Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IX- Preventing the Catastrophic 4th Crusade in Advance

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 12th Century 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 VIII- 11th Century

The most singular feature in the character of Manuel is the contrast and vicissitude of labor and sloth, of hardiness and effeminacy. In war he seemed ignorant of peace, in peace he appeared incapable of war.” -Edward Gibbon, English Historian (1737-1794) on Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos

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Welcome to the 9th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time in chapter VIII of this 12-part series, I went over the 11th Century Crisis of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) featuring the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert in 1071 where in my last story, the Byzantines were however able to win against the invading Seljuk Turks unlike in real history where it was a devastating defeat for the Byzantines that gradually resulted in the permanent Turkish occupation of the Byzantine heartland Asia Minor. Though the previous chapter of this series ended with the Byzantines victorious over the Seljuks at Manzikert, the same political instability in real history that dealt such damage to Byzantium still occurred, therefore even if the Byzantines defeated the Seljuks, the Byzantines would still be defeated from the inside with all its corruption and political instability where only the coming of a capable and visionary ruler could turn everything around. Now since the chapters of this alternate history series are not continuous with each other in plot, this chapter will as usual, begin with the events of real history wherein the plot is only altered as the story progresses. Although since the previous chapter ended basically with what actually happened in real history with the young and strong emperor Alexios I Komnenos coming to power in 1081 ready to save his empire from falling apart, this chapter will also begin with the exact same situation where the last one ended except that since it will start off with real historical events, this chapter will start off with the Battle of Manzikert back in 1071 ending with a crushing defeat for the Byzantines, therefore Alexios I as emperor would have a lot of stress to deal with especially in reclaiming Asia Minor from the Seljuks that have taken it over 10 years earlier, thus leading Alexios I to ask for military assistance from Western Europe which then came in the form of the First Crusade. Though the First Crusade proved to have a disastrous outcome as its leaders did not keep their word to Byzantium in restoring the lands that they reconquered from the Seljuks back to the Byzantines but taking these conquered lands for themselves, they at least relieved Alexios I from a number of difficulties as being able to crush the immediate threat of the Seljuks in battle allowed the Byzantines to gain the upper hand in pushing the Seljuks away from Asia Minor. As the disastrous 11th century came to an end, the new 12th century began with once again with a bright future ahead for the Byzantines as for one the Crusaders having their own states such as Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli, and Jerusalem in the Levant known in general as Outremer were the ones now to have to constantly defend themselves against the Seljuks and other Islamic powers of the Middle East allowing the Byzantines up north to turn the tide against the Seljuks to the offensive, thus allowing the Byzantines once again to achieve prosperity.

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

Most of the 12th century for Byzantium was the defined as the age known as the Komnenian Restoration as it was an age for an economic, military, and cultural revival for Byzantium under the emperors of the Komnenos Dynasty which sought to reverse the disasters Byzantium faced in the previous century, while for the rest of the world the 12th century was also defined as the beginning of the “High Middle Ages” which was most notable for the Crusades and the rise of several Kingdoms in Europe which now rose in power and influence to something like the same level of Byzantium. The 12th century too was something like the end of an old age and the beginning of a new one which here meant that it was the last golden age for the Byzantine Empire as it was about time for others such as France, England, and Hungary that were once insignificant to have their time to emerge. As for the Byzantine Empire, it was much more stable again as the ruling Komnenos Dynasty became a strongly established one which no one would dare challenge, while at the same time the imperial currency was once again strong and its culture maintained as a highly sophisticated one. This period too saw the rare but fortunate event of the reign of 3 successful emperors one after the other in one straight line of succession being Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), his son John II Komnenos (1118-1143), and his son Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) which saw the Byzantine Empire grow to be the Eastern Mediterranean’s dominant power making the Crusader states of Outremer to the south of them, the much weakened Seljuks of Asia Minor, and the Kingdom of Hungary to the north of them see Byzantium as their overlords even if these powers were not entirely annexed into Byzantium itself. The problem here however was that the emperors of this time, especially Manuel I Komnenos were too ambitious in terms of acting out this policy in asserting themselves as the superior one to the powers around them, thus making the Byzantines bullies to those around them. As the Byzantine Empire, and more particularly Constantinople in the era of the 3 Komnenos emperors became the world’s cultural center especially for the people of Western Europe known as the “Latins” that were in awe of it, the Komnenos emperors of this time also maintained more or less good relations with the western powers that Western European culture too was introduced to Byzantium but at the same time, the increase of power and influence the Byzantine Empire had in the 12th century would also make them a threat for the other growing but insecure powers of Western Europe especially their rival the Holy Roman Empire making the age old “Cold War” style conflict between Byzantium and the west increase ever more in this century, this time to an even worse level considering now that both Byzantium and the west have become complete separate worlds spiritually ever since the Great Schism of 1054. As usual with how Byzantine history works, the said golden age produced by the 3 Komnenos emperors did not last and a large percent of the empire’s downfall can be attributed to ironically the same emperor who envisioned a strong empire which was Manuel I who by his ambitious policies to assert the dominance of his empire fought too many wars and with his arrogance made too many enemies most specifically the Republic of Venice which would prove to be very fatal for Byzantium itself, and these wars too had resulted in severely draining the empire’s treasury, while his preference for Western Latin culture too created strong division among his people. The worst part however was that at Manuel I’s death in 1180, he did not have a son competent and old enough to succeed him but instead a young son which was Alexios II Komnenos who was barely fit to run an empire therefore putting him under the regency of his mother Empress Maria of Antioch who due to being a westerner, and even more coming from the Norman people that the Byzantines hated caused so much tension in the empire. What followed the unpopular rule of Maria of Antioch as the empire’s regent was a bloody revolution led by the late Manuel I’s cousin and mortal enemy the strongly anti-Western Andronikos Komnenos who’s rise to power led to the execution of both young Alexios II and his mother as well as a brutal massacre of Constantinople’s Latin inhabitants. Andronikos I when coming into power in 1183 may have seemed popular at first as he stood for the pride of the empire’s Greek culture against the virus of western influences that Manuel I introduced but at the end, his anti-Western policies were too much, therefore this kind of over confidence displayed by the Byzantines made tensions with the western world even far greater to the point that nothing could solve it anymore. As for Andronikos I, his bloody rule making Byzantium into a totalitarian dictatorship dominated with tortures and executions turned his people against him that in 1185 they all rallied under the young charismatic politician Isaac Angelos who seized the throne and put Andronikos I to death, but as the new emperor Isaac II Angelos was no better and although he managed to drive off the Noman invasion of 1185 with success, he ruled as a corrupt ruler inept in making decisions. In other words, all of the 12th century was more or less a chain reaction of events that got worse and worse as the years progressed while the combination of Byzantium’s arrogance, mistrust and intolerance to the west, and incompetent leadership by the emperors after Manuel I would all culminate at the beginning of the following century, the 13th century wherein this time it is the west coming in the form of the 4th Crusade assisted by no other than the Republic of Venice in quest for greed and revenge against Byzantium that will bring the empire to its knees when these forces captured and sacked Constantinople itself in 1204 which resulted in the temporary loss of the Byzantine Empire itself for 57 years! The story of the 4th Crusade and the capture of Constantinople in 1204 however would be another story saved for the next chapter of this series, but to understand the entire hatred that led to the Crusaders and Venetians attacking Constantinople itself, we have to go deep into its roots in the 12th century, thus this story here seeks to point out what events in the 12th century were the ones key to bringing about the capture and sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the 4th Crusade and true enough, Byzantium itself is to blame for bringing about their downfall by the time the next century came. Now, the big question here is what kinds of alternative courses of action could the Byzantines have made in advance during the 12th century in order to avoid the fate of losing their capital to the devastating 4th Crusade in 1204?          

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Note: Since this story is set in the 12th century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

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The Byzantine Empire (pink) by 1081 after the Battle of Manzikert
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Map of the Byzantine Empire (orange) in 1180 at the death of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos

Before getting to the main part of this story, I personally think that the 12th century in which this chapter is set in was a very interesting yet complicated time in Byzantine history, therefore I have to say that this chapter itself is so far the trickiest one in this entire series to write. First of all, the history of this period this chapter is set in was a very complicated time not only for the Byzantine Empire but for the world around them as it saw layer and layers of nations both in shifting alliance and conflict with each other including the Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, the new Crusader states of Outremer, the Normans, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Venice, Armenia, the other Islamic powers of the Middle East, and the powers of Western Europe, while at the same time, this era saw the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Crusades itself pass through the Byzantine Empire in order to reach the Holy Land. The 12th century once again saw the Byzantine rise up again to be a dominant military and cultural power except this time adopting customs from the west into their own culture. The 12th century for Byzantium too was not just a time defined by wars fought in pitch battles but a time of bad blood and intrigues not only within the empire but in the empire’s relations with other powers around them especially the west as considering that Byzantium and the Western Latin world as ever since the Great Schism of 1054 as mentioned in the previous chapter, mistrust between both worlds intensified ever more to the point that both had stereotypes of each other whereas the Byzantines arrogantly looked down on the westerners as backwards, violent, and greedy barbarians while the westerners on the other hand saw the Byzantines as scheming trouble makers and traitors. These stereotypes both people said about each other would true enough be significantly featured in this chapter in order to explain what led Byzantium to a downward spiral that would later bring it to its knees by the time the 4th Crusade arrived in 1204. Although the 12th century was an era of mistrust especially between Byzantium and the west, it also featured some of the most interesting rulers of Byzantium whose decisions and policy making too had a part in contributing to the downfall of Byzantine society and its troubled relations with the western world and such rulers included the ambitious and over confident bully Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180), the strongly anti-Western bloody tyrant ruler Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-1185), and the corrupt and incompetent but still conscientious Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195).

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Niketas Choniates, Byzantine historian (1155-1217), one of the main sources of the 12th century, recreation of the original manuscript depicting Choniates, art by myself

At the same time, the 12th century is an era in Byzantine history that is very well documented especially about its emperors and the conflicts of this time as it featured new kinds of historians that have written their histories in very detailed manner being eyewitnesses to the events of this century itself and these include Anna Komnene, the daughter of Alexios I who documented her father’s reign in her book The Alexiad in a very detailed although biased way and Niketas Choniates who’s history records the reigns of the rest of the emperors in the 12th century very descriptively. These mentioned historians now would true enough provide very valuable information for the events of this story in order to look for events that could be altered in order to avoid what is to come in 1204. Now as I mentioned earlier about the difficulty in writing this story, here it is in pointing out the key events in the 12th century itself that would lead to the ultimate destruction of Byzantium in 1204, and in order to look for these key events, one must go back to beginning which in this case was the First Crusade taking place at the end of the previous 11th century in Alexios I’s reign wherein this article will begin. Since the backstory of Alexios I, the Komnenos Dynasty, and the Seljuk occupation of Byzantine Asia Minor, and the rise of the First Crusade were already discussed in the previous chapter, this chapter’s main body will begin right when Alexios I is already emperor whereas the First Crusade takes place before the turn of the 12th century. The rest of the events of the century from 1100 to the beginning of Manuel I’s reign would be told as well to establish the story of the 12th century and the ruling style of the Komnenos emperors as energetic strongmen emperors with the objective of beating back their enemies and restoring the empire to its old glory as was seen with the reigns of Alexios I and his son and successor John II. This story will then get more detailed when reaching the unlikely rise to power of Manuel I in 1143 who being the youngest son of John II at first had no chance of becoming emperor but true enough did and as emperor, he ruled as a highly skilled although overly ambitious and ruthless ruler.

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

Manuel I Komnenos is often remembered as one of the greatest and most ambitious Byzantine emperors giving him the name “Manuel the Great” as he spent his reign growing the power and influence of Byzantium over all the powers around, although he is also to blame for leading the empire to its downfall due to his constant fighting off wars to strengthen the Byzantine state which at the end also drained its economy. With this story being a work of fan fiction, Emperor Manuel I here is to be seen in a more negative light the way the 18th century English historian Edward Gibbon saw him as which is quoted at the beginning of this chapter, as more or less Manuel I’s over confidence caused the decline of the empire and so here in this story, Manuel I who will basically have the largest role in order to point out the events that led the empire down would be seen as not so much a great visionary emperor but an arrogant bully demanding neighboring powers like the Crusader states and Hungary to recognize the authority of Byzantium as their overlords or be beaten in battle which will also make him have enemies. Not to mention, Manuel I was also responsible for causing the rift between Byzantium and their supposed ally the Republic of Venice when declaring war on Venice in the 1170s when feeling threatened by the growing power and wealth of Venice, although at the end Manuel I before his death in 1180 would still realize his mistakes when paying the price for his over confidence as seen when getting his butt kicked by the Seljuks of Asia Minor at the Battle of Myriokephalon. Overall, when getting to know the 12th century more, I have started disliking Manuel I who happens to be the most popular and well-liked ruler of the 12th century based on results I made in a poll in the Roman and Byzantine History Facebook group, however this story’s point is to put down Manuel I as the man who despite envisioning a great empire caused it downward spiral. The part where the course of history is altered in this story takes place in the climax set after Manuel I’s death in 1180 after he is succeeded by his only 11-year-old son Alexios II Komnenos like in real history and due to being under the regency of his unpopular western mother Empress Maria of Antioch, tensions in Byzantine society grow even more. Like in real history, Manuel I’s cousin the intelligent and charming but at the same time sadistic monster and rogue Andronikos Komnenos with the intention to have revenge on his late cousin for imprisoning and exiling him would usurp the throne in 1182 by popular support of the anti-Western people of the empire and just like in real history, his rise to power would include the brutal massacre of Constantinople’s Latin inhabitants. Where this story will be different however is that instead of Andronikos I securing the throne all for himself after killing off the young Alexios II and his mother in 1183, a coup led by the aristocrats that Andronikos hated would rise up against him in the name of Alexios II, therefore Alexios II would be spared unlike in real history where Andronikos I led a bloody reign until his fall and execution in 1185 where the Komnenos Dynasty ends as Isaac II Angelos comes to power. In addition, another thing I want to tackle in this story is Isaac II Angelos who in real history came to power as emperor in 1185 establishing the Angelos Dynasty which is often seen as the worst ruling dynasty in all of Byzantine history with its founder Isaac II often seen as an incompetent and corrupt idiot that further caused the decline of the empire. In truth, Isaac II was still a corrupt emperor that was inept in decision making, but he was in fact overall not that bad as an emperor as he was still conscientious enough to know that the empire he was ruling fell into chaos, therefore he needed to step up to clean up the mess in which most of it he was responsible for such as the Bulgarian uprising and declaration of independence in 1185. In this story however, I will experiment to see whether Isaac Angelos would have done better if he weren’t emperor but instead just the protector of young Alexios II as here in this story’s climax part, Isaac would lead a coup against Andronikos I to protect the young emperor. On the other hand, the unlikely hero at the end would not really be Isaac Angelos but the young emperor Alexios II who in real history was nothing more but a weak child ruler barely able enough to make his own decisions, but here due to surviving an attempt on his life by his uncle Andronikos I, he would turn out to be ruthless and decisive despite being young, while Isaac would instead be the young emperor’s right-hand-man and not the emperor. What I would do here at the end of the story to resolve all of Byzantium’s conflicts caused over the years is to have the Byzantines and Venetian Republic once more renew their alliance under Alexios II who would at the same time decisively eliminate all threats to his rule in order to once more continue an age of stability. Of course, this story would not go further anymore into the 13th century as its main focus is only the 12th as the story of 1204 and its aftermath would be saved for the next chapter. Basically, everything I said here is just the gist for this chapter, as to know how exactly how the 4th Crusade could be avoided, it is best to just skip the intro and read the main story itself. Now before beginning the main part of the story, I would also have to mention that this was heavily inspired by a fan fiction I read on the Byzantine Empire called Basiliea Rhomaion from althistory.fandom.com which also tells a similar story of Isaac Angelos rising to power as the protector of young Alexios II who was almost overthrown by Andronikos I, although my story will expand more to this existing one in to be more authentic. For sharing with me this said story which is a major inspiration for this one, I would also want to thank my friend (follow her on Instagram @anacagic) who specializes in this era especially in Isaac II Angelos and makes art relating to it too. Also, I would like to acknowledge the Youtube channel Kings and Generals for one of their most recent videos on 12th century Byzantium as well as the artists (Nikos Boukouvalas, CapturedJoe, Ediacar, Spatharokandidatos, Skamandros, and Justinianus the Great) whose work will be included here to guide you viewers visually through the politically complicated 12th century. Before beginning, I would like to remind you all that this chapter will be a particularly bloody and graphic as well as a confusing one which exactly describes the nature of Byzantium in the 12th century.  

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Map of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Crusades from Europe to the east (1096-1204)
Watch this video to learn more about the 12th century events that led to the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 (Kings and Generals).

