts where almost the entire peasant population was wiped out. The ones less affected by the Plague of Black Death on the other hand were the Ottomans in Asia Minor and Dusan’s Serbian Empire, although Ivan Alexander’s Bulgaria too was affected by the plague. With the plague wiping out most of the Byzantine soldiers in Thessaly and Epirus, Dusan in 1348 considering that the plague hardly affected his empire used the situation in Byzantium to his advantage and marched south conquering both Thessaly and Epirus in one swift campaign, and after taking these provinces Dusan appointed his brother Simeon Uros as the governor of Epirus, his general Preljub as the governor of Thessaly, and his other general Vojin as the governor of Macedonia which Dusan conquered prior to becoming emperor.

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Cartoon map of Dusan’s Serbian Empire

With both Thessaly and Epirus under the Serbian Empire, Stefan IV Dusan was now the undisputed most powerful man of the Balkans with an empire stretching north to south from the Danube River to the Gulf of Corinth in Greece, and west to east from the Adriatic and Ionian Seas to the Aegean Sea and as emperor, he led Serbia into a golden age making it equivalent to what Byzantium was in imperial power and culture, and Dusan to promote his power and influence in 1349 began a codification of laws for Serbia known as Dusan’s Code, just as Byzantium’s most influential emperor Justinian I the Great 800 years earlier did making the Corpus Juris Civilis, and quite coincidentally Serbia’s capital of Skopje where Dusan resided was very close to the now ruined town Justinian I was born in 482 as the peasant Flavius Petrus Sabbatius.

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A page from Dusan’s Code of Laws

Now that Dusan had conquered both Thessaly and Epirus which was followed by his conquest of the Chalcidice Peninsula from the Byzantines, Dusan began to plan out his ultimate goal of conquering Constantinople which was historically true, but the only problem here was that Serbia did not have a fleet large and strong enough do so, therefore Dusan would have to make an alliance with the Republic of Venice to provide him a fleet. In the meantime, John VI Kantakouzenos in 1348 was deeply saddened at the death of his old ally and friend Umur Bey who had been killed in battle against the Venetian fleet and Knights of Rhodes in their Crusade against him, but the even worse part for John VI was that his empire was in serious financial straits as a result of first the civil war and then Black Death which by killing off more than half of Constantinople’s population and a lot of the empire’s as a whole, the imperial revenue had dried out now that there were less people to pay taxes, and the worst part here was Genoa as considering that Byzantium chose to ally with them to recover Constantinople from the Latins back in 1261, Genoa ended up benefitting more as 87% of revenue made from ships passing through the Bosporus were to go to Genoa instead of Byzantium. Needing more revenue for Byzantium in order for it to survive especially since they only earned 13% from customs, John VI in 1349 decided to regain full control of the customs by discontinuing in paying Genoa 87% of it, but at the end this only provoked a small war between Byzantium and Genoa. Being provoked by John VI wanting to cancel their agreement, the Genoese in Constantinople set fire to the ships Andronikos III had previously restored thus again depriving the Byzantines of fleet, but in retaliation Byzantine soldiers in Constantinople set fire to the Genoese held Galata Quarter burning their warehouses as well. At the end, a peace agreement was again settled between Byzantium and Genoa wherein the Genoese agreed to never cause harm to the Byzantines again as long as the Byzantines leave them alone forever in Galata.

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Postcard of Emperor Dusan in battle

In 1350, as Dusan marched northwest to campaign against the Bosnian Principality which he intended to conquer and annex to Serbia, John VI taking advantage of the absence of Serbian troops in Macedonia who left to join Dusan’s campaign marched to Macedonia to take it back for Byzantium, and true enough John VI was able to take back the cities of Berroia and Vodena from the Serbians. Following his successes, John VI proceeded to Thessaloniki and at this point the anti-aristocratic zealots that held it since 1342 lost influence and control of the city, therefore welcoming John VI in with open arms accepting him as their emperor, while John VI as well had his loyalist Patriarch of Constantinople Kallistos excommunicate Dusan out of revenge. Dusan after finishing his campaign against Bosnia which did not result in much success anyway returned to Macedonia taking back the lands John VI had just reconquered for the Byzantines, again leaving Thessaloniki surrounded by a sea of Serbian territory.          

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Map and timeline of the Black Death across Europe
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Mongol siege of the Port of Theodosia (Kaffa) in the Crimea, origins of Black Death
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The Plague of Black Death
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Death toll of Black Death
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Dusan’s Serbian Empire by 1348- Original “Royal” Lands (light purple) and newly annexed “Imperial” Lands (dark purple)

Watch this to learn more about Black Death in Byzantium (Eastern Roman History).

Though it never came to happen in real history, in this story’s case the Republic of Venice in 1351 would finally decide in agreeing to provide Dusan with a fleet as here Venice and Genoa were at war with each other again, and with Genoa and Byzantium allies again, Venice now had a reason to attack Constantinople while Dusan here only exploited this conflict to his advantage. In real history, the Venetians although being in good terms with Dusan’s Serbia did not agree to an alliance to take Constantinople as Venice did not want to be obliged to Serbia, but here Venice would not only want to join Dusan’s cause as they were at war with Genoa, but they had been inspired by Dusan’s war against the Bosnians and against John VI’s Byzantium, thus in 1351 Dusan and Venice would formally conclude an alliance in which Venice would take over the Galata Quarter from Genoa if Dusan took over Constantinople.

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Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (center) surrounded by Byzantine nobility and clergymen declares Hesychasm Orthodox, 1351

It also happened in 1351 that John VI returned the favor to the nobility that supported him in the civil war by holding a Church Council in Constantinople wherein John VI himself approved and fully legalized the mystical Hesychast teaching that was once considered heresy, therefore finally declaring it Orthodox which made him more popular with Byzantium’s conservative aristocracy, though his son-in-law and junior co-emperor John V despite not showing his feeling strongly opposed it due to his progressive upbringing. In 1351 as well, the empress Anna of Savoy who had remained out of politics since 1347 decided to leave Constantinople for good to set herself up in Thessaloniki wherein she would still feel like an actual empress as there she would control the mints, while her son the co-emperor John V had already reached adulthood which made him no longer need his mother as his regent. In the meantime, John VI I 1349 had appointed his other son Manuel Kantakouzenos as the first Despot of the Morea therefore setting himself up in the city Mystras along the mountains slopes above Ancient Sparta which here would grow into a thriving cultural and educational center as mentioned earlier, though in Thrace John VI’s other son Matthew would have to share rule over it with is brother-in-law the co-emperor John V, which made mistrust between them grow even more, therefore leading to the civil war between the Kantakouzenos and Palaiologos factions to resume in 1352. At this point, John VI would completely turn against his son-in-law he was supposed to by backing his son Matthew against John V.

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Ottoman sultan Orhan as an old man

John VI then would turn to the Ottoman sultan Orhan for military support, and Orhan still continuing his alliance to John VI as he was still married to John VI’s daughter Theodora would support John VI by sending an army of 10,000 Turks led by his son from a previous marriage the Turkish general Suleiman Pasha. In real history, Dusan also took part in this civil war by backing John V thus Dusan would send an army of 4,000 Serbian cavalrymen to assist John V while Venice allied with both young John V and Dusan would also send a few soldiers to assist John V’s side. In this story’s case however, Dusan would completely exploit the situation of Byzantium by literally launching an invasion of Constantinople himself being transported by the fleet provided by Venice while his forces and Byzantine ally John V would battle John VI’s forces and Ottoman forces that had been ferried across the Dardanelles into Europe at a land battle outside the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace which was John V’s birthplace.

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Army of Dusan’s Serbian Empire

The real history Battle of Didymoteicho in 1352 between John V’s forces with Serbian and Venetian allies against Matthew Kantakouzenos’ forces with Ottoman allies too would happen as well, and here the young John V himself with long and dark wavy hair dressed in golden imperial armor would personally lead his forces including his Serbian and Venetian allies outside the city he was born in 20 years earlier. In the meantime- but in this story’s case only- the same would happen as in 1204 where a large Venetian fleet would arrive outside Constantinople’s walls, except unlike in the 4th Crusade of 1204 where the Venetian fleet carried an army of Latins, the Venetians here would carry an army of Serbians including knights dressed in the full plate armor of this era and their emperor Dusan himself all armored up too. Dusan and his army here unlike the 4th Crusade back then would not really have any intention to sack Constantinople but rather to instead revive Byzantium and save it from decaying, and what Dusan really came to Constantinople with an army for was to capture their emperor John VI who Dusan saw as a traitor for turning against him many years ago in the civil war. The Venetians knowing Constantinople’s weak point being the Galata Quarter and the sea walls would immediately attack the walls of the Galata Quarter like they did when the 4th Crusade first arrived in 1203, and here unsurprisingly considering how weak and outnumbered the Byzantine forces were with most killed off by the plague and civil war, the people of the Galata Quarter would easily give up and let Dusan and his Serbians with their Venetian allies in as well.

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Early Ottoman army, 14th century

Back outside Didymoteicho in Thrace, the forces of John V and Matthew with their respective allies would clash in an intense and brutal battle in the rain with the Ottoman light infantry throwing their short spears and firing their crossbows at heavily armed and armored Serbian knights only for the knights to kick the Ottoman soldiers to the muddy ground brutally beating up to death while the few Venetian soldiers on the other hand would also fire crossbows on the Ottoman’s and Matthew’s few Byzantine forces. At the end however, the Serbian cavalry and Venetians despite their strength would still lose as they did in real history due to their smaller numbers compared to the Ottomans here who had an army of 10,000, though in this story’s case the side of Matthew and his Ottoman allies would end up being on the winning side when an Ottoman archer would shoot John V himself at the back with an arrow, while another Ottoman soldier would further injure John V by cutting his hand with a sword causing John V’s Serbian and Venetian allies to flee the battle in panic.

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Mounted 14th century Serbian knight

Though Matthew’s side would appear to be winning here, Matthew in this story’s case would be killed in this battle when a Serbian knight would run a lance through his chest, impaling and killing him, though in real history with Matthew winning it he still remained alive, while John V not being injured would flee to the Aegean island of Tenedos where he would plot to take over the throne for himself with the help of Venice, though here John V when injured would be dragged away by a Serbian soldier. Back in Constantinople, Dusan’s army would meet little resistance from the defending Byzantine troops while the people especially the commoners tired of the aristocracy and John VI’s failure to keep the empire alive and his conservative ways that was only bring them backwards would welcome Dusan with open arms accepting him as their emperor as these people wanted a stronger ruler that would lead their empire again to prosperity the way Andronikos III did before.

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Tsar Stefan Uros IV Dusan Nemanjic, Byzantine emperor beginning 1352 (in this story’s case), art by Wlayko111

Most of the people, now being fed up with John VI would carry him out of the palace and drag him with force to the Galata Quarter to confront the angry Dusan himself. In Thrace, the Ottomans led by Suleiman Pasha after winning their victory would like in real history mindlessly pillage Thrace, although in real history their pillaging came to an end when John VI gave them a small fortress in Thrace to settle in, though here this would not be the case as John VI was already deposed by Dusan therefore allowing the Ottoman Turks to nonstop their mindless pillaging. John VI being badly beaten up by his people would then see Dusan again after about 10 years, and here the very angry Dusan would then blind the 60-year-old John VI at the spot for betraying him, afterwards sending John VI to Serbia to be imprisoned for life. Dusan would then go full circle here once again set foot in Constantinople, the city he spent some of his childhood years in as an exile which he grew to admire, thus he would take over the Blachernae Palace as the Byzantine-Serbian emperor although still keeping John VI’s staff and soldiers at the city who had defected to Dusan as well, thus Dusan would now allow his ally John V who had been wounded in battle to be brought to Serbia to live as a hostage as Dusan intended his son Uros V to succeed him as Byzantine emperor as well.           

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Serbian army of Emperor Dusan for his 1352 attack on Constantinople, in this story
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Venetian ship transporting Dusan and his troops to Constantinople in 1352, in this story
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Complete flag of the Republic of Venice

In this story’s case, the Serbian emperor Stefan IV Dusan would take over the Byzantine throne in 1352 after blinding the unpopular John VI, and following this Dusan would depose the Patriarch of Constantinople Kallistos who had excommunicated him back in 1350, replacing him as Patriarch of Constantinople with the Serbian patriarch Joanikije, while the Venetians who helped Dusan take Constantinople were given the entire Galata Quarter as well as the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Tenedos. Now Dusan’s territory would consist of not only all of Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Thessaly, and Epirus but all of Thrace itself including Constantinople, while Thessaloniki too would eventually surrender to him, however the Morea in Southern Greece which remained disconnected by land from the main empire here under its despot John VI’s son Manuel would resist against Dusan refusing to be under Serbian rule, therefore the Despotate of the Morea would be its own independent state, although Dusan would start making attempts to capture the Morea.

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Knights of Dusan’s Serbian Empire

With the Ottoman Turks here continuing their pillaging of Thrace, Dusan in 1352 as well would first march out of Constantinople with his knights to expel the Turks led by Suleiman Pasha, and with his large army and their strength, the Turks would flee in fear at the site of the massive sized Dusan and his troops to the coast using any boat they could find to retreat home to Asia Minor. Now what would be a major change in history here if Dusan took over the Byzantine Empire would be that the Ottoman Turks which only crossed into Europe because of assisting John VI’s side in the 1352 civil war would be driven away from Europe long before they could settle in it, as in real history without Dusan taking over Byzantine Thrace, the reigning emperor John VI allowed the Turks to stay in Thrace as part of his alliance with their sultan Orhan. In real history, John V after his defeat would escape to Tenedos where in 1353, he would plot to take back the throne from his father-in-law John VI which would never happen, and John VI when hearing about this now angrier than ever being fed up with his son-in-law he was supposed to protect decided to remove John V from the succession and instead replacing him with his son Matthew even crowning Matthew as co-emperor. In this story however none of this would happen, as John VI had already been blinded and imprisoned in Serbia, Matthew killed in battle by the Serbians, and the injured John V being brought to the Serbian capital Skopje as a hostage, and here John V in Skopje would get close to Dusan’s son Uros V.

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Gallipoli Peninsula in Thrace, site of the 1354 earthquake

Now in March of 1354, a great earthquake struck the Gallipoli Peninsula in Thrace to the point of destroying the city of Gallipoli forcing its Byzantine Greek population to flee, and in real history with the Ottomans under Suleiman Pasha already in Thrace, they would take advantage of the people fleeing Gallipoli as well as the city being in ruins, and settle in it themselves even relocating Turks from Asia Minor there, however in this story with Dusan already expelling the few Turks from Thrace, the Turks informally settling in the ruined city of Gallipoli would not happen and instead Dusan would have Gallipoli rebuilt and repopulated with Serbs. In real history, John VI when finding out that the Ottomans had settled in Gallipoli, he tried to convince them to leave even agreeing to bribe Orhan by paying him to vacate his people from it, but Orhan was true enough intent to keep it as it would begin his long-awaited dream of expanding Ottoman territory into Europe, and would refuse surrendering Gallipoli back to the Byzantines with the excuse that he did not take Gallipoli by force but it was given to him by God through the earthquake. The loss of Gallipoli to the Ottomans then triggered riots in Constantinople as the people were now in fear especially since the Ottomans were already at their backyard, therefore the people including John VI’s own loyalists would riot against him demanding John V to return to power.

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Fresco of Emperor Dusan (left), his wife Empress Helena (right), and son King Uros V

In this story however, Constantinople under Dusan would be at peace in 1354 as the entire Thrace with the Ottomans gone was already secured, allowing Dusan to go back and forth from Constantinople to Serbia, while here Dusan would be able to complete his code of laws and construct a number of churches and monasteries in Serbia while he in this story being in charge of Constantinople would also renovate the ruined churches and monasteries there, and at the end the results would still look the same as after all, the Serbians based most of their architecture and art styles on that of the Byzantines. Dusan being emperor was also best known for constructing monasteries in Serbia, while he even founded monasteries as far as Jerusalem and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt which he settled it with Serbian monks, while his brother-in-law and ally Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria did the same in Bulgaria as well despite Bulgaria being pressured by Hungary in the north and facing an economic crisis caused by Black Death. Back in real history, John V later in 1354 was able to reclaim Constantinople from his father-in-law by coming across an unlikely ally which was the Genoese pirate Francesco Gattilusio who arrived at John V’s base of Tenedos earlier that year and being fluent in Italian due to his Italian mother, John V easily sealed a deal with the pirate Francesco and with only a small army consisting of Francesco’s pirate crew, they arrived at the dead of night outside Constantinople’s walls in December of 1354.

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Coat of arms of the Palaiologos Dynasty (above) and of the Genoese Gattilusio family (below) which ruled Lesbos after 1355, in real history

Francesco here came up with a trick to let them in telling the guards they needed to enter to get spare parts claiming one of their ships broke down, thus the moment they were let into the city, Francesco’s pirates gained control of the walls while the people woke up at the dead of night rioting in favor of John V while John VI at the palace the next day having no more support left was forced to abdicate in favor of his son-in-law. By the time the year 1355 began, John V at 22 was the sole ruler of the empire while his father-in-law John VI retired to become a monk in the Morea where his son Manuel was as its governor, although Matthew Kantakouzenos still did not give up his claim and so the conflict between him and John V still continued for the next 2 years, while for his support the pirate Francesco would be given the island of Lesbos by John V to rule as its vassal lord paying tribute to John V, being given John V’s sister Maria in marriage as well.

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John VI Kantakouzenos as emperor (left) and as a monk (right) after his abdication from power in 1354

In this story then John V’s return to power in December of 1354 would not happen while Lesbos too would not fall under the Genoese pirate Francesco who in no way would come to the picture here with John V being in Serbia the whole time, instead the Byzantine Empire now united with Serbia would again be a major Balkan power with its economy growing again, although once again this age of peace and prosperity would not last long enough as in December of 1355, the emperor Dusan like in real history would suddenly die at the relatively young age of 47 wherein here he would not be able to achieve his conquest of the Morea from Manuel Kantakouzenos. Just like in real history he would be succeeded by his son Uros V who being young and unprepared would not have the strength of his father to keep his large empire intact, which means that in this story’s case with Dusan’s sudden death in 1355, Constantinople and Thrace would become its own independent Byzantine state again with John V returning from Serbia to be Byzantine emperor once more, although no matter how reduced Byzantine territory would become here, one major obstacle for them would have already been taken care of which were the Ottoman Turks as in real history with John V coming back to power, the Ottomans had already crossed into Thrace beginning their expansion, but here thanks to Dusan expelling them back to Asia Minor, John V back in power would no longer have to face the inevitable expansion of the Ottomans into Europe therefore he would continue to rule out the rest of his years in peace.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire under John V (pink), Serbian Empire under Uros V (gray), and 2nd Bulgarian Empire under Ivan Alexander (blue) after Dusan’s death in 1355, in real history and this story
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Map of Lesbos, given by John V to Francesco Gattilusio in 1355 in real history
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Emperor Stefan IV Dusan and the Serbian Empire’s flag fan art

 

The Epilogue (in real history)               

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The rest of the events following 1355 would now just be told in a fast-tracked way, so basically the Serbian emperor Stefan Uros IV Dusan suddenly died in 1355 without completing his objective of capturing Constantinople and reviving the Byzantine Empire to its old glory and replacing it as a Serbian power. Rather than Dusan taking over, John V returned to power in December of 1354 while his father-in-law the senior emperor John VI Kantakouzenos was forced to abdicate and become a monk residing in the Morea in Southern Greece where his son Manuel was its despot, though despite already being an old man here, John VI would continue to live being a monk until his death in 1383 at the age of 91, and as a monk he would write an autobiography of his life as emperor as well as a history of the time he lived in, which gives us up to this day an account of events that happened in 14th century Byzantium including the 1341-1347 Civil War and Black Death through John VI’s eyes.

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Outline of the mosaic of Emperor John V Palaiologos in the Hagia Sophia

As for John V, the rest of his story after his return to power by 1355 was mostly a disappointing one as the Byzantium he came to rule was impoverished and already at a total breaking point while outbreaks of Black Death kept coming back every now and then, not to mention that their territory here only consisted of Constantinople, Thrace, Thessaloniki, a small number of islands in the Aegean, and the Morea, therefore an attempt to revive Byzantium to its old glory the way John V’s father Andronikos III did before was no longer possible. On the other hand, with the Ottomans having already settled in Gallipoli since 1354 due to the earthquake, their expansion in the Balkans had already begun and neither Byzantium which was now in economic ruin nor the Serbian Empire now under Dusan’s son Uros V who was a weak ruler unable to hold together the large empire his father left behind for him could stop the gradual advance of the Ottomans that began to slowly conquer the cities in the Balkans. On the other hand, John V who had taken back the throne was able to deal with the challenger to his authority which was his brother-in-law Matthew Kantakouzenos by using his alliance with Serbia as in 1356 a Serbian army led by the late Dusan’s trusted general and Governor of Macedonia Vojin defeated Matthew in battle capturing him as well while John V in 1357 paid Matthew’s ransom for him to be released from the Serbians as Matthew was supposed to face trial in Byzantium. Matthew however at the end did not face real punishment as all he had to do was renounce his claim to the throne, and when he finally did, he was sent to the Morea to retire along with his retired father the former emperor John VI and his brother Manuel who was its despot. Though with the conflict of Matthew settled, the Ottomans were left to freely conquer the Balkans that by 1363, the city of Adrianople itself which was the closest major city to Constantinople fell under Ottoman rule which in 1365 in fact even became the Ottomans’ new capital being renamed as “Edirne”. In the meantime, the Ottoman sultan Orhan had died in 1362 at the age of 80 and since his eldest son Suleiman Pasha who previously led the first wave of Ottoman expansion into Europe had died from a hunting accident in 1357, Orhan would be succeeded by his younger son and Suleiman’s younger brother Murad I who just like his father was another ambitious ruler, and it was Murad I who in 1365 moved the Ottoman capital from Bursa in Asia Minor to Edirne in Thrace.