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VIII- What if the Byzantines defeated the Seljuks at Manzikert

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople


 

The Leading Characters:

Manuel I Komnenos- Byzantine emperor (1143-1180)

Maria of Antioch- Byzantine empress, 2nd wife of Manuel I

Alexios II Komnenos- Byzantine emperor, son of Manuel I and Maria of Antioch, successor of Manuel I

Andronikos Komnenos- Cousin of Manuel I, imperial usurper and conman

Isaac Angelos- Byzantine aristocrat, later Caesar and Co-Emperor

Andronikos Kontostephanos- Byzantine general and aristocrat

Andronikos Angelos- Byzantine general and aristocrat, father of Isaac

Agnes of France- Byzantine empress, wife of Alexios II, daughter of King Louis VII of France

Alexios Branas- Byzantine general and usurper

Kilij Arslan II- Sultan of the Seljuk Empire (1156-1192)

Frederick I Barbarossa- Holy Roman emperor (1155-1190)

Bela III- King of Hungary (1172-1196)

Stefan Nemanja- Grand Prince of Serbia (1166-1196)

Ivan Asen I- Tsar of the new Bulgaria 

Theodor (Peter) Asen- Co-ruler of the new Bulgaria

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Seljuks (green), Holy Roman Empire (gold), Hungarians (light blue), Serbians (pink), Bulgarians (red-orange)


Prologue- The Reign of Alexios I Komnenos and the First Crusade (1095-1118)

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In 1095, the ruling emperor of the Byzantine Empire Alexios I Komnenos who was 39 here had already been in power for 14 years now, and here he was no longer the young man he was when coming into power in 1081 but a highly skilled and experienced strongman emperor. To give a quick background of Alexios I and the ruling Komnenos Dynasty he came from, first of all even if he came to power back in 1081 establishing the Komnenos Dynasty, he was not the first ruler from his family as his uncle Isaac I Komnenos had ruled as emperor perviously (1057-1059) but abdicated passing the throne to his friend Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067) who then established the short-lived Doukas Dynasty that came to an end when Alexios I took over in 1081.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1081-1118)

The Komnenos family where Alexios I came from was already an established family of Byzantium’s landed military aristocracy or the Dynatoi which had risen to prominence in the 11th century under the Macedonian Dynasty; and being from both an aristocratic family and a nephew of a previous emperor, Alexios I had the ambition to restore the empire to its old military glory, thus in 1081 had enough support needed to put him in the throne and oust the previous elderly and ineffective emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078-1081). Fast-forward to 1095, Alexios I after 14 years had already gained a lot of experience and accomplishments as in the past years of his reign, he had managed to drive away a massive invasion from the Normans of Southern Italy into Byzantine Greece, and he too had totally annihilated the nomadic Pechenegs that had invaded Byzantine Thrace in battle in 1091 which resulted in a bloody genocide of the Pecheneg people. Although the threat of the Normans from the west and the Pechenegs from the north had been settled, there was one big obstacle for Alexios I to take care of and this was the Seljuk Turkish occupation of almost the entire Byzantine heartland Asia Minor. As a result of the catastrophic defeat the Byzantine army faced against the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 together with the incompetence of the emperors since then, Byzantine control of Asia Minor slipped away allowing the Seljuks to settle in it and form their own empire there known as the Sultanate of Rum. By 1095, almost the entire Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor was under the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum with only some of the western coast and the coast across Constantinople as well as the Black Sea coastal cities of Sinope and Trebizond still under Byzantine hands, while the eastern portion of Asia Minor fell under control of the Seljuks’ rival Turkish power known as the Danishmends, and in the southern coast of Asia Minor specifically the region of Cilicia, a new state had been established there known as the Principality of Armenian Cilicia formed by Armenian refuges from Asia Minor escaping the Turkish invasion in the past years.

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Seal of the Seljuk Empire

Seeing that the power of most specifically the Seljuks had grown so significantly over Asia Minor, Alexios I realized that his empire’s army was not powerful enough to strike back and push them out, therefore he needed foreign military assistance from no other than the kingdoms of Western Europe who Alexios I knew produced the strongest and bravest soldiers and knights. To take care of the Seljuk problem of Asia Minor completely, Alexios I was in need of a good amount of western or “Latin” mercenaries from all over Western Europe and so in 1095 he sent ambassadors to Pope Urban II in Italy asking for just that. The pope however misunderstood Alexios I’s request and so later that year, the pope organized a major council in Clermont which was in his homeland of France where he called for all the powers of Europe to join forces and form a Crusade not to help Byzantium reclaim their lost lands but to conquer the holy city of Jerusalem which fell under the rule of the Seljuks. In the past few years, the Seljuk Turks had captured the city of Jerusalem from their rival Islamic power the Arab Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt as their main objective was to conquer Egypt, although they still never achieved it even marching into Egypt, and due to the Seljuk occupation of Jerusalem, things were no longer safe for Christian pilgrims from the west to reach there as along the way the armies of the Seljuks being fanatical Muslims would constantly ambush them unlike before when even though Jerusalem was under the Muslim rule of the Arabs, Christian pilgrims could still safely come there.

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Council of Clermont, Beginning of the First Crusade, 1095

Now with the pilgrim route to Jerusalem no longer safe due to the Seljuk occupation, the pope had every reason to call for a Crusade to capture Jerusalem in the name of Catholic Christianity, while the Orthodox Byzantines on the other hand thought differently seeing that the Seljuks should just be driven away from their heartland. After the Council of Council of Clermont, most people attending were all eager to take up arms and march to Jerusalem to claim it in the name of their faith forgetting that the purpose for why they were called to arms was to help the Byzantine Empire, their fellow Christians in the east. The one person however to totally get the idea of this mission’s original purpose to help the Byzantines reclaim their land wrong was the charismatic French monk Peter the Hermit who after the council was able to rally thousands of disorganized peasants under him forming what would be known as the “People’s Crusade”. True enough, the first wave of western armies to arrive in the Byzantine Empire’s borders in the Balkans in 1096 was not the organized army of knights and nobles Alexios I expected but the unruly mob of Peter the Hermit that went as far as pillaging Byzantine lands in the Balkans that the emperor had to put them under control by having them escorted to Constantinople by a unit of the Byzantine troops in the Balkans.

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Peter the Hermit leads the People’s Crusade, 1096

When the disorganized mob of Peter the Hermit arrived in Constantinople, Alexios I in order to immediately put them under control had them ferried across the Bosporus into Seljuk controlled Asia Minor where they were taken care off for good being massacred by the army of the Seljuk sultan Kilij Arslan I at the Battle of Civetot near the Seljuk’s new capital of Nicaea which was in fact very close to Constantinople. The People’s Crusade thus ended in total failure with most of the peasants killed by the Seljuks in battle while the survivors were either enslaved or had disappeared never to return again, although their leader Peter the Hermit survived willing continue with the Crusades’ objective.

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

Not so long after, the army Alexios I was looking for did indeed arrive and this consisted of organized and formidable knights known as the “Prince’s Crusade” which were led by some of the most important nobles of Western Europe such as the Robert II Duke of Normandy and the son of the late King of England William I the Conqueror (r. 1066-1087), the Duke of Lorraine Godfrey of Bouillon and his brother Baldwin, and the Count of Toulouse Raymond IV, but the arrival of the one western noble that worried Alexios I the most was that of Bohemond, the Norman Prince of Taranto in Southern Italy as more than 10 years ago, Bohemond took part in the Norman invasion of the Byzantine Empire led by his late father the Norman duke of Southern Italy Robert Guiscard (r. 1059-1085); and by seeing his old enemy again except this time come to his aid, Alexios knew that Bohemond was still the same and would once again prove to be a pain to him. At first, Alexios had expected a small but large enough group of organized soldiers but what came to him here in 1097 were separate armies led by various nobles which were all in all more than he expected making him see them as no longer as a positive thing but something to worry about as for one it would be too difficult to manage so many foreign armies in his territory, but the thing that bothered Alexios more was that he knew from past experiences that western mercenaries especially Normans would never stay true to their word in returning the lands they conquered from the Seljuks back to the empire but instead take them for themselves. The nobles leading the Crusade too believed Alexios I was someone weak that they could easily take advantage of as after all, he asked for help from them but when arriving in Constantinople, Alexios was not the kind of weak and desperate man the Crusaders expected him to be but a no-nonsense strong emperor that asked to meet each of the leaders one by one and force them to separately take an oath of allegiance to him in order to promise to return the lands they reconquered from the Seljuks back to the empire or not be permitted to leave Constantinople.

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Anna Komnene and the Norman prince Bohemond, art by Nikos Boukouvalas

The Crusader leaders although took the oaths only because they were forced to, otherwise they would not continue their mission, but they true enough never really kept their word, though they did not make their real intentions obvious yet. Also not to mention Alexios’ daughter Anna Komnene who was an intellectual woman ahead of her time was already present here at her father’s imperial court as here, she described in detail these Crusader leaders and what they looked like. Anyway, after the leaders took their oaths, they were ferried across the Bosporus by the Byzantine navy one by one whereas Alexios also promised to supply them for the entire campaign in exchange for taking their oaths of allegiance and soon enough, the Crusader army successfully made it to the Seljuk’s capital of Nicaea in which they laid siege too. The Crusaders then managed to capture Nicaea and due to the arrival of the Byzantine forces, they surrendered Nicaea back to the Byzantines though the Seljuk sultan Kilij Arslan I escaped but his wife and children were captured and taken to Constantinople as hostages.

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The First Crusade on the march

With Nicaea returned to the Byzantines, the Crusaders proceeded further east into Asia Minor wherein they won another decisive victory over the Seljuks at the Battle of Dorylaeum later in 1097 which then allowed the Byzantine forces to recover more of Asia Minor from the Seljuks. As the Crusaders proceeded further east, the Byzantine forces behind them led by the general John Doukas who was Alexios I’s brother-in-law recovered a large number of cities in Asia Minor and re-established Byzantine control there. As the Crusaders continued their march down Asia Minor, their supplies began running out causing them to either starve and soon enough be dehydrated due to the heat as they approached the desert, thus they soon believed that they were betrayed by the Byzantines when the Byzantine reinforcements failed to catch up with them, therefore the Crusade’s leaders now believed that the oaths they had taken had become invalid. In 1098, the Crusaders arrived at Antioch which had also fallen to the Seljuks and believing that the Byzantines wouldn’t arrive to assist them anymore, the Crusaders after successfully besieging Antioch captured it for themselves with the Norman Bohemond setting himself up there as its prince thus beginning the Principality of Antioch which would be another addition to the Normans’ empire that at this point consisted of Normandy in France, England, Southern Italy and Sicily, and now Antioch. The remaining Crusader army under Godfrey of Bouillon then proceeded south towards Jerusalem and in 1099 before the turn of the 12th century, they were able to achieve this Crusades’ ultimate goal which was capturing Jerusalem from the Seljuks. What followed the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders was a brutal massacre of thousands of the city’s Muslim and Jewish inhabitants as well as the conversion of the city’s Muslim mosques and shrines into Christian ones. The First Crusade then ended when Jerusalem was successfully captured and here in 1099, Godfrey of Bouillon when being offered to be Jerusalem’s king or prince refused such titles, instead preferring to use the title of “Defender of the Holy Sepulcher”, and as for Alexios I he did not approve of the mass slaughter the Crusaders had done in Jerusalem while at the same time, he was also disappointed at the Crusade’s leaders for breaking their oaths to him.

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Map of the First Crusade’s Route (1096-1099)
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Peter the Hermit and the People’s Crusade arrive before Alexios I in Constantinople, 1096
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Different armies of the First Crusade
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Map of Asia Minor at the time of the First Crusade
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Crusader forces defeat the Seljuks at the Battle of Dorylaeum, 1097
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Crusader forces of Bohemond capture Antioch from the Seljuks, 1098
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Crusaders capture Jerusalem from the Seljuks, End of the First Crusade, 1099

Despite the Crusaders not returning most of the lands they captured back to Byzantium, Alexios I was at least still relieved now that a large percent of Asia Minor was returned to Byzantine control while the Seljuks after being beaten back to the east were now not that much a threat to Byzantium anymore but this time the Crusaders’ problem. By 1100, 3 new states had formed in the Levant which included Bohemond’s Principality of Antioch, the County of Edessa to the north of it, and in the south was largest being Jerusalem which in 1100 became a kingdom after Godfrey’s death that year wherein his bother Baldwin I succeeded him this time as king, then by 1102 a new Crusader state had formed in what is now Lebanon which was the County of Tripoli, and all these states fused together would be known as Outremer meaning “overseas” in French as it was across the Mediterranean from Europe, and as it turned out by establishing their own separate states there, the Crusader leaders were never really true to their word in restoring Byzantine lands to Byzantium but instead keeping it as theirs as they were after all in it to take land in the Middle East and colonize them.

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Bohemond, Norman Prince of Crusader Antioch (r. 1098-1111)

As it would turn out, the Seljuks and the other Turkish powers most notably the Danishmends in Eastern Asia Minor did become the problem of the Crusaders, most notably for Bohemond’s Antioch as in 1100 both Bohemond with his forces of only 300 knights and the Danishmends clashed in battle outside the Turkish occupied city of Melitene in Eastern Asia Minor where Bohemond was ambushed and completely surrounded. Bohemond was then captured and imprisoned by the Danishmends in Asia Minor for the next 3 years until the new King of Jerusalem Baldwin I rescued him in 1103, then in 1104 Bohemond returned Europe claiming that he was going to get reinforcements, but his actual objective was to talk the new pope Paschal II into launching a Crusade against Byzantium as Bohemond felt he had been betrayed by Alexios I. Bohemond’s objective was then justified by the pope as with the Byzantines now considered by the Western Catholics as heretical for splitting from them in terms of faith ever since the Great Schism of 1054, Bohemond had every reason to attack the Byzantine Empire. Bohemond then sent his new army of 40,000 to Antioch in order to defend it in case Alexios I would launch an attack to reclaim it, while Bohemond himself being in Southern Italy here launched an invasion by crossing the Adriatic Sea into Byzantine Albania, the same route he took long ago with his father Robert Guiscard in the first Norman invasion of Byzantium back in 1081. Alexios I was to again face another Norman invasion of his empire, except now that he already had experience in battling Normans considering that he defeated the previous invasion back in 1085, and so from 1107-1108 as the Normans under Bohemond laid siege to the Byzantine port city of Dyrrhachion in Albania, the Byzantines managed to hold out while another imperial force blockaded the Norman camp and at the end, the Normans were forced to lift the siege with Bohemond forced to submit to a humiliating peace which known as the Treaty of Devol in which forced Bohemond to make both his territories of Southern Italy and Antioch as vassals to Byzantium paying annual tribute to Alexios I. Bohemond then died in 1111 as a broken man both not able to see his dreams achieved and not seeing Antioch ever again, although his relatives would continue ruling Antioch continuing the line of the Hauteville Dynasty, while for Alexios I the death of Bohemond was another major relief for him.

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Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos

In the meantime, due to the success of the First Crusade in capturing Jerusalem, Constantinople and the empire itself under Alexios I grew richer due to the constant passing by of pilgrims from the west now that it was safe to travel to Jerusalem again, as well as armies that were sent to reinforce the Crusaders in Outremer. One of the most notable people to pass the empire here was the King of Norway Sigurd I who was in fact the first king to take part in the Crusades, and on his way to Jerusalem and back, he passed through Constantinople meeting Alexios I himself whereas some of Sigurd I’s men even stayed behind to serve Alexios I in the elite Varangian Guard force protecting the emperor while Sigurd returned to Norway in 1110. Now that the threat of the Seljuks and the Norman Bohemond had passed, Alexios I turned to reform the standard gold currency that had been devalued by more than 25% in the previous century and here he restored the value of the gold coin not by increasing it again but by replacing the centuries old Solidus coin with a new one called the Hyperpyron which as the empire’s new currency was higher in fineness than its predecessor. In addition, due to the centuries old system of governance for the imperial provinces known as the Thematic System in ruins as a result of the Turkish occupation of Asia Minor that put an end to many of the military provinces or Themes, this system was replaced with a new kind of feudal one called the Pronoia wherein land was granted to people in exchange for military service, and in his reign Alexios I supporting this new kind of system worked to systemize it by making it more centralized by having them produce taxes and soldiers for the centralized and professional imperial army.

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Hyperpyron coin of Alexios I

On the other hand, Alexios I’s rise to power and his long reign led to the military aristocracy in which he came from rise to become the dominant class of the empire, and in order to create a sense of unity among the powerful families of the empire, Alexios I made them all into one big extended family by marrying off his family members to the members of the other powerful families of the time. The purpose now in creating a big extended family and handing over positions and titles to all those that were part of it and deprive those who did not agree to marry into it of power and prestige was to balance power in the empire and limit opposition as those unrelated to the family with a powerful position could pose as a threat as seen with past events in the previous century. In addition, Alexios I had also introduced new court titles for family members such as that of Panhypersebastos and Sebastokrator as a way to satisfy them and not make them feel useless as these titles did not really have much of a practical role, while on the other hand those families that married into the ruling Komnenos family had also risen to prominence.

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Sample of a Byzantine military saint fresco, popularized in the 12th century

Meanwhile, due to the rise of the military aristocratic families under Alexios I, new trends would start coming up such as private churches in Constantinople commissioned by these families as well as new art styles consisting of mosaics and frescos that looked more elaborate with emotion and movement replacing the old one-dimensional style of Byzantine art and icons, and due to the rise of the military aristocracy military saints also became popular that the new style of icons and frescos of saints depicted them looking tough wearing armor and with their weapons drawn. Alexios I however in the last years of his reign began losing his popularity and part of it was due to his brutality in persecuting the heretical Bogomil Christians that were dominant in the Balkans in which he had many of them burned alive. At the same time, the Seljuks in Asia Minor which now made the city of Iconium their new capital after losing Nicaea in 1097 began gaining the upper hand that they soon enough began raiding the newly reconquered Byzantine lands in Asia Minor once again, although none of them were successful.

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Seljuk Turk army ride into Asia Minor

In 1116, Alexios I despite being already terminally ill decided to lead the army in person to put down the growing power of the Seljuks before they became a major threat again, and at the Battle of Philomelion near the Seljuk capital of Iconium, Alexios I once again won a decisive victory crushing the Seljuks. As a result, the Seljuk sultan here Malik Shah who had come to power back in 1110 was forced to agree to evacuate all his people from Asia Minor and restore the pre-1071 borders of Byzantium before the Seljuk occupation, however the agreement was never complied to as Sultan Malik Shah was later murdered by his brother who then took over as the new Seljuk sultan Masud I, thus the Seljuks still continued settling in Asia Minor with Iconium as their capital. Alexios I instead had agreed to evacuate all Greek people from Turkish occupied Asia Minor and settle them back in imperial borders, which would however later lead to the ethnic dominance of the Turks over Asia Minor, thus the “Turkification” of Asia Minor.

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Illustration of Emperor Alexios I (left), his wife Empress Irene Doukaina (right), and their son and co-emperor John II (center)

When returning to Constantinople, Alexios’ health grew worse and worse as the days went by and as he started to grow too weak to run the state, his wife the empress Irene Doukaina who was a strong woman stepped in to administer the state and the imperial court herself, and due to Alexios becoming bedridden, Irene began scheming behind his back to alter his succession plan by making their daughter Anna Komnene who was their eldest child succeed him together with her husband the general and Caesar Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger. Alexios although terminally ill was still intent in his original succession plan of having his eldest son John Komnenos who had been co-emperor ever since 5-years-old in 1092 succeed him as Alexios knowing from the story of Empress Zoe (r. 1028-1050) and the reigns of her 3 husbands that having a woman ruling the empire with her husbands that were all from different families ruling the empire would prove to disastrous for the empire as a whole, although the empress Irene and Anna were against Alexios’ choice as both mother and sister saw John as an incapable good-for-nothing drunk. In August of 1018, as Alexios I was already on his deathbed, he decided that it was time he defy his wife and daughter and make his son his successor and so before dying, he passed his imperial ring to John believing that he would rule well, and on the same night, Alexios I Komnenos the “legendary” emperor had died at 62 having ruled for a full 37 years.   

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Map of the newly established Crusader States of Outrmer (Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem), 1100
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King Sigurd I of Norway in Constantinople, 1110
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Feasting and court life in the reign of Alexios I Komnenos mosaic

The Reign of John II Komnenos (1118-1143)          

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On the exact same day Alexios I died in 1118, his son John II Komnenos was immediately crowned as the new emperor in order to avoid a power vacuum as his ambitious older sister Anna and her husband Nikephoros Bryennios were already on the path to taking the throne by the backing of Anna and John’s mother Empress Irene. When finding out her husband Alexios I had died and that her son John II succeeded him, Irene went all insane throwing a massive tantrum in which she cut off her hair being in shock that her son that she loathed became the new emperor and not her intended candidate which was her daughter.

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Anna Komnene, daughter of Alexios I, Byzantine historian, and author of the Alexiad, almost empress in 1118

Anna Komnene on the other hand was still not content with her brother taking over the empire and so she together with her husband plotted to assassinate her brother which however failed as their plot was discovered, although John had turned out to be merciful and so he simply did not execute or blind his sister and her husband, instead he just had their property confiscated. John II then had his mother Irene and sister Anna sent to a monastery to retire for life while Anna’s husband Nikephoros for renouncing his part in the plot to kill John and proving his loyalty was spared and allowed to resume his role as a general as long as he stayed loyal to John II. As for Anna now being banished to a monastery, she would spend the remaining years of her life writing her masterpiece which was no other than the Alexiad based on the documents she wrote when working for her father back when he was emperor, and although Anna Komnene’s work may be a very detailed in describing the reign of her father, it is also a very biased one which portrays her father Alexios I as a kind of perfect superhero while all his enemies especially those who were not Byzantines were looked down on being seen as treacherous and greedy barbarians.

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Emperor John II Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1118-1143), son of Alexios I

Now the empress Irene had turned out to be wrong about her son as John II after all when coming to the throne in 1118 at the age of 31 proved to be strong yet merciful emperor as seen with his first act in not punishing his sister by blinding or execution but by forcing her to retire, and for his character as a strong ruler with an iron determination and brutality towards his enemies but at the same time merciful and understanding to his subjects, John earned the nickname Kaloioanes which was Greek for “John the Good” or “John the Beautiful”, though its second meaning was quite ironic as John in appearance was not attractive being short and overweight with a dark complexion and thick curly hair that sometimes people would call him a “Moor” referring to his dark skin, although his epithet “the beautiful” referred to his character. Since 1104, John II had been married to the Hungarian princess Piroska renamed Irene in Byzantium who unlike her mother-in-law was not a strong woman and together they had 7 children consisting of 3 sons and 4 daughters and in 1118 just a few months after becoming emperor, John II and Irene had their youngest child which was a son, and this was Manuel Komnenos, although in the same year John II’s younger brother Isaac Komnenos too had a newborn son which was Andronikos Komnenos. John II when coming to power too had appointed his closest friend John Axouch as his top advisor and general or Megas Domestikos, and John Axouch on the other hand had quite an interesting story as he was originally a Turk who following the First Crusade’s Siege of Nicaea back in 1097, John Axouch as a boy here was one of the Turkish hostages handed over to Alexios I in Constantinople and in Constantinople, John Axouch grew up together with the young co-emperor John II being educated together and over the years they grew closer to each other. The Seljuks then had again resumed their raids into recently reconquered Byzantine territory and so John II together with John Axouch immediately set off in campaign to push back the raiding Seljuks, and Axouch was the right choice as the general to be appointed to command the armies against the Turks as being a Turk by blood, he certainly knew their fighting styles. By 1120, John II and John Axouch had managed to drive off the Seljuk threat resulting in reconnecting the city of Antalya along the Mediterranean to Byzantine territory in Asia Minor by land, and Antalya meanwhile was a strategic location as it was part of the road to Cilicia, Syria, and the Crusaders states. With the Seljuk problem in Asia Minor taken care off, John II turned to the Balkans to face another problem which was that of the Pechenegs, and even if it may have seemed that Alexios I had wiped out the entire Pecheneg race when defeating them in battle back in 1091, there was still another surviving group of them from across the Danube that crossed it into Byzantine territory 1122.

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Byzantine forces including Varangians defeat the Pechenegs at the Battle of Beroia, 1122

As the Pechenegs made their way into Byzantine Bulgaria, John II responded by leading the army himself to confront them and in 1122 as well, John II won a decisive victory over the Pechenegs at the Battle of Beroia in Bulgaria, and the Byzantine victory was mostly due to John II’s Varangian Guard which here mostly consisted of exiled Anglo-Saxons from England hacking the wagon fort or Laager– the same kind of fortification the Goths had used back in chapter I of this series if you remember-the Pechenegs held themselves in with their massive axes. The Byzantine victory and massacre of the Pechenegs here thus finished off the Pecheneg people for good while the Pechenegs that survived were taken as captives by the Byzantines and forced to settle in the Byzantine Empire’s borders as border guards. Meanwhile, it also happened in 1122 that John II’s younger sister Theodora married Constantine Angelos who was from the minor noble Angelos family that originated in Eastern Asia Minor and by marrying the imperial Komnenos family here, this somewhat obscure Angelos family would begin rising to prominence.

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Seal of the Republic of Venice

Now, the other thing that bothered John II after the Seljuks and Pechenegs were taken care of was the growing power and influence of the Italian naval Republic of Venice that had ever since 1082 become the major trading partner of Byzantium as back then John’s father Alexios I had made an alliance with them against the Normans in return for the Venetians to be allowed generous trading rights in the empire. These increasing trading rights in Byzantium that the Venetians had however started worrying John II as the Venetians were getting rich in Byzantine territory, and so to limit the increase of Venice’s power, John II refused to confirm his father’s treaty with them in 1082 which however only made things worse as after John II exiled a number of Venetian merchants in Constantinople in 1124, the Venetian navy retaliated by sending 72 ships to raid Byzantine islands in the Ionian and Aegean Seas. With the Venetian naval attacks, John II came to realize he was wrong in provoking them and so he decided to end the conflict in 1126 when John II re-confirmed his father’s 1082 treaty with Venice as for John here, there were problems elsewhere.

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King Stephen II of Hungary (r. 1116-1131)

In 1127, a new conflict for Byzantium arose and this was with the Kingdom of Hungary to the north and this new conflict had a lot to do with John II’s marriage to the Hungarian princess Piroska which involved allowing the blinded claimant to the Hungarian throne Almos to seek refuge in Byzantium and here in 1127, the King of Hungary Stephen II was suspicious that John II might back Almos, the king’s uncle in taking the Hungarian throne and to preempt this from happening, Stephen II launched a large Hungarian invasion into Byzantine Serbia and Bulgaria which went on for the next 2 years ending in 1129 when John II counter-attacked not by attacking Hungary but by attacking the Serbs who here were once again pushing to declare themselves independent from Byzantine rule by allying with Hungary. John II in 1129 had succeeded in defeating the Serbs and their Hungarian allies in Serbia and as a result, the Serbians were forced to once again acknowledge that the Byzantines were their overlords and that their state was a Byzantine vassal or protectorate while the defeated Serbian soldiers too were forced to relocate to Byzantium’s border in Asia Minor to defend it against the Seljuks. It was then however only after the death of the claimant Almos in 1129 that the entire conflict between Byzantium and Hungary had ended.             

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Mosaic of Emperor John II Komnenos (left) and his wife Empress Irene “Piroska” of Hungary (right) in the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

Throughout his reign, John II was more present in military campaigns than in the capital spending more nights in tents than in the imperial palace, and in 1130 right after the Hungarian problem in the north was settled, John returned his focus to battling both the Seljuk and Danishmend Turks in Asia Minor as his intention was to restore the borders of the empire before the Battle of Manzikert in 1071.

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Seal of John II Komnenos in Venice

In the early years of the 1130s, John II through his energetic campaigns earned a reputation as a “wall-breaker” for being able to recapture a large number of walled cities from the Turks through sieges. At this time as well, John II was able to recapture his family’s ancestral home city of Kastamonu in Paphlagonia from the Danishmends with the help of the Seljuks here who John II allied with against the Danishmends, their common enemy. Back in Constantinople, John II together with his wife Irene of Hungary had also heavily invested in the construction of churches and public buildings like hospitals as well as charitable work, and one of the major construction projects of John II and his wife in Constantinople was the massive Pantokrator Monastery which was both a monastery consisting of 3 chapels and a public hospital with 5 wards and top-class doctors, and it was true enough open to everyone regardless of social class and remains a fine example of the Komnenos era architecture.

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John II and his wife Empress Irene “Piroska”

John II’s wife Empress Irene however did not have very long to live and in 1134 she died with her husband outliving her, and although saddened at the death of his wife John II relieved himself by resuming his military campaigns in Asia Minor but at the same time too, he started growing worried about the Normans of Sicily that had since 1130 become a kingdom with Roger II as its first king. Fearing an invasion by the Normans of Sicily, John II chose to ally himself with the Holy Roman emperor Lothair III by paying him off to attack the Norman kingdom. In the east meanwhile, John II in 1137 had conquered the cities of Tarsus, Adana, and Mopsuestia not from the Turks but from the growing Principality of Cilician Armenia which was mentioned earlier, thus this allowed the Byzantine Empire land access to the Crusader states in which John II wanted to assert himself as their overlords.

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

Now here is one example of the Komnenos emperors bullying the Crusaders states of Outremer into submission as John II here forced them to renew their oaths of allegiance that they swore to his father back in 1097 when they arrived in Constantinople or be invaded by Byzantine forces. True enough, the Prince of Antioch Raymond de Poitiers, the Count of Edessa Joscelin II, and Count of Tripoli Raymond II all submitted themselves as vassals and in 1138 all of them joined forces with John II in besieging the city of Shaizar in Syria from another Muslim power there. John II and his forces had fought hard in capturing the city from the Muslims all while his Crusader allies did not help as they were growing suspicious of him and so rather than fighting, Prince Raymond of Antioch and Count Joscelin II of Edessa stayed at their camp playing dice with each other. At the end, John II was able to break in to Shaizar, although its emir made a deal with him agreeing to be his vassal. In 1139 and 1140, John II returned to his campaigns in Asia Minor against the Danishmend Turks which was again successful in reclaiming a lot of lost territory and as a result of these campaigns, John II was able to return the Black Sea coastal city of Trebizond to imperial control as for the past years it had been almost entirely independent under the control of the Gabras family who were however Byzantines. Now with the Seljuks having served their purpose as allies to the Byzantines in neutralizing the Danishmends, it was time for the Byzantines to turn on the Seljuks as the Danishmends had already been taken care of and so in 1142, John II resumed his attacks on the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum.

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Crusader Principality of Antioch seal

On the other hand, John II here in 1142 also planned to fully conquer Antioch and return it to Byzantine control to punish them for not helping him besiege Shaizar back in 1138, although part of John’s objective to finally capture Antioch was also to make a pilgrimage himself to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem however, its reigning king Fulk feared that John II would come to take Jerusalem for himself and so Fulk requested that the emperor bring a small army but this response from Fulk only made John postpone his journey. In the meantime, John II in 1142 pushed through with his campaign to take back Antioch from the Crusaders taking his 4 sons along with him but along the way his eldest son and intended successor the co-emperor Alexios had died of a fever, while later that year John’s second eldest son Andronikos had died too making the 3rd son Isaac have to return to Constantinople to bury both his brothers.

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Alexios Komnenos, eldest son, co-emperor, and original intended successor of John II, died in 1142

With only 2 sons left which were Isaac and Manuel, John still decided to push through with his Antioch campaign and so he and his sons set up camp in Cilicia where they drilled their soldiers for the ultimate attack on Antioch. One day in April of 1143, John II went out on a hunting trip and while trying to fire an arrow at a wild boar, he accidentally cut his hand with the poisoned arrow intended to kill the boar. For the next few days, John ignored the small wound believing it would heal but some days later, the poison had entered his body spreading through his veins and just a week after cutting himself, John II had died from the infection caused by the wound at the age of 55. Now the unlikely death of John II cutting himself with a poisoned arrow is rather very unusual so it is also believed that he was assassinated by the Latin soldiers assisting him who were backing his western minded youngest son Manuel as their imperial candidate. In this story’s case however, John II still cut himself with the poisoned arrow although his death was made quicker as after he got cut, the Latin soldiers in this story’s case poisoned his drink which later resulted in his death, and true enough the son that succeeded him was not the eldest surviving one Isaac but the most unlikely of them which was the youngest one Manuel. On the other hand, there was also a prophecy made known as the “AIMA” Prophecy which said that all Komnenos emperors would in one straight line have the first letter of their names coming from this acronym and true enough the first ruler of this line was Alexios I whose name began with an “A”, the second John II who in Greek was Ioannes began with an “I”, and in order to continue it John II’s youngest son Manuel’s name began with an “M”. The more realistic story however of why the youngest son Manuel succeeded his father was that between him and his oldest surviving brother Isaac, Manuel was much more intelligent, capable of ruling, and more likely to listen to advisors than his older brother Isaac who was plainly a hothead. The general John Axouch however who was still alive tried to persuade the dying John II that Isaac should succeed him but it was too late as Manuel was already chosen by his father while the Latin troops in the army had backed him too. Now John II is often considered the greatest of the Komnenos emperors of Byzantium that the Russian historian George Ostrogorsky (1902-1976) in his book The History of the Byzantine State, also saying John II was both moderate in ruling but also pursued his father’s iron determination especially in restoring the empire and recovering the lands lost in Asia Minor. John II true enough was a very successful emperor especially in battle considering that he hardly lost any battle against all the enemies he fought, and although he displayed such brutality towards his enemies he was a merciful ruler to his people that it is even said that during his 25 year reign, there were hardly any executions or blindings as well as ambitious rebel generals wanting to claim the throne, and a major reason now to why there were no more challengers to the throne was that the Komnenos family had already firmly secured their control of the empire making everyone in fear to challenge their authority.

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Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople, built under John II
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The Siege of Shaizar, John II leads the attack against the city while Prince Raymond of Antioch and Count Joscelin II of Edessa play die in their tent, 1138
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Death of John II with a poisoned arrow while hunting in Cilicia, 1143
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The Byzantine Empire (pink) at the death of John II, 1143

Watch this to learn more about the reign of John II Komnenos (Eastern Roman History).


The Reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1176)           

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Following the death of John II Komnenos in 1143, his youngest son Manuel I Komnenos at 25 succeeded as emperor making this a very unlikely case in the entire history of monarchies where the youngest son succeeded his father. Although it was very unlikely that Manuel as the youngest son despite being a purple born prince or Porphyrogennetos succeeded his father, as it already turned out that Manuel as a child predicted that one day, he would be emperor as according to the history of John Kinnamos who was a historian of that time, he says that Manuel as child had a dream where an angel gave him purple shoes which obviously meant he was destined to rule as the purple shoes were only reserved for emperors. After his father’s death, Manuel however cancelled the Antioch campaign as he thought securing his position as emperor in Constantinople was more important considering that he was the youngest son which for many was not very acceptable. Manuel after rushing back to Constantinople was formally crowned by the patriarch in the Hagia Sophia while his father’s closest friend and general John Axouch now shifting his loyalty to Manuel imprisoned both Manuel’s older brother Isaac and uncle also named Isaac which was John II’s younger brother in the Pantokrator Monastery built by John II.

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Emperor Manuel I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1143-1180), son of John II

Now Manuel I just like his father had dark skin and thick curly hair but unlike his father who was unattractive, Manuel I was said to be very tall and handsome which was inherited from his mother Irene who was a tall Hungarian beauty, and in personality Manuel was courageous, intelligent, charismatic, but also arrogant and outspoken but his good qualities would make him a highly skilled diplomat and soldier. In addition, Manuel I too unlike his father and grandfather who were Byzantine nationalists and suspicious of the westerners had a very western mind being very fond of western Latin culture which was quite shocking to the people of Byzantium as they saw Latin culture as primitive compared to theirs. Being fascinated with the culture of Western Europe, Manuel introduced many western court customs to the Byzantine court such as western fashion and most significantly jousts that every now and then, Manuel would hold jousting tournaments in Constantinople wherein he would even take part in it himself riding on a horse wearing armor and clashing with another noble knocking him off his horse with a wooden lance. Part of Manuel’s fascination with the west was also his preference for western women which he found more attractive, and true enough Manuel was even married to a westerner which was the German noblewoman Bertha of Sulzbach, though at the same time he was also a womanizer and it was no secret to everyone. In the following year which was 1144 Manuel I just coming to the throne was faced with his first external challenge which was the prince of Antioch the same Raymond de Poitiers, who here demanded from Manuel to cede lands in Cilicia to the Principality of Antioch, although later that year neither Manuel nor Raymond never achieved anything as to the north of Antioch, the city of Edessa itself which was the capital of the Crusader County of Edessa was besieged by a new enemy which was the Turkish Jihad warlord Imad al-Din Zengi who had already been the ruler of Mosul and Aleppo and by the end of the year, Edessa itself was captured by Zengi thus ending the County of Edessa.