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Sultan Murad I of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1362-1389), son of Orhan

It was actually in fact under Murad I when the Ottoman Sultanate was established when the capital was moved to Edirne (Adrianople) as here the Ottomans formally adopted the bureaucratic and military systems of the Byzantines, while it was also under Murad I when the famous Janissary units of the Ottoman army were introduced, which were soldiers recruited from the Christian lands in the Balkans they had conquered including Greece and Serbia who being recruited as boys and from early age trained to be fierce and loyal soldiers that were forbidden to marry as their duty was only to their sultan and empire. Now John V himself with his limited troops and resources could not stop the advance of the Ottomans into the Balkans, but luckily John V through his Italian mother Anna of Savoy had connections with Western Europe, and although Anna died in 1365 in Thessaloniki, her relatives from Savoy in Italy came to Byzantium’s aid in 1366 in a Crusade against the Ottomans wherein John V’s new brother-in-law and loyal ally the Lord of Lesbos and former pirate Francesco Gattilusio assisted the Savoy army in driving the Ottomans away from Gallipoli, but at the end the attempt was not all successful as the Ottomans had already expanded north and were already targeting the Serbian and Bulgarian Empires. Though being mostly unsuccessful in keeping Byzantium a strong state, John V was not overall a weak leader although he lacked some toughness therefore making diplomacy his only tool to keep his empire alive and this would exactly be the case here in 1366 as well, as when in need for military assistance from the more powerful kingdoms of Europe, John V himself traveled to the Kingdom of Hungary to ask from its king Louis I the Great for an army to help him drive away the Ottomans in the Balkans.

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King Louis I the Great of Hungary (r. 1342-1382)

John V however when arriving in the Hungarian capital Buda did something rather embarrassing which was not getting off his horse while the Hungarian king Louis I approached John by foot, therefore Louis thinking John was arrogant only agreed to help John’s Byzantium if John was to convert his empire to Catholicism, which John saw as something too much to do. Eventually, John V realized that it was about time anyway to convert his empire to Catholicism as due to being brought up by his mother with Western values, John thought that it was only right to submit to Latin Catholicism believing Byzantine Orthodoxy and its beliefs were already becoming outdated.

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Pope Urban V

In 1369, after eventually being invited to Rome by the pope Urban V himself, John V set sail from Constantinople to Rome where he would formally convert to Catholicism, however at the end it was only John V that converted as his people still being proudly Orthodox and even those who were pro-Western still refused to convert as Orthodoxy was already deeply set in their identity, therefore this would be another failed attempt in getting support from the more powerful west. John V by 1371 once again returned to Constantinople empty handed, and even worse when returning home, he was held in Venice as a debtor not being allowed to leave unless he paid up, and without having much money to pay, the Venetians only allowed John to leave if he surrendered the Aegean island of Tenedos to them, and when finally doing so John was allowed to leave even taking back the crown jewels that his mother pawned to them more than 20 years ago during the civil war. It also happened in 1371 that the short-lived Serbian Empire established by Dusan died out when its emperor Dusan’s son Uros V died without an heir, and due to this the once powerful Serbian Empire was divided into various states ruled by different powerful magnates, and in the 2nd Bulgarian Empire Ivan Alexander their last powerful tsar died as well in 1371 at the age of 70, and with Bulgaria already weakened at the time of his death it was divided between his 2 sons Ivan Shishman and Ivan Sratsimir, thus both Serbia and Bulgaria here would be more and more vulnerable to fall under the rule of the rapidly expanding Ottomans.

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Map of the Ottoman expansion into the Balkans and Asia Minor under Murad I
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John V converts to Catholicism at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, 1369
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Map of the Serbian Empire divided into different states following Uros V’s death in 1371
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Meme of a Byzantine man in 1350

           

The Ottomans too would gain further success in 1371 when expanding west and winning a major victory over the now divided and disorganized Serbians at the Battle of the Maritsa where the Ottomans with only 800 men would crush an army of 50,000 Serbians by surprise while the Serbian troops were asleep by the Maritsa River which then turned red with their blood. This battle then marked the end of an independent Serbia, and with this Ottoman victory John V ruling what was left of Byzantium more and more feared for his survival, thus in 1372 John V was left with no choice but to do the most humiliating thing submitting Byzantium as a vassal of Murad I’s Ottoman Empire to ensure its survival.

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14th century Ottoman Janissaries, introduced by Murad I

Basically, all John V needed to do here was to pay annual tribute to Murad I at Edirne, have his Byzantine troops take part in the Ottoman conquests, and provide Murad I with young Byzantine men who were to serve as Ottoman Janissaries, and to sum it up, just do whatever Murad told him to do. The Byzantine people on the other hand were fine with John V submitting them as an Ottoman vassal as long as their empire stayed alive, but the one who opposed the idea of Byzantium being a vassal the most was John V’s eldest son and co-emperor Andronikos who being unable to accept the humiliation of his empire being an Ottoman vassal and his father being bullied by the Ottoman sultan rebelled against his father’s rule in 1373 claiming that his father was weak and if Andronikos took over the throne, he would rule strongly, while at the same time Murad’s son Savci Bey joined forces with Andronikos with both rebelling against their respective fathers. Later in 1373, both rebellions of Andronikos and Savci Bey were crushed by their fathers while Murad I brutally blinded his son leading to his death, thus Murad also asked John V who was his loyal vassal to do the same to his son. John V however only faked Andronikos’ blinding by pouring hot vinegar into his eyes as a way to show Murad that he actually did it, though as punishment John V locked up his son Andronikos as well as Andronikos’ wife Keratsa who was the daughter of the late Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander and their young son in prison, while John V also stripped Andronikos of his title as co-emperor and instead appointed his younger son Manuel as his new co-emperor.

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Andronikos IV Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1376-1379), son of John V

At the same time, Venice and Genoa again went to war with each other using the conflict between John V and his son Andronikos as their proxy war and 3 years later in 1376 Genoa won the war, thus the Genoese in Constantinople’s Galata Quarter broke Andronikos, his wife, and son out of prison. Andronikos then became Emperor Andronikos IV Palaiologos and now taking the throne, he overthrew and locked his father up in prison together with Andronikos’ two brothers Manuel and Theodore, thus here John V would lose the throne for the second time in his life, although as emperor Andronikos IV would turn out to only be a puppet of the Genoese and in return for Genoa helping him, he handed them over the island of Tenedos while he also gave Gallipoli back to the Ottomans, thus giving more losses for Byzantium. 3 years later in 1379, Murad I using spies would suddenly break John V and his two sons out of prison and with the support of Murad I’s forces, John V later in 1379 would take the throne back again, although Andronikos IV at first would not surrender as he would hold himself in the Galata Quarter ruling it as his own, though in 1381 he would eventually surrender peacefully to his father, thus Andronikos IV would be allowed to continue ruling some land in Thrace.

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Emperor John V Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1341-1347, 1354-1376, 1379-1391) as an old man

As John V was back in power, he would end up dividing what was left of Byzantium among his 3 sons with him taking Constantinople, the eldest son Andronikos IV in charge of what was left of Thrace, Manuel in charge of Thessaloniki, and Theodore as the new Despot of the Morea, although Andronikos IV now living in Selymbria near Constantinople would still not yet give up his rebellion but before once again launching an attempt to take the throne from his father, he suddenly died in 1385 giving a lot of relief to his traumatized father. Although with John V back in power once again paying tribute to the Ottomans, Murad I beginning 1383 would still lay siege to Thessaloniki basically because Murad saw its governor who was John V’s son Manuel as a dangerous threat, and in 1387 after 4 years of being under siege, Thessaloniki would surrender to the Ottomans while Manuel would flee to Lesbos attempting to take it back.

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Prince Lazar of Serbia (r. 1373-1389)

With Thessaloniki now falling to the Ottomans, the Ottomans would now continue focusing their campaign against the now divided Serbia but in 1387 as well, the most powerful of the post-imperial princes of the divided Serbian states which was Lazar Hrebeljanovic, who was once an official in Emperor Dusan’s court would win a surprising victory against Murad I’s large Ottoman army, thus preventing the Ottomans from capturing the Serbian city of Nis. Feeling confident of his victory, Prince Lazar would make an attempt to restore the Serbian Empire of Dusan by reuniting the divided Serbian states and raising a large army to once and for all expel the Ottomans from the Balkans.

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Serbians and Ottomans clash at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389

Prince Lazar’s attempt to reunite Serbia and drive the Ottomans away however would turn out to be unsuccessful as when Lazar’s large Serbian army would confront Murad I’s even larger Ottoman army at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Serbians despite their strength would still be defeated by the Ottomans, although in the course of this battle Sultan Murad I himself would be assassinated by the Serbian knight Milos Obilic who broke into Murad’s tent killing him with a knife, though Milos would afterwards immediately be killed by Murad’s soldiers. With Ottomans victorious despite their sultan assassinated, Prince Lazar would be executed by the Ottomans and all the divided Serbian states would be forced to be vassals of the Ottomans in order to still keep their rulers, and here Bayezid I the son of Murad I would succeed his father as the new Ottoman sultan, and now Bayezid was someone not content with having Byzantium as a vassal, therefore he would have the ultimate goal of conquering Constantinople.

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Sultan Bayezid I of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1389-1402), son of Murad I

Back in Byzantium, John V’s tragic story was not yet over as in 1390 he was overthrown for the 3rd time and this time by his grandson John VII Palaiologos the son of Andronikos IV claiming that he was continuing his late father’s rebellion, although despite having support of the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, John VII would lose the throne 5 months later when his grandfather would take it back assisted by his son Manuel and the Knights of Rhodes forcing John VII to flee back to his base Selymbria. John V back in power again would continue being the new sultan Bayezid I’s vassal agreeing to also send Manuel to Bayezid I’s court as a hostage, and when John V had the Golden Gate of Constantinople’s walls repaired, Bayezid I was enraged as John did it without consulting him, thus Bayezid threatened to blind Manuel if John did not tear down the gate he just repaired. Fearing Manuel would be blinded, John V had the gate he just repaired torn down, though John would not be able to get over the humiliation of doing this and so in one night in February of 1391, John V was said to have committed suicide by poisoning himself as in the next morning he was found dead at the age of 58. John V would then be succeeded by his son Manuel becoming Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos who would surprisingly turn out to be a competent ruler, although his story would be saved for another time, however before the 14th century would end the entire 2nd Bulgarian itself would fall under Ottoman rule, and just half a century later, it would be Constantinople’s time to fall to the Ottomans.

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Ottomans defeat the Serbians at the Battle of the Maritsa, 1371
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Ottomans against Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389
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Sultan Murad I assassinated by Milos Obilic after the Battle of Kosovo, 1389
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Golden Gate of Constantinople’s Walls

Watch this to learn more about the 1389 Battle of Kosovo (Kings and Generals).


 

The Epilogue (in this story) and Conclusion            

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For this story, the biggest difference would be that the Ottomans would have already been expelled from Thrace and forced to move back to Asia Minor by Dusan, although following Dusan’s death which in this story would like in real history also happen in 1355, the geography of the Balkans would remain the same as it was in real history except for the Ottomans settling in Gallipoli and already taking parts of Thrace.

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Stefan Uros V “the Weak”, Tsar of Serbia (r. 1355-1371), son and successor of Dusan

Following Dusan’s death in this story’s case, Uros V would succeed his father Dusan as Emperor of Serbia and just like in real history, he would not be as strong as his father in ruling his empire which is why he would in this story just like in real history be remembered as “Uros the Weak”, while in this story’s case with John V Palaiologos being sent as a hostage to Serbia by Dusan, John V would befriend Uros V who was just 4 years younger than John, and due to Uros V’s weaker style of ruling, he would simply allow John V to return to Constantinople allowing Byzantium to be independent again. John V would then return to Constantinople and return to ruling as the sole Byzantine emperor in 1356, and thanks to Dusan’s rule as Byzantine emperor in Constantinople despite only lasting for 3 years, most of the city’s decay would be mostly repaired by Dusan who had more funds than the Byzantines here, therefore Constantinople would once again slowly grow into a thriving capital, unlike in real history wherein Constantinople by the latter part of the 14th century fell more and more into decay all while Black Death kept coming back and forth. The outbreaks of Black Death returning would however still happen in this story’s case after John V’s return to power and Byzantium’s separation from Serbia after just 3 years of being under Serbian rule. Although again the biggest difference here compared to real history aside from Byzantium and its capital being economically restored in his 3-year occupation of Byzantium would be that the Ottomans would no longer threaten John V and Byzantium, thus despite coming back to rule a very much reduced and bankrupt Byzantium John V would no longer have to face the expansion of the Ottomans into the Balkans, thus giving a lot of relief to Byzantium which in fact would allow their empire to survive for even much longer.

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New flag of the Ottoman Empire after 1362

With the Ottomans in this story being forced back into Asia Minor, they would not achieve their conquests in Balkans like they did in real history, therefore Adrianople would not become their capital and no young men from the Balkans recruited as Janissaries for the Ottoman army; instead, the Ottomans would be forced to expand their empire east and south, thus what could happen is that they would instead go east and conquer the breakaway Byzantine Empire of Trebizond and possibly later the Kingdom of Georgia. Like in real history, Orhan in this story’s case would also die of old age in 1362 and for the sake of changing history, here he would not be succeeded by Murad I but by his older son Suleiman Pasha who would not die from a hunting accident in 1357, and under the new Ottoman sultan Suleiman they would begin their expansion east giving up their ambitions to expand into the Balkans and capture Constantinople. On the other hand, the former emperor John VI Kantakouzenos who had been blinded and imprisoned by Dusan after taking over Constantinople in 1352 would die not too long after being imprisoned in Serbia possibly by 1355 as well due to being blinded and slowly tortured to death in prison, therefore with John Kantakouzenos dying in prison he would not do as he did in real history when retiring as a monk by writing a history of his time and reign as emperor, meaning that we would also not get any insights to the this era of Byzantine history in John VI’s point of view as here he wouldn’t write his memoirs. Another major change here in this story is that John V when back in power would not have to face his brother-in-law Matthew Kantakouzenos challenging him as Matthew here had already died in battle back in 1352, therefore the continued civil war against Matthew which ended in 1357 here would not happen while Matthew’s brother the Despot of the Morea Manuel who refused to be under Dusan’s combined Byzantine-Serbian Empire would renounce his rebellion and accept his brother-in-law John V as his emperor thus returning the Morea in Southern Greece to direct Byzantine control while also Gallipoli which Dusan here just settled with Serbs would still remain a Serbian colony in Byzantine lands. Now with the Ottomans no longer expanding into Thrace like in real history due to realizing that their attempt had failed when being driven away by Dusan here, John V who here would not have the Ottomans at his backyard would no longer have to desperately ask for military assistance from the more powerful kingdoms of Western Europe, although John V would still focus on keeping diplomatic ties with King Louis I of Hungary as well as with Serbia, Bulgaria, Venice, Genoa, Aragon, France, the Papacy, and his cousins ruling the state of Savoy in Italy in case John V would need military assistance from them in the rare occasion of the Ottoman threat returning or if another power would try to invade what is left of Byzantium, and not to mention he would eventually recover the crown jewels that was pawned to Venice.

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Icon of Emperor John V Palaiologos of Byzantium

Like in real history however, John V here in this story would also follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather Michael VIII Palaiologos considering Church unity and would also do as he did in real history in agreeing to submit to the pope’s authority, though it would also have a negative impact on the proudly Orthodox Byzantine people who would rather die than accepting Catholicism as their religion still seeing the pain and damage inflicted on them caused by the Catholic Crusaders back in 1204 as a not so distant memory. Now in this story, John V would not do the humiliating thing of submitting Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal due to the Ottoman threat no longer growing in the Balkans, therefore John V would not have to be bullied and ordered around by an Ottoman sultan thus leading to no conflict with his son Andronikos who basically rose up against his father for the plain fact that he agreed to be an Ottoman vassal. Without the conflict between John V and his son Andronikos in 1373, as well as Andronikos’ brief take-over of the throne from 1376-1379, Byzantium would instead enjoy a period of relative peace in the 1370s and 1380s despite their economy and imperial prestige no longer a strong one like before, and without the conflict with Andronikos as well, John V later in 1390 would also not lose the throne to his grandson and Andronikos’ son John VII. In Serbia meanwhile, its emperor Uros V would like in real history also die in 1371 without an heir, thus Serbia would be divided into several states ruled by powerful magnates as well, although with the Ottomans no longer expanding into Thrace, the Serbians would not suffer a humiliating defeat to them at the Battle of the Maritsa, therefore giving the Serbians an opportunity to reunite.

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Prince Lazar as the eventual restored Serbian emperor (tsar) in this story

In this story, Prince Lazar would do the same in attempting to reunite Serbia into an empire once again like it was under Dusan, and this time he would in fact be successful as without the pressure of the Ottoman expansion, Lazar could focus on Serbia’s reunification and again without the Ottoman threat, the catastrophic Battle of Kosovo in 1389 here would not happen, thus allowing Lazar to live to see his dream of reuniting Serbia into a strong empire once again come true with Lazar himself becoming the new Serbian emperor. Now what would happen here is that Serbia would again become the undisputed power of the Balkans surpassing that of their neighbors Byzantium and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, while Byzantium on the other hand again without the Ottomans pressuring them or forcing them to pay tribute would still hold on to Thessaloniki unlike in real history which fell to the Ottomans in 1387, thus Byzantium would continue to live on, that they would in fact manage to recapture territories in Greece and even in Northwest Asia Minor that they have lost over the past decades. The last years of the 14th century for Byzantium under John V Palaiologos in this story though would still be quite disappointing mainly because they would no longer become a strong power anymore not even at the level they were for a very short time under John V’s father Andronikos III, but it would still not be as disappointing as it was in real history wherein Byzantium did in fact have to face the humiliation of being an Ottoman vassal to ensure its survival. John V here would at least rule out the rest of his years peacefully without losing the throne to his son and later to his grandson and without being an Ottoman vassal, instead the only major challenges John V would face would be a lack of finances, the plague of Black Death returning every now and then, and some PTSD from being injured and almost killed in battle against Matthew Kantakouzenos and his Ottoman allies back in 1352. In this story too, John V would not die too soon from a possible suicide caused by humiliation in 1391, so instead he would in fact live on until the early 15th century dying a natural death leaving behind a stabilized despite highly reduced empire, though to be realistic here his son Andronikos would also die suddenly in 1385 like in real history, therefore John V would like in real history also be succeeded by his other son Manuel II Palaiologos. The big question now would be if Byzantium being already so reduced in size would still continue to live in for a century or more, as well as if the Ottomans would return west once again, or if Serbia would eventually capture the remains of Byzantium again, though all of this would be a different story altogether.  

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (purple) and of the Ottomans (green), by 1389

           

And now we’ve come to the end of this chapter set in the 14th century, and to sum it all up the 14th century was indeed a very disappointing and even depressing time for the Byzantines with disaster and instability already becoming a normal part of life. The 14th century shows how far Byzantium has gone from being a rich world power, with an all-powerful emperor, advanced battle tactics, extravagant court life, and a bustling metropolis as its capital to a shadow of its former self with conflicts over the smallest issues, a disorganized army mostly made up mercenaries, a weak economy, divided society, defeat after defeat in battle, and emperors no longer as the master of the known world but reduced to beggars constantly asking for support from the now more powerful kingdoms of Western Europe. However, all empires do have their time to rise and become powerful and to decline and lose their dominance, and this was the case here as the 14th century was really the time for Byzantium to decline in its power and prestige allowing the kingdoms of Western Europe which were once disunited and weak to become the new powers. The 14th century too was time of many uncertainties which included of course the well-known plague of Black Death that not only affected Byzantium but the rest of Europe and the most the known world, as well as the sudden rise of a new power being the Ottomans from a small Turkish feudal state in Asia Minor to a dominant power in the Balkans able to cripple Byzantium, and wipe the Serbian and Bulgarian Empires off the map. On the other hand, the 14th century also shows that it was a miracle that Byzantium not only came back to the picture back in 1261 when it was thought to have been lost forever when the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople back in 1204, but that Byzantium made it to 1,000 years of existence here, and more so that Byzantium survived the turbulent 14th century as well as the beginning of the Ottoman expansion into Thrace making it into the 15th century. Of course with all the disasters and tragedies the remains of the once powerful Byzantine Empire went through in the 14th century, it would already look like its end would be inevitable, however there could still be some solutions that could save the dying Byzantium and perhaps keep it alive for much longer and others would think that maybe the right reforms, wise spending, or diplomacy could save Byzantium here, I would say it would be quite an unpopular choice which would be foreign intervention and a takeover by a very similar power like Serbia taking over Byzantium that could save it, and it is for this reason why I chose the what if of Dusan’s Serbian Empire to take over Byzantium in order to save it. Another possible what if story in the 14th century that could result in saving the ruined Byzantium from its decay would be if Andronikos III Palaiologos lived much longer rather than dying in 1341 in which his death resulted in a very much devastating civil war at the worst time possible, however I would think that if Andronikos III lived much longer, maybe things would eventually not be so bright for Byzantium anymore as no matter how much success he brought, Andronikos III may not be able be powerful enough to maintain it for long due to the rise of Serbia and the Ottomans. Andronikos III’s reign too is generally praised for being one of the last bright spots in Byzantine history only because it ended so abruptly with his sudden death.

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Dusan’s Serbian Empire ball

It is then for this reason why I chose the alternate history topic for this chapter to be something to do with a more powerful foreign power taking over Byzantium not to conquer and destroy it but to restore it and save it from decay, and in this case, it was Stefan IV Dusan’s Serbian Empire. Dusan true enough did have the intention to capture Constantinople and possibly replace the dying Byzantine Empire as a Serbian power, however in real history this never came to happen due to Dusan’s alliance with Venice never coming into full force and his sudden death in 1355, therefore we would not really know if his intention was to conquer Byzantium to save it or wipe it off the map. Though Dusan’s true intention may remain unknown, I would rather think he would have the intention to conquer Byzantium to restore it and save it from decay as true enough Dusan did admire Byzantine culture and politics by making reforms as well as a code of laws for Serbia based on how things were done in Byzantium before it fell apart, while he also invested a lot in the arts by building churches and monasteries in Serbia with impressive frescos all based on the art and architecture of Byzantium, therefore this could mean that Dusan really wanted to revive Byzantium’s imperial power as well as arts and culture scene. If Dusan’s intentions to revive Byzantium would prove to be true, however it will still be disappointing as his death came to soon which means that even though he took over the Byzantine Empire, his death would lead Byzantium to be independent again, but despite Dusan’s quick rule over Byzantium there would be one major change that would totally alter the course of history which is that the Ottoman threat would no longer be existent, therefore both Byzantium and Serbia as well as Bulgaria would continue to survive.

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Statue of Emperor Dusan in Serbia

Now, if Dusan were to take over Byzantium and would manage to expel the Ottomans from Thrace before their expansion into the Balkans could begin, this would totally change everything by making the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans never happen as in reality the Ottomans did eventually and not too long after they became the master of the Balkans and in 1453 captured Constantinople ending the Byzantine Empire. Of course, these events such as Dusan’s conquest of Constantinople never came to happen therefore being all speculation, though even if Dusan never lived to see his dream of capturing Constantinople, he would at least leave behind the great legacy of elevating Serbia to the dominant power of the region from what was not too long ago just a small kingdom in the Balkans, thus he would be remembered as “Dusan the Mighty” that in the 19th century Dusan’s legacy would be a battle cry in the national awakening of Serbia that would happen by then as it was under Dusan when Serbia was at a time of glory with an empire that would cover most of the Balkans. Although at the same time, Dusan’s possible conquest of the dying Byzantine Empire would just remain one of the many what ifs of a foreign power taking over Byzantium, but surprisingly it would be a very interesting what if, and it for this reason why I chose to make this the main topic of this chapter, as after all Dusan remains to be one of medieval history’s most underrated great rulers. Now back to the Byzantine story of the 14th century, despite all their defeats and troubles they went through including all the devastating civil wars and Black Death, they at least managed to survive it and, in a way, still recover but even though they did, the 14th century was really the beginning of Byzantium’s end. The major characters in this chapter then from Michael VIII Palaiologos, to Andronikos II, Andronikos III, John Kantakouzenos, Anna of Savoy, John V, the first Ottoman sultans Osman and Orhan, and the Serbian emperor Dusan would be the people to introduce Byzantium’s final act, which will be the story for the next chapter and the finale of this series. After all, since this chapter was in a more unknown and hardly talked about time in Byzantine history, it was more or less just a teaser for the next one which would be the grand finale as this chapter had introduced the Palaiologos Dynasty which would be Byzantium’s last ruling dynasty as well as the Ottoman Turks that had gone from a small group of people at the Byzantium’s border in Asia Minor to become the most imminent threat to Byzantium’s existence by the end of the 14th century, as in the next chapter both the Palaiologos Dynasty and the Ottomans will return for the final act of the history of Byzantium. This series’ next and final chapter will no longer cover a what if of a foreign power taking over Byzantium like the previous one where it was Bulgaria and here Serbia, but instead the well-known event in world history of the Fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire itself to the Ottomans on May 29 of 1453 where the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, the grandson of John V makes a heroic last stand defending the city as the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II lays siege to it for 2 months with a massive army and the newest weapon of the era being cannons. The what if for the next chapter would be if Constantine XI would at first surrender Constantinople to Mehmed II but in the meantime would plan a counter-attack to recover Constantinople from the Ottomans that would come in the form of a massive Crusade with armies from across Europe culminating in an epic battle between the Ottomans and the many different armies and rulers of Europe now aware of the ever-expanding Ottomans. Well, this is all for chapter XI, the second to last chapter of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler, see you all next time for our grand finale… thank you for your time!     

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter V- Emperor Artavasdos, the Unlikely Hero of the 8th 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 century AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses. Also keep in mind that this story has some content that may be disturbing to some readers.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IV- 7th century

“Icon comes from the Greek word “eikon”, which means “images”, but in the Greek-speaking Roman world, before the advent of Christianity, eikon was usually used to describe portraits of humans.” -Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (2012)

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Welcome to the 5th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter IV of this series, I went over the turbulent 7th century which saw the end of the early era of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire or Late Roman era and the beginning of its Dark Ages together with the sudden expansion of an unexpected empire, the Arab Caliphates, as well as the turbulent reign of the autocratic emperor Constans II (641-668). The 7th century was a major turning point for the Byzantines as here they had lost more than half of their imperial territories first to their long-time enemy, the Sassanid Persian Empire which the Byzantines managed to defeat but just shortly after it, the over exhausted Byzantines were to face the rise of an unexpected enemy from the south, the Arabs who would stop at nothing to conquer in the name of Islam, which for the Byzantines could have been their end. The Byzantine Empire still at least managed to survive the expansion of the Arabs but it had cost them a lot as a large portion of their imperial territories, most importantly the rich provinces of Egypt and Syria were forever lost to the Arabs while the Sassanid Empire on the other hand had completely fallen to the rule of the rising Arab Caliphate by the mid-7th century. It was in reign of Emperor Constans II when things began to totally change for the Byzantines, first in terms of territory as with a great loss of it, the Byzantines had to adapt to these changes by increasing military presence in order to check the expansion of the Arabs, thus leading to a reconstruction of the empire’s administrative system that included the creation of smaller military-controlled provinces known as Themes in Asia Minor (Turkey), which would become the empire’s new heartland. On the other hand, the 7th century had also seen the major shift of Byzantium in terms of language and culture from Latin to Greek, though despite this drastic shift from Latin to Greek, the Byzantine Empire still and would always remain the Roman Empire continued with its emperors still called “Emperor of the Romans”. In the previous story, I went with the possible what if scenario of Constans II actually relocating the Byzantine Empire’s capital to Syracuse in Sicily which he did in fact plan to do seeing that Constantinople was far too dangerous, and also if he survived the assassination attempt on him in 668 and living long enough to permanently divide Byzantium in half so that it would be much easier to protect and preserve for much longer. The previous story’s main topic on Constans II moving the capital to the west and dividing the empire in 2 parts between his sons with one based in Constantinople and the other one in Syracuse could have actually benefited the empire a lot, as having an emperor in the west could help restore Byzantine rule in Italy which by then had already been slipping away to the rising power of the Lombards, but also having the capital there could ensure the Byzantine reconquest of Egypt and North Africa from the Arabs. However, since the stories in this alternate history series are not continuous with each other, this story will go with the course of events in real history, therefore Constans II did die in 668 assassinated in his bath and his plan to move the capital west to Sicily never came to happen and from 674 to 678, Constantinople would be put under siege by the Arabs with Constans not being around to come to the aid of his son, the new emperor Constantine IV like what happened in the previous chapter, although the Byzantines happened to win this war in reality and weaken the Arabs for a time at least. What will continue though from the previous chapter will be the new “dystopian” condition the Byzantine Empire is at from being a world power like it was in the 6th century to now having to fight on the defensive for its survival against the endless rapid expansion of the Arabs where its people are now having to live in constant fear, which is why this dystopian-like period for Byzantium would be known as the “Byzantine Dark Ages” going on for over 2 centuries until the Byzantines would turn the tide of war against the Arabs from the defensive to the offensive. This new “Byzantine Dystopian” style for this alternate history series had started in the previous chapter as the Byzantine Dark Ages had begun and will continue on to this chapter where things will go at first from bad to worse until things will slowly get better again, and as the dystopian Byzantine world from the previous story will continue to this one- despite the alternate history outcome from last time not continuing here- a lot of the elements of the dystopian Byzantine world will return here including the political instability and usurpers, emperors with a dictatorial style of ruling, people resisting against the rule of the emperor to change society, an empire in a dangerous situation, constant war and economic crisis, the new dystopian-like Thematic System, and unimaginable new technology like the superweapon Greek Fire. This story will begin with a background on the real history of Byzantium in the late 7th century briefly covering the reigns of Constantine IV (668-685) and his son Justinian II (685-695), followed by a 22-year period of anarchy (695-717) which had seen a change of emperor 7 times and with all this instability, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate which had been weakened by the Byzantine victory of 678 would once again come back with a vengeance taking over Byzantine lands including Carthage ending Byzantine rule in North Africa once and for all. The year 717 then would be a very crucial moment as Byzantium which after 22 years of instability would face another siege on their capital, Constantinople by the Arabs but at the end, the Byzantines under their new emperor Leo III the Isaurian would win once more and slowly turn the tide of war against the Arabs. The siege of 717 would then be remembered as the “Battle for the Fate of Europe”- more than the Battle of Tours in 732 was- as if things went in favor of the Arabs, then the Byzantine Empire could have ended right at this moment, thus this would allow the Arabs to continue expanding deep into Europe, and now if not for the Byzantine victory here, most of Europe would have already fallen under Islamic rule and history as you know it would be totally different. It was then here in this battle where the Byzantine Empire and more particularly Constantinople would best be remembered as the wall that had protected Europe from the advance of Islam, in which Byzantium will prove to do just that many more times. This story will not yet end here and its what if scenario will also not be if the Byzantines lost and the Arabs won and how Europe would be different because of this, NO, instead it would continue further on into the reign of Leo III (717-741), the founder of the Isaurian Dynasty which shows an even more dystopian side to the history of the Byzantine Dark Ages mainly due to his anti-icon policies known as Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons (painted human images) that will shake and split the empire’s population and plant the seeds for its permanent split with the Western world or simply the “Great Schism”. This event in Byzantine history is one of its oddest in their 1,100-year history as the Byzantines being Orthodox Christians would surely be known to highly value their religious icons, but true enough there was a time when icons were outlawed as the emperor Leo III saw it as sinful therefore blaming all the empire’s setbacks against the Arabs on the overly excessive use and veneration of them. Now when it comes to doing a kind of dystopian style story set in the Byzantine Empire, the 8th century is a perfect time as like in all dystopian stories where a kind of autocratic government in charge outlaws something creating massive unrest and resistance, here in Byzantium the same can be said here when the imperial government had outlawed religious icons which therefore outraged half of the empire’s population while the other half supported it. This time in Byzantine history thus shows that an issue that may seem so small which here is about the use of icons could cause so much tension not only among the people of the empire but in the unity of the entire Christian Church as well. A little-known fact too is that something as small the banning of the use of icons by Emperor Leo III was a total major turning point in medieval history which would start the permanent schism between the Church of the east (Orthodox) and Church of the west (Catholic) and for the Byzantines, this was another period of great unrest despite having come out of a previous one, and once again another episode in the endless cancer of religious schisms in Byzantine history. The 7th century then was a major turning point as the Byzantines would for the first time face the expansion of the Arabs now having to fight on the defensive, while the 8th century where this chapter is set in features Byzantium at its lowest point, which would be another major turning point as it is here mainly due to Iconoclasm when the permanent schism both politically and culturally between Byzantium and Western Europe would start growing, turning into something like a centuries long “Cold War”. The period of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire would not only be during Leo III’s reign, but would go on for over a century which totally deepened its divide with the Latin Catholic west, although this growing divide with the west could have been reversed if Iconoclasm could have ended earlier, and it surely did almost happen shortly after Leo III’s death in the year 742 when the Armenian Artavasdos, a loyal general of Leo III who helped him come to power in 717, who was however secretly against the Iconoclast policy usurped the throne from Leo III’s son Constantine V for the sake of ending Iconoclasm and restoring the use of icons, although in real history, the rebellion of the usurping emperor Artavasdos failed while the even more extremist Iconoclast Constantine V succeeded and would rule the empire for 3 more decades. Now the big question this story will tackle in its climax is that if Artavasdos’ rebellion succeeded thus restoring the use of icons much earlier on, would this lessen the chances for the permanent schism between Byzantium and the west and preserve Church unity?    

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

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The Byzantine Empire in this story’s setting, 717 (purple)
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Map of the expansion of the Islamic Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates (622-750)

For this article, I am working in collaboration with Mario Puyat (follow him on Instagram @mariopuyatrewreplays and on Twitter @mario_puyat), a friend of mine who in this case helped me put this story together, thus making this story the second one in this series to be done in collaboration with someone (the last one being chapter III). In my previous special edition article wherein I interviewed 5 of my friends by having them react to quotes said by Byzantine era people, Mario happened to be one of these 5, and now he is returning for this article to give his take on Byzantine history despite not being so completely familiar with it. To give a quick background on Mario, he is a 22-year-old film student who plans to direct films and write movie scripts, while at the same time he is also a pop culture enthusiast being a big fan of the Star Wars, Marvel, and DC universes as well as of young adult dystopian stories, in which this story’s genre will somewhat be just that, except not so much the young adult type. On the other hand, when getting to know me, Mario had developed quite an interest in Byzantium as well and not to mention, he previously helped me in making my Lego Byzantine epics for my channel No Budget Films as a co-producer, as well as being a voice actor for a number of Lego Byzantine characters in my films, most notably the leading character Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos from the 2020 Lego 13th century Byzantine epic War of the Sicilian Vespers. Though neither a historian nor a passionate Byzantine history enthusiast, Mario has a passion for writing stories, which is why I chose him to have a part in the creation of a chapter for this series, and this one here is the perfect one for someone like him to have a part in as this one I would say is something not so entirely Byzantine in the sense of being stuck in the past, but rather something more relatable to modern readers and pop culture enthusiasts, as it has quite a modern take on it being a dystopian style story with a bit of family drama, intimate romance, and lots of blood and gore. In this 12-part series, I on the other hand wanted to experiment as well by having someone who isn’t so entirely familiar with Byzantium’s take on Byzantine history as after all, I do want to make the rich and fascinating history of Byzantium more accessible to a wider variety of people and not only limited to scholars and historians, and part of this means experimenting with the history of Byzantium by making some kind of fan fiction out of it, which is exactly what I’m doing here. Though most of this story is basically me writing it, Mario’s part comes in when creating the personalities and actions of this story’s characters to fill in the blanks in parts where history does not record them such as these characters’ personalities and intentions, so therefore despite these characters being real ones, they had to be embellished a lot here for the sake of creating a full story considering that sources on the happenings of the 8th century in Byzantium are very limited. When creating this story, I also did some extensive research using more scholarly but fun sources online such as the Byzantine history Youtube channels Kings and Generals, Eastern Roman History, and Thersites the Historian, as well as no other than the highly comprehensive History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson.

Now when it comes to the dystopian genre of stories, many would immediately think of only modern ones most notably George Orwell’s 1984– which I was also a great fan of and made fan fictions of it too for my Youtube channel- or more recent novels like the Hunger Games and Divergent series, but as it turns out, the dystopian genre is not only limited to a modern or futuristic world setting, but can also go as far back as to the medieval era Byzantine Empire, especially if you are able to look closely into its history and use all your creativity. When it comes to the entire 1,100-year history of Byzantium from the 4th to 15th centuries, it is the 8th century’s story in which this article will be set in that I am least fascinated with due to the fact that it had more internal than external struggles, and not so much too was documented about this period which is therefore why it is also called the “Byzantine Dark Ages”, but when looking deeper into the story of this era, especially with the lack of information, it is the perfect time in Byzantine history to create a highly experimental fan fiction, which is basically this story here with Byzantium under the Isaurian Dynasty. Of course, to set the stage for this story, the same thing will go as in the previous stories of this series beginning off with a historical background to it which will discuss the events that led to the dystopian setting of Leo III’s Byzantium beginning where the previous chapter left off as we leave the early Byzantine era and enter the middle part of it, then giving a background to the leading characters such as the madman emperor Justinian II and afterwards Leo III the Isaurian who originally was Konon, a Syrian shepherd of Isaurian origins with an Eastern influenced mind together with the Armenian Artavasdos as well who helped him come to power, then we proceed to the beginning of Leo III’s reign with the epic battle of the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople where the Byzantines again come out victorious. The dystopian genre of the story then comes in at the part on Leo III’s reign (717-741) especially when the ban on icons is imposed and how the people of empire would react to it.

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Coin of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741), author of Byzantine Iconoclasm

Basically, a dystopian story features the world under the rule of a totalitarian government which envisions a bright future, but really everything in society just goes wrong and the 8th century Byzantine Empire of Leo III is no exception to this kind of setting. As usual in dystopian stories where some kind of freedom to do something is banned by the government, here in this story it would be exactly the same case as in real history where the use of religious icons were banned, therefore icons were confiscated from anyone and everyone that owned them and either destroyed or burned, and again like most dystopian stories which feature a kind of dictator that runs the totalitarian government just like Big Brother in 1984, for this story, the totalitarian state supreme leader character would be Emperor Leo III, the author of the Iconoclast movement and after his death in 741, his son the even more Iconoclast extremist or simply the “Icon of Iconoclasm” Constantine V, wherein the climax of the story takes place in. Most dystopian epic stories too feature a protagonist who is destined to rise up and overthrow the system, and for this story, it will be the historical figure the Armenian-Byzantine general Artavasdos who in reality from 742 to 743 usurped the throne from Constantine V in the name of restoring the use of religious icons. This story then will have the very much unknown Byzantine emperor Artavasdos as its lead character who was in fact the person that helped Leo III come to power, and later as Leo III’s right-hand-man was married to Leo III’s daughter Anna which is surely what also gave him a claim to the throne in 742. Now many, even those who are very familiar with Byzantium may not really know much about this usurper Artavasdos or if they do, they would just remember him as an unsuccessful usurper who never had anything important to do with real history, but when getting to know him and his plans more, you would definitely find out that he could have in fact played a crucial role in Byzantine history by reversing the repressive movement of Iconoclasm before it would grow even stronger if he was able to survive and not be defeated and blinded by Constantine V in 743. As the lead character of this story, the 55-year-old Artavasdos in 742 would be a reluctant hero who is secretly against Leo III’s Iconoclast policy but is afraid to show it as he was also loyal to his father-in-law Leo III who he helped come to power in 717, but following Leo III’s death, he would have to rise up for the good of Byzantium or at least for those who value icons and their beliefs, also because he had some personal reasons to rebel which was mainly his envy and hatred for Leo III’s son Constantine V who he felt betrayed by as Artavasdos before Constantine V’s birth was promised the throne by Leo III. For this story too, there will however be no fictional character made up for it, instead with the help of Mario, I will somewhat fictionalize these historical characters in terms of personality as history true enough does not describe what these characters’ personalities were like. The 3 leading characters who’s personalities and backstories will be created in a fictionalized way for this story will include the general and soon-to-be emperor Artavasdos who in Mario’s take in creating the story would be the emperor’s loyal general but is deeply troubled by the emperor (Leo III) having a son; Constantine V who is Leo III’s son and heir being something like a smart but somewhat odd and insane, immature, arrogant, decadent, and bloodthirsty young ruler with an addiction to pleasure who believes he is always right and is a blind believer of everything his father says most especially Iconoclasm making him someone more likely to hate than like; and lastly Leo III’s daughter Anna who is Constantine V’s older sister and Artavasdos’ wife who here for this story would be an intellectual and artistic woman who behind her father’s and brother’s back is the leader of the resistance against Iconoclasm who in personality is nice and calm but becomes cruel and ambitious in order to protect the interests of her family, as she is also abused by her brother who had envied her too. On the other hand, the much better-known emperor Leo III or Konon too will play a major role here in the story’s first two-thirds and although contemporary historians who wrote about him, most notably Theophanes the Confessor (758-817) who strongly opposed Iconoclasm portrays him as a total villain, here in this story Leo III’s portrayal would be more unbiased as both the talented and cunning savior emperor saving Byzantium from its ultimate extinction at the hands of the Arabs and restoring stability following the 22-year period of Anarchy despite being of low birth, but also would later on be a villainous ruler for his declaration of the banning of icons plainly for superstitious reasons which resulted in thousands of valuable icons destroyed and the human rights of those who venerate and create them violated, whereas some even died for the sake of freely venerating icons. The big twist here will be on Artavasdos who for the most part would be Leo III’s right-hand-man strongly enforcing Iconoclasm in the empire with Leo III still alive, though after the death of Leo, he has a big shift in character when betraying Constantine V in 742, suddenly becoming a strong fighter against imperial Iconoclasm and a symbol for those who believed in the icons, even if his main reason to usurp power was his personal hatred for Constantine V. This story too will focus more deeply on the issues in the Byzantine Empire’s Dark Ages in the 8th century showing how Byzantium is no longer like it was in the Golden Age of Justinian I in the 6th century (as seen in chapter III), most especially with the empire at its lowest point of power and the internal war against icons tearing the empire apart whereas Iconoclasm would be popular with many most especially soldiers and those from the eastern provinces while many, most especially those in the western provinces and women strongly opposed it. Therefore, this story will not focus too much on the external wars of Byzantium in which they also had a lot of at this time not only against the Arabs but against a new enemy too being the Bulgars in the north; instead, it would be something more on the society of Byzantium and of course the constant burden of religious debates that Byzantium became famous for. Also keep in mind that this story will have a lot of mature content such as blood and gore, disturbing moments, language, nudity to a certain extent, and a lot more.

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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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A Renaissance era depiction of Byzantine Iconoclasm (breaking of religious icons)
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Guide to the Isaurian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 717-802; these characters will play an important role in this story; character illustrations and layout by myself

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

Byzantine History for Everyday People- Reactions to Quotes from Byzantium

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

The Sieges of Constantinople

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

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Related Videos to this era:

The 22-Year-Anarchy (Eastern Roman History)

The Arab Siege of Constantinople, 717-718 (Kings and Generals)

The Byzantine Empire’s Themes and Thematic Army (Kings and Generals)


The Leading Characters:

Leo III the Isaurian (aka. Konon)- Byzantine emperor (717-741)

Artavasdos- Leo III’s imperial partner and Byzantine general, Strategos of the Armeniac Theme

Anna- Wife of Artavasdos, daughter of Leo III, leader of the resistance against Iconoclasm

Constantine V Kopronymos- Son and successor of Leo III

Anastasios- Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople

Niketas- Byzantine general, son of Artavasdos and Anna

Nikephoros- Son of Artavasdos and Anna

Tzitzak- Khazar wife of Constantine V

Maria- Byzantine empress, wife of Leo III, mother of Anna and Constantine V

Eutychius- The last Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna

(Credits to Ediacar, Amelianvs, Faisal-Hashemi, Krzysztof Pyzik, Androklos, and Chrysa Sakel for their art on this era which are featured here.)