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Imad al-Din Zengi, Ruler of Syria (r. 1127-1146), conqueror of Crusader Edessa in 1144

The fall of Edessa to Zengi then sent shockwaves to the rest of Europe as here an entire Crusader state in Outremer had fallen to their Muslim enemies, thus this event of the capture of Edessa led to the launch of the 2nd Crusade. Manuel I would now have to face exactly what his grandfather faced with the arrival of the First Crusade about 50 years ago and while Manuel was on a military campaign in Asia Minor in 1146 to again punish the Seljuks for raiding again into Byzantine territory, he here got word from the King of Germany in the Holy Roman Empire Conrad III and the King of France Louis VII from the Capetian Dynasty that they were both going to lead their armies to Outremer by passing Byzantine lands, at least warning the emperor in advance. With Edessa having fallen, the Prince of Antioch Raymond himself now was the one asking Manuel for protection that he even went to Constantinople to do so, and true enough Manuel was able to assist him.

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St. Bernard de Clairvaux preaches to launch the 2nd Crusade in Europe

Meanwhile in Europe, news of the fall of Edessa spread fast that many people all took up arms preparing to join the new Crusade and just like 1095, there was another monk like Peter the Hermit spreading word to the people encouraging them to all take up arms and join the Crusade and this was Bernard de Clairvaux. The 2nd Crusade however was not just a movement in Outremer and Byzantium but in Europe itself as part of it was a Crusade in Northern Europe launched by the Holy Roman Empire against the still Pagan people to the north of Poland along the Baltic Sea and this was known as the Wendish Crusade, while the other Crusade movement here took place in Spain known as the Reconquista where now the Christian powers have been expanding driving away the Muslim occupiers or Moors in the south that have been there since the 8th century, if you remember from chapter V of this series. In the area of Spain or the Iberian Peninsula on the other hand, a new kingdom had just emerged which was Portugal under Afonso I Henriques who was its first king and in 1147 as English knights from England sailed down the Atlantic to get into the Mediterranean, they stopped by Portugal along the Atlantic to assist the Portuguese king Afonso I in besieging the port city of Lisbon from the Islamic Almoravid Dynasty that was holding it, and at the end the Portuguese with the help of the English knights were able to capture Lisbon, which then became the capital of the new Portuguese Kingdom. Back in Byzantium, some people in the imperial court who had seen the Fist Crusade pass the empire in their younger years 50 years earlier still remembered the pain they had to endure from the chaotic People’s Crusade and the difficult behavior of the First Crusade’s leaders, but Manuel I sympathizing with the westerners was all willing to let them pass through although soon he started having suspicions.

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Conrad III, King of Germany (r. 1138-1152)

In 1147, the first army to pass through Byzantium was that of the German king Conrad III assisted by his nephew the Duke of Swabia Frederick Barbarossa, and just as expected of the Crusaders’ unpredictable behavior, the German Crusaders did cause some trouble in Byzantine Thrace when a thief there stabbed a Crusader soldier that had fallen ill on the march and in retaliation, Frederick attacked a monastery in order to hunt down and kill the thief. Fortunately, a Byzantine police force arrived to intervene in time before the Germans could pillage the countryside of Thrace and soon enough, Frederick and his uncle Conrad III arrived in Constantinople to meet with Manuel I in person before both departed by ship to Jerusalem itself. The next wave of Crusaders to arrive in Constantinople later in 1147 was that of the French army led by King Louis VII himself and joining him in the Crusade was his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was the Prince of Antioch Raymond’s niece. Manuel however started growing suspicious that Louis VII would want to claim the Byzantine throne considering that he brought with him an army of up to 30,000 and so just for safety measures against Louis VII’s ambitions Manuel ended up signing a peace treaty with the Seljuks which Louis mistook as a sign of Manuel betraying him. Louis VII although turned out to have no such ambitions to claim the Byzantine throne at all and his only purpose was to protect the 3 remaining Crusader states of Outremer from the advancing Muslim powers and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to be absolved of his sins.

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Louis VII of the Capetian Dynasty, King of France (r. 1137-1180)

Louis VII was then allowed to leave Constantinople after Manuel hosted a lavish banquet for him and his commanders but as soon as Louis and his army had left, Manuel I received another piece of shocking news and this was that the Norman king of Sicily Roger II feeling he needed to do something invaded Byzantine Greece capturing the island of Corfu and sacking the city of Corinth as well as Thebes which was the major silk production center of the empire wherein he even took the silk manufacturers as captives in order to steal Byzantium’s silk making secrets to produce his own as the Normans now having settled down looked up to Byzantine culture wanting to imitate it in their Kingdom of Sicily despite them having a bitter hatred towards Byzantium.

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Roger II, Norman King of Sicily (r. 1130-1154)

To settle the Norman threat, Manuel I renewed Byzantium’s alliance with Venice while also asking for an alliance with the same German king Conrad III who in 1148 was still in Outremer taking part in the 2nd Crusade. In 1149, the Venetian fleet managed to defeat the Norman fleet while the Byzantine land army led by the John Axouch who now even as an old man still kept his position as Megas Domestikos or grand general was able to land in the island of Corfu itself and manage to take it back from the Normans driving them away. Meanwhile over in the east, the threat of Zengi who captured Edessa back in 1144 had already been neutralized as in 1146 he had been assassinated and after his death his territories were divided among his sons Sayf al-Din who took Mosul and Nur ad-Din who took Aleppo, and it was Nur the new Emir of Aleppo who in 1148 crushed both the armies of the French and Germans of the 2nd Crusade, thus making the Crusaders’ original goal of recapturing Edessa from Nur impossible.

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Baldwin III, King of Jerusalem (r. 1143-1163)

When seeing it was impossible to take back Edessa, the Crusader German and French armies assisted by the Kingdom of Jerusalem under their king Baldwin III with the Templar and Hospitaller knights instead laid siege to Damascus, which was once the powerful Arab Umayyad Caliphate’s capital, hoping to capture it from the Muslim Burid Dynasty which was an ally of Nur that held it but after only 4 days of laying siege, the siege spectacularly failed as mistrust also erupted among the kings of France, Germany, and Jerusalem taking part in it. To put it short, the 2nd Crusade in 1149 unlike the First Crusade which ended exactly 50 years earlier with ultimate success ended in a humiliating failure after the disastrous Siege of Damascus. It was after the failed Siege of Damascus in 1148 when Conrad III returned to Constantinople together with his nephew Frederick to seal an alliance with Manuel I against the Normans before returning to Germany. Although Manuel I defeated the Norman invasion in 1149, the French returned home the same year humiliated and true enough the failure of the 2nd Crusade was so humiliating that the marriage of King Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine fell apart while at the same time too, both had believed the Crusade failed due to Manuel I betraying them by allying with the Seljuks. On the other hand, the Prince of Antioch Raymond de Poitiers clashed with Nur at the Battle of Inab in Syria where Nur’s forces won killing and beheading Raymond in battle allowing Nur to expand his empire all the way to the Mediterranean coast in which he bathed in as symbol of now possessing it, although he still decided to leave Antioch itself alone and not besiege it.                 

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Medieval jousts, introduced to Byzantium by Manuel I
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English Knights of the 2nd Crusade help the new Portuguese Kingdom capture Lisbon from the Moors, 1147
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2nd Crusade armies of Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany arrive in Constantinople, 1147
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2nd Crusade, Failed Siege of Damascus, 1148
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Battle of Inab, Nur’s forces defeat the Crusaders, death of Prince of Antioch Raymond de Poitiers, 1149

Watch this to learn about the 2nd Crusade in the reign of Manuel I (Eastern Roman History).

Ever since becoming emperor in 1143 and in fact ever since childhood, Manuel I possessed a lot of ambition to not only return the empire to its borders before Manzikert in 1071 but to make the empire a dominant power again like it was in the glory days in the reign of Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty (976-1025) and by this Manuel was intent to take back Italy which the Byzantines had completely lost when their last city there which was Bari fell to the Normans in 1071 too, while at the same time he also wanted to continue strengthening Byzantine rule in the Balkans first over the rebellious Serbians and over the Kingdom of Hungary which he also sought to conquer. Wanting to make the Byzantine Empire the dominant world power again, Manuel I in fact dreamt even bigger not just wanting to be the new Basil II but the new Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), the most influential Byzantine emperor from the 6th century where in his reign the empire ruled the entire Mediterranean, if you recall from chapter III of this series.

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Norman Kingdom of Sicily and Southern Italy at the death of Roger II, 1154

The joint invasion of Norman Italy by both Manuel I from the east and the King of Germany Conrad III from the north never came to happen as in 1152 Conrad III had died and was succeeded by his nephew the same Frederick Barbarossa who joined him in the 2nd Crusade, although due to the failure of the 2nd Crusade which Frederick believed Byzantium had a part in it, he did not trust Manuel I therefore the alliance with the Germans was discontinued. In the meantime, another story happening at this time was Manuel I’s cousin Andronikos, the son of Manuel’s uncle Isaac who comes into the story in 1153 living a parallel life to his cousin except having totally different world views as for one Manuel was pro-Western while Andronikos was a strong anti-Western Byzantine nationalist. Here in 1153, a conspiracy by Andronikos to overthrow Manuel and take over the throne was discovered and so Manuel decided to imprison Andronikos for life, and here is where Andronikos’ lifelong desire for vengeance against his cousin Manuel begins. Fortunately for the Byzantines, the ambitious Norman King of Sicily Roger II who dreamt of conquering Byzantium had died in 1154 and his son William I who succeeded him as king was not a strong ruler like his father was and instead lazy and useless having no desire to fight in wars, though when he came to power, he was faced with the internal conflicts of rebellions by his subjects in Sicily and Apulia. Using the internal instability in Norman Italy to his advantage as well as the fact that the promise for Manuel I to inherit Southern Italy as part of his dowry in marrying Bertha of Sulzbach who was Conrad III’s relative was not fulfilled as Conrad III died, Manuel saw it was the right time to invade Norman Italy and restore Byzantine rule there.

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Frederick I Barbarossa, King of Germany (1152-1190) and Holy Roman emperor (1155-1190), nephew of Conrad III

At the same time in 1155 too, Frederick Barbarossa as the King of Germany had also been elected to the highest position of Holy Roman emperor. Now, Manuel however did not lead the campaign instead but instead sent two generals who were his relatives- in which neither of the two was John Axouch as he had already died by 1150- with a large army to invade Italy by ships from Albania landing in Apulia, and while planning the expedition, Manuel in this story’s case knew that the great emperors of the past Justinian I and Basil II who had high hopes for Byzantine rule in Italy were watching over him, therefore he knew he was on the winning side. After their arrival in Southern Italy in which the Byzantines had not set foot in ever since losing it to the Normans in 1071, the people and nobles of the area rebelling against Norman rule all rallied under the Byzantines who they saw as their liberators considering that a lot of the people under the Normans in Southern Italy were Greeks. The people of Bari too being tired of Norman rule opened their city’s gates to the Byzantine army while its citizens out of joy that they have been liberated tore town the Norman citadel and following the surrender of Bari to the Byzantines, the cities of Trani, Giovinazzo, Andria, Taranto, and Brindisi all fell back under Byzantine hands in one swift campaign. Manuel I now started realizing that his dream of taking back Italy for the empire was in fact possible, thus he started considering doing what Justinian I did some 6 centuries earlier in making all of Italy Byzantine, thus this led Manuel to also start considering Church unity between the pope Byzantium if he were to add Italy which was mostly Catholic into his Orthodox empire, thus fixing the 1054 schism. Manuel’s dreams however were not as hopeful as he expected it to be as in the following year 1156, the Norman king of Sicily William I realizing that most of his lands in the mainland of Southern Italy was lost to the Byzantines, he responded by sending a large army consisting of Norman knights as well to counter-attack the Byzantines in the mainland.

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Norman knight in Italy, 12th century

The end of the Byzantines’ ambitions to restore their rule in Italy ended when William I’s forces defeated them with his army and fleet at the Battle of Brindisi in 1156 which resulted in the end of the temporary Byzantine occupation of Southern Italy and the withdrawal of the Byzantine forces as well. At the same time as Manuel’s attempt to recapture Italy failed, he again got troubling news from somewhere else, and this troubling news was that of the ruler of the independent Armenian state in Cilicia Thoros II who in defiance of continuing making his state a vassal to Byzantium invaded Byzantine Cyprus with the help of the new Prince of Antioch the Frenchman Reynald de Chatillon who had come to rule Antioch in 1153 after marrying the Princess of Antioch Constance the wife of the late Prince of Antioch Raymond de Poitiers who had been killed in battle back in 1149.

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Reynald de Chatillon, Prince of Antioch (r. 1153-1161), art by CapturedJoe

Now, Reynald’s reason to help the Armenian prince Thoros invade Byzantine Cyprus was that he claimed Manuel I did not keep his promise to pay him some money, thus both Reynald and Thoros when invading Cyprus brutally sacked and burned its towns taking large amounts of the riches there to both their states of Cilician Armenia and Antioch, although Cyprus never really fell to either the rule of the Armenians or Antioch. Reynald however when sacking Cyprus made a lot of prisoners in which he mutilated most of them though still keeping them alive, and as an act of defiance against the Byzantines who he hated, he sent the mutilated prisoners as a gift to Manuel I which only made Manuel angrier than ever. In 1158, after Manuel I settled the entire conflict with the Normans in Italy by making peace with William I and after pulling out all Byzantine troops there, he swiftly prepared a large army to capture Antioch itself to punish its prince Reynald for his attack on Cyprus, thus fulfilling what his father John II failed to do before his death in 1143.

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Flag of the Principality of Armenia in Cilicia

With a desire for revenge on both Thoros II and Reynald, Manuel led the army himself with such speed first into Cilicia to punish Thoros, although Thoros before being found fled to the region of Isauria in the mountains near Cilicia, although soon enough he was found and brought before Manuel in his camp. Thoros then bowed down before the emperor willing to surrender in fear of execution, and Manuel knowing that Thoros would be obedient allowed Thoros to live and keep some territories in his state of Cilicia for himself as long as he was to remain a vassal to the empire and to surrender all his other lands that he took back to the empire. After settling the issue of Thoros II, Manuel proceeded to march on Antioch himself but hearing that Manuel brought with him such a large army, the Prince of Antioch Reynald feared being defeated in battle by the Byzantines, and seeing there was no hope for him as in confronting the powerful Byzantine army led by its emperor in battle as he also knew that the King of Jerusalem Baldwin III would not arrive on time, Reynald decided to peacefully submit to Manuel by going to Manuel’s camp himself dressed in rags with a rope tied around his neck to beg for forgiveness.

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Reynald de Chatillon bows down before Emperor Manuel I, 1159

At the camp, Reynald saw Manuel himself in such a lavish tent made of red silks while Manuel himself sat on a high throne dressed in a purple cloak over his golden armor while around him were the elite Varangian Guards and while Reynald bowed face-down asking for forgiveness, Manuel in his arrogance did not even look at Reynald and even at first refusing to spare him, though only because Reynald knelt down in a very humiliating way with a rope around his neck, Manuel allowed Reynald to live as long as Antioch was to be a complete vassal of the empire wherein not only did they have to pay tribute to Byzantium, but that the Byzantine emperor had to dictate every policy made for Antioch while anything done by its prince could only be done if it had the emperor’s approval. After both Manuel I and Reynald agreed to peace in 1159, Manuel and his army entered Antioch in a triumphal parade despite no battle being fought, and in the parade, only Manuel was allowed to ride on horse while Reynald who had agreed to submit to him had to march in the entire parade by foot holding the stirrup of Manuel’s horse the entire time as a sign of him being defeated, while Baldwin III of Jerusalem on the other hand who had finally came also agreed to make himself a vassal of Manuel, thus had to march on foot behind the emperor on his horse. What followed Manuel’s triumphal procession were series of lavish banquets with jousts in Antioch hosted by Manuel for both Reynald and Baldwin III which went on for 8 straight days which was Manuel’s way of persuading them to submit to him. Now that the entire Principality of Antioch had been incorporated into the empire as a vassal state, Manuel I left and headed east thinking of again recapturing Edessa which was under the control of Nur, the Emir of Aleppo, although Manuel did not continue with his campaign as before reaching Edessa, he and Nur concluded a peace treaty with Nur returning to Manuel the 6,000 Christian prisoners he made in the past years. The Crusader rulers Reynald and Baldwin III however were disappointed when Manuel their overlord made peace with their enemy Nur but for Manuel, he believed that he needed to as his intention was to make peace between the Crusader states and Nur against the Seljuks of Asia Minor who were now attacking Byzantine lands again.

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Manuel I’s triumphal parade at Antioch with Reynald de Chatillon holding the stirrup of Manuel’s horse, 1159
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Manuel I (on a horse) at a triumphal parade in Constantinople

Sad news though came for Manuel I when arriving back in 1159 as his wife Bertha of Sulzbach had died shortly after his return, and in her funeral Manuel was said to have been “roaring like a lion” out of grief, and unfortunately Manuel had no sons but only two daughters with her.