Funko pop versions of the 3 leading characters of the story created by myself- Artavasdos, Anna, and Constantine V:


The Background- The Themes, Justinian II and the 22-Year Anarchy (695-717)         

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Since the 630s, the Byzantine Empire had lost a great amount of territory, most notably the rich provinces of the Levant (Syria and Palestine) to the sudden expansion of a new enemy, the Arab Rashidun Caliphate or simply the Islamic Empire from the deserts of Arabia in the south. The Byzantines never expected the people from the deserts of Arabia to be such a threat until the unexpected happened for Byzantium when the people of Arabia all united under the new faith of Islam, and their unity combined with their ability to travel across deserts with such great speed turned the Arabs from scattered tribes in the desert to a world power in an instant. In only about 20 years since the birth of Islam, the Arabs had now controlled much of the Middle East as well as Egypt which they had conquered from the Byzantine Empire and by 651, the Arabs had completely conquered all of Persia destroying the Byzantine Empire’s traditional mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire, thus the Arab Caliphate had now replaced the Sassanids as Byzantium’s eastern mortal enemy.

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Flag of the Rashidun Caliphate, the 1st Islamic Empire

Meanwhile, as the Byzantines lost most of their eastern provinces mainly Egypt and Syria, Asia Minor became its new heartland while the Taurus Mountains in Eastern Asia Minor would be its natural barrier against the expansion of the Arabs, although the Arabs were creative that when knowing they were unable to cross the Taurus Mountains into the Byzantine heartland, they soon enough began constructing their own navy after taking the ports of Syria and from there, they would begin attacking Byzantium by sea. By the 7th century, Byzantine territory had drastically shrunk not only because of the expansion of the Arabs but with the loss of almost the entire Balkans (Southeast Europe) to a number of external enemies mainly the Slavs, and this was a devastating loss as the Balkans played a major role as the recruitment center for soldiers in the Byzantine army. In the mid-7th century, the Byzantines still at least had control over half of Italy as the other half fell to a new enemy being the Lombards, and some of Byzantine North Africa too fell to the Arabs; though these remote parts of the empire being Italy and North Africa were not under the direct rule of the emperor but of a semi-autonomous governor known as the Exarch who answered directly to the emperor and there were two of them controlling their own Exarchates, the two being the Exarchate of Ravenna that controlled Byzantine Italy from Ravenna and the Exarchate of Africa that controlled North Africa from Carthage. Now with the Byzantine Empire so heavily reduced in size and population and the new heartland now being Asia Minor, the emperor Constans II (r. 641-668) saw the need to reorganize the empire’s administrative and military structure more particularly in Asia Minor, thus leading to the creation of the Thematic System or Themes between 659 and 661, which were to be smaller military-controlled districts named after their respective armies that controlled them.

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

Basically, in these new shrunken provinces or Themes, each of them had a mobile army assigned to it while recruitment was done locally per Theme to increase the number of soldiers, while all young men too living in these Themes were encouraged to join the army in exchange for land given to them, to also ensure their full loyalty to the empire. Each of these Themes were under a general called a Strategos who was both the top commander of the Theme’s army and its provincial governor, and each of the Themes was to provide both soldiers and resources for the empire. The main purpose though for the Themes was more in terms of military matters as when the eastern border would be under attack, the army stationed in that Theme near there would immediately come to the rescue of the border, while on the other hand when another part of the empire would be under attack, the emperor could simply have another Theme’s army come over to that part, which therefore was a smarter defence method rather than how things were before when an entire army had to march from one end of the empire to the other when a war broke out. The first 5 Themes created under Constans II were all in Asia Minor and these were the Anatolic (Anatolikon) Theme found in Central Asia Minor, the Armeniac (Armeniakon) Theme which was the largest of the Themes found in Eastern Asia Minor next to the border with the Arab world, the Thracesian (Thrakesion) Theme in the western coast of Asia Minor, the Opsikion Theme in Northwest Asia Minor right across the sea from Constantinople which consisted of the empire’s most elite army which however will soon enough prove to be the most troublesome of the armies later on, and lastly was the Karabasian (Kibyrrhaioton) Theme in the southern coast of Asia Minor which was basically the one controlled by the navy. While the Themes were being created, the Arab Caliphate entered its first civil war or the First Fitnah (656-661) which gave the Byzantines time to recover but as the civil war ended 661, the Arab Rashidun Caliphate being destroyed was replaced by the new Umayyad Caliphate under Caliph Muawiyah I who made the Caliphate now based in Damascus in Syria into a more organized state and as the first Umayyad caliph or emperor, he was fully intent in taking over Constantinople. Knowing that Constantinople was too dangerous in location, Constans II in 662 left it for good later finding himself in Sicily where he planned to make the city of Syracuse there as his new capital as it was also part of his plan to launch the Byzantine reconquest of Egypt and restore Byzantine imperial presence in the west but in 668, he was assassinated in his bath by a servant using a soap dish, thus his plan to both relocate the capital west and take back Egypt failed.          

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II
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Cavalry of the Arab Rashidun Caliphate, 7th century
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Map of the first original 5 Themes of Asia Minor created under Constans II
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Damascus, capital of the Umayyad Caliphate beginning 661

Following the death of Constans II in 668, Caliph Muawiyah I using his fleet took over some of the Byzantine ports of Asia Minor launching the first Arab Siege of Constantinople in 674, although this was not really a major attack but a series of intermittent skirmishes on Constantinople by the Arab army and fleet and up until 677, the siege was not coming into any results until the young emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-685), the son of Constans II counter-attacked the Arab fleet head-on using the secret superweapon Greek Fire for the first time totally obliterating the Arab fleet and army.

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

In 678, the Arabs fled Constantinople and the Byzantines, thanks to Greek Fire emerged victorious while Muawiyah later signed a truce with the Byzantines agreeing to pay them annual tribute and return to them the islands and ports they previously captured from them. Following the death of Caliph Muawiyah in 680, the Arab world again fell into civil war which here was the Second Fitnah going on for the next 12 years, thus giving Byzantium some relief and time to recover after all the damage the Arabs had inflicted on them. Meanwhile, despite Byzantium for now saved from the threat of the Arabs, another new enemy would come for them from the north which was that of the Nomadic Bulgars from the Steppes near the Volga River in today’s Russia as when losing a war to the Nomadic Khazar people of the area, the Bulgars were forced to migrate south to lands they could settle in, and the only available land for them was Byzantine Thrace (Southeast Europe). Leading the migration of the Bulgar hordes into the Balkans in 680 was their ruler or Khan Asparukh, and with the eastern borders of Byzantium secured, considering the Arabs were again in conflict with each other, Emperor Constantine IV summoned the armies of all the 5 Themes to confront the Bulgars in battle at the empire’s northern border, the Danube Delta, where the Bulgar army led by Asparukh had already assembled at.

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Khan Asparukh, First ruler of the Bulgarian Empire (r. 681-701)

After assembling the Byzantine army at the Danube Delta, Constantine IV had to rush back to Constantinople after falling ill, although he also had more important matters to attend to, which here was the 6th Church Council wherein at the end, he succeeded at declaring the religious controversy of Monothelitism which his father stood for as a heresy and reaffirming the Orthodox belief in the natures of Christ. Meanwhile with the emperor not present in battle, the Byzantine army panicked and were thus defeated by the Bulgars here at the Battle of Ongal in 680, and as a result Constantine IV in 681 had to cede Northern Thrace to Asparukh acknowledging the birth of the Bulgarian state there which would therefore become Bulgaria, and it is true enough where today’s Bulgaria is too. From here on, the Bulgarian state was born and there to stay which would later be both a valuable ally and brutal enemy to the Byzantines at different times as you will see later, and Constantine IV despite losing Northern Thrace to the Bulgars still remained popular as at quite a young age he solved a difficult religious controversy and successfully defended Constantinople from the Arabs earlier on, while at this time he would also create the new Theme of Thrace to further protect Constantinople from the nearby Bulgars that were just to the north. In 685, Constantine IV died at only 33 from dysentery later becoming an Orthodox saint for his achievement in solving the Monothelite Controversy, and following his death he was succeeded by his 16-year-old son Justinian II (born 669) who as the new emperor was very ambitious wanting to live up to the emperor he was named after, Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), Byzantium’s most influential ruler so far, although Justinian II did not have what Justinian I had being the vast amount of wealth to carry out such ambitious conquests and building projects considering that the Byzantium of Justinian II was weakened and exhausted compared to the powerful Byzantium Justinian I inherited back in 527.

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Emperor Justinian II in his 1st reign (685-695), son of Constantine IV

It also happened here in 685 over in Byzantine Syria at the town of Germanikeia (today’s Kahramanmaras, Turkey) where a boy named Konon who would later be emperor was born to a simple family of Syrian and Isaurian origins as an only child and from a young age, Konon would develop the ability to speak the Arabic language together with his native Greek as his name suggests, but at the same time he could understand the culture and mind of the Arabs due to the fact that living close to the border of the Arab Caliphate, he was exposed to Arab people who came to his town to trade and from them, he learned everything about their culture. The one thing about the beliefs of the Arabs that intrigued Konon most was how they disapproved worshiping God through icons or the form of a human image as it was strictly forbidden for the Arabs as Muslims to worship God that way considering it as idolatry and as a Christian, Konon thought this was true enough the right way to worship God. Another factor that had influenced Konon’s stance against icons too which will be shown in his time as emperor later on was that coming from the east, most people there were Monophysite Christians, those who believed Jesus Christ was fully divine and not human, therefore as God it was not right to have an image of him, unlike the Orthodox Christians of the western parts like Constantinople who worshiped Christ as God with images. On the other hand in the Armeniac Theme in 687, the person who will later help Konon come to power, Artavasdos was born, although history does not record his date and place of birth and family background except that he was a Byzantine-Armenian known as Artavazd in Armenian with “Artavasdos” as his name’s Greek translation, so for this story it will just be made up that he was born in the Armeniac Theme (Northeast Asia Minor) considering he was an Armenian and would be 2 years younger than Konon, and for this story Artavasdos is someone from a prominent military family.

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Greek Fire used against an Arab ship at the 674-678 Siege of Constantinople
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The coming of the Bulgars, Khan Asparukh and his Bulgar hordes arrive in Byzantine Thrace, 680

Meanwhile back to Justinian II, he came to power with a great amount of luck as he was from the 5th generation of the unbroken Heraclian Dynasty founded by his great-great-grandfather Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), showing here for the first time in Byzantine history, and in fact in all of Roman history that a dynasty ruled on for 5 generations in one straight hereditary line from father to son, but little did Justinian know he would be the last of his dynasty. The young emperor was deeply ambitious and a religious fanatic as well believing that it was his destiny to defeat the Arabs once and for all in the name of Christianity, and considering the Arabs were still in conflict with each other, Justinian II’s armies successfully attacked the Arabs in Armenia and Syria thus retaking some lands the Byzantines lost and with the Arabs defeated, the new Umayyad caliph here Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) in 688 agreed to pay tribute to Byzantium.

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Caliph Abd al-Malik of the Umayyad Caliphate (r. 685-705)

Afterwards, Justinian II focused his attention on the Balkans to deal with the Slavs and take back the lands Byzantium lost to them, wherein Justinian himself personally led his men in battle and at the end, he managed to succeed in defeating the Slavs while the Slavs that survived were forced to relocate to Asia Minor to repopulate it and provide more troops, as the previous wars against the Arabs there killed many. Justinian II would also put the Themes his grandfather Constans II created into full effect and this meant resettling people from across the empire into them in order to balance each Theme’s population, but another reason for him doing this was to limit people of the same race (e.g., Slavs) in one Theme as having too much of one race in a certain area would lead to rebellion, and the Slavs being seen as a rebellious people by Justinian II were moved to Asia Minor, while the Mardaites who were mostly Monosphysite Christians and seen as troublemakers as well living in Southern and Eastern Asia Minor were relocated by Justinian II to the Balkans, and this would be when Konon and his family were relocated from Byzantine Syria to Thrace, though it is not clear when this happened, but for this story’s case it would be in 695 before Justinian II was deposed. Now before Justinian II was deposed, as a fanatically religious ruler, he was the first emperor to put the image of Christ in the coins used around the empire, and part of his imperial policy too was to crack down on the last remnants of Pagan practices, meaning putting a ban on playing games such as Dice and Tabula in public as he saw it as Pagan in origins, thus this started making him extremely unpopular.

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Coin of Emperor Justinian II (left) with the image of Christ on the obverse (left)

Justinian II too was not only unpopular for being puritanical in his policies, but strongly unpopular with the rich as he increased taxes on them as well as having rich tax evaders imprisoned and tortured and instead, he favored small landowners and farmers. In 692, the Second Fitnah had ended with Caliph Abd al-Malik victorious and the Umayyad Dynasty still ruling the Caliphate, though the caliph was extremely outraged seeing Byzantine coins with Christ’s image on them as again the Arabs being Muslims strongly opposed the idea of seeing God as a human so in retaliation against Justinian II, Abd al-Malik had Islamic art put on the papyrus scrolls the Byzantines imported from Arab Egypt and due to this as well as the Arabs imitating Byzantine art by putting mosaics in their capital Damascus further enraged Justinian II making him declare war on the Arabs. The peace between the Umayyad Caliphate and the Byzantines then ended right here in 692 when both forces confronted each other at the Battle of Sebastopolis in Southern Asia Minor where the Slavic warriors Justinian had resettled into Asia Minor for the first time fought in the Byzantine army but at the middle of the battle, the 20,000 Slavs for unclear reasons- although most possibly because they were never loyal to Byzantium and were forced to fight for them- defected to the Arabs and at the end, the Byzantines suffered a heavy defeat. As a result of this defeat, Justinian II had the man responsible for it, the young leading Isaurian general Leontios the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme imprisoned, and it was also here when Justinian II would show how much of a madman he was when he had the families of the defected Slavic warriors in the Opsikion Theme massacred leaving no one alive not even the women and children according to the historian Theophanes the Confessor (758-817), who although portrays Justinian II as a madman, which is true for this story. Justinian II would later on become even more unpopular for his autocratic style of ruling which he inherited from both his father Constantine IV and grandfather Constans II as shown when he summoned a Church Council in 692 also known as the Quinisext Council, in which out of his own orders demanded that all Churches including the west which was basically the Church of Rome under the pope to use Eastern practices in their liturgy like the use of the Greek language, and this surely offended the pope making this one of the first steps that began the split of the Eastern and Western Churches.

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Justinian II’s Quinisext Council, 692

Another thing that would make Justinian II be labelled as a madman was how he used the taxes he brutally extracted from rich taxpayers to expand the Imperial Palace complex in Constantinople by expanding the garden and constructing a new dining hall as a way to imitate Justinian I’s ambitious construction projects, but in the process of this as Justinian II built a new fountain in the palace, a church had to be destroyed, which also turned the Church against him. In 695, Justinian II released Leontios from prison after 3 years making him the Strategos of the newly created Theme of Hellas (Western Greece), but this here would be the downfall of Justinian II as when Leontios was assigned to Hellas, the population there mostly being rich landowners rose up under him naming him emperor against Justinian II. When arriving in Constantinople with the army of the Hellas Theme, Leontios was then backed by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the people of the Blue faction of the chariot races mostly consisting of the aristocracy, wherein they all plotted to overthrow the emperor.

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Mutilation of Justinian II’s nose, 695

The plot was then successful and the ministers of Justinian II who were responsible for the brutal taxation of the aristocracy were executed while Justinian II himself was caught and brought to the newly proclaimed emperor Leontios, but rather than executing Justinian II, Leontios had his nose cut off, which here was a practice for deposing an emperor known as Rhinokopia, as having a single deformity such as missing a nose would make someone unfit for sitting on the imperial throne, as the emperor for Byzantines had to be seen as someone physically perfect. The 26-year-old Justinian II whose nose was mutilated was then loaded into a ship and sent over to the remote Byzantine colony of Cherson, a cold and desolate place north of the Black Sea in what is now the Crimea in Ukraine which was a dumping ground for political enemies in Byzantium, and the reason now why Leontios did not just execute Justinian II was because Leontios was loyal to Justinian’s late father Constantine IV who appointed him as the Anatolic Theme’s Strategos back in 682, therefore he wanted to honor his late friend by sparing his son, though this was not yet the end for Justinian II.

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Arab forces at the Battle of Sebastopolis, 692
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Slavic warriors, resettled into Asia Minor by Justinian II, defected to the Arabs in 692, art by Krzysztof Pyzik
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Diagram of Byzantine Constantinople’s Imperial District featuring the Hagia Sophia, Imperial Palace Complex, Hippodrome, and Polo Field

Watch this to learn more about Justinian II’s first reign, 685-695 (Eastern Roman History).

In 695, the 35-year-old Isaurian Leontios was emperor being the first ruler of the 22-year anarchy period, and to consolidate his rule as he was a usurper with no ties to the previous Heraclian Dynasty he overthrew by deposing Justinian II, he spared Justinian II’s family members such as his mother Anastasia the wife of the late Constantine IV, although Leontios despite being backed by the aristocracy and Blue faction was never that popular basically because he was a usurper with no legitimate claim to the throne, and an Isaurian in origins in which the Byzantines of Constantinople till this point still saw the Isaurians being the people of the mountains of Southern Asia Minor as still barbaric and primitive, even though Leontios was only Isaurian in blood and was not even born in the mountains of Isauria. As emperor, Leontios decided to avoid making offensive measures against the Arabs which Justinian II did, and instead chose to only fight defensive measures against them, though the caliph Abd Al-Malik saw this policy of Leontios as a sign of weakness thus using it to his advantage to launch a naval invasion on Byzantine Carthage in 697, the last piece of land Byzantium still held in North Africa. In response to the Arab invasion of Carthage, Leontios sent an army and the fleet of the Karabasian naval Theme under the command of the general John the Patrician to retake Carthage which happened to be successful at first until the Arab reinforcement fleet arrived in 698 defeating the Byzantines, thus Carthage here completely fell to the Arabs ending the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa. The surviving Byzantines together with John retreated to Crete where John was killed when the surviving soldiers mutinied replacing him with Apsimar, a Droungarios or 3rd in command of the Thematic Army who was of Germanic descent as his name suggests; the soldiers then named him as Emperor Tiberius III fearing Leontios would punish them for losing. The army under Tiberius III marched to Constantinople blockading it while in the city, another outbreak of the Plague of Justinian from the 6th century occurred and inside the city, the Green faction of the chariot races that never wanted Leontios in power anyway switched their support to Tiberius III opening the gates for him, thus Leontios was overthrown making Tiberius III the second ruler of this 22-year anarchy. Leontios then instead of being executed suffered the same fate as Justinian II who he overthrew 3 years earlier, and as Leontios’ nose was mutilated he was sent into monastery arrest in the capital. As the new emperor, Tiberius III was at least successful in resuming attacks against the Arabs in the east led by his brother Heraclius, and in repopulating Cyprus as well with Arab prisoners of war, but the one thing he failed to see was the rising threat of the exiled Justinian II returning. The one thing Tiberius III’s reign would best be known for was the end of Byzantine control over Africa with the complete loss of Carthage which had been under the Byzantines ever since the conquest of the Vandal Kingdom there in 534 by Emperor Justinian I’s general Belisarius, and at the turn of the 8th century, Byzantine rule over Africa was permanently lost as Tiberius III believed that taking back Carthage and keeping it under Byzantine control was too risky considering it was too far from Constantinople. From 698 onwards, Carthage would be under the rule of the Arabs and from here, the Arabs would continue to expand westwards joining forces with the native Moorish (Berber) people who they converted to Islam and from here, they would expand more later crossing the Strait of Gibraltar over to Spain believing it was the easier despite longer way to successfully reach and take over Constantinople.

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Byzantine era Carthage, capital of the Exarchate of Africa, completely lost to the Arabs in 698
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7th century Arab cavalry advance across the deserts of North Africa

Meanwhile, for the past 9 years (695-704), the slit-nosed Justinian II remained in exile in the cold and desolate city of Cherson along the freezing north shore of the Black Sea and here, Justinian II- for this story’s case- was put under house arrest and only allowed to walk strictly within the city walls once a day, though he made friends with a local abbot who he told his plans to, which was that of taking back the throne and having revenge on those who wronged him.

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Byzantine ruins of Cherson in the Crimea, Ukraine; exile place Justinian II, 695-704

The local authorities in Cherson soon began to know about Justinian’s true intentions and therefore planned to have him sent back to Constantinople to be tried and executed and so in 704, he escaped Cherson in the middle of the night fearing for his life, and he fled west across the strait to the mainland of Caucasian Russia which here was part of the land of the Khazars ruled by their khan Busir and when there, Justinian was received well by Busir who even married off his younger sister to Justinian, and when married she was renamed Theodora after the famous wife of Justinian I, again as an act of Justinian II imitating the man he was named after. Both Justinian and Theodora then lived happily in an old Roman mansion given to them along the Black Sea’s northern coast, as this area was once a Greek and Roman colony, though Busir was soon enough given a bribe by Tiberius III to betray and kill Justinian who was discovered to have fled there. However, Justinian soon enough knew of the plot so instead, he killed the men sent to kill him by strangling them with his own hands, and afterwards he fled southwest across the Black Sea to the new land of the Bulgars to seek their alliance, however leaving his wife behind. On the way to Bulgaria in 705, the ship Justinian was in got caught in a storm, though at least they all survived and arrived safely in Bulgaria, now ruled by Khan Tervel, the son of Asparukh who had died back in 700. Justinian II here was able to gain the assistance of Tervel and his Bulgar army in exchange for Justinian paying tribute to him as well as giving Tervel an honorary Byzantine title, and together they marched south to Constantinople and along the way in Thrace, Justinian and Tervel encountered the 20-year-old Syrian shepherd Konon, who with his family had been relocated by Justinian II there 10 years earlier. Konon here was someone who was willing to use every opportunity to get himself into a position of power, and the right opportunity came for him here when meeting Justinian II who was on his way to take back the throne, and here Konon thought of finding a way of getting into the imperial service as a soldier and spy by providing Justinian II and his army with sheep to eat.