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Manuel I Komnenos, art by Justinianus the Great

Having no son with his first wife, Manuel had decided to remarry and true enough, he found the right person to marry which was Maria of Antioch, the daughter of the previous Prince of Antioch Raymond de Poitiers who had been killed back in 1149 and Princess Constance thus making Maria the stepdaughter of the current prince and Manuel’s vassal Reynald de Chatillon, and despite the large age gap as Manuel was 43 here and Maria only 16, they married in 1161 in Constantinople. Again, Manuel’s marriage to Maria of Antioch showed his preference for western women as Maria was a blonde French speaking woman of Norman blood, although Manuel married her also to strengthen his ties with his vassal the Principality of Antioch but the people in Constantinople who were proud Byzantine Greeks looked down on the new empress due to her French origins seeing it as barbaric. In 1161 as well, the new sultan of the Seljuks in Asia Minor Kilij Arslan II launched a major 4-sided attack on Byzantine territory there but Manuel responded this time by sending an army not only of Byzantines but with their Crusader allies from Antioch and Jerusalem itself as well as Serbian troops as Serbia still remained the empire’s vassal, subjugated Pechenegs, and most unlikely of all troops of the Emir of Aleppo Nur, thus proving the alliance between the Crusaders and the state of Nur in Syria that Manuel intended to have was indeed working.

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Nur ad-Din Zengi, Emir of Aleppo and Damascus (r. 1146-1174), son of Zengi

When seeing how large the army Manuel I sent to counter him consisting of all these allies, Sultan Kilij Arslan II decided to give up his attacks on Byzantine lands therefore agreeing to submit to Manuel I and sign a peace agreement in which it was agreed that the Seljuks should not ever even try making raids into Byzantine lands or not even dare attack their rival Turkish power in the east which were the Danishmends or be completely invaded by Byzantium. Following the peace agreement, even the Seljuk Sultanate was now to submit to Byzantium, and to get Manuel I to recognize Kilij Arslan’s surrender, Kilij Arslan himself travelled to Constantinople to meet with Manuel in the Great Palace where the sultan was greatly impressed by the palace’s extravagance and how well he was received by the emperor. Now with the Crusader States of Outremer, Cilician Armenia, and even the Seljuk Sultanate all submitting to the authority of the Byzantine emperor, Manuel I felt that he was now the unquestionable all-powerful ruler of the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean therefore being known in Greek as Manuel ho Megas meaning “Manuel the Great”, but his mission to assert Byzantium’s dominance was still far from over. The growing power of Manuel I and his empire however soon started becoming seen as a threat to others especially the powers of Western Europe who felt insecure as here in the 12th century, they had been growing in power and influence too and among the rulers of Western Europe, it was no surprise that the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa was the most threatened as he was the one who hated Byzantium the most that he even formed anti-Byzantine alliance with the pope to prevent Manuel from invading Italy again. Meanwhile in 1162, over in Hungary, their king Geza II had died and was succeeded by his eldest son Stephen III, although the younger son named Bela had already been sent over to Byzantium to be educated in the imperial court as part of their treaty considering that Byzantium and Hungary had ties as Manuel was Hungarian on his mother’s side, and so following Geza II’s death Manuel I backed Bela as the successor to the Hungarian throne as Manuel was actually intending to unite Hungary with Byzantium, but Bela’s older brother Stephen the king opposed this. In the meantime, Manuel’s cousin Andronikos who had been locked up in prison in Constantinople for 10 years now after plotting to overthrow Manuel had turned to be a highly skilled escape artist that he managed to sneak out of prison by digging the ground and finding an escape tunnel, although it took him years to actually finally make a successful escape.

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Vlach people, 12th century

After his successful escape, Andronikos had ended up successfully escaping Byzantine territory by crossing the Danube River north to the land of the Vlachs (Romania), but the Vlachs were still able to identify who he was and so they captured him attempting to return him to Byzantium to be imprisoned again. When held as the Vlachs’ prisoner who were escorting him back to the empire’s border, according to the historian of this time Niketas Choniates (1155-1217), Andronikos having his talent as a conman and escape artist faked that he was having stomach problems and so he hid himself behind bushes to defecate which he proved so successful at that soon enough he was able to escape the Vlachs by putting his clothes and his hat on a stick that Vlachs at first fell for the trick but when finding out that they were tricked, they could no longer find the escaped Andronikos anymore. After escaping the Vlachs, Andronikos fled north to Kiev which was under his cousin on his mother’s side the Rus Prince of Galicia in Ukraine Yaroslav Osmomysly; and now here in the 12th century, the powerful Kievan Rus’ Empire of before was no longer a centralized state but now one divided into many principalities in which Galicia was one of them and unlike the other Russian states that supported Byzantium, Galicia was against it being instead pro-Hungarian which was its neighbor to the west.

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Yaroslav Osmomysyl, Rus Prince of Galicia

At the same Andronikos arrived in the court of cousin Prince Yaroslav to seek refuge, Hungary and Byzantium went to war with each other over the issue of Manuel I refusing to acknowledge Stephen III as the Hungarian king, instead wanting to put his intended puppet Bela on the Hungarian throne. Andronikos on the other hand persuaded Yaroslav to support Hungary in the war against Byzantium as Andronikos was eager to have revenge on his cousin the emperor and again plot to take over the throne and so here in 1165, Andronikos put his claim on the Byzantine throne with the support of King Stephen III of Hungary and the Rus Prince of Galicia Yaroslav. Manuel I on the other hand led a massive invasion on Hungary raiding deep into Hungarian territory between 1165 and 1167 all while the Serbians always wanting full independence from Byzantium here switched their support to Stephen III against Byzantium. Manuel I with the support of the pro-Byzantine Serbs however had gained the upper hand where his Serbian allies imprisoned the pro-Hungarian Serbian leader Stefan Nemanja, although in 1166 Stefan Nemanja managed to escape prison and declare himself the first Grand Prince of Serbia transforming the Serbian Principality of Rascia which he was in charge of into the Grand Principality of Serbia.

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Byzantine forces of Manuel I defeat the Hungarians at the Battle of Sirmium, 1167

Though Nemanja declared his principality totally independent from Byzantium with the support of Stephen III of Hungary, Manuel I’s forces in 1167 won a decisive victory over the Hungarian forces of Stephen III at the Battle of Sirmium in Serbia, but even though with this Byzantine victory Manuel still had to face Stefan Nemanja who had just separated his state from the empire thus growing his power and influence over the region. Now having made the Kingdom of Hungary a Byzantine vassal, its king Stephen III had to agree to having his younger brother Bela succeed him who was Manuel’s intended puppet and already given the title of Despot by Manuel which was the Byzantine equivalent of a prince, while Manuel’s cousin Andronikos who however helped the Hungarians against him was still pardoned by Manuel who here was willing to give Andronikos another chance, and so Andronikos was returned to empire in 1168 no longer as a prisoner but to live freely, although when back in the empire Andronikos refused to take the oath of allegiance to accept Bela as Manuel’s imperial successor after Manuel dies, and so Andronikos was banished to Cilicia without any real punishment except being forced to retire from politics and live in a farm. Bela was now preparing to succeed Manuel as Byzantine emperor and unite Hungary and Byzantium into one massive European empire as Manuel so far had no son yet, but unfortunately for Bela some unforeseen events were to happen and this was mainly Manuel’s wife Empress Maria giving birth to a son in 1169. Now finally having his intended male heir, Manuel named his newborn son Alexios after Manuel’s grandfather Emperor Alexios I to complete the said “AIMA” prophecy, as Manuel was the “M”, therefore his son was named Alexios to complete it. The birth of Manuel’s long awaited male heir was a heavy blow to Bela who was already destined to succeed Manuel, but Bela still knew he would one day become the King of Hungary as his brother Stephen III was still childless.

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Amalric, King of Jerusalem (r. 1163-1174)

In the Kingdom of Jerusalem meanwhile which was here the largest of the Crusader states of Outremer extending all the way south to the Red Sea, their king Baldwin III who became Manuel’s ally and vassal had already died back in 1163 and was then succeeded by his brother Amalric, who now as king wanted to finally pursue the ultimate goal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem ever since its founding in the beginning of the century to conquer Egypt, the center of the Arab Fatimid Caliphate but the problem was that Amalric did not have an army large enough but since Jerusalem here was paying tribute to Byzantium, Manuel agreed to send over an army to aid Amalric in attacking Egypt as Manuel actually also had an intention to conquer some land there. Being unable to take back Italy, Manuel now in 1169 turned his attention to the very rich province of Egypt, a land the Byzantines had not held ever since it fell to the Arabs in the 7th century during the reign of the emperor Constans II (641-668)- if you remember from chapter IV of this series- and for Manuel, he believed that by conquering Egypt, he would be able to achieve what no emperor before him could and so he sent a large army under his nephew the general Andronikos Kontostephanos, who previously joined him in the Hungarian campaign with a fleet of 230 ships to meet up with Amalric and his forces at the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. When both forces of the Byzantines sent by Manuel and those of the Kingdom of Jerusalem led by Amalric met up, they sailed down to the coast of Egypt where they together laid siege to the port city of Damietta, and although both forces joined together were doing well in besieging it, they soon enough began to fail in cooperating with each other.

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Seal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

Amalric knowing that the Byzantines wanted to take part of Egypt for themselves did not want to share Egypt with them and as the mistrust between both forces grew, both Amalric and the general Kontostephanos decided to abandon the siege and return home, thus the failure to cooperate made the Byzantine-Crusader invasion of Egypt a failed one. The Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt on the other hand did not last long enough as just 2 years after this failed invasion in 1171, in the Fatimid’s capital of Cairo the young caliph Al-Adid was overthrown by his general the Kurdish Saladin who when taking over abolished the Fatimid Caliphate that had been around since 909 replacing it with his own dynasty, the Ayyubid Dynasty with him as the Sultan of Egypt.

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Empress Maria of Antioch and Emperor Manuel I, art by Ediacar
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Crusader and Byzantine forces attempt to capture Egypt from the Fatimid Caliphate, 1169

As the 1170s came, Manuel I now much older in his 50s still continued with his over ambitious style of ruling that he was not so much a dreamer any more that would go beyond his limits to grow his empire but now more so a bully that was already annoyingly wanting to assert the power of Byzantium over everyone else.

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Manuel I Komnenos, art by Spatharokandidatos

Manuel’s personality as a bully was seen in 1171 when he out of nowhere broke Byzantium’s long-time alliance with the Republic of Venice as Manuel now just like his father John II back in the 1120s could no longer stand the increasing trading rights Venice was having on Byzantine waters that was making Venice rich so quickly. To limit the growing power of Venice, Manuel I secretly made alliances behind the back of Venice with the other Italian naval republics of Genoa and Pisa which were not as powerful yet before 1171 came, and in March of 1171 after Manuel gained both Genoa and Pisa as allies giving them quarters in Constantinople, he suddenly declared Venice as an enemy. Manuel then had sent word to all governors all over the empire to imprison all Venetian citizens living in all parts of the empire on March 12, and on March 12 the governors obeyed his orders that by the end of the day a total of 20,000 Venetians living all over the Byzantine Empire were arrested and imprisoned while all their properties were confiscated, including their ships in which Manuel seized them all and made them Byzantine ships, and part of these imprisoned Venetians in the empire was the future ruler or Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo who was in fact blinded under the emperor’s orders. What Manuel did not realize however was that he was picking on the wrong power as by the 1170s, the Republic of Venice had already grown to become a wealthy maritime empire in the Adriatic Sea with a powerful navy while its capital Venice in the Venetian lagoon grew to become a bustling metropolis the way Constantinople was due to all the money it made as a result of the Crusaders passing through it on the way to Outremer. In response to the Byzantines for imprisoning 20,000 of their citizens, the Republic of Venice itself sent 120 large ships from Venice to attack the Byzantine ports along the Adriatic Ionian Seas.

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Stefan Nemanja, Grand Prince of Serbia (r. 1166-1196)

At the same time as the Venetians launched their naval attacks there, the newly independent Principality of Serbia under the grand prince Stefan Nemanja began expanding by attacking the Serbian states still loyal to Byzantium such as Zeta and since the Venetians were attacking Byzantine ports along the Adriatic such as Kotor which was close to Nemanja’s territory, Nemanja allied himself with the Venetians to attack the Byzantines in the western coast of the Balkans. Wanting to actually start a full-scale war with the Byzantines, Nemanja now allied with Venice was expecting Stephen III of Hungary who was already his ally ever since Serbia became independent in 1166 to come to his aid but in 1172 Stephen III unexpectedly died before coming to assist Nemanja and the Venetians and also without having any children to succeed him.

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Bela III, King of Hungary (r. 1172-1196)

Now since Stephen III died childless, his brother Bela still in Constantinople had to return to Hungary in 1172 to become King Bela III thus again never fulfilling his destiny to be Byzantine emperor, while also in 1172 the Venetian attacks on the Byzantine Balkans failed as 150 Byzantine ships led by the same general from Egyptian campaign Andronikos Kontostephanos sent by Manuel chased the Venetian fleet back to Italy while a plague breaking out in the Adriatic coast of the Balkans made the Venetians give up their raids, although from here on Byzantium and Venice were now mortal enemies. Now since the Hungarians never came to assist Nemanja and the new Hungarian king Bela III was a Byzantine ally, Nemanja was left all alone therefore having no choice but to surrender himself and his state as a vassal of Byzantium or possibly be killed or blinded by Manuel. At this time in 1172, Manuel had happened to be in the Balkans and knowing that Manuel was nearby, Nemanja went to the emperor’s camp and just as Reynald de Chatillon did back in 1159, Nemanja presented himself to the emperor barefoot, wearing rags, and with a rope around his neck, but with a sword in his hand and when seeing Manuel, Nemanja bowed face-down to him handing him over his sword as a symbol of submitting his authority. Manuel then accepted Nemanja’s surrender allowing Nemanja to continue ruling his Principality of Serbia as long as he paid tribute to Byzantium, but Manuel here had a surprise for Nemanja and so Nemanja was brought over to Constantinople to take part in Manuel’s triumphal parade in the main street or Mese for Manuel’s victory over Venice and the Serbians. Manuel being the bully he was humiliated Nemanja in his procession by parading Nemanja like a dog for everyone to laugh at with a leash tied to his hand pulled by Manuel as he was riding his horse, although Nemanja was afterwards still returned home to Serbia. In the meantime, Manuel’s cousin Andronikos who had been banished to Cilicia back in 1168 was having the time of his life as not wanting to be idle in retirement in Cilicia, he began travelling around the known world living in royal courts as an honorary guest.

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Theodora Komnene, wife of the former King of Jerusalem Baldwin III, lover of Andronikos Komnenos

First, Andronikos escaped to Antioch where he joined the royal court, although being a seducer of women Andronikos had an affair with the late prince Raymond de Poitier’s daughter the beautiful Philippa, who was in fact the empress Maria of Antioch’s sister and not wanting Philippa’s brother-in-law the emperor Manuel to find out about Andronikos’ crime of seducing her, Andronikos fled south to Jerusalem still under the rule of King Amalric who received him well. Again, Andronikos in Jerusalem seduced Theodora Komnene, his and Manuel’s niece and wife of Jerusalem’s former king Baldwin III, but again not wanting his cousin Manuel to discover his affair with a family member, Andronikos together with Theodora fled to Damascus now held by the same Emir of Aleppo Nur who was still alive. Andronikos and Theodora however did not feel safe at Nur’s court in Damascus as here Nur was still an ally of Manuel who could report to Manuel that Andronikos was with him and so Andronikos and Theodora in 1173 left and fled north to the Kingdom of Georgia which here was under the rule of King George III who had no relations with Byzantium, and in Georgia, both Andronikos and Theodora were received well even being given a large estate in the east of Georgia. Now in 1174, the Emir of Aleppo Nur had died and following his death, his state weakened allowing the Seljuk sultan Kilij Arslan II to resume the fight against the Seljuk’s enemy in Asia Minor which were the Danishmend Turks and finally expel them for good as Nur was no longer in the way to stop him.

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Kilij Arslan II, Sultan of the Seljuks (r. 1156-1192)

In 1175, Kilij Arslan II battled the Danishmends in Eastern Asia Minor managing to expel them, although Kilij Arslan did not comply with the treaty he made with Byzantium to surrender the lands he conquered from the Danishmends back to Byzantium, and when finding out about this Manuel I in Constantinople was provoked to declare war on the Seljuks and take back all of Asia Minor from them for good. In 1176, Manuel I raised an army of up to 25,000 soldiers including the Varangian Guards, while Bela III of Hungary, Stefan Nemanja of Serbia, and the Principality of Antioch being all vassals of Byzantium sent their own troops to join Manuel’s campaign against the Seljuks in Asia Minor, thus increasing the Byzantine forces in this campaign to 35,000. Manuel himself here led the campaign himself marching with his army deep into Asia Minor together with his nephew the general Andronikos Kontostephanos who was appointed to lead one division of the army while the other one was put under the command of another general which was Andronikos Angelos, who was also Manuel’s cousin being the son of Manuel’s aunt Theodora Komnene and the minor noble Constantine Angelos who’s family rose to prominence when he married into the imperial family back in 1122. When Manuel and his large army arrived at the pass of Myriokephalon in Southwest Asia Minor, Turkish ambassadors approached him telling that their sultan Kilij Arslan II was considering renewing their peace agreement and Manuel here was confused as he was thinking of considering peace and abandoning his campaign but his younger commanders including the two Andronikoi (plural for Andronikos) urged him to decline as they had already prepared themselves and constantly drilled their troops for war.

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Seljuks ambush the Byzantines at the pass of Myriokephalon in Asia Minor, 1176

Manuel then declined the peace offer and marched straight into the mountain pass with his army of 35,000 in one straight line stretching an entire 16km, and here Manuel made the fatal mistake of not sending troops to scout both sides of the pass to check if there were enemy soldiers, and so when marching straight into the pass, the Seljuks out of nowhere ambushed them with their arrows and rolling boulders. Due to the narrowness of the pass the slow movement of the Byzantine army and their allies with all their large baggage train consisting of food supply and siege engines, they were easily ambushed with little room to make an escape. Manuel who was in the middle of the ambush considered surrendering but the same generals Andronikos Angelos and Kontostephanos convinced him to push through. At the end, Manuel and most of his army managed to escape the ambush to the other side of the pass not losing a large number of men, but the devastating part however was that they had to abandon their siege engines which became too heavy to transport, thus with the siege engines either destroyed by the ambush or trapped deep in the pass, Manuel was no longer able to carry out his ultimate goal which was to besiege the Seljuk capital of Iconium which was just near the pass. Manuel and Sultan Kilij Arslan II then renewed their peace agreement the day after the battle in which Manuel had to agree to demolish two forts along Byzantium’s border with the Seljuk state in Asia Minor. This defeat at the Battle of Myriokephalon then was another fatal blow to the Byzantine Empire especially in their efforts to restore their rule to Asia Minor, and because of this defeat Manuel I had paid the price for his over confidence in believing he could fully defeat the Seljuks in battle. For the Seljuks, their victory in this battle proved that they were there to stay in Asia Minor for good, though Manuel on the other hand believed that the defeat he faced here was even worse than the one the Byzantine army suffered at Manzikert to the Seljuks 105 years earlier, except unlike Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes if you remember from the previous chapter who had been captured by the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan after his defeat, Manuel here was left unharmed.

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Complete flag of the Republic of Venice
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Venice in the 12th century
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Manuel I (on horse) parades Stefan Nemanja of Serbia in Constantinople, 1172
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Defeat of the Byzantines allied with the Crusaders, Hungarians, and Serbians to the Seljuks at the Battle of Myriokephalon, 1176

The Climax- The Last Days of Manuel I and the Rise of Alexios II Komnenos (1177-1187)           

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Though Manuel I had been decisively defeated by the Seljuks in 1176 at the Battle of Myriokephalon making him realize the negative effect of his over confidence, in the following year 1177 Manuel feeling that he had recovered from his defeat the previous year did not really learn his lesson, thus he sent another army to attack the Seljuks, except a smaller one this time. This time however in 1177, the small Byzantine force Manuel sent to drive away a Seljuk invasion at their border which was the Meander River was able to repel the invasion but in the following year 1178 however, the Seljuks attacked the Byzantine border again this time defeating the small army of border guards forcing them to retreat allowing the Turks to capture the Byzantine soldiers’ livestock. In 1179, the Seljuks raided even deeper into Byzantine territory going as far as the region of Phrygia in Western Asia Minor and in response to this, Manuel sent Andronikos Angelos, the same general who fought with him at Myriokephalon in 1176 but survived to counter-attack the Seljuks. Andronikos at first fought bravely but in one night the Seljuks who had the ability to fight in pitch darkness launched a surprise attack on Andronikos’ camp alarming Andronikos and his army with their loud voices, and Andronikos fearing he was encircled got on his horse and galloped away leading his soldiers to do same thing too when seeing him flee, while the Seljuks on the other hand finished off the remaining soldiers and captured the camp.

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Manuel I Komnenos and his wife Maria of Antioch

At the same time, all these constant fighting of wars with the Seljuks for the past 3 years without any pause caused both Manuel’s physical and mental health to deteriorate as he was aging as well, and due to his the weakening of his mental health according to the same historian Niketas Choniates who was already alive documenting events of this time, Manuel was so angry at Andronikos Angelos for panicking and fleeing from the Seljuks that Manuel threatened to have Andronikos humiliated in public by parading him in Constantinople’s Hippodrome dressed as a woman, however Manuel did not carry out his threat after hearing that another army drove away the invading Seljuks in Phrygia where Andronikos was defeated. By 1180, Manuel’s health had worsened even more that he soon caught a fever that would slowly take his life away, but also in 1180 when already sick and dying, Manuel first attempted for Church unity between the Byzantine Church and the Latin church led by the pope in Rome as part of Manuel’s pro-Western policy, however the people of Byzantium opposed this not wanting to be united in faith with the western people they were suspicious of, and so this union never came to happen. Another act of Manuel in his last days was in encouraging the Muslim population in his empire to convert to Orthodox Christianity in which he did so by removing Allah from their beliefs as after all the name “Allah” meant “God”, and both were the same, however this policy proved to so unpopular that it was never carried out. Now as Manuel knew that his time to go was near, he made one last dynastic alliance with the west, and this one was with the same King of France Louis VII of the Capetian Dynasty who passed by Constantinople more than 30 years earlier in the 2nd Crusade who by this point was still alive. Here, Manuel arranged that his son and heir Alexios who was already co-emperor and now 10-years-old was to marry Louis VII’s 7-year-old daughter Agnes, who was Louis’ daughter with his new wife Adele of Champagne following his divorce with his first wife Eleanor of Aquitaine many years ago.

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Agnes of France (left) and Empress Maria of Antioch (right), art by Ediacar

In March of 1180, the children Alexios and Agnes of France were married in the church of Constantinople’s Great Palace in which everyone saw it as Manuel wanting to continue his pro-Western policies even after his death as here, he even chose a western bride for his young son, although this marriage too would now make Byzantium stronger now that they had ties with the Kingdom of France itself. In September of 1180, King Louis VII of France had died at the age of 60 and so did Manuel I himself die due to his worsening fever on September 24 at 61, just 6 days after Louis VII, and following his death Manuel I was buried at the Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople built by his father Emperor John II many years ago, right next to his first wife Bertha of Sulzbach who died back in 1159. At his death in 1180, Manuel I left the Byzantine Empire a large and powerful one covering almost the entire Balkans, with Hungary and Serbia as well as the Crusader states of Antioch and Jerusalem as its vassals, and France as an ally, however due to the defeats to the Seljuks only half of Asia Minor was restored to Byzantine rule leaving the shape of Byzantine territory there to again be a half-eaten donut with its western coast as well as half of its northern and southern coasts in the shape of a semi-circle still under Byzantium while the center and the other side of the donut under the Seljuk Sultanate of Kilij Arslan II. At Manuel I’s death, Constantinople too was a thriving metropolis as well as a major hub for the Mediterranean and Black Sea trade and for pilgrims and Crusader armies heading to the Holy Land, but on the other hand, the empire’s treasury too had begun to empty out due to all the constant ambitious wars of Manuel I. Although on the positive side, in 1180 it had already been 99 years since the Komnenos Dynasty was established by Alexios I, and 99 years later the empire was still under the Komnenos line with young Alexios II succeeding his father, thus it now seemed that the idea of one family ruling the empire was absolute considering that almost all other noble families had already married into it forming one large extended family making the idea of rebel generals wanting to seize throne a rare one now as no one would dare challenge the Komnenos family.

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Alexios II Komnenos, son and successor of Manuel I in 1180

The new emperor Alexios II Komnenos however was only a boy and although he received and was still receiving the best education, his young age obviously made him uninterested in state affairs, although when the year 1181 came he had the luck of seeing his dynasty rule the empire for a complete 100 years without any interruptions. Although since young Alexios II was not yet at the age to rule effectively, his mother Empress Maria of Antioch was left to run the state as regent, and even though she may have been a strong and confident woman, she lacked political skills and the worst part for the people of the empire was that she was a full-blooded westerner being a Frenchwoman, therefore she immediately became very unpopular the moment she became her son’s regent. Since Maria did not really have any skill in running an empire and was insecure in her place as she was hated for her Latin heritage, she appointed Manuel’s nephew and Alexios II’s cousin also named Alexios as her top advisor who would now be the actual power behind her and her son, but since Maria was well known for her beauty being tall with long blonde hair, blue eyes, and a perfect figure, the advisor Alexios fell for her and they became lovers. The advisor Alexios on the other hand was a despised figure among the people of Constantinople as he was both arrogant and incompetent and also a strong believer of Manuel I’s pro-Western policies that he did not seem to care about the empire and its culture at all, and so the people conspired with a number of the anti-Western aristocrats now looking for a new candidate to put on the throne.        

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (pink) at Manuel I’s death, 1180

In the meantime, Manuel I’s cousin the conman Andronikos Komnenos after Manuel’s death in 1180 returned to Byzantine territory from Georgia knowing he wouldn’t be punished anymore as his cousin who put a high bounty on him had died, and back in the empire Andronikos settled on an estate near the city of Trebizond in the far eastern corner of the Black Sea which was close to Georgia. As the rift between the people of Byzantium grew larger where one faction supported the late Manuel’s pro-Western policies as well the regency of Empress Maria of Antioch while the others were against it, the conflicts began to escalate to the point of starting a civil war.

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Andronikos Komnenos, cousin of Manuel I, art by Skamandros

This kind of instability then gave Andronikos who heard of it the opportunity to leave retirement, march into Constantinople, and seize the throne as a larger percent of the population was anti-Western and proudly Byzantine, and so in 1182 Andronikos left retirement and headed out to Constantinople paying off a small force of Muslim troops from the Seljuk sultan Kilij Arslan II’s army to join him in his march and take Constantinople. Empress Maria of Antioch when hearing that Manuel’s cousin Andronikos had raised an army and was marching to Constantinople to seize the throne, she dealt with his advance by sending the same generals Andronikos Angelos and Andronikos Kontostephanos to stop the rebel Andronikos. When the forces of Angelos and Kontostephanos met up with Andronikos Komnenos and his army, they however did not put him down, but instead both generals switched their support to him, therefore joining Andronikos Komnenos in his march to Constantinople as it turned out both Angelos and Kontostephanos were sick of the empress favoring the Latin merchants of the capital instead of the military aristocrats which were them. With Angelos and Kontostephanos defecting to the rebel Andronikos, they opened the gates of Constantinople for him when they all reached it and as Andronikos Komnenos with his Seljuk troops entered the gates of Constantinople, the people in which almost all were anti-Western and anti-empress all cheered so loudly welcoming Andronikos as their savior from the corruption and favoritism of the empress, and what followed Andronikos’ arrival was the oddest form of celebration which here came in the form of a massacre. Now for most of the people, now that their savior had arrived, they quickly rushed into Constantinople’s Latin Quarter where all the Venetian as well as other merchants and diplomats from Western Europe resided in with their weapons and torches and one by one, they hacked to death every single Latin person they saw while also setting fire to their houses and market stalls.

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Massacre of the Latins in Constantinople by Andronikos’ supporters, 1182

At the end of the day, the people of Constantinople mercilessly killed thousands of Latins and not only the men, but the women and children as well as the elderly, and even patients in the quarter’s hospital were brutally hacked and stabbed to death, while the Papal legate residing there, Cardinal John was beheaded. With the massacre over, the streets of the Latin Quarter were drenched in the blood of the Latins that were killed, while the few that survived were sold as slaves to the Seljuks, although some managed to escape by ship and return to Italy with disturbing memories of what happened there on this day in April of 1182. Andronikos on the other had did not expect his supporters to carry out such a brutal massacre but he tolerated it as he was against everything his late cousin stood for which was really anything western, thus he would do whatever it took to rid the empire of western influence even if it meant genocide. Andronikos now having massive public support entered Constantinople’s Imperial Palace where his family members were, and having not seen him in years, they were in fact in awe of his entrance as Andronikos here despite being already in his 60s still appeared to be very handsome and buffed, around 6ft and 2inches in height, with thick curly hair despite it already being gray, was energetic, and was very fashionable with the preference of wearing pyramid-shaped hats which was what exactly he was wearing when coming into the palace. When entering the palace though, Andronikos immediately asserted his power over the imperial court and so he ordered that the empress Maria’s top advisor and lover Alexios be arrested, and so Alexios was put in chains by Andronikos’ hitman Stephen Hagiochristophorites, dragged out of the palace and blinded. In the palace, Andronikos then still having his seductive charm and voice seduced the emperor Alexios II’s older half-sister also named Maria who was Manuel’s daughter from his first marriage, although it turned out that Andronikos did it to trick her as during one dinner Maria and her husband as well dropped dead as Andronikos secretly poisoned them. Andronikos now sought to systematically get rid of any challenger to him which is why he poisoned both the princess Maria and her husband, and now having eliminated them both his next target was the empress Maria of Antioch herself who Andronikos then had thrown in prison, thus removing her from her position as her son’s regent making Andronikos now take her place. In prison, Empress Maria tried writing to Bela III of Hungary who was still their ally and vassal to assist her by sending an army to Constantinople to overthrow Andronikos, however it came to no result as before the letter was brought to Hungary, Andronikos’ men discovered it and burned it.

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

The next step for Andronikos who now knowing the empress in prison was up to trouble was to finish her off once and for all, although he could not legally put her to death unless the legitimate emperor Alexios II signed his mother’s death warrant which he at first refused. In this story’s case, Andronikos drugged the young Alexios II in order to get him to approve his mother’s execution, and not knowing what was going on around him due to being drugged, he signed his mother’s death warrant. Andronikos then sent 3 of his hitmen which included Stephen to the prison where Empress Maria was and there, they strangled her to death in late 1182, thus after killing her they dumped her body in an unmarked grave in a beach outside Constantinople. The young emperor Alexios II though after the drug wore out could not believe that he put his own mother to death and the worst part was, with so much remorse in early 1183 he was forced to proclaim his uncle Andronikos who forced him to kill his mother as his co-emperor in front of the crowd. Eventually, the empire’s aristocrats that initially backed Andronikos which included the same generals Angelos and Kontostephanos began to realize that they were wrong in backing Andronikos when finding out that he would be nothing more but a bloody tyrant whose only purpose to rule was not save Byzantium from being infected by Western influences but only to have revenge on his late cousin Manuel I by undoing each and every of his policies all for the reason that he had been disgraced by Manuel. Another reason for Angelos and Kontostephanos to turn against Andronikos Komnenos was because Andronikos made it clear in his speech when being made co-emperor that he promised to entirely get rid of the empire’s aristocracy and these two generals who were aristocrats could now no longer stomach the radical thinking of Andronikos which they now saw was a danger to them and so both Angelos and Kontostephanos began to plot to put Andronikos down before he could gain full power over the empire by killing off young Alexios II. At the same time too, word of Andronikos taking over as co-emperor and the power behind the throne reached the vassal Grand Prince of Stefan Nemanja who not wanting to swear allegiance to Andronikos who he knew was Manuel’s enemy again declared Serbia free from the control of Byzantium by stopping the payment of annual tribute, while at the same time Bela III who was an ally of Manuel also declared his intention to stop being a vassal to the empire as he too did not trust Andronikos, and so here both Bela III and Nemanja joined forces. As for Andronikos wanting to rule to have complete revenge on the late Manuel I, this meant killing off each and every one of Manuel’s family members and people associated with him, and now that he had become the power behind Alexios II, Andronikos’ next move was to execute Alexios II himself. In September of 1183, Andronikos ordered his hitmen including Stephen to secretly kill off Alexios II by storming into his part of the palace and strangle him with a bowstring, and now for this story this is where history changes. In this story’s case, the one to uncover the plot of Andronikos was Andronikos Angelos’ youngest but most able of his 6 sons Isaac Angelos who here overheard the plot by spying on Andronikos who in this story’s case plotted Alexios II’s assassination beneath the seats of the Hippodrome whereas Isaac was outside.

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Isaac Angelos, youngest of Andronikos Angelos’ 6 sons

Isaac then rushed to his father and the general Kontostephanos who were in the Angelos mansion in Constantinople, and here in this story’s case after hearing of the plot, Isaac with Kontostephanos and Kontostephanos’ 4 sons rushed to the palace with the excuse of having to report something to Andronikos. Isaac’s father Andronikos Angelos however was skeptical if his plot would succeed and so he here had a backup plan knowing their plot may not work and so before Isaac headed to the palace, he packed up his things and brought all his other 5 sons to the south harbor along the Marmara where they all got into a ship on board for the Kingdom of Jerusalem now ruled by Amalric’s son Baldwin IV where they intended to seek refuge in and retire being part of the royal court. In the palace, as Andronikos’ hitmen cornered Alexios II who was at the palace’s balcony overlooking the Bosporus Sea, Andronikos came in to confront young Alexios II to watch him be strangled to death, but the moment the hitman Stephen pulled out the bowstring and started strangling Alexios’ neck with it, Isaac with the 4 sons of Kontostephanos broke into the room where Isaac pulled out his sword and stabbed Stephen in the chest before young Alexios turned purple. As Stephen fell to the ground dead, Alexios fell too catching his breath but relieved that he was saved right before he had stopped breathing while Kontostephanos himself entered the door announcing that Andronikos Komnenos was under arrest for high treason against the emperor and empire and so were the two surviving hitmen. As Andronikos was put in chains, he started screaming that he was doing everything for the good of the empire but he had his hitmen were not spared and all blinded by Kontostephanos himself using a heated metal rod. Andronikos was then sent back to exile in his estate near Trebizond while both Isaac Angelos and Andronikos Kontostephanos and his 4 sons all swore they were there to protect young Alexios II, while at the same time the now 12-year-old wife of Alexios II Agnes of France rushed to him feeling relieved.          

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Great Palace Complex of Constantinople with the Hagia Sophia and Hippodrome, art by Ediacar

Watch this to learn more about the story of Andronikos Komnenos (Rhi Hart).

In real history however, Alexios II Komnenos at only 14 in 1183 was killed off with a bowstring by the order of Andronikos Komnenos who then dumped the body of young Alexios II in Bosporus Sea, and afterwards Andronikos proclaimed himself Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos, the sole ruler of the empire and despite being already 65, he married the late Alexios II’s 12-year-old wife Agnes of France to secure his claim, although both only married for political reasons and due to the large age gap, neither of them had any feelings for each other. It was only after Alexios II’s death in late 1183 when the generals Andronikos Angelos and Andronikos Kontostephanos in real history rose up against the new emperor Andronikos I when now discovering that Andronikos I only used them to help him come to power and but now in power, his primary objective was to root out the empire’s aristocracy.