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Arabic lamb dish, cooked by Konon for Justinian II

Justinian II here at his tent privately met the young Konon for dinner which Konon prepared himself- for this story’s case- and what was prepared was a lamb dish cooked in the Arabian style with lots of flavorful spices, which was a dish from Konon’s native Syria with some influences from the Arabs that had passed there, and here Justinian II was greatly impressed not only by Konon’s ability to cook such flavorful food but with how he could speak Arabic so fluently and with how much he knew the culture and way of thinking of the Arabs. Soon enough, Justinian II together with his Bulgar allies and Konon arrived outside the walls of Constantinople where they camped outside for 3 days as Justinian was denied entry since the people still despised him even after 10 years. After 3 days, Justinian with a few of his men were able to sneak into Constantinople in the middle of the night finding a way up through the 4th century aqueduct, and when inside the aqueduct Justinian and a few of his men including Konon climbed down through a building attached to the aqueduct.

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Aqueduct of Valens, Constantinople

The next day, the people were shocked to see the former emperor with his nose cut-off together with Bulgar soldiers walking through the city’s streets, while Tiberius III after just waking up fled across the Bosporus to the Asian side of Constantinople when hearing Justinian II returned. Now back in power, Justinian II honored his promise to Khan Tervel naming him a Caesar, which now was just an honorary title, while Tervel was the first foreign ruler to receive the title, and as Tervel and his army returned to Bulgaria, Justinian II at 36 was crowned again being the 3rd ruler of the anarchy period, and now known as Justinian II Rhinotmetos or “the slit-nosed” in Greek, using a replica of his nose made of gold to cover the cavity where his real nose once was, as a way to make it seem he was still in perfect shape.

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

In 706, Tiberius III over in the Asian side of the Bosporus was captured and brought to Justinian II who as usual had Tiberius’ nose cut off, and together with the previously deposed Leontios who was dragged out of the monastery he was in, they were both paraded in Constantinople’s streets with their cut-off noses exposed before both were brought to the emperor’s box at the Hippodrome where Justinian II when watching a chariot race used both Leontios and Tiberius III as his footstools with each of the former emperors’ necks stepped on by a foot of Justinian II as a symbol of having conquered both of them, and afterwards both Leontios and Tiberius III were beheaded followed by a purge ordered by Justinian II on all those loyal to both usurpers leading to the deaths of thousands including Tiberius’ brother Heraclius. Konon meanwhile was sent over by Justinian II east to negotiate with the rulers of the small kingdoms of Alania and Lazica over in the Caucasus to make them recognzie Justinian II’s return to power, and also to spy on the Arabs there as Justinian now knew Konon knew the behavior of the Arabs. Although Justinian true enough betrayed Konon here by stranding him across the Caucasus, but Konon soon managed to return to Byzantine territory by foot crossing the snowy mountains with just snowshoes. Konon would then disappear into the Anatolic Theme in Asia Minor for some time now, and in this story’s case he would marry a Greek woman named Maria like in real history, though for this story’s case she would be the daughter of the Theme’s Droungarios, and by this point they would have their first child, a daughter named Anna whose real birthdate is unknown, but in this story she would be born in 708.

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Emperor Justinian II Rhinotmetos, 2nd reign, art by Ediacar

As for Justinian II in his second reign, his full purpose of ruling the empire now would no longer be for growing it, but to carry out revenge on all those who wronged and humiliated him before, and this is when he would be known as the bloodthirsty madman emperor he is better known as. In his second reign, Justinian II put all his energy into purging all those who opposed him and helped overthrow him back in 695, and true enough not a day went by without anyone being arrested or executed, though also in 706 Justinian’s Khazar wife Theodora and their infant son Tiberius arrived in Constantinople being sent there by the Khazar khan Busir who now gave up the plan of betraying Justinian due to Tiberius III being deposed and executed. Just as he did in his first reign, Justinian II resumed his impulsive style of ruling in his second one that in 708 he launched a campaign against the Bulgars and their Slav allies to gain the lands he gave up to the Bulgars in exchange for returning him to power, thus even betraying his closest ally Tervel who helped him take back the throne in 705, though Justinian II and his forces were defeated by the Bulgars forcing him to renew his peace agreement with Tervel. The defeat of the Byzantines to the Bulgars in 708 allowed the Arabs to continue raiding into Asia Minor, in which in 709 they managed to capture some cities in Cilicia, and from there go as far deep into Cappadocia too, and because of the defeats the Byzantines had suffered, Justinian II in his usual act of vengeance had the commanders he saw responsible for it executed, despite them being capable leaders, thus the empire would lose some of its best military leaders. On the other in 709, Justinian II turned his attention to the remains of Byzantine Italy, particularly Ravenna in which he found out was the place that opposed him the most, and it was true enough the aristocrats of Ravenna including its bishop that played a major part in overthrowing him back in 695. Justinian II here though succeeded in sending an expedition to Ravenna to round up and arrest all those who conspired against him, afterwards all these people were brought over to Constantinople where Justinian had these aristocrats, true enough his life-long enemies executed right in front of him while the bishop’s eyes were gouged out. As many people were already beginning to flee Constantinople in fear of getting killed by the emperor’s orders, since soon enough everyone no matter guilty or innocent as long as seen as suspicious by the emperor were put to death or killed in the confusion and because of Justinian II’s tyrannical rule, the colony of Cherson where he was banished to earlier on rose up against him in 710 under the Armenian patrician general Bardanes or Vardan, who Justinian II had just sent there to be in charge of it. Now Bardanes was someone who really desired the throne that back in 695 when Leontios seized power, Bardanes who helped Leontios eyed the throne more than Leontios did. As the uprising against Justinian II in Cherson grew even worse when Bardanes allied himself with the Khazars, Justinian II in 711 then sent an army to Cherson to deal with rebellion, but instead the army sent there defected to rebels later on sailing south to Constantinople finding out Justinian II was away as he headed over to the Armeniac Theme to again suppress another rebellion against him by the aristocracy there. With the emperor gone, Bardanes and his rebel forces were let into the city by the people who were tired of Justinian II anyway, and thus Bardanes was proclaimed here as emperor renamed Philippikos while Justinian II never made it back as on December 11 of 711 Justinian II when heading back to Constantinople to counter-attack Philippikos was arrested and beheaded at age 42.

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Tiberius, son of Justinian II at his grandmother Anastasia’s arms is hunted down by the soldiers of Emperor Philippikos, 711

Shortly after, the soldiers of Philippikos hunted down Justinian’s 6-year-old son Tiberius in Constantinople who was hiding in a church with his grandmother, Justinian’s mother Anastasia and when caught, the young Tiberius was hacked to death by the soldiers, thus fully ending the bloodline of Heraclius and the Heraclian Dynasty. Anastasia though as a woman was spared but would never be heard from again, while Justinian’s wife Theodora in this story’s case would return back to her native land of the Khazars, while Justinian’s head was then sent to Rome and Ravenna to be paraded and displayed in public whereas everyone cheered as the evil emperor was dead, and although he tried to live up to Justinian I whom he was named after, he was only Justinian II and not the “Second Justinian”. A legacy that Justinian II left behind however was the introduction of the Loros or a long golden embroidered scarf wrapped around the body as the new uniform for Byzantine emperors, as previously this kind of outfit was only worn by consuls in the Byzantine senate, but with the office of consul now abolished, this uniform became for the emperor’s use only beginning with Justinian II, and it would now be the standard uniform for Byzantine emperors till the very end. 

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Empire of the Khazars (purple), early 8th century
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Justinian II makes the Bulgar Khan Tervel a Caesar in Constantinople, 705
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The Loros, new Byzantine imperial uniform introduced by Justinian II

In 711 as well, the same year Justinian II’s rule was finally put to an end with his execution, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate now under its new caliph Al-Walid I was at its height of power as here in 711, the Arab armies from North Africa together with their subjugated local Moorish forces there had finally begun their conquest of Europe by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain easily defeating the weakened Visigoth Kingdom there. Previously, the Christian Visigoth Kingdom of Spain that had been around there since the 5th century after the Germanic Visigoths took over Spain from the Western Roman Empire- if you remember from chapter II– by the late 7th and early 8th century fell into civil war thus further weakening it, that when the Arabs finally crossed into Europe through Spain, the Visigoths stood no more chance and in only a few years after 711, the Visigoth Kingdom would meet its end, although remnants of Visigoth Spain would still survive as the Christian Kingdom of Asturias in the north formed by the surviving Visigoths, and this new kingdom would resist against the expansion of the Arabs before turning the tide of war against them beginning the Christian Reconquista a few centuries later.

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Flag of the Kingdom of Asturias, resistance kingdom of the Visigoths in Northern Spain

The Arabs though would still stop at nothing conquering everything in the name of Islam that in only about 10 years after arriving in Spain, they had already conquered almost the entire Iberian Peninsula including what is now Portugal, leaving the Christians including the ever-independent Basque people to the remote corners of Northern Spain, and this was not yet the end as the Arabs were also set to conquer the Frankish Kingdom to the north. In the east meanwhile, the rule of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate had already reached as far as the Sindh region in today’s Pakistan which they had conquered back in 708, thus the rule of the Arabs now spanned from the Atlantic Ocean all the way east to the Indus River. Back in Byzantium, the new emperor Philippikos as the 4th ruler of this anarchy period had turned out to not really be an effective ruler, as the only thing he did good for his people was finishing off the madman Justinian II but plainly as a general, he had not much experience in politics and at the same time, he as an Armenian was also a believer of the Monothelite doctrine that was condemned as a heresy by Constantine IV back in 680 as the Monothelite faith was stronger with people in the eastern regions of the empire like Armenia. In 712, he renounced the ruling of the 680 Council of Constantinople attempting to restore the Monothelite doctrine of Christ having only one energy, thus Philippikos fired the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Cyrus replacing him with the Monothelite John VI, and here is when the foundations of Iconoclasm as an imperial practice was laid when the emperor had some religious icons in the capital that did not please him removed. For returning the heretical Monothelite doctrine, Philippikos soon enough became hated by his people and opposed by the pope in Rome, and because of executing Justinian II, the Bulgar khan Tervel who still had some loyalty to the late emperor struck back and raided into Byzantine Thrace going as far as the Walls of Constantinople. To counter-attack the Bulgars, Philippikos sent the army of the Opsikion Theme right across the sea from Constantinople to cross the Bosporus into Thrace in order to push back the Bulgars which they were successful at, although when putting too much attention to fighting the Bulgars up north, the Arabs attacked Asia Minor by land again from the east. In 713, the Opsikion army that beat the Bulgars rebelled in Thrace marching straight into Constantinople where the city’s garrison easily opened the gates for them as they and even Philippikos’ bodyguards had turned out to have no loyalty towards him as he was again another usurper with no ties to the previous Heraclian Dynasty. The rebelling soldiers then caught Philippikos at the moment he was taking a nap in the imperial palace wherein they dragged him out to the Hippodrome where he was publicly blinded, and after that sent to a monastery wherein he died some months later also in the same year as a result of his injuries from the blinding. With Philippikos deposed in 713, the Opsikion Theme army chose to proclaim Philippikos’ senior secretary Artemios as their new emperor who then was renamed as Emperor Anastasius II thinking he could be easy to manipulate, but the Opsikion army here was wrong as true enough he did not want to be a puppet and so he executed the soldiers who plotted to overthrow Philippikos as a way of installing discipline. Anastasius II was then the 5th ruler of the anarchy period and it was in his reign in 713 when Artavasdos first comes into the picture whereas here he was 26 at this point and already a highly skilled soldier and for his skills, Anastasius II appointed Artavasdos as the Strategos or commanding general of the Armeniac Theme where he came from. In 714, the Arabs continued their attacks penetrating as far as the Anatolic Theme in Asia Minor and soon enough they had blockaded the coastline of Asia Minor with their fleet, and in response to these Arab attacks, Anastasius II ordered that the land and sea walls of Constantinople be repaired fearing a possible siege of the city. At the same time, Anastasius II also ordered that the food supply of Constantinople be restocked to last at least 3 years, had the fleet rebuilt, and in 715 cancelled the Monothelite decree Philippikos had issued returning to Orthodoxy again by deposing the Monothelite patriarch John VI and replacing him with the Orthodox Germanus I. Konon then comes back again to the picture in 715 when Anastasius II appointed him to be the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme wherein he now settled as Anastasius II saw that Konon possessed a lot of military skill and afterwards Konon was sent east to surprise attack the Arabs in Syria, as here the caliph Al-Walid died as well in which Anastasius saw as an opportunity to resume the attacks on the Arabs. Anastasius II too sent a fleet to come to the defense of Rhodes in case the Arabs would attack it but here the same Opsikion army troops that put Anastasius in power 2 years earlier felt betrayed by him thinking he sent them there to die, and so they mutinied, gave up on the mission, and returned to the Opsikion Theme. The army though this time could not find the right person to name as their new emperor until finding an unlikely random unnamed tax collector of low birth who they elected as emperor, although he was unwilling to and fled to the woods to hide but was soon enough found hours later and had no choice but to be proclaimed as Emperor Theodosius III being the 6th and last ruler of the anarchy period. Constantinople was then put under siege for the next 6 months which later resulted in Theodosius III victorious and Anastasius II fleeing across the Bosporus to the city of Nicaea where he was later found in 716 and forced to abdicate and retire peacefully as a monk in Thessaloniki, as Theodosius being a merciful and reluctant ruler wanted to avoid any form of bloodshed. The Umayyad Arab forces meanwhile under the command of their general Maslama, brother of the new caliph Suleiman which were still in Asia Minor in 716 laid siege to the Anatolic Theme’s capital Amorion where the Theme’s Strategos Konon with his wife Maria and daughter Anna were in after he just returned from his campaign in Syria.

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Prince Masalama, general of the Umayyad forces

Konon however knowing the Arab language convinced Maslama and his forces to leave by promising them he would be their ally if he would take the throne from Theodosius III as the fact that Theodosius was a weak and reluctant emperor gave Konon now the right opportunity to fulfil his dream of taking over the throne. In late 716, Konon had found common ground with the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos Artavasdos who also intended to overthrow Theodosius III, and here in late 716 Konon proclaimed himself emperor when meeting up with Artavasdos on the way to Constantinople. Theodosius III meanwhile knowing the Arabs would soon besiege Constantinople renewed Byzantium’s alliance with the Bulgar khan Tervel, though at the same time in early 717 Konon and Artavasdos when arriving in the city of Nicomedia very close to Constantinople captured Theodosius’ son also named Theodosius who was however spared and in so little time, the rebelling armies of the Armeniac and Anatolic Themes arrived outside Constantinople ready to besiege it again. Theodosius III however did not want another fight, and not wanting to be emperor anyway, he abdicated in favor of Konon and retired to become a monk, while here on March 25 of 717, Konon was no longer Konon but now renamed as Emperor Leo III proclaiming an end to the 22-year anarchy. 

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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, images recreated based on their respective coins 
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Umayyad Caliphate forces arrive and conquer Visigoth Spain, 711
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Map of the Umayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent, 710s

The Siege of Constantinople- “The Battle for the Fate of Europe” (717-718)

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On March 25 of 717, Konon the simple Syrian shepherd boy with a cunning mind and deep knowledge of the Arab culture was now the emperor of the Byzantine Empire Leo III the Isaurian, except the empire he now came to rule was a shell of its former self. In 717, Byzantium only controlled slightly more than half of Asia Minor, only Eastern Thrace in the Balkans, less than half of Greece, and in Italy only Sicily, the southern regions, Rome, Ravenna, and the Istrian Peninsula (part of today’s Croatia), although at least all the Aegean Islands together with Sardinia and Corsica and the remote colony of Cherson north of the Black Sea were still Byzantine, as the Lombards occupied most Italy, the Slavs occupying what was once the Byzantine Balkans, and the rest of course having already fallen to the Arabs. Here in 717, Konon now as Leo III was emperor at 32 with long curly dark brown hair, a short beard, and a short and stocky built while Artavasdos here hitting the age of 30 looked somewhat like Leo except much taller and thinner with long black hair and green eyes and at the same time too, Leo’s wife Maria and daughter Anna had arrived in Constantinople settling themselves in the imperial palace.

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

Leo not wanting to be another usurper that would easily be overthrown possibly 2 years later again as he had literally no ties to the previous Heraclian Dynasty or any dynasty before it here promised Artavasdos to marry off Anna despite Anna being 21 years younger than Artavasdos, which was a sure way to establish a new dynasty and in addition to this, Leo even promised that if ever he died Artavasdos as his son-in-law would immediately succeed him to the throne as Leo had no sons, but just about a month later in this story’s case, Maria happened to be pregnant which gave some joy to Leo and a bit of a sense of uneasiness for Artavasdos, especially if Maria were to give birth to a son. The moment Leo III came to power, he immediately broke his alliance with the Umayyad Caliphate as he never wanted to ally with them anyway, only pretending to make an alliance to get them to leave so instead, he chose the same old Bulgar khan Tervel up north who he met back in 705 with Justinian II as his ally, renewing the alliance of Theodosius III. The Bulgars meanwhile still hated the Byzantines for various reasons, but they hated the Arabs even more and so for the sake of keeping the new Bulgarian state alive in order to not fall to Arabs knowing that the Arabs would stop at nothing to conquer, Tervel decided to ally with the Byzantines having the Umayyad Arabs as their common enemy, although Leo III did not meet Tervel personally here, but instead they only exchanged letters with each other.

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Tervel, Khan of the Bulgars (r. 700-721)

Over in Damascus, the new caliph Suleiman who had succeeded his brother Al-Walid in 715 soon enough got word that Leo betrayed his promise of allying with them when a letter from Leo reached him saying he had never wanted their help anyway and only for them to leave, but this here totally enraged Suleiman making him send an army of 80,000 men from all parts of the Umayyad Caliphate from North Africa to Syria, from the Arabian Desert to Central Asia together with a fleet of 1,800 ships to directly attack Constantinople under the command of again his brother Maslama intending to finally carry out the ultimate dream of the Umayyads. In July of 717, Leo III together with Artavasdos in this story’s case had already completely fortified Constantinople’s land and sea walls stationing a sufficient number of troops and by August, the Arabs now crossing the Dardanelles strait into Thrace arriving in Europe built a temporary stone wall some kilometers away from the 5th century land walls of Constantinople to guard their Thracian camp and block all reinforcements coming for the Byzantines, while the fleet later sailed directly into the Marmara Sea and Leo III from the rooftop of the imperial palace saw the Arab army and fleet miles away. Now to completely seal off the city’s harbor or Golden Horn from the attack of the Arab navy, Leo III had a large chain as long as 20m placed on opposite ends of the harbor’s entrances, one side being the main city and the other side being the Galata District across the harbor. The situation now seemed hopeless for the Byzantines as the 22 years of anarchy, riots, and executions issued by Justinian II depopulated the capital and its army, therefore the walls which Anastasius II luckily repaired was the city’s only hope for survival and if not for that, Byzantium would soon enough already end. However, when all hope seemed to be lost, a young patrician eunuch working in the imperial court named Eutychius– in this story’s case- presented to Leo the empire’s state secret, the superweapon of Greek Fire in which here only 3 ships were equipped with it, and at this moment, the procedure of operating the weapon was given to Leo III for his and the operating team of the navy’s eyes only.         

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The Byzantine Empire in 717 (purple)
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The chain at the Golden Horn, installed by Leo III
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The land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Land Walls), art by myself

The “Battle for the Fate of Europe” then began when the Arab fleet attacked Constantinople from the sea, while the army of 80,000 attacked by land completely surrounding the city to completely block it off from any reinforcements or food supply but luckily, the people of Constantinople had a food supply that could last for 3 years, thanks to Anastasius II. The people inside the city were now all fearing the worst and so Leo III despite not wanting to lay his eyes on religious icons encouraged the people including soldiers to all rally under them to boost their morale as here too, with a lack of soldiers, civilians whether women or children including the elderly and monks were all encouraged to defend the walls. The first wave of attack came from the Arab fleet attacking south from the Marmara, but before arriving at the entrance to the city’s harbor, Leo III deployed the 3 large ships with Greek Fire in it right against the advancing Arab fleet and at the end, the Greek Fire totally burned down 20 of the Arab supply ships while its sailors either died burning or jumped into the water and drowned to death at the frightening sight of liquid fire emitted from a large brass gun- an ancient version of a flamethrower. Not a lot of the Arab ships though were destroyed, but after seeing 20 of their ships burned by a kind of flame never seen before, the sailors decided to just give up, therefore the ships instead docked outside the Galata District unloading troops that laid siege to the walls there.

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Umayyad forces at the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

The main army however was still over in Thrace while their general Maslama chose to stay there camped outside Constantinople the whole time believing they will win this way as back in previous Arab siege from 674 to 678, the Arabs using the strategy of launching minor attacks and retreating back to their bases in Asia Minor when winter came proved unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of a lot of men. As the months passed and autumn came, the Arabs happened to run low in their food supply as there were too many men sent on this expedition with not enough to feed them, while Maslama did not expect the siege to last this long, therefore a group of the Arab army formed a foraging party that pillaged the countryside of Thrace to find food whether it was grain from the farms or mushrooms from the woodland areas. At this point when a foraging party of 4,000 Arabs searched the countryside of Thrace for food, the Bulgar cavalry army of Tervel finally came to the aid of the Byzantines, and here they ambushed and completely wiped out the foraging Arabs, afterwards returning back north to Bulgaria for the meantime. Leo III on the hand came up with the strategy of delaying the siege for the attacking Arabs since he knew winter would come soon and knowing the Arabs well, he knew that winter was their ultimate weakness as they came from the southern deserts in Arabia where snow did not exist and true enough when the winter of 717-718 came, it was an exceptionally harsh one even for the Byzantines. The winter then happened to go on for 3 months with the snow covering the ground the entire time disabling the Arabs to continue attacking Constantinople’s walls, but allowing the Byzantines to return to rebuilding their defences due to the Arab attacks slowing down. As the months passed, the Arabs soon enough ran out food supply considering that their army was still large in number that the Arab troops had to resort to first eating their horses and camels as well as weeds, tree barks, leaves, and mushrooms in which some were even poisonous thus killing some of them. The famine soon enough grew even worse as the winter passed that it was even reported that the Arab soldiers had to resort to cannibalism eating the flesh of their fellow fallen soldiers that had died either from battle, the cold of winter, or from starvation, and to mask the taste of human flesh and blood, the Arabs had to go as far as coating the human flesh they ate with their own shit. With the increase of the death toll in the Arab army rising each day, burying their fallen soldiers became a problem so the Arabs too had no choice but to eat their dead fellow soldiers. At the same time too as the Arabs laid siege to Constantinople, the caliph Suleiman had died in the town of Dabiq in Syria in September of 717 and was succeeded by Caliph Umar II who was not related to him but still ruled as part of the Umayyad Dynasty and when the spring of 718 came, the new caliph sent a reinforcement army and fleet from Egypt making the situation for the Arabs improve by a bit. The sailors in the Arab reinforcement fleet however were mostly Christians as the Muslim sailors were already used in the first wave and being Christians, these sailors immediately switched sides joining forces with the Byzantine navy thus turning the tide against the Arab fleet which was soon enough outnumbered. Here also in the spring of 718, Leo III had his ships with Greek Fire again attack the Arab ships blockading the Bosporus Strait from the north, and with the power of Greek Fire the entire Arab fleet blockading the Bosporus was destroyed.