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Andronikos I Komnenos, Byzantine emperor in real history (r. 1183-1185), art by Ediacar

In real history, Andronikos I discovered Kontostephanos’ part in the plot and so Kontostephanos and all his 4 sons were blinded while their fate after that remains unclear, although Andronikos Angelos in real history just like in this story escaped by ship to Jerusalem except with all of his 6 sons including the youngest one Isaac before the emperor could hunt them all down. Now in this story, just like in real history Andronikos Angelos and his 5 sons had already all escaped to the Kingdom of Jerusalem leaving Isaac behind to be the young emperor’s new protector, and just like in real history Andronikos Angelos in this story would die also in around 1185 in Jerusalem. Back to 14-year-old Alexios II in this story, after he survived the attempt on his life by his uncle Andronikos who was now blinded and banished back to his estate near Trebizond, Alexios II would first be confused on who these people that saved him were but here, Isaac Angelos who here in 1183 was only 27 with a large stature and mustache would tell Alexios that he means no harm and that he is also part of the extended family being his 2nd cousin as both were great-grandsons of Alexios I Komnenos, therefore young Alexios II would immediately come to trust Isaac. The 4 sons meanwhile as well as their father Andronikos Kontostephanos would also swear to young Alexios II that they were there to protect him and his rule until he comes of age, which here would be in 2 years as in Byzantium, when a ruler hits 16 he could fully rule alone. Now back in real history, Bela III of Hungary as well Stefan Nemanja of Serbia cut ties with the empire and even launched attacks on it in 1183 after hearing Alexios II had been killed and Andronikos I took over, however here Bela III when hearing Andronikos I was blinded banished and Alexios II survived, he would return his loyalty to the empire and pledge himself to be a vassal again, although Nemanja in this story’s case would do as he did in real history for he really always wanted his Principality of Serbia to be fully independent anyway, and so Nemanja would discontinue paying tribute to Byzantium.

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Andronikos I Komnenos face icon

Back to real history, Andronikos I Komnenos becoming the sole emperor in 1183 may have had good intentions such as in wanting to rid the empire of any kind of corruption, bribery, the selling of government positions, and the unlawful seizing of people’s properties and making wealth from robbing shipwrecks, but despite his good intentions the measures he took to enforce his anti-corrupt policies were too harsh and violent that he would end up having anyone associated not only with corruption but with his late cousin Manuel I tortured to death wherein sometimes, Andronikos himself would personally torture his victims having pleasure in doing so, while for those who stole from shipwrecks he had them hung to death from the masts of these ships. However the historian Choniates say Andronikos more or less targeted the rich in his reign of terror leaving the poor unharmed as he wanted them to see him as their protector from the corruption of the rich. Under Andronikos I in real history, the empire turned into a totalitarian dictatorship and a terror state where not a single day went by without anyone being tortured or executed, and the aristocrats who were now all the target of Andronikos I began to live in fear of their lives that by 1184 they made numerous plots against the emperor in which all were crushed, and due to all the purges of the good looking conman dictator emperor, the empire soon enough became deprived of even its competent ministers and generals who were all executed for the slightest reason of being suspected plotters against emperor leaving only very few competent generals around such as one named Alexios Branas who always remained loyal to Andronikos I, and in real history during the reign of Andronikos I he drove away a Bela III’s Hungarian invasion of Byzantine Serbia, although here Alexios Branas would not do so as Bela III due to Alexios II surviving would not invade. One of the aristocrats to rise up against Andronikos I in 1184 in real history was his other relative Isaac Komnenos who fleeing from the purges of Andronikos escaped by ship and fled to Cyprus where he declared the whole island independent from the empire with him as its ruler calling himself “emperor”. In this story however, even if Andronikos I never came to rule alone and Alexios II surviving, this same Isaac Komnenos would also escape to Cyprus as he in this story’s case wanted to rule as an emperor anyway, and so just like in real history Isaac Komnenos in 1184 would declare himself “Emperor of Cyprus” and like in real history too, he would rule Cyprus in the same kind of tyrannical and abusive way as Andronikos I ruled the empire in real history.

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William II, Norman King of Sicily (r. 1166-1189)

Now, the Massacre of the Latins in Constantinople carried out by its people in 1182 would in this story also trigger the Norman King of Sicily here William II to prepare another full-scale Norman invasion of Byzantium after hearing of the massacre back in 1182 wherein some of the people killed in it were his Norman people that came to work in Constantinople. In this story’s case, even though Alexios II continued ruling, William II of Sicily in 1185 would still do the same in launching a massive Norman invasion on Byzantine Greece as the Massacre of Latins did still happen 3 years earlier, and nothing could undo it, although in real history the Normans invading Byzantine Greece brought with them a pretender claiming to be the dead Alexios II, but this story since Alexios II was still alive, there would be no pretender. In this story like in real history, William II’s forces consisting of 200 ships, 5,000 knights, and 80,000 men including infantry soldiers and crewmen would arrive in the region of Epirus in Western Greece wherein with their large numbers would defeat all Byzantine forces sent to stop them allowing them to march all the way to Thessaloniki, the empire’s second city in which the Normans captured and sacked wherein the Normans massacred up to 7,000 of its inhabitants, although the strange thing was that they did not really loot any valuables except for building materials like nails according to the chronicler and the city’s bishop Eustathius who was saw the Norman attack with his own eyes. In real history, the loss of Thessaloniki caused Andronikos I to lose his popularity that even the people who put him in power back in 1182 turned against him, and a major factor for what caused the people to turn on him was the aristocracy who successfully persuaded them that their emperor was not their savior but a madman, and here is when Isaac Angelos in real history after returning to Constantinople from Jerusalem enters the picture. What happened in real history was that in September of 1185 when Andronikos was absent from the capital, the aristocrats seeing the right opportunity backed Isaac Angelos as their ideal candidate as he was energetic and charismatic but also was someone who could easily be manipulated by them as they knew he was someone that would allow them to continue with their corruption which Andronikos was brutally cracking down on, whereas Isaac seemed to tolerate it. Andronikos I however knew that the aristocrats turned on him and backed Isaac Angelos as their candidate, and so Andronikos despite being away sent his same trusted hitman Stephen Hagiochristophorites to arrest Isaac at his house, although Isaac the moment Stephen came to arrest him immediately jumped onto his horse and when galloping his full speed, he beheaded Stephen with one clean blow from his sword. Isaac then hid in the Hagia Sophia where during the night, with his strong charisma made a moving speech that resulted in turning thousands of people against their tyrant emperor Andronikos I and therefore proclaim Isaac as their new emperor as Isaac clearly told everyone that the Norman invasion was Andronikos’ fault and that Isaac as their new emperor would save them from the Normans. The following day, Andronikos I returned to Constantinople finding out that the same people that put him in power and massacred the Latins had turned on him and proclaimed Isaac Angelos as their emperor also releasing the rich that Andronikos jailed, and before Andronikos with his 14-year-old wife Agnes of France and his mistress were about to get onto a boat to escape, the people seized Andronikos and handed him over to Isaac who cut off the right hand of Andronikos and handed him over to the people.

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Andronikos I tortured to death by the people of Constantinople, 1185

For the next 3 days then, as Choniates writes the people viciously tortured Andronikos to death at the Hippodrome where they tied him to a post, pulled off his hair and teeth, gouged out his eyes, poured boiling water on him to disfigure his handsome face, while his killing blow was delivered by a Latin soldier who stabbed him deep in his chest, thus Andronikos I real history died in the same brutal way he reigned but also as the last Komnenos emperor to rule the empire ending the 104-year period of Komnenos rule since Andronikos’ grandfather Alexios I came to power in 1081. In this story however, the 1185 events of the unexpected rise of Isaac II Angelos as the sole emperor of Byzantium and the brutal execution of Andronikos I by his own people would not take place, but the Norman Sack of Thessaloniki which did would cause Alexios II who here was 16 to lose his popularity. However, due to almost losing his life in 1183 when being strangled on Andronikos’ orders, Alexios II would already turn out to be ruthless and decisive when ruling despite still being a teenager, and so to deal with the Norman invasion and restore his popularity, he would split the army in 3 parts where Isaac Angelos would command the main one to retake Thessaloniki while the one to surprise attack the Normans from the north would be led by Alexios Branas and the one attacking from the south by Kontostephanos. Like in real history, Isaac Angelos on the way to retaking Thessaloniki would confront two Bulgarian brothers from the Bulgarian nobility of the empire named Theodor and Asen who asked Isaac to join him in battle against the Normans in exchange for autonomy over their lands in Byzantine Bulgaria. Like in real history too, Isaac Angelos not wanting another show of defiance against the empire and another piece of land to break free would have these brothers slapped and sent away. Meanwhile, right before Isaac Angelos in this story would reach Thessaloniki, the general Alexios Branas by launching a surprise attack had already won a major victory over the Normans at the Battle of Demeritzes east of Thessaloniki, and following this Byzantine victory the Normans would abandon Thessaloniki and flee by ship. Isaac Angelos too in this story’s case like in real history too would send a fleet from Northern Greece to Cyprus to put down Isaac Komnenos’ rebellion and take him as a prisoner, but along the way, these ships too like in real history would be destroyed by the Norman fleet which was retreating back to Sicily. In the meantime, while the Byzantines were busy fighting the Normans that were about to march to Constantinople, over in the north in the city of Tarnovo in Bulgaria, the brothers Theodor and Asen who were insulted by Isaac like in real history would also lead a multi-ethnic uprising with followers of different races including Bulgarians, Vlachs, Slavs, Pechenegs, and Cumans against the empire. The brothers now really did have the intention to break free from the empire as they no longer wanted to pay taxes to Constantinople, and to boost their people’s spirit and convince them all to defy Byzantium, the brothers told them of the greatness of the once independent Bulgarian Empire and its culture before it was defeated and annexed into Byzantium by Emperor Basil II the “Bulgar-Slayer” in 1018. The brothers too when beginning the major uprising in Tarnovo also changed their names when declaring themselves emperors or tsars whereas Theodor renamed himself Peter and Asen as Ivan, and to further convince the people to join them and strike against Byzantium, they created further propaganda including one about the icon of St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki which was their patron saint, which they claimed had flown from Thessaloniki to Tarnovo as a way to convince them that the saint had abandoned the Byzantine people considering that Thessaloniki fell to the Normans, and that the saint had now favored the Bulgarians, although the truth was that the icon never flew away and the brothers for propaganda just created one in order to rally thousands of people to their cause to declare a new independent Bulgarian Empire.            

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Byzantine Thessaloniki, sacked by the Normans in 1185
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Isaac II Angelos beheads Andronikos I’s hitman in real history, 1185
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Normans from Sicily invade Byzantine Greece, 1185
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Uprising of Theodor-Peter and Ivan Asen in Tarnovo, birth of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, 1185

The uprising of the Bulgarian brothers Theodor and Asen who now became the co-rulers Peter and Ivan Asen rapidly grew that by the time the year 1186 began, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire or better known as the “Vlach-Bulgarian Empire” was born after 167 years of Byzantine occupation in Bulgaria.

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Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185

In real history, this exact same event of the declaration of Bulgarian independence took place, although with Isaac II Angelos as the reigning emperor in real history, instead of succeeding in putting down this uprising, he only made things worse as he further increased taxes which here meant increasing taxes even for the Bulgarian nobility or boyars which was a clear violation of Basil II’s policy in keeping the taxes for the Bulgarians low in order to incorporate them into the empire. For the Bulgarians, the increase of taxes was a clear sign to rebel and break free from Byzantine imperial authority, and in real history Isaac II’s reasons for this great tax increase was not for any good reason except to pay for his extravagant wedding in early 1186 to the 10-year-old daughter of Bela III of Hungary named Margit, thus this increase of taxes only to pay for the corrupt and decadent emperor’s wedding triggered a large number of the Bulgarian nobles to all defect to the rebellion, therefore growing the territory of the independent Bulgarians. In this story however with Alexios II Komnenos still alive reigning as emperor with Isaac Angelos only as his Caesar, the marriage between Isaac and Bela III’s daughter Margit would not take place as Isaac not being the emperor would have no reason to marry a foreign princes for an alliance, although Alexios II would still have the taxes increased as his father’s constant spending still drained the empire of funds, thus the Bulgarian uprising would still continue to grow due to this increase of taxes with several Bulgarian boyars joining it. For Alexios II, first the capture of Thessaloniki by the Normans the previous year diminished his popularity, and now the uprising and separation of the Bulgarians from the empire diminished it even more, but Alexios II here despite being only 17 would still act ruthlessly to finish off the Bulgarian uprising just as he did with the Normans in order to gain back his popularity. Like in real history where Isaac II at around this time concluded peace with the Seljuk sultan Kilij Arslan II, Alexios II would so the same, but Alexios II here too would have Alexios Branas, the hero from the previous year who crushed the Normans in battle and forced them to retreat march to Bulgaria and crush the rebellion after two other attempts to crush it by two other generals failed just as it did in reality, and true enough in real history it was also Alexios Branas that was sent north to Bulgaria by Isaac II to deal with the rebellion and destroy it. Alexios Branas in this story like in real history would win a number of victories against the Bulgarian rebels thus weakening them before their rebellion would further grow and take over all of Byzantine Bulgaria, but just like in real history Alexios Branas here would not be able to fully destroy the Bulgarian rebellion for the reason being that his successes against the Bulgarians would make his army in 1187 proclaim him emperor in his home city Adrianople. In real history, Alexios Branas after being proclaimed emperor in Adrianople following his successes in battle would march to Constantinople in an attempt to seize the throne from Isaac II who he saw as incompetent, while in this story the exact same thing will happen except that Branas would be declared emperor in opposition to Alexios II who Branas here in this story did not take seriously as his emperor for being hardly an adult. In the capital, Alexios II would be disgusted at Branas for turning against him when he came so close to fulfilling the mission to finish off the Bulgarian rebellion for good before it could become worse, and so Alexios II would have to think of alternative ways to save his position. As Alexios Branas was on his way to Constantinople, Alexios II here would meet secretly with his Caesar Isaac Angelos and Megas Domestikos Andronikos Kontostephanos where they would agree that the only way to save the empire is to eliminate all those who posed a threat to it in a more discreet way, whereas in real history Isaac Angelos as emperor did not think of it that way, rather he dealt with these threats by going out into full-scale war. In this story, Alexios II knowing from past experiences especially from how his uncle Andronikos tried to kill him would consider that kind of ruthless approach Andronikos used in eliminating his rivals. Here, Alexios II’s rivals that he needed to get rid of using more discreet methods included the rebel leaders which were the tsars Peter and Ivan Asen of Bulgaria, Isaac Komnenos in Cyprus, Alexios Branas who was on his way to Constantinople, and his uncle Andronikos who despite being blind was still alive exiled in his estate near Trebizond. Here, Alexios II’s plan was to send Isaac Angelos with Isaac’s uncle Theodore Kastamonites– who in real history was the top advisor of Isaac as emperor- over to Tarnovo to pretend to recognize Bulgaria as an independent state by congratulating Peter and Ivan, then have the sons of Kontostephanos go over to Cyprus, Kontostephanos himself to Andronikos’ estate near Trebizond to pretend to negotiate with him, and lastly have Conrad of Montferrat who in this story like in real history was Isaac Angelos’ brother-in-law to confront Branas, while Alexios II was to attend to something more important which was to repair the ever-growing rift between Byzantium and Venice created by Alexios’ father Manuel I.

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Orio Mastropiero, Doge of the Republic of Venice (r. 1178-1192)

Now in the spring of 1187 in this story, as Alexios II and the Patriarch of Constantinople Niketas II were preparing the streets of Constantinople for the rare event of the arrival of two very important people which were Pope Urban III and the ruler or Doge of Venice Orio Mastropiero as Alexios II and the Doge of Venice were to agree to a sacred permanent alliance to heal all wounds with each other under the supervision of the pope and patriarch, Isaac Angelos and his uncle Theodore headed north to the Bulgarian rebels’ capital of Tarnovo with a large army in case something happens, while 2 of Kontostephanos’ sons sailed south to Cyprus whereas their Kontostephanos sailed to Trebizond through the Black Sea, and Conrad of Montferrat was to be posted at the walls to protect the pope and Doge Venice as they would arrive but also to defend the city from Branas if he was to come when the pope and doge were in the capital. Pope Urban III and Doge Mastropiero however safely arrived in Constantinople making this the first time a pope would set foot in Constantinople ever since the early 8th century during the 2nd reign of Justinian II (705-711)- if you remember from chapter V of this series- and were escorted by the emperor’s Varangian Guard straight into the Hagia Sophia where both Alexios II and the doge were to take their vows to be allies forever, but like in real history Alexios Branas with his rebel army too had arrived before the Walls of Constantinople, although in this story Alexios Branas and his army would arrive by the time the pope and doge had already entered the Hagia Sophia.