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Emperor Leo III on his ship at the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

In this story’s case, Leo III together with Artavasdos and Eutychius were on one of the ships equipped with Greek Fire and as Leo kept ordering the weapon to nonstop shoot out fire, he saw for himself that the weapon had a flaw too which was that if it was overused, it could overheat and possibly explode or shoot fire back at them, though the other flaw was that it was unwieldy as the gun was too heavy and its range for shooting fire was only a few meters, therefore to burn an enemy ship they had to go up close to it. In this story’s case too, after the Arab fleet blocking off the Bosporus was destroyed, Leo together with Artavasdos got off in the Asian side across the Bosporus leading a cavalry charge themselves against the Arab reinforcement army there and by summoning the nearby Opsikion Theme’s army to march there, they both succeeded in totally decimating the 20,000 Arab reinforcements by attacking from both sides trapping them. Across the Bosporus in Thrace meanwhile, the now over exhausted remnants of the Arab army that survived the winter were still camped there, and by the time the Bulgar cavalry arrived again this time with Khan Tervel personally leading them, the Arabs with no more strength stood no chance, and a large number of them were massacred.

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Map of the 717-718 Arab Siege of Constantinople
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Arab ships, 718
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Greek Fire operated by the Byzantine navy
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Bulgar army massacres the Umayyad Arabs outside Constantinople during the winter of 717-718

The siege then continued to go on for a bit more than a year until August of 718 when Maslama who was still alive got word from the caliph Umar II himself to immediately abandon the siege as if it went on, then they would lose more men therefore creating a shortage of troops in the caliphate. In over a year, about 30,000 Arab soldiers had died, though mostly from the winter and from the Bulgars as the Byzantines forces true enough did not do much of the fighting but rather more particularly the defense of the walls. While the Arabs retreated back to their ships, the last remnants of them in Thrace that were rushing into their ships were again massacred by Tervel’s Bulgars. Maslama then led the army in their retreat to Syria and along the way, a storm in the Marmara destroyed a large portion of the retreating Arab fleet, while the rest were also destroyed by the larger Byzantine ships pursuing them that at the end, only 5 of the 1,800 ships sent to Constantinople made it back safely to Syria. All thanks to Greek Fire, a brutal winter, the assistance of the Bulgars, and a mass defection of the Arab navy, the Byzantine Empire survived the event that could have brought about their end, and with the Byzantine victory it was not only them that was saved, but the rest of Europe as well, as if the Arabs managed to defeat the Byzantines here, then the way for them to conquer the rest of Europe would be clear. As for the Arabs, this attack on Constantinople was completely fruitless that this defeat made them swear to never attack Constantinople again, and true enough this would be the last time the Arabs would attack Constantinople with full force and at the same time, this defeat would totally weaken the prestige of the powerful Umayyad Caliphate that was still at its greatest territorial extent here. Though Constantinople was spared once more, the wars between Byzantium and the Arabs was not yet over and as emperor, Leo III from here on would focus his policy on continuing the attacks on the Arabs to weaken them, but first it was time for him to consolidate his rule. However, for saving the Byzantine Empire from its ultimate destruction, Leo III at only 33 was hailed as a national hero, and the biggest feat here was that he went from a simple shepherd boy to the savior of the empire.

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Tervel and his Bulgar army’s final attack on the Arab forces outside Constantinople, 718

Watch this to learn more about the 717-718 Umayyad Arab Siege of Constantinople (Eastern Roman History).


The Reign of Leo III and Iconoclasm (718-741)         

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Having saved Byzantium from ultimate destruction, Leo III now in 718 focused on rebuilding the severely damaged empire he inherited and luckily for Leo III, he could now finally establish his own dynasty thus ending all the instability Byzantium faced as here too back in June of 718, his wife Maria gave birth to a son who was named Constantine after the emperor Constantinople was named for and founded by, Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), the founder of the Byzantine Empire. With the birth of the boy Constantine, Artavasdos who was still in Constantinople here was deeply upset as he thought the throne would be passed on to him, but being loyal to Leo III, he hid his true feelings and now after the siege was over, Leo III thanking Artavasdos for his part in helping him come to power and successfully defending Constantinople was awarded the title and position of Kouropalates which was basically the head of the imperial palace, although Artavasdos also retained his position as the Strategos of the Armeniac Theme wherein he would reside in its capital of Amasea for most of Leo III’s reign.

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Emperor Leo III the Isaurian, art by Androklos

Meanwhile over in Byzantine Sicily in 718 as the siege was still happening in Constantinople, some fake news had reached there saying that Constantinople had fallen to the Arabs and in the panic there, the people named a local government official there named as Basil as their emperor believing there was no more emperor, but when Leo III in Constantinople got word of this, he sent a part of the army to Sicily to crush this rebellion not wanting the previous anarchy period to repeat itself. When the army arrived in Sicily telling everyone Constantinople was still theirs and that they still had an emperor, the people of Sicily still being loyal surrendered the usurper Basil who was then executed right there while his head and hands were sent to Leo III too. Back in Constantinople later on in 718 a few months after young Constantine was born, he was baptized by the same patriarch Germanus I who also survived the siege and in attendance were both his parents, older sister Anna, and Artavasdos who was soon to marry her, and here a very bizarre and apocryphal incident happened which was although written by sources hostile to Leo III and his son Constantine saying that Constantine as a baby took a shit on the water he was being baptized in, which here in this story’s case is true hence the origin of the nickname he would be known by later on being Kopronymos meaning “shit-named” in Greek. Just a year later in 719, the ex-emperor Anastasius II came out of his monastery in Thessaloniki intent on taking back the Byzantine throne from Leo III therefore marching east to Constantinople supported by the Bulgars of Tervel who then betrayed Leo III switching support to Anastasius II. In response to this, Leo III personally led the army west where he confronted the small army of Anastasius II defeating it and having the ex-emperor executed while the Bulgars retreated back north to their homeland. Leo III here by executing Anastasius II made his intention plain and simple that he was there to stay and establish a dynasty to make sure the 22-year anarchy period was no longer to last, and to further make sure he was there to stay in power till death, he focused on reforming the empire, first of all by reducing the power of the Themes’ Strategos (plural: Strategoi) as he knew by holding so much power as he had seen it before with himself as a Strategos and with the Opsikion Theme overthrowing both Philippikos and Anastasius II that with this much power, an emperor could be easily overthrown, and part of his reforms in the Thematic System was dividing the Karabasian naval Theme creating a new naval Theme in charge of the entire Aegean Sea using the other half of the Karabasian. In the meantime, his wife Maria gave birth to two more daughters after Constantine, the first one being Irene who in this story would be born in 720 and the next one Kosmo born in 721. Meanwhile in 720 two important events happened, first was the wedding of the now 33-year-old Artavasdos to the 12-year-old Anna in Constantinople- although for this story’s case only, as in real history their marriage possibly happened some time earlier, possibly 717- but here too in this case like in real history, the second big event of 720 was Leo III making his 2-year-old son Constantine co-emperor to fully secure his dynasty, though betraying Artavasdos in the process who was promised earlier by Leo to succeed him. In the ceremony of young Constantine being crowned as his father’s co-emperor, Artavasdos as Mario put it pulled out a dagger from his sleeve, although he quickly left the throne room without saying anything hiding his true feelings of being cheated. Leo III then moved to making one of his greatest achievements in his reign which was a code of laws known as the Ecloga, a continuation of Emperor Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis from the 6th century.

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Leo III’s Ecloga

The legal reforms in Leo III’s Ecloga was envisioned to make Byzantium a better place to live in for all classes of society after all the years of war and instability, and these reforms included the abolition of paying the increasingly high taxes the rich had hated, and also the abolition of serfs in the empire who were then turned into landowning peasants. Another major change in Leo III’s Ecloga was in criminal law with the discontinuation of the practice of cutting off noses to prevent someone from taking back the throne as Leo saw that this practice was just silly as Justinian II in 705 came back to power anyway despite his nose being cut-off, instead Leo III replaced this punishment with blinding, as this would surely disable someone from coming back to power, while the punishment of death penalty however was a bit too severe. True enough in the entire history of Byzantium later on, no emperor would return to power blind except for one later on in the early 13th century, as you will see in chapter X of this series.          

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Emperor Leo III (left) with his son and co-emperor Constantine V (right)

The process in creating the Ecloga took several years and only in 726 was it completely finished as Leo III had to make sure these laws would work, but the one particular thing Leo added here was his own stance on the excessive use of icons in the empire, and although he was not so much a religious person, he strongly believed that what he believed was for the good of the whole empire. Leo originally as Konon from the eastern provinces of Byzantium lived among Monophysite and Monothelite Christians also coming into contact with Muslims and Jews countless times which definitely influenced him in being not a fan of icons, as Jews and Muslims did not believe in worshiping God through images. These Christians in the east believing Christ was only divine believed he could not be seen as a human as well as the Virgin Mary and saints, and seeing Christ as only God, there was no way God could be visualized, and Leo despite being Orthodox leaned heavily towards the beliefs of the eastern Christians. Things for the Byzantines of the western parts including Constantinople, Thrace, Western Asia Minor, Greece, the remains of the Balkans, and the remains of Italy however were different as icon painting and veneration became a very sacred tradition, as there many people were as descendants of the Greeks and Romans kept with them the old Pagan tradition of using images to worship, which from statues of the old gods like Zeus and Athena turned into painted images of saints.

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Early-Byzantine era religious icon

What really disgusted Leo on the excessive use of icons among the people of Constantinople was how they used icons for everything even as godparents in the baptisms of their children, and Leo as a strong believer of the 2nd Commandment Thou shall have no other gods before me had come to believe that this practice of icon veneration was already like Idolatry or worshiping other gods, therefore sinful. Back in 725 before the Ecloga was completed, Leo III made a public speech in the Hippodrome against the excessive use of icons warning people that they were offending God that way, although many here did not take what he said seriously, and Leo though did not punish them in any way too as he only wanted to warn them. Now in 726, the same year the Ecloga was finished, the unexpected happened in the Aegean Sea when the underwater volcano at the island of Thera (today’s Santorini) erupted spewing an ash cloud so high that it could be seen all the way from Constantinople, and Leo III again at the rooftop of the imperial palace where he saw the Arab invasion in 717 this time saw the ash cloud knowing that enough was enough on the icons as God was definitely punishing them for their excessive use on them through the volcano. For the entire 8th century so far and the 7th century before it, Byzantium faced nothing but military defeats, plague, depopulation, political instability, civil wars, and now a massive volcanic eruption, and here the superstitious Leo III had to find something to blame for all these setbacks, and of course what he blamed it all on was his people’s excessive use of icons. Getting word soon enough that this massive eruption came from Thera, Leo III seeing this as the last straw decided to carry out his first public act against icons and so here, he ordered the large mosaic of Christ above the gate of the imperial palace or Chalke Gate removed, which was a mosaic made back in the 6th century to celebrate the victories of Justinian I.

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The Chalke Gate at the Imperial Palace of Constantinople

In this story’s case, Artavasdos in an act of loyalty to Leo III as his partner in action and the head of the palace being present in Constantinople here ordered the palace guards to take down the mosaic, although Artavasdos here deep inside did not want to carry out the job as he was married to someone who highly valued icons, the emperor’s daughter Anna wherein despite their major age gap, they were having a happy marriage. Here in 726, Anna was already a very pretty grown woman at 18 with long straight black hair, a slim built with a thin waist, a medium sized chest, and not very tall in height and at only 18, she already had her first son with Artavasdos which was Niketas, though in the past years for this story’s case, she busied herself in pursuing an artistic and scholarly career in painting icons as well as playing music and studying the history and politics of the empire. Anna was present at a corner of the imperial palace complex near the Chalke gate, and seeing the mosaic taken down by no other than her husband truly broke her heart as she lived to make beautiful icons, although she did not fight back by running to her husband or the soldiers asking them to stop, instead she left the scene and went to her mother crying. Maria here at her room in the palace told Anna that she too despite being loyal to her husband Leo III was not at all for the destruction of icons, and so she asked Anna to gather a number of women to fight back.

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Byzantine Iconoclasm from the 9th century Chludov Psalter

Most men were fine with the destruction of the mosaic of Christ at the Chalke Gate but the women were upset with it, and as it would turn out later on, women had valued icons a lot more than men therefore strongly condemning what would be Leo III’s Iconoclast policy and so here in this story’s case as Mario put it, Anna ordered some local women of Constantinople who were upset with the destruction of the Chalke Gate mosaic to kill the palace guard officer in charge of tearing down the mosaic. Like in real history, the officer in charge of taking down the mosaic was hacked to death by a group of angry women and following this, riots mostly led by women broke out all over Constantinople lasting for the next few years, although intermittently. It was not only in Constantinople though where people opposed the first stage of destroying icons as in 727, the fleet in the Aegean Sea mostly made up of Western Greek sailors that highly valued icons mutinied against Leo III, although their small-scale rebellion was easily crushed where in this story’s case, Leo sent Artavasdos to mercilessly crush it. The uprisings in the empire over the first wave of the confiscations and destruction of icons grew worse over the next years that in 730, Leo III after being convinced by eastern bishops who strongly opposed icons, finally had no choice but to declare a general ban on icons making Iconoclasm or the “destruction of icons” a law in the Ecloga. To fully make Iconoclasm a law, the Church of Constantinople had to be in line with it too, although the Patriarch of Constantinople Germanus I who had been patriarch since 715 did not agree to destroying icons, so here in 730 he resigned and was then replaced by the Iconoclast Anastasios who Leo III appointed, thus Iconoclasm was in full effect with the Church now supporting it. With Iconoclasm now a law, all icons no matter where in the empire and how valuable they were, were to be confiscated by imperial soldiers and to be destroyed either by being smashed or burned, while those caught holding icons were to be punished severely by getting whipped, and for those who restored broken icons or were caught painting icons were to get their hands burned. At this point though, there was still no death penalty on those who supported icons better known as the Iconodules as the laws of Iconoclasm went primarily against religious icons and not the people who venerated them, as the icons were seen as the cause of Byzantium’s failures. A large number of monks and artists who restored icons soon feared for their lives in Constantinople or Asia Minor that a lot fled in large groups to Byzantine Greece or Italy where the imperial authorities there weren’t as severe in punishing those who supported icons, and Italy on the other hand would be a safe haven for them, especially in Rome which here was still under Byzantine rule, but its autonomous ruler being the pope as usual in wanting to assert Rome’s independence from Constantinople welcomed those who fled Constantinople and the east.     

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Eruption of the Thera Island Volcano in the Aegean Sea, 726
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Destruction of the mosaic at the Chalke Gate under Leo III, 726

As the Byzantines in the 720s had been in no large conflict with the Arabs, Leo III could therefore put all his attention in the cracking down on religious icons in the empire but if the conflict did not come from the Arabs, it came from the people of Italy who highly valued icon veneration as a sacred tradition.

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Pope St. Gregory II, Patriarch of Rome (715-731)

First of all, in 726 when Iconoclasm was first instituted by Leo III, the people of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna which was still around here encouraged by the pope Gregory II rebelled in large numbers with such violence that the Exarch of Ravenna Paul was killed when crushing the riots. To finish off the unrest in Italy, Leo III in 727 appointed the same patrician eunuch Eutychius who helped him defend Constantinople from 717-718 against the Arabs as the new Exarch of Ravenna, sending him to Italy where he first arrived in Naples still held by the Byzantines. Eutychius’ mission in Italy was also to find a way to remove the authority of Pope Gregory II who Leo III saw as a threat to his power, as the pope being from the west was a strong icon supporter. Most of Italy here was now part of the Lombard Kingdom of its ambitious king Liutprand and with the Lombards being Christian, the pope was more than willing to ally with them rather than following orders from the Byzantine emperor who was though in charge of Rome, and with Eutychius as the new exarch, he offered bribes to Liutprand to give up his alliance with the pope which was successful, as the Lombards after all being Germanic barbarians would do anything for a good amount of money.

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King Liutprand of the Lombards of Italy (r. 712-744)

In 730, a usurper in Italy named Petasius based in the area of Umbria near Rome rose up against Leo III proclaiming himself emperor and when hearing of Petasius’ rebellion, Eutychius immediately rushed south to deal with it wherein he managed to kill Petasius in battle. On the other hand in 730 as well, another rebellion against Byzantine rule in Italy broke out, again over the ban on icons and this one happened in the Venetian Lagoon, the now growing community by the Adriatic Sea founded back in the 5th century from mainland Roman Italians escaping the Huns. Here, the Venetian people from the community of the lagoon in rebellion against the emperor proclaimed their community’s leader or Dux Ursus known as “Orso Ipato”in Italian as their independent ruler or Doge, thus the Venetian Lagoon here separated from the Byzantine Empire giving birth now to the Republic of Venice, which would be both a strong ally and a bitter enemy to Byzantium in the next centuries to come.

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Orso Ipato, First Doge of the Republic of Venice

Although wanting to be independent from Byzantium, Orso Ipato still wanted to maintain peaceful relations with Leo III, agreeing to provide the empire ships as an ally as long as they kept their independence and because of this, Leo III acknowledged the Venetian’s independence. Pope Gregory II meanwhile continued to strongly oppose Leo III’s Iconoclasm by encouraging revolts against imperial rule in Italy and writing letters to Leo III condemning Iconoclasm and in response to this, Leo also in 730 doing as Emperor Constans II did back in 653 when arresting Pope Martin I, also sent some soldiers from Constantinople to Rome to arrest Gregory II but due to a storm, the ship was unable to cross the Adriatic Sea and in early 731, Gregory II died before he could be arrested. Following Gregory II’s death, Gregory III was elected as the new pope and he too opposed Leo III’s Iconoclasm excommunicating all those in Italy who destroyed icons, though Leo III gave up his plans in arresting the pope seeing it was useless, instead he later put the Church dioceses of Sicily and the remains of the Byzantine Balkans under the Patriarch of Constantinople and not the Patriarch of Rome or the pope, thus replacing their bishops with those under Constantinople, and here is where the soon-to-be schism between the Churches of Constantinople and Rome would begin.

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Map of 8th century Italy- Byzantine territory (orange), Lombard territory (blue)

           

In the early 730s, the Byzantines again did not get into much conflict with the Umayyad Arabs in the east as at this point, the Arabs focused more on fighting against India in the east, the Frankish Kingdom in the west, and the Khazars of the Caucasus Mountains in the north. In 732, the Khazar khan Bihar, son of the same khan Busir- whose sister earlier on married Justinian II- made an alliance with Leo III’s Byzantium and to fully seal it, Bihar sent his daughter Tzitzak to Constantinople to marry Leo III’s son Constantine who here was already 14 and quite overweight but already a learned scholar despite actually hating scholars and monks, though the young Constantine was also unstable and childish in personality- in this story’s case at least- but most importantly he inherited his father’s extreme disgust for icons as Constantine knowing theology more than his father believed too that God could not be painted as a human. Constantine too was believed to be a bisexual, which he is in this story, but when seeing the Khazar princess Tzitzak who here was 4 years older than him, he was struck by her exotic oriental beauty having long black hair, fair skin, and gray eyes.

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Khazar women’s fashion sample

In this story’s case, Tzitzak came to Constantinople in her native Turkic steppe people dress decorated with tons of gold and silver scales, as well as a headdress full of jewelry, and not speaking any Greek at all, therefore having an interpreter with her, and to all the people of Constantinople her appearance totally left everyone questioning it, although this was not the first time an emperor would marry a Khazar woman as Justinian II’s wife Theodora was a Khazar too, although when she arrived in Constantinople in 706, Theodora was already dressed in Byzantine robes as she had already married Justinian II prior to that. What was particularly intriguing to those who saw Tzitzak up close was the tattoos seen around her upper-body as was a nomadic Khazar custom. When being presented to the empress Maria at the baths of the imperial palace, Maria at first took a good look at Tzitzak privately to see if she was healthy in which she seemed to be, however when Maria took a deeper look, she was shocked to see all the tattoos on Tzitzak’s body as true enough to inspect if Tzitzak was healthy, Maria had to undress her as Tzitzak not knowing Greek therefore could not understand that she was told to take her clothes off.

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Sample Khazar women’s tattoos, from @laura.petresc on IG

When seeing the rest of Tzitzak’s body with her clothes off, Maria then laid her lands all over her body and when feeling that her body was nice and attractive, she felt that Tzitzak was the right match for her son despite all the tattoos, but Maria approved of her more because of her well-behaved personality considering that she did not fight back when she was undressed and seen naked by a woman she just met. Later when Constantine came to see her at his bedroom, he was surprised to see the amount of tattoos when removing her dress as they were to sleep together naked, but for Constantine he’d rather have an exotic foreign wife than a Byzantine woman who he found boring and conservative in dress and appearance. The 18-year-old Tzitzak was then baptized and renamed to the Greek Irene (although she would still be known as Tzitzak in this story) and after being baptized she would marry young Constantine, then in the next years she would have to learn Greek which now completely took over Latin as the empire’s primary language. It also happened in 732 when the Umayyad Arab forces from Spain invaded the Frankish Kingdom but suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Tours to the Frankish army under their general Charles Martel thus putting a full stop to the Arabs’ advancement into Europe. As for Artavasdos, still the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos he would meanwhile remain in the Armeniac Theme’s capital of Amasea with Anna where they would have more children including another son named Nikephoros all while Anna being away from Constantinople for this story’s case would continue her art projects in painting icons away from her father’s eyes, though Artavasdos would see it but not react to it anyway, as he still respected whatever his wife did being happily married to her. The 730s meanwhile was not a much recorded part of Leo III’s reign and so here on a few occasions, Artavasdos and Anna with their children would travel to Constantinople for some family functions wherein for this story Leo himself would cook the flavorful Arabic food he grew up with but for his family this time, although in this story’s case nothing would go by pleasantly as envy and distrust would start erupting between family members especially between Anna and her father over their views on the use of icons, Constantine and Anna as Constantine would soon grow more and more envious of his older sister as she was more liked and got more praise and attention for her art and literary works while Constantine did not despite him also doing them, but the bigger hatred was of course between Artavasdos and Constantine as Artavasdos still felt betrayed by Constantine’s birth.

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Arabic food cooked by Leo III

Artavasdos when in Constantinople would try to do whatever it took to get rid of the lazy and arrogant young Constantine, that Artavasdos when seeing him would mockingly call Constantine “Kopronymos” remembering the incident of Constantine as a baby shitting on the baptismal water thus angering Constantine, and at one point he intentionally pushed Constantine in the imperial palace’s halls making it look like it was an accident and another time, as Mario added Artavasdos would accuse Constantine of stealing his jewellery telling it to Leo III himself, except Leo here refused to believe it saying his son would not do such a thing. Meanwhile, Leo III’s war on icons was still brewing stronger especially in Constantinople that not a day would go by without soldiers looting churches to confiscate icons and bonfires in almost every square of the city wherein icons were burned much like in Nazi Germany where books were burned in bonfires, while Leo III too would have the previous coins of Justinian II with Christ’s image that were still around melted down to make new coins. When in Constantinople seeing icons burned in these bonfires, Anna had enough of her father’s useless and superstitious policy of destroying icons as Anna being a more educated person knew the icons had nothing to do with the empire’s setbacks.

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Sample image of faces damaged by Iconoclasm (not Byzantine)

Here in 735 for this story’s case, Anna encouraged by her mother Maria had decided to save icons from destruction, thus at the middle of the night she with a group of local women from Constantinople, the same ones who killed the palace guard officer back in 726 would horde the undestroyed or even broken icons while the city guards were asleep, and would then hide them all in the underground 5th century Cistern of Theodosius which they would use as their base wherein the women would restore icons at midnight. Anna had also come up with a plan for the remaining people who owned icons which was to hide them under their clothes, which is what most monks and nuns did when fleeing to Italy in order to not get caught possessing illegal icons. Meanwhile, not all religious icons could be restored since a lot which were already painted in the walls of churches or in mosaics were damaged in a way that their faces were removed leaving an empty blank spot, and restoring them would definitely lead to being arrested at the spot. While in the Armeniac Theme, Anna would also travel to Cappadocia, the perfect place to hide icons especially in the deep and labyrinthian cave systems there wherein people actually lived and there, the people in which most were still for the icons would restore them there, or even make new ones.           

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Charles Martel and the Franks defeat the Umayyad Arabs at the Battle of Tours, 732
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Amasea, Capital of the Armeniac Theme in Asia Minor
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Cistern of Theodosius in Constantinople, secret base of Anna’s resistance against Iconoclasm
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Cave systems of Cappadocia
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Destruction and confiscation of icons under Leo III

The secret resistance movement led by Anna in this story’s case would soon grow larger with more people joining it for the sake of restoring valuable icons that artists worked so hard to make, though neither Leo III nor Constantine nor even Artavasdos knew of Anna’s movement, although Artavasdos and Anna’s sons Niketas and Nikephoros soon will and would join their mother’s cause against their grandfather. Now on the other hand, the Arabs won a major victory over the Khazars in 737, thus the Arab forces resumed their raids into Asia Minor attacking in two sides although never intending to attack Constantinople again after the failure of 718. Back in Constantinople, Constantine by here was now no longer a child but in mentality he still was, especially in how he envied his older sister Anna as she got more attention than him by the palace officials and the people of Constantinople. As an Iconoclast and artist at the same time, Constantine in this story’s case developed his own simplistic style of art mostly consisting of symmetrical crucifixes with no images, while Anna made very intricate icons or art depicting nature which her brother and father definitely saw as it had no religious images on them, but Constantine surely envied his older sister’s more superior style in art that pleased a lot of people more than they did with his work.

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Playing music in the Byzantine era

Constantine and Anna too were musicians skilled in playing the lyre although the people cheered more for Anna who sang with a very excellent voice, again fuelling Constantine’s envy and hate towards her. Now in personalities they were so far apart as Anna was a serious and mature person while Constantine was impulsive and immature, and Anna being calm as usual would often remind him to stop envying as not everything is a competition and scoring points do not matter, although Constantine and Anna kept quarrelling nonstop to the point of slapping each other. Constantine could still not yet get over Anna, so one day in 740- in this story’s case- after drinking at a tavern, he gathered a group of thugs from the tavern to locate Anna’s base as Anna was back in the Armeniac Theme here. Constantine and the thugs managed to find Anna’s base at the Cistern of Theodosius where they looted all the icons under restoration there as no one was there and in an act of revenge, Constantine had some of them burned, and another set of icons in which he saw Anna’s name on them personally destroyed by himself. In the gardens of Constantinople’s imperial palace, Constantine himself in a mental breakdown as Mario put it personally destroyed the icons his sister made by stepping on them, slamming them against the courtyard columns, breaking them with his knees, and even urinating on them, and here his father caught him right at the moment doing that. Leo III caught Constantine screaming and cursing countless times thus asking Constantine what was wrong and Constantine clearly kept screaming “Anna you double-crosser, this is what you deserve!”, and here Leo saw the icons his daughter had made or restored and was not surprised as he always argued with her about icons, though Leo still did not know Anna was leading a secret resistance against Iconoclasm, but knowing how Constantine felt, Leo told him that he felt this kind of way before back in Justinian II’s 2nd reign when Leo as Konon then was betrayed by the emperor who he thought put all his faith into him when Justinian II stranded Konon across the snowy Caucasus Mountains before meeting Maria and Anna’s birth. Leo here told Constantine he would get his chance to prove himself right here by going to battle as an Arab army had breached into the Anatolic Theme in Asia Minor which needed to be driven away. Leo III like in real history here one more time led his army mostly consisting of the Cataphract cavalry in battle, and this time with his son and co-emperor Constantine by his side confronting the Arabs at the Battle of Akroinon just south of the Anatolic Theme’s capital Amorion and here, the Byzantines would again defeat the Arabs killing 13,000 of them including the Arab generals. This battle then turned the tide of war against the Arabs and with the success here, Leo III believed that God was now on the side of the Byzantines for getting rid of unholy icons while Constantine would here gain the popularity he so wanted as the army would now praise him for his bravery in battle. Although the Byzantines won a major victory, in October of 740 a great earthquake struck Constantinople destroying a lot of buildings while the Hagia Eirene church was severely damaged too, and so were the Theodosian Walls, while the large statue of Constantine I above the Column of Constantine fell off as well. Now those who supported the icons including the empress Maria here thought that this earthquake was punishment from God for destroying holy icons, and following the earthquake Leo III proceeded to rebuild the land and sea walls but was here beginning to grow worse in health.

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Leo III and Constantine V fighting Umayyad Arab forces at the Battle of Akroinon in 740, Byzantine victory
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Hagia Eirene in Constantinople, partially destroyed by the 740 earthquake

Watch this to learn more about Leo III and his reign (Thersites the Historian).


The Climax- War of the Emperors (741-743)        

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Following the victory of the Byzantines at the Battle of Akroinon in 740, a period of stability for the empire and the Thematic System would begin, and after repairing the damage on Constantinople from the recent earthquake, Leo III would no longer be able to function well anymore and so here he reassigned Artavasdos to the Opsikion Theme closer to Constantinople to be its Komes– as this Theme’s general was not known as a Strategos- moving his family there except for his eldest son Niketas who was left behind in the Armeniac Theme replacing his father as its Strategos at only 18. By this point in 741 when moving to the Opsikion Theme, Artavasdos and Anna had a total of 9 children as it is recorded that after Niketas and Nikephoros, they had 7 more children although their names and genders are not recorded, so for this story’s case 3 of the 7 were boys and the 4 were girls. Now on June 18 of 741, Emperor Leo III the Isaurian formerly known as the Syrian shepherd Konon had died at 56 from complications caused by his health condition of edema being the first emperor since Constantine IV in 685 to meet a peaceful end, though Leo III’s legacy of Iconoclasm would live on now that his 23-year-old son Constantine V being his co-emperor immediately succeeded to the throne crowned by the Iconoclast patriarch Anastasios, while Constantine’s 27-year-old wife the Khazar Tzitzak who now was becoming fluent in Greek and had given up her Khazar clothes and now wearing Byzantine ones was crowned as his empress or Augusta.

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Coin of Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos

Artavasdos here had the worst day of his life when Constantine V was crowned as the empire’s sole emperor and so Artavasdos rather than attending the coronation in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople went hunting alone in the Opsikion Theme- in this story’s case- while Anna and their children attended. Here Artavasdos was already 54 but still looking as young and strong as he was when helping Leo III come to power in 717 with long dark hair and a long beard, while Anna here at 33 despite having already 9 children was still looking young and beautiful as ever, and Constantine V at 23 looked very young too with thick and long dark curly hair and a short and stocky stature like his father, though he was quite overweight and bad in posture. Constantine V spent the first few months of his reign in 741 consolidating his power and continuing enforcing the Iconoclast policies of his father, and true enough soldiers continued their constant raids into houses and churches across the empire confiscating icons and burning them. While the war on icons continued to rage on, Anna and her resistance movement of women still continued to horde and restore icons in the middle of the night. Constantine V now had everything he wanted as emperor, and almost every night he would host lavish and wild parties at the imperial palace dancing and drinking to the point of getting hangovers. As a bisexual, Constantine enjoyed having young men and women at his parties barely clothed except for a toga over their underwear and in these parties, Constantine too would get high by inhaling a flower that could be used as a drug from Asia Minor. Both Anna and Artavasdos now had their own reasons to hate Constantine as not only was he an Iconoclast extremist and an obstacle to Artavasdos, but he was also an excessive young man that cared more about pleasure than for the good of his empire and so here in their house in Constantinople, Artavasdos when at his bedroom with Anna told her that it was time to get rid of Constantine for the good of the empire by poisoning him, and Anna was also intent on doing it as part of revenge on him for destroying her icons the previous year. Artavasdos here also told Anna in private that Constantine V needed to go as they both knew Constantine had a health condition which was epilepsy, in which was a valid reason to make him not completely suitable to be emperor as just a simple health condition could discredit someone from being emperor, as after all the emperor needed to be seen as a perfect human, and Artavasdos having no kind of health condition or deformity would be a perfect candidate for the throne. In this story’s case in one night in March of 742, while Constantine V was having another wild party in the palace, Anna decided to attend it too as being the emperor’s sister, she would definitely be allowed entry and so in her house, she dressed up for the occasion in more lose and revealing clothes as for Constantine, the more skin showing the better. The dress Anna put on here was simply a red silk Ancient Roman style dress which was just an easy to put on red sleeveless tunic just fastened above the shoulders with a pin, and a red toga cloth known as a Stola draped over it with only two belts to hold up the dress where one was fastened below the bust and the other at the waist, and first of all before putting on the dress, she put on her underwear which was basically a cloth band wrapped around the bust to simply hold it without shoulder straps- as depicted in a 4th century Roman mosaic- and after Anna tightened the band around her bust, she put on the red dress and when wearing it, she realized how comfortable it was compared to the more conservative and difficult to wear tight Byzantine style dresses of her time.

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Sample Roman red dress with a Stola

While Anna was dressing up, Artavasdos came in giving her the vial of poison which Anna put deep inside her underwear, which she tightened more to hold in the poison vial, and it was here when she told Artavasdos the whole truth that she was in fact leading a the resistance against Iconoclasm, and Artavasdos did not really seem to mind as he never really cared about Iconoclasm anyway and would just do whatever it took to get rid of Constantine, and it was here at this party through Anna that would be his first opportunity to get rid of Constantine as Leo III was now dead and Artavasdos with Leo still alive would not do any harm to his family. Before leaving Artavasdos kissed Anna and brushed his hand down her hair to her face, neck, upper chest, and finally to her breasts which he held on to tightly to make sure the poison vial stayed in place inside her underwear, then he brushed his hand down to her stomach holding on to it for a few seconds, and then he kissed her one more time in her breasts then in her lips before she left. The party then went on in the imperial palace and Anna was able to enter freely looking for the drinks being served to Constantine, although she failed to carry out the plan as she soon enough couldn’t help but indulge herself in the alcoholic drinks and later, she got too drunk that the poison vial slipped out of her dress into a couch, then she later crashed into one of the beds nearby waking up the next day when the party was over. The next day as the palace staff cleaned up the room where the party the night before was, they found the vial of poison and a headband and when Constantine saw both items, he knew the headband belonged to Anna, therefore Constantine concluded Anna was attempting to poison him. Anna however happened to be inside the palace and when woken up by the palace staff cleaning it, she was immediately brought by them to Constantine in her sleepwear who then pulled her hand dragging her to the palace courtyard where he had the palace guards chain her up to one of the columns and afterwards tear off the back of her nightgown, while Constantine pulled out a whip ready to whip her himself. Now as emperor, Constantine had the right chance to punish his older sister that made him feel so miserable, and here he viciously whipped Anna’s back on and on, and as he remembered all the moments Anna got all the attention instead of him, he increased the power of the whipping until Anna passed out, and at the end Constantine gave Anna 30 lashes until her back was filled up with bruises, although there was not much bleeding as it was only a soft leather whip that was used on her. The first people to pick up Anna later on and help her recover were her two younger sisters Irene and Kosmo, as well as her mother Maria who put her in a cold bath in their part of the palace where Maria looking at her daughter in the bath saw all the wounds at her back. Anna waking up felt some kind of discomfort as her mother and sisters were present while she was naked in the bath, but she told her mother here exactly what happened and that Constantine is insane, while Anna also told her mother that Constantine does not know yet she is leading the resistance against Iconoclasm, but if he finds out he’ll have everything they worked so hard on to restore destroyed, and them all executed regardless if they’re his family members. Maria then told Anna here that it was now time to rise up against Constantine V and replace him with Artavasdos, but it was also hard for Maria as this meant getting rid of her son, although she asked that Constantine should instead suffer a more humane punishment which was to just have his tongue cut off if Artavasdos succeeded in his rebellion. Some nights later after Anna recovered from her wounds, while she and Artavasdos were at their bed in their house in Constantinople, Artavasdos at the bed while looking at the wounds in Anna’s back as she was lying down completely naked with only the blanket covering her front told her some valuable information he heard from Constantine V, which was that the reigning Umayyad Arab caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik launched another attack into Asia Minor and that Artavasdos was asked to take part in the counter-attack by leading the Opsikion Theme’s troops. Here, Anna told Artavasdos that this was the right opportunity to strike against Constantine V by doing it in the middle of battle abandoning Constantine V’s forces there.

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Iconoclasm continues under Constantine V
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Dressing up a Byzantine era woman

           

As the summer of 742 came, Artavasdos with the Opsikion Theme army joined Constantine V as they marched east out of Constantinople into Asia Minor to confront the Arabs while Anna right here organized a meeting with the members of the Iconodule resistance at their base, the Cistern of Theodosius where she asked everyone if they were all in favor of Artavasdos as emperor in which all said yes, as they’d rather have anyone else other than the monster Constantine V. For the people that supported icons, Artavasdos was the perfect choice even if he was not really a strong believer of icons, but for them it would seem like he was not a usurper with no legitimacy as he had family ties being Leo III’ son-in-law, and was also a disciplined and no-nonsense soldier and administrator unlike the unstable and somewhat insane Constantine V who they were now all comparing to all the lunatic and bloodthirsty Roman and Byzantine emperors of the past like Caligula (r. 37-41AD), Nero (r. 54-68AD), Commodus (r. 180-192), Phocas (r. 602-610), and Justinian II. Together with Artavasdos in this campaign was his younger son Nikephoros who was being trained here by his father in battle, but right before they would all confront the Arab forces, when marching somewhere in the Anatolic Theme, Artavasdos and a few of his Cataphract cavalry soldiers charged right at the portion under Constantine V’s command by surprise wherein one of the commanders of Constantine’s bodyguard force named Beser was killed.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldier

Artavasdos then shouted out loud to Constantine that Anna ordered this as she is leading the resistance against Iconoclasm, although Constantine here did not attack Artavasdos fearing Artavasdos’ forces will kill him first, so instead Constantine and the troops loyal to him fled the site retreating to the Anatolic Theme’s capital Amorion which was just nearby. Artavasdos together with Nikephoros after turning on Constantine V also did not continue with the campaign, instead they marched their forces back to Constantinople where Artavasdos was ready to crown himself emperor before Constantine could make it back there. When arriving back in Constantinople, both Anna and Patriarch Anastasios welcomed them, and here there was total shift in Patriarch Anastasios who from being a strong Iconoclast suddenly became an ardent supporter of Artavasdos, of Anna’s resistance, and of icons in general. Anastasios meanwhile just like Artavasdos never really cared much about Iconoclasm or defending icons, as he being the patriarch only wanted to be in favor of the reigning emperor no matter who whether Iconoclast or not, but when seeing for himself how much the people rallying under Anna were so ardent about icons, he felt their pain and therefore in an instant became totally on their side and a defender of icons. Artavasdos at 55 here was soon enough crowned as emperor dressed in the new imperial robes or the Loros Justinian II previously introduced, while Anna was crowned as empress or Augusta, and Nikephoros even though being their second son was crowned as co-emperor to fully secure Artavasdos’ branch of the Isaurian Dynasty as the eldest son Niketas was still over in the Armeniac Theme here at this point in 742, therefore there was no time to crown him as co-emperor as Constantine V could return at any moment. It is also debated by historians that Niketas may not be Artavasdos’ son with Anna but from a previous wife which is why he was not crowned co-emperor, although this is highly unlikely and this wouldn’t be the case for this story. After his coronation, Artavasdos was then backed by Anna’s mother Maria and younger sisters Irene and Kosmo who all encouraged him to take the title of “Protector of the Holy Icons” as by supporting the cause of the people for the icons or the Iconodules, his legitimacy as emperor would be more secure as majority of the people of Constantinople had backed him. Meanwhile in Amorion, Constantine V was still emperor but only there, as the people there especially the army with him and of the Anatolic Theme supported Iconoclasm therefore backing him. As it turned out, the soldiers that were in Amorion were mostly the same ones two years earlier at the Battle of Akroinon that helped Constantine and his father defeat the Arabs and remembering him well, they all rallied under him and so did the entire army and people of the Anatolic Theme. Constantine V here at least got the dream he wanted so much which was to have a great amount of popularity and these soldiers not only supported him, they pledged to fight and die for him and for the name of Iconoclasm as well. Constantine V though when in Amorion in this story’s case would also get some strange dreams, although this would be due to his growing addiction to the flower drugs he was taking, and as Mario put it here, Constantine one time dreamt that he was in his bedroom there in Amorion seeing Artavasdos in the bed next to him thinking it was real until waking up the next day seeing Artavasdos was not there. Artavasdos too experienced the same thing back in Constantinople, except instead he got a dream of Constantine overthrowing and blinding him- as what happened in real history. As emperor in Constantinople, Artavasdos’ first act was to restore all the icons to their rightful places as well as to repaint the frescos in which their faces were destroyed, and all this had to be done in so little time before Constantine V could come back, while Artavasdos too apologized to the people for what he did back in 726 in taking down the mosaic at the Chalke Gate saying he only did it because of his loyalty to Leo III. Under the guidance of Anna with her mother and sisters, a lot of these icons were successfully returned to their rightful places from being kept underground at the Cistern of Theodosius, while a lot of those that were destroyed were fixed to be as good as new again. At the same time, both Constantine V in Amorion and Artavasdos in Constantinople during the autumn and winter of 742 began preparing their armies for the ultimate civil war to come. Constantine further encouraged his soldiers by reminding them that they are fighting to get rid of Artavasdos and Anna who he called the “double-crosser” in his speeches, and this anger also further increased the morale of the soldiers as they knew from reports that they were rapidly undoing the Iconoclast policy of Leo III who was their hero. The armies of the Themes of Thrace and Opsikion would then switch sides to Anna’s resistance and Artavasdos, and so would the distant Armeniac Theme under Niketas who immediately got word from his father to join forces with him against Constantine V who meanwhile was backed by the armies of the Anatolic and Thracesian Themes all being loyal to the Iconoclast cause. By early 743, it turned out that almost the entire population of Constantinople especially monks, nuns, and women were all loyally behind Artavasdos giving him hope that he will defeat Constantine V, also because he had 3 Themes with him while Constantine only had 2 Themes.          

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Seal of Emperor Artavasdos
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Cataphract cavalry, elite army of the Byzantine Themes
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Amorion, Capital of the Anatolic Theme

Watch this to learn more about Emperor Artavasdos (Eastern Roman History).

Over in Italy, in this story’s case Exarch Eutychius in 743 when hearing of Artavasdos being crowned emperor, he switched his support to Artavasdos and restoring icons even if he was against icons considering he a was loyal supporter of Leo III. Eutychius though would only switch his support since he desperately needed imperial support no matter from who, as Byzantine rule in Italy was almost completely lost due to the ambitious conquests of the Lombard king Liutprand that in 738 Ravenna was temporarily captured by the Lombards that Eutychius had to flee to the new Republic of Venice before recapturing the exarchate’s capital of Ravenna some years later.

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Pope Zachary, Patriarch of Rome (741-752)

It also happened that back in 741, the new pope Zachary was elected, and in 743 when hearing of Artavasdos coming to power and restoring icons, here in this story’s case he congratulated him agreeing to have the Church of Rome in good terms with Constantinople again. Soon enough, the message to restore icons were spread to the western parts wherein Leo III had previously replaced their bishops with Iconoclast ones, but with the Iconoclast policy gone under both Emperor Artavasdos and Patriarch Anastasios of Constantinople, the icons were freely allowed to be restored. Back in Constantinople, in this story’s case, Anna had managed to actually get Constantine’s wife Tzitzak who was left behind in Constantinople to support icons after having a couple of drinks together, and this would be possibly because women were more attached to religious icons than men. With the army of Artavasdos fully assembled, they all marched into Asia Minor under Artavasdos’ command while the Armeniac Theme’s army under Niketas would meet them along the way, although Artavasdos chose to attack Constantine V in waves but was not expecting that Constantine V led his entire army from both the Anatolic and Thracesian Themes to confront Artavasdos’ forces. The two sides met near the city of Sardis in Western Asia Minor in May of 743 and being outnumbered to the entire Thematic armies of Constantine V, Artavasdos’ and Niketas’ forces were defeated here, although both father and son still survived as Niketas fled north and Artavasdos back to Constantinople to gather the second batch of his troops.

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Byzantine Thematic army soldier, 8th century

3 months later, Niketas and his Armeniac Theme army was spotted and cornered in the town of Modrine near the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor, where Constantine with such a fury led a charge defeating the Armeniac troops, again forcing Niketas to flee. Niketas though would still manage to regroup his army and blockade the Dardanelles strait to prevent Constantine passage into Europe, but later on outside the city of Nicomedia on the way to Constantinople, Niketas lost again to his uncle due to Niketas being too young and inexperienced in fighting battles and when losing, Constantine captured his nephew Niketas himself personally beating him up to the ground, and later shipping him to Constantinople to be imprisoned. Having defeated Niketas, Constantine then crossed the Dardanelles Strait into Thrace and later arriving outside Constantinople’s walls laying siege to it. Constantine V though did not entirely lay siege but more so blockaded it by both land and sea and after some 2 months by November of 743, the defending army tired of being locked in surrendered thus allowing Constantine V entry, while Artavasdos together with Anna and Nikephoros made it in time to flee across the Bosporus to the Opsikion Theme, while Niketas was left in a prison within Constantinople.          

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Coin of Emperor Artavasdos (left) and of his son and co-emperor Nikephoros (right)
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Byzantine Civil War- Battle of Sardis, 743- Constantine V’s forces defeat Artavasdos’ forces under Niketas, art by Faisal Hashemi

When the city garrison surrendered to Constantine V who now entered Constantinople in the new uniform of the imperial Loros after more than a year of losing the throne, he was beyond disgusted to see how much icons Artavasdos and Anna restored, and the worst part for him- in this story’s case- was seeing his name with the title “Kopronymos” graffitied in the city’s walls which was the nickname people that hated him used to put him down, reminding him of defecating in the baptismal water as a baby.

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Byzantine blinding from the Madrid Skylitzes

Constantine though did not yet destroy the icons that were just restored, instead he first focused his attention on rounding up everyone he knew that was loyal to Artavasdos and Anna, mostly being monks and women in the resistance movement and had them all either blinded, their noses cut off, or executed in the most brutal ways such as being sawn in half or burned alive right in front of him as he celebrated with drinks and music. The next person Constantine targeted was Patriarch Anastasios who Constantine saw betrayed him and Iconoclasm by switching sides to Artavasdos so here like in real history, Constantine had Anastasios’ robes torn off and put on the back of donkey to be paraded around the streets of Constantinople, wherein those loyal to Constantine all laughed at the site mocking Anastasios.

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Sawing in half execution method

Constantine though like in real history here did not fire Anastasios, instead he only punished him by humiliation and afterwards chose to keep him as patriarch as he could not find any replacement, and just wanting to be in favor with the reigning emperor again, Anastasios chose to switch his support to Constantine V again. The next move Constantine V planned was to install a large mosaic of a black cross which was to replace an old mosaic with an image of Christ for the apse of the Hagia Eirene, which was here under repair after the damage caused to it by the earthquake of 740, but before he began working on it Constantine returned to his wife Tzitzak in the imperial palace before going to his bath alone as a way to relax now that he had taken back the throne. When in his baths, as Mario again put it, Constantine again went back to inhaling the drug flowers he so loved that soon enough he began hallucinating things including the time he was a baby defecating on the baptismal font, his sister Anna getting more attention for her works, the icons of Anna that he broke and urinated on, how Anna tried to poison him, and lastly he saw Artavasdos again right next to him this time with a dagger about to slit his throat, although later Constantine snapped out seeing this was only a hallucination.

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Drug flower inhaled by Constantine V

Although right when Constantine woke up from his hallucination- in this story’s case- his 3 sisters Anna, Irene, and Kosmo all surrounded him, and out of fear thinking they were there to strangle him in his bath under Artavasdos’ orders, Constantine immediately told Anna he was sorry for hurting her before, but Anna replied telling him he was only hurting himself with what he did to her by only making his hatred consume him. Anna then told Constantine that Artavasdos sent her back there offering to settle the claim to the imperial throne with a personal duel between Artavasdos and Constantine to the point of only making one submit to the other, which would allow Constantine to prove himself once again. Constantine at first did not want to leave his bath, but Anna feeling a sense of anger towards him put her hand in the water of the tub roughly grabbing Constantine’s private part, and so Constantine was now willing to fully have revenge on Artavasdos and agreed to the duel, thus putting on his golden imperial armor with a purple cape included and readying his sword, the curved single-bladed Byzantine saber known as the Paramerion. In real history, after fleeing Constantinople in November of 743, Artavasdos sought refuge in a castle in the Opsikion Theme but was immediately caught there by Constantine V’s soldiers and brought to Constantinople where he together with both sons Niketas and Nikephoros were blinded and sent to live out their lives in the small Monastery of Chora in the outskirts of Constantinople, where all 3 would die possibly not so long after from the infection caused by the blinding, thus ending the rebellion and short reign of Artavasdos.

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Paramerion, Byzantine curved sword

In this case however, Constantine himself travelled to this castle across the Bosporus together with his sisters who brought him to Artavasdos who was already waiting for Constantine in his imperial armor above the castle walls. The duel between both emperors would begin with Constantine striking with his sword first which Artavasdos immediately dodged, and watching from the other side of the walls opposite to them were Anna, Irene, Kosmo, and Nikephoros while Artavasdos’ loyal troops stayed below inside the castle, and Constantine’s troops outside. Both Artavasdos and Constantine here both duelled each other with their Paramerion sabers, and for a long time neither of them got the upper hand as both blades kept parrying each other, although Constantine managed to head-butt Artavasdos while Artavasdos in return swept Constantine’s leg pinning him down, but Constantine later managed to cut Artavasdos’ leg with his sword injuring him. Constantine then used the pommel of his sword to beat Artavasdos’ face into a pulp, but Artavasdos still fought back by choking Constantine and while trying to pin him down, he kept taunting Constantine with insults including again calling him “Kopronymos” which only made Constantine angrier therefore breaking free from Artavasdos’ choke hold making Artavasdos drop his sword, and then pinning Artavasdos down to the ground. Constantine then dropped his sword and placed his foot on Artavasdos’ neck as again a sign of having conquered him, though Constantine took too much time doing that to show everyone around him that he and Iconoclasm had still won, thus the soldiers loyal to Constantine outside the castle walls all cheered, but by taking too much time showing off to everyone, Artavasdos enraged as ever at Constantine for beating him managed to break free from Constantine’s foot, got up, hit Constantine’s waist hard with his elbow, kicked Constantine in the stomach, and kicked Constantine again, though the second kick resulted in Constantine falling off the railing of the castle wall. Constantine then fell off in what would be equivalent to 3 floors hitting his back right at the ground of the castle’s interior to the point of being critically injured and in a coma, while the cheers of his soldiers outside the walls suddenly stopped, and Anna being shocked at the sight of her brother falling off the castle walls screamed “Artavasdos what did you do!”, while Artavasdos also being shocked at what happened fell to the ground exhausted. The soldiers loyal to Constantine meanwhile in the panic all decided to switch their support to Artavasdos, but at the same time they also carried Constantine’s body away while Anna put her hand on his neck noticing his pulse was still beating despite him being unconscious. Later on, everyone who was at that castle including Artavasdos all returned to Constantinople quietly as none of them expected the duel to end with Constantine critically injured and near dead. When hearing of what happened to her son, Maria refused to speak to Artavasdos and took a vow of silence refusing to even lay her eyes on him for her entire life as he almost killed Constantine who Maria only wanted slightly injured to make him unqualified to take back the throne. Now that Constantine despite surviving the fall was completely paralyzed and had to be confined to what would be here the Chora Monastery, and by being completely paralyzed there would be no more chance at all for Constantine to return to power. Artavasdos meanwhile as the full emperor again would keep Anastasios still as patriarch, who would again shift his loyalty back to Artavasdos and icons, then Artavasdos too would establish his branch of Leo III’s Isaurian Dynasty now making his other son Niketas who would here be released from prison as his other co-emperor together with Nikephoros, and now fully taking back the throne, Artavasdos would issue a decree saying that all icons in the empire are to be restored.

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Patriarch Anastasios paraded on a donkey by order of Constantine V
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Iconoclast art, the cross at the apse of the Hagia Eirene added by Constantine V
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Byzantine era Chora Monastery in Constantinople, Constantine V’s exile place (Artavasdos’ in reality)

Aftermath and Conclusion         

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In real history the failed rebellion of Artavasdos and his civil war against Constantine V showed that the empire was literally split in half over the issue of icons, so it was basically Byzantium vs Byzantium where icons were still popular among one half of the population and despised by the other half. Constantine V in reality saw the uprising of Artavasdos which he defeated as a sign to make him have a firmer stance on Iconoclasm which he took to an even higher level, later passing death sentences on those who possessed icons as the issue could lead to civil wars like the one he faced from 742 to 743 that nearly cost him his life.

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

In real history, Artavasdos and his sons Niketas and Nikephoros were all publicly blinded in the Hippodrome and all banished to the Chora Monastery in Constantinople whereas Anna and the rest of their 7 children would all follow them there to retirement, where Anna would be the one caring for her blinded husband and sons who would die not so long after, possibly only 2 years later in 745 from the infection caused by the wounds of the blinding. The same historian Theophanes the Confessor who was hostile to Constantine V as well as to his father Leo III and Justinian II before him mentions that 30 years after Artavasdos’ rebellion failed (773), Anna returns to the picture now as an old woman while Constantine V was still in power, and here he forced Anna to dig up the bodies of her husband Artavasdos and her 2 sons with him, using her cloak to carry their bodies, and dump them in a mass grave as a way of condemning them as heretics for supporting icons, while Anna afterwards disappears from the pages of history. Constantine V in 754 in real history called for a Church Council at Hieria, found right across the Bosporus from Constantinople attended by hundreds of Iconoclast bishops and priests from all over the empire wherein the full-scale persecution of Iconodules was declared.

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Church Council of Hieria, 754 headed by Emperor Constantine V (left)

As emperor, Constantine V’s Iconoclast policy was even way more extreme than his father’s as not only did he pass death sentences on those who supported icons especially on those who restored them or encouraged to restore them, but he hating scholars and monks primarily targeted them, thus he had monasteries raided to confiscate icons and their hidden wealth to fund his armies, and had many monks and nuns blinded as well. Another thing Constantine V did as a result of the rebellion of Artavasdos which he crushed was that he divided the troublemaking Opsikion Theme which Artavasdos was in charge of into two halves as a way to weaken its power; the first one still being the Opsikion Theme which had Nicaea as its capital, and the other half then became known as the Optimatoi Theme with Nicomedia as its capital. As part of creating the new Optimatoi Theme, Constantine V had also introduced a new unit in the Byzantine army which was the Tagmata (singular: Tagma), the new elite force in charge of protecting the emperor in battle which was to be loyal to the emperor at all times, which Constantine V created in response to Artavasdos’ failed rebellion, and the Tagmata were then assigned to the Optimatoi Theme as it was directly across Constantinople.

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

On the other hand, other than viciously persecuting Iconodules and carrying out an extreme policy of Iconoclasm, Constantine V was a very popular emperor especially among the army as he was most of the time victorious in battle against the Arabs and later against the Bulgars up north, and also because he gave free food to the people of Constantinople, possibly as a way to compensate for his persecutions on Iconodules. Now back to the situation of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate, as their armies were raiding into Asia Minor by the time Constantine V and Artavasdos fought the civil war with each other, they never really penetrated as far, as by this time the Umayyad Caliphate was already weakening and by 746 once Constantine V finished the civil war, he turned his attention to the war against the Arabs winning a great victory and even recaptured his father’s hometown of Germanikeia in Syria which had some time earlier fallen to the hands of the Arabs. Following this victory, the Byzantine navy defeated an Arab fleet near Cyprus in 747 while in 752, Constantine recaptured a great number of territories in Eastern Asia Minor from the Arabs and resettled the people there to the Balkans right at the border with the Bulgarian state. Meanwhile, in 750 the Umayyad Caliphate after another civil war was destroyed and replaced by a new Arab power being the Abbasid Caliphate moving the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, which relieved the Byzantines as the new Caliphate’s center was farther away and that it would take some time for this new power to consolidate its rule over the Arab world, though in 751 the new Caliphate won a victory over the forces of the Chinese Tang Empire at the Battle of Talas in Central Asia while in the far west, Spain which fell under the rule of the Umayyads still remained an Umayyad state in exile based in Cordoba refusing to be under the Abbasids.

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

However in the remains of Byzantine Italy, not all went in favor for the Byzantines and by 751 with Italy being neglected by Constantine V and Leo III before him as it was too far away, the Exarchate of Ravenna came to an end when Eutychius its last exarch surrendered Ravenna to the Lombards as it proved already too impossible to hold. The fall of Ravenna to the Lombards though was also another blessing in disguise, as if it stayed longer under Byzantine rule, the valuable mosaics there such as those of Justinian and Theodora which had their faces on it would have been destroyed, and the Lombards not being Iconoclasts would keep them that way when holding Ravenna. With the emperor neglecting Byzantine Italy as their problems were mostly in the east, the pope had also begun to lose faith in the Byzantines, also because of their Iconoclast policy, so for protection against the ambitious Lombards, the pope would have to turn to the new powerful Frankish Kingdom up north in today’s France which was willing to fight the Lombards and could be more trusted by the pope, as the Franks unlike the Byzantines did not destroy icons.

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

From 755 onwards, Constantine V with the threat of the Arabs dealt with turned his attention north to wage war against the Bulgars who also declared war on them when feeling suspicious of Constantine V fortifying the Byzantine border with them. In this war, the Byzantines won 3 major victories over the Bulgars first in 756, then in 759, and lastly in 763 and with all these victories, Constantine surely believed that Iconoclasm was definitely a successful move. Constantine V later planned another attack on the Bulgars again in 775 but failed as he died that year at the age of 57 and at his death, he left the empire stronger than he had founded it. According to the Russian Byzantinist historian George Ostrogorsky (1902-1976), Constantine V had an equally positive and negative reputation as on the positive side he scored countless victories against the Arabs and Bulgars making him very popular with the army especially, but on the negative side he was a more vicious Iconoclast than his father, that the same historian Theophanes the Confessor described him in the same vicious way as he did with Justinian II saying Constantine V was a “monster” and even a “precursor of the Antichrist” because of how extremely he went against icons, therefore because of his extreme Iconoclasm he would forever be remembered as “Kopronymos” or the “shit-named” despite him still being a capable emperor.                 

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Constantine V’s Iconoclasm from the Manases Chronicle
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Map of the new Arab Abbasid Caliphate, formed in 750 replacing the Umayyad Caliphate
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Battle of Talas, 751- Abbasid Caliphate Arabs defeat the Tang Chinese forces in Central Asia
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Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars from the Madrid Skylitzes
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Meme of Constatine V the chad compared to Virgin Basil II (r. 976-1025)

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

Now in this story’s case, the events in history will play out quite but not so differently with Artavasdos as emperor and Constantine V out of the scene after 743. For Constantine V in this story’s case with Artavasdos winning the civil war, he would be paralyzed for life and would have to be confined to the Chora Monastery where in real history Artavasdos and his family were banished to, and in possibly only 2 years (by 745)- the possible date of Artavasdos’ death in real history too- Constantine V would die from his severe injury at only 27. His wife Tzitzak here would have to return to her native land of the Khazars like what Justinian II’s wife did back in 711, whereas in real history Tzitzak had died in 750 after giving birth to Constantine V’s first son Leo IV “the Khazar” who would succeed his father as emperor. With Artavasdos continuing his reign as emperor on the other hand, not so much would be different as compared to Constantine V’s reign in reality, except of course for the destructions of icons, and with Artavasdos fully reigning as emperor from 743 onwards, the icons previously destroyed under Leo III and Constantine V would all be put back in place and day and night, the people serving Anna’s resistance would put the icons right back in their rightful places and repaint those that were damaged by the years of Iconoclasm. Therefore with Artavasdos as emperor, there would be no Council of Hieria in 754, no persecutions, and no having to blind monks and nuns, and instead by some encouragement from Anna and her sisters who were strongly devoted to icons, Iconoclasm would be made illegal and the same Ecloga of Leo III would be updated with the part on Iconoclasm removed, and instead prohibiting it. As for the conflict with the Arabs, the same of course would happen with the Umayyad Caliphate’s power weakening so due to that, Artavasdos just as Constantine V did would also win a great number of victories against the Arabs in the east in 746, 747, and 752 also taking back Leo III’s hometown of Germanikeia. With Artavasdos staying as emperor though, things will only be different in the Byzantine world as outside it, things would still play out the same way as it did in real history so over with the Arabs, the Umayyad Caliphate would still be dissolved in 750 and be replaced with the Abbasid Caliphate, and over in Italy the ambitious Lombards would continue to expand and in 751 take over Ravenna as well. The fall of Ravenna to the Lombards that would end the Byzantine Exarchate meanwhile would still be inevitable due to the increasing power of the Lombards, so in this story’s case even with Artavasdos as emperor, the same would happen in Italy wherein Exarch Eutychius would still surrender Ravenna to the Lombards and afterwards disappear from the pages of history by fleeing to the new Republic of Venice never to be heard from again. Byzantine territory in Italy following the fall of Ravenna like in real history too would only consist of the southern regions and Sicily, as Rome was always asserting itself as independent anyway. However, since icons and icon veneration was now reinstated in Byzantium, the pope would therefore still remain loyal to Byzantium and its emperor Artavasdos also agreeing to still keep Rome under the Byzantines’ protection, therefore this would be a very major change if Artavasdos who favored icons stayed as emperor as with this happening, the pope would no longer have to turn to the Frankish Kingdom for support against the Lombards, but instead still to the Byzantines while the Republic of Venice too would still remain an ally to Byzantium whether the empire was Iconoclast or not. Back in the empire when it would come to reforming the Themes, Artavasdos would also do the same as Constantine V in limiting the power of the Opsikion Theme thus dividing it and making the other half divided out of it also as the Optimatoi Theme, as from his rebellion against Constantine V from 742-743, Artavasdos would realize from it despite being the one rebelling that this Theme was something that was causing trouble. In the process of breaking the Opsikion Theme in half too, Artavasdos would also do the same as Constantine V in real history in creating the new imperial elite force or the Tagmata that would be the emperor’s personal army in battle, and he too would assign them to the new Optimatoi Theme. Artavasdos though considering that he was way older than Constantine V when taking over the throne in 742 being 55 then would not rule as long as Constantine V in real history who ruled until 775, instead Artavasdos as I would put it would die by 759 at the age of 72 despite having begun Byzantium’s new war against the Bulgars in 755 just as Constantine V did in real history, though at his death Artavasdos would still leave the empire stronger than he had founded it, meaning Byzantium was more stable compared to how it was in 717 when Leo III with the help of Artavasdos took over the empire wherein the Arabs laid siege to Constantinople, though for defending and restoring icons, Artavasdos would be made a saint too after his death in this story’s case. Following Artavasdos’ death, the elder son Niketas then would be the senior emperor though his younger brother Nikephoros having already been crowned co-emperor will still stay co-emperor. It would then be in the reign of Niketas and Nikephoros as co-emperors that the Byzantine-Bulgarian war would go on, and just as it went in favor for Constantine V and Byzantium in real history, I would also say the same thing for Niketas and Nikephoros’ Byzantium wherein they would also score major victories over the Bulgars. Now we have come to the big question which is what if Artavasdos succeeded in defeating Constantine V and stayed as emperor, and would this do a lot of change to the course of the Byzantine history? Well, the answer to this is not very simple but also not very complex. In the short-term, not a lot of changes would happen to the Byzantine Empire in its geography or political situation as after Artavasdos’ death in this story’s case which would be in 759, the Byzantine Empire would still be the same in size and power as it was in real history by this time wherein it was ruled by Constantine V, therefore Asia Minor would still be the heartland where all the Themes and the empire’s army came from, and though powerful the armies would still not be that powerful enough to relive the conquests of Justinian I in the 6th century, thus there would be no more chance to take back Italy and North Africa again. In the long-term things may be favorable for Byzantium if Artavasdos survived in power as considering the popes in Rome always opposed the Byzantines’ policy of Iconoclasm and with Artavasdos supporting the icons, then the Byzantine emperor as well as the Church of Constantinople would still be in good terms with the Church of Rome, therefore this will change a lot of things in the long-term for the turbulent relations between the pope and Byzantium. With icons reinstated earlier enough in Byzantium, then Byzantium’s relationship with the pope would not be fractured that much, therefore the pope would no longer have to ally with the Frankish Kingdom of Pepin I, and Rome rather than later on becoming an independent state known as the Papal States would still remain under the rule of the Byzantine emperor except with some autonomy under the pope, and in the centuries to come if Byzantium remained in good terms with the pope if icons were reinstated earlier on, then possibly there would be no Great Schism later on in 1054 where the final division between the Eastern and Western Churches happened, and possibly no tensions between the Byzantines and the Crusaders by the time the 11th century ends, and lastly with Byzantium and the pope still good terms, there may even be no bloody 4th Crusade later on in 1204 that almost ended the Byzantine Empire. Of course, Iconoclasm in Byzantium did not go on forever as in 787 the empress regent Irene, the daughter-in-law of Constantine V called for a Church Council that put an end to it temporarily, although by 815 Iconoclasm made a comeback under Emperor Leo V (r. 813-820), but in 843 with another Church Council led by the empress regent Theodora, Iconoclasm came to a full stop, therefore this also shows women were strongly devoted to icons.