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Pope Urban III

As Alexios II and Doge Mastropiero stood facing each other with the pope and patriarch standing beside each other between them, the pope began speaking out in Latin about why they are gathered here and all the terms they were to agree to in order to fix the tensions between Byzantium and Venice once and for all while the patriarch said the exact same words the pope said in Greek. Meanwhile, over in Tarnovo both Isaac Angelos and his uncle Theodore were allowed in to the city to meet with Peter and Ivan themselves, in Cyprus the Kontostephanos brothers were allowed into Isaac Komnenos’ villa to negotiate, in the area of Trebizond Kontostephanos was let into Andronikos’ estate to negotiate with him in the dining hall despite being the same person that blinded the latter 4 years earlier, and outside Constantinople Branas leading his army had already made contact with Conrad of Montferrat and the defending forces. In the Hagia Sophia as the pope said to Alexios II “do you promise to restore all the trading rights your great-grandfather Alexios I gave to Venice” and Alexios II said “I do”, Isaac Angelos in Tarnovo gave up negotiating terms with Ivan Asen and suddenly pulled out his sword stabbing Ivan to death with it. As the pope said to the doge “do you promise to recognize the Byzantine emperor as your overlord in exchange for trading freely in his empire” and the doge said “I do”, the 2 sons of Kontostephanos in Cyprus rushed into the bath seeing Isaac Komnenos bathing wherein they both stabbed him to death there. As the pope said to Alexios II “do you promise to make all Venetian citizens Roman citizens” and Alexios II said “I do”, Isaac Angelos’ uncle Theodore in Tarnovo grabbed a spear and threw it at the Bulgarian tsar Peter who was attempting to escape after his brother Ivan was killed by Isaac, therefore killing Peter as the spear struck straight into his head. As the pope said to the doge “do you promise to pay 50% of the profits you made while trading in Byzantine seas to Byzantium” and the doge said “I do”, Kontostephanos in Andronikos’ estate near Trebizond suddenly pulled out his knife and slit Andronikos’ throat killing him and afterwards performing what is known as the “Sicilian Necktie” on Andronikos by pulling his tongue from the slit on his throat making it stick out from it. Lastly as the pope said to both Alexios II and the doge “do you promise to cooperate with each other and never make alliances with other powers behind each other’s backs” and both said “I do”, Conrad of Montferrat outside Constantinople’s walls just as he did in real history defeated the rebel general Alexios Branas in a duel by knocking Branas off his horse with a lance and when on the ground, Branas was beheaded by Conrad’s soldiers.  As the peace settlement between Venice and Byzantium was settled with both Alexios II and Doge Mastropiero shaking hands in front of the pope and patriarch as a sign of it being a sacred pact that could not be broken or else if any of them did, they would be immediately excommunicated, everything else around was settled.

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Sicilian Necktie sample

In Tarnovo, the Bulgarian boyars in panic as their two leaders were killed in front of them all defected back to the empire bowing down to Isaac Angelos and his uncle Theodore; in Cyprus as Isaac Komnenos was killed in his bath, the sons of Kontostephanos who killed him were killed by Isaac’s guards although with no more leader in Cyprus the army there switched their support back to the empire; in Andronikos’ estate Trebizond the 69-year-old Andronikos Komnenos was dead with his tongue sticking out of his neck thus eliminating him once and for all before he could launch another attempt to take the throne while Kontostephanos who killed him sailed back to Constantinople; and outside the Walls of Constantinople, the death of Alexios Branas made his soldiers all defect back to the imperial army in a panic as their leader had been killed. Some days later, the doge returned to Venice and the pope to Rome, while Kontostephanos retired from serving the empire, Conrad left for Jerusalem to defend it,  and Alexios now returned to the palace in relief as first the growing rift between Byzantium and Venice his father created was once and for all solved and everything that threatened his power from the Bulgarian rebellion, to rebel generals like Branas and Isaac Komnenos, to his uncle Andronikos who could have taken back the throne due Alexios II’s growing unpopularity all vanished in a blink of an eye thanks to Alexios II planning their elimination in advance. Alexios II’s wife Agnes of France who here in 1187 was 16 after hearing of her husband being able to fully fix the empire’s bad blood with Venice at only 18 but also hearing about all the murders went to her husband’s office in the palace first congratulating him that at such a young age he was able to more or less solve the empire’s problems but she also asked him in such a worried way if he really plotted all those deaths himself, but Alexios II in response told his wife to not ask anything about the dirty work he does as emperor and so Alexios II to not let his wife know about it had Isaac Angelos who was at his office close the door on Agnes. Now in real history after Alexios Branas was killed by Conrad’s men, Branas’ head was sent to Isaac Angelos who was emperor in the palace who then with his childish personality kicked Branas’ head around the place like a football. In this story, Isaac Angelos would still have the same childish personality, and as he closed the door on Alexios II’s wife Agnes, Isaac and Alexios spent the rest of the day in Alexios’ office playing football with each other using Branas’ head as the ball.   

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Ivan Asen I (left) and Theodor-Peter Asen, brothers and co-founders of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, killed in 1187 in this story
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The Hagia Sophia interior

Aftermath and Conclusion          

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In this story, the death of the Bulgarian tsars Peter and Ivan Asen in 1187 put a definite end to the Bulgarian rebellion, therefore all of Bulgaria was once again returned to Byzantine control, although in this story to prevent another Bulgarian uprising from happening, Alexios II would resume Basil II’s policy of before that allowed the Bulgarians to both pay less taxes but to also pay taxes in the form of food or horses to provide for the Byzantine army in order to incorporate them into the empire and prevent them from rebelling. In real history however, with Isaac II Angelos as emperor and Alexios Branas dead, Isaac II himself continued to launch campaigns to crush the Bulgarians in 1187 in which all did not succeed. In real history, Isaac II also did as Alexios II did here by resuming Byzantium’s alliance with Venice except Isaac II in real history did not swear before the pope and patriarch creating a sacred and unbreakable alliance.

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Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria, founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty (r. 1171-1193)

On the other hand, some events that happened at the same time could not be altered for this story especially those that took place beyond the borders of Byzantium and this particular unforeseen event in 1187 that would also happen in this story was Saladin of the new Ayyubid Dynasty who now ruling both Egypt and Syria would defeat the Crusader army at the Battle of Hattin and would afterwards besiege Jerusalem itself in which Saladin at the end succeeded therefore capturing Jerusalem and ending the rule of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. When news of Jerusalem reached Pope Urban III in Rome, he died of a heart attack not believing what just happened, while in this story the same would happen and here just shortly after returning to Rome from Constantinople after Byzantium sealed an alliance before him, Urban III would hear the same news that Saladin captured Jerusalem and ended the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and died of shock hearing this. Just as it happened in real history, the new pope Gregory VIII who succeeded Urban III would spread word around Europe calling for a 3rd Crusade intended to recapture Jerusalem and this time like in real history, those to answer the call to join the 3rd Crusade in 1189 would include the 3 rulers of the 3 largest powers of Europe which were Frederick I Barbarossa who was still the Holy Roman emperor, the King of France Philippe II Auguste who was the son of Louis VII and brother of the Byzantine empress Agnes who in this story was still empress, and the new King of England Richard I known as the “Lionheart”.

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Philippe II Auguste, King of France (left) and Richard I the Lionheart, King of England (right)

In this story, both Philippe II of France and Richard I of England would not end up being a problem for the Byzantines as they sailed to Outremer from Western Europe by sea, and in this story’s case Philippe II would dare not attack any Byzantine lands as his sister Agnes was still the empress as Alexios II would still be alive here by 1189 being married to Agnes. The problem however would still be Frederick Barbarossa who like in real history would also head to Outremer by land therefore passing Byzantine territory making this Frederick’s second time to go on a Crusade and pass Byzantine lands as he did the same thing too as a young man in the 2nd Crusade during Manuel’s early reign.

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Isaac Angelos in a helmet and battle attire, art by Ana

In this story, Isaac Angelos would be crowned as Alexios II’s co-emperor by 1188 for his achievements and it would later on seem that both were the perfect combination to balance things out as Alexios II like his father Manuel I was still sympathetic to the west while Isaac was like in real history here still anti-Western and a proud Byzantine, although both co-emperors with their worldviews would somewhat create that said balance wherein neither pro-Western or anti-Western policies would dominate the empire. Now just like in real history, Frederick Barbarossa would also march through Byzantine lands and as usual of Frederick strongly hating the Byzantines, he would in this story also renew his alliance with the Seljuk sultan Kilij Arslan II, and just like in real history Isaac Angelos here would grow paranoid of Frederick’s arrival in Byzantine lands as Frederick was bringing with him a large army, and in this story Alexios II who still alive too would be worried by it, therefore both co-emperors would consider making an alliance with Saladin just as Isaac Angelos did in real history as the sole emperor, although for this story like in real history, this alliance between Saladin and Byzantium would never come to happen. Like in real history, Frederick Barbarossa on his way to Byzantium would also encounter the Grand Prince of Serbia Stefan Nemanja who here would also ask to assist Frederick against Byzantium whereas Frederick at first refused until Isaac II in real history never accepted Frederick’s request to let him through as Isaac was in Asia Minor having to crush a rebellion by the general Theodore Mangaphas. In real history however, the Bulgarian co-rulers Peter and Ivan Asen also agreed to ally with Frederick against Byzantium which made Isaac even more suspicious, but in this story since both Peter and Ivan were already killed off therefore no more independent Bulgaria, Frederick would receive no aid from Bulgaria which would make his side weaker if ever he were to go into full war with Byzantium. Alexios II still being alive in this story would not trust Frederick and would be skeptical of letting him through knowing that this was the same German ruler Frederick that gave his father Manuel I some trouble more than 40 years ago in the 2nd Crusade and so Alexios II would at first not let Frederick and his forces into the empire, while Isaac here would do same in dealing with the rebellion of Theodore Mangaphas in Asia Minor. In real history though, as Isaac was away in Asia Minor 1190, his courtiers in Constantinople made the stupid mistake of taking Frederick’s German envoys as hostages which led to a short war to break out between Byzantium and the German Crusaders wherein the German Crusaders captured the Byzantine city of Philippopolis and defeated a small Byzantine force made up mostly of Vlach mercenaries sent to stop them when Byzantine deserters revealed to them the trap the Byzantine army set up. The conflict was only resolved when Isaac returned to Thrace to conclude peace with Frederick allowing Frederick and his army to be shipped by the Byzantine fleet across the Marmara without any charge as long as the Germans just continued down to Outremer and not stay long in Byzantine lands. In this story however, Alexios II still being alive would eventually allow Frederick and his army to pass through except that they would not be allowed to pass through Constantinople but instead be immediately shipped across the Marmara to Asia Minor without any charge on the same condition too that the German Crusaders would not stay too long in Byzantine lands and proceed straight to Outremer, therefore this would solve a lot of the problems leading to no major conflict between the Byzantines and the German Crusaders.

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Death of Frederick I Barbarossa crossing a river in Cilicia, 1190

Like in real history as well, Frederick Barbarossa in this story would reach Seljuk territory and defeat them in battle and even capture their capital of Iconium but also like in real history, Frederick here when arriving in the region of Cilicia in Asia Minor before reaching the Crusader states of Outremer would also die drowning in a river, thus making his Crusade fail to reach Jerusalem as he died on the way making his men retreat back west. What would not happen in this story in 1190 due the 2nd Bulgarian Empire not existing anymore was Isaac II Angelos’ continued campaign to this time launch a massive invasion on the 2nd Bulgarian to finish it off for good which only resulted in total defeat for the Byzantines where at a battle at the mountain pass of Tryavna were ambushed by the Bulgarian armies the same way the Seljuks ambushed Manuel I’s forces at the Battle of Myriokephalon in 1176. In real history, Isaac II himself was almost killed in this battle against the Bulgarians and although he survived a large part of the part of the Byzantine army which stretched for 4km when marching in the mountain pass was wiped out while the dead Byzantine soldiers’ more superior weapons too were seized by the Bulgarians allowing them to grow their army, and also as a result of this Bulgarian victory in real history, the Bulgarians would extend their new empire all the way to the Black Sea coast. In this story however since this battle never took place with the 2nd Bulgarian Empire already finished off right after it was formed, what would still happen in 1191 would be the Battle of the Morava River wherein Isaac Angelos as co-emperor here would defeat the forces of the Serbian grand prince Stefan Nemanja making Nemanja again a Byzantine vassal, whereas in real history Nemanja after his defeat was forced to give up all his ties with the new Bulgarian Empire. In real history however, Isaac only decided to launch a major attack on Serbia which he saw as weaker than Bulgaria to prove that he could still win battles as he did not want to accept that he was defeated by the Bulgarians the previous year, but in this story Isaac would only attack and crush Nemanja’s forces in 1191 only to fully take care of the problem which was Nemanja who Alexios II did not have eliminated when systematically eliminating all his rivals including the Bulgarian rulers in 1187. Also with the 2nd Bulgarian Empire already destroyed in this story considering that the brothers Peter and Ivan Asen had no children yet, Isaac Angelos in 1195 would not lose the throne when planning one more massive invasion to deal with the Bulgarians once and for all and restore the lands they declared independent back to the empire. In real history, Isaac Angelos when preparing his campaign against the Bulgarians in March of 1195 wherein he had his ally Bela III of Hungary invade from the north and him from the south heard rumors that his older brother Alexios who had returned from Jerusalem was plotting to overthrow him feeling envious that his youngest brother became emperor and not him, and true enough as Isaac left his camp and went out hunting in the woods of Northern Greece with his son also named Alexios, his older brother Alexios bribed off the army and was proclaimed Emperor Alexios III Angelos.

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Blinding of Isaac II Angelos and end of his reign in real history, 1195

When returning to the camp, Isaac and his son were arrested by the soldiers on Alexios III’s orders whereas Isaac was blinded and together with his son were brought to Constantinople to be imprisoned, thus the campaign to take back Bulgaria never came to happen as the new emperor Alexios III gave up on it and returned to Constantinople proving to be an even worse and far more incompetent and corrupt emperor that his younger brother Isaac. Now in this story’s case, since there would be no Bulgarian Empire to deal with and launch many attempts to reclaim it, what would happen instead in 1195 would be that Alexios II would get into a hunting accident and a few days later would die at only 26, and having had no children this whole time with his wife Agnes of France, Alexios II before dying would name Isaac Angelos as his successor, and following Alexios II’s death Isaac II as the sole emperor would marry the late emperor’s wife Agnes for legitimacy. In this story then, Isaac II Angelos would ironically become the sole emperor in 1195 which was the same year in real history wherein he was deposed and blinded, and here in this story to prevent any rivals from overthrowing him, Isaac II would start off by having his older brother Alexios who he knew envied him blinded and sent into exile in a monastery, thus begins the story of Isaac II’s sole rule.

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Saladin’s forces defeat the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin, 1187
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Saladin captures Jerusalem, end of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1187
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Holy Roman emperor Frederick I Barbarossa encounters Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja of Serbia, 1190
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Map of the expansion of the Bulgarian Rebellion and 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1185-1196), in real history

           

Now Isaac II Angelos’ reign in real history from his rise to power in 1185 when taking over the empire from the tyrant Andronikos I Komnenos through a revolution to his blinding in 1195 by his older brother Alexios III often gets a bad image as a corrupt ruler who without much state experience treated the empire like his private property while he also came to power by the backing of the aristocracy to allow them to continue their corruption, selling of government positions, and bribery which Andronikos I so brutally cracked down on.

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Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195), in real history

In truth, Isaac II was far from the ideal emperor the Byzantine Empire needed being the kind emperor surrounded by a crowd of slaves, mistresses, and flatterers and only possessing charisma and speeches that promised things that could not be achieved while also being inept at decision making that under him corruption in the government would continue to rise while his inept decision making also allowed disasters to keep escalating such as the declaration of the new independent Bulgaria in which most of its reason for it happening was Isaac II’s harsh tax policy he imposed in which funds were not put into good use and the short conflict the empire faced with Frederick Barbarossa which was mostly caused by Isaac’s suspicion of him. However, no matter how incompetent Isaac II’s rule as emperor in real history was, he at least did his best to care about the empire he was ruling being at least responsible to know that he made bad decisions therefore he had to face its consequences, and because of the problems he caused he at least responsibly dealt with them as seen when he launched several campaigns against the Bulgarians to end their rebellion and put them back under imperial control and when he dealt with generals that rebelled to seize throne.

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Coat of Arms of the Angelos Dynasty, established by Isaac II Angelos in 1185 in real history, 1195 in this story

Now, I would say that Isaac II Angelos may have done better if he just ruled for a short time to serve his purpose instead of ruling for a full 10 years as he certainly gets the credit for saving Byzantium from the paranoid regime of the tyrant emperor Andronikos I who would have made things even worse if he ruled for much longer, and for saving Byzantium from the Norman invasion that sacked Thessaloniki and came so close to Constantinople itself. Isaac II Angelos thus is one example of those people in history who no matter how bad they ruled did have a part to play and for Isaac II it was in first overthrowing Andronikos I and his totalitarian regime and saving Byzantium from the deadly Norman invasion, but the events of his reign that followed this were almost all disastrous, therefore I would say things may have only been better if Isaac II only became emperor for a very short time to serve his purpose to save the empire from both Andronikos I and the Norman invasions, thus after doing his part it could have been better if he simply let go of power appointing someone more competent to take over. On the other hand, when getting to know more about Isaac II, it turns out too that he was just the wrong emperor for a wrong time as he ruled the Byzantine Empire at a point where chaos and mistrust reigned, therefore if the empire Isaac II was ruling was in a more peaceful time, perhaps his rule may have not been as disastrous and for this story, this was the exact same scenario. In this story then, the moment Alexios II Komnenos died in 1195, Byzantium was much more peaceful and stable as for one the Bulgarian rebellion was dealt with once and for all, the Normans were fully beaten back, Serbia made a vassal again, the Seljuks in Asia Minor weakened by Frederick Barbarossa, the 3rd Crusade over and so was Frederick Barbarossa, and the Republic of Venice now a loyal ally again considering that both rulers of Byzantium and Venice swore a sacred alliance before the pope and Patriarch of Constantinople or face excommunication and an eternity in hell if either of the leaders violated it, meaning that Isaac II now succeeding Alexios II would have to comply with the terms of the sacred treaty made with Venice. What this story was then trying to point out was that Isaac Angelos may be better off if he at first got some experience to be an emperor by having a pre-imperial career as a general and politician going from Caesar to co-emperor and finally to emperor or Basileus which he did here under Alexios II, and by the time Isaac II would come to the throne in 1195 after Alexios II’s death he would definitely have all the experience needed as Isaac himself took part in systematically getting rid of all the empire’s problems in 1187. In 1195 here, the empire Isaac II would come to rule would be more or less a more stable one wherein things would be looking bright, but the big question here would be that even if Isaac II had a stable empire to rule, would he still rule it well considering that he was corrupt and incompetent in nature, although that question is one I’m afraid I cannot answer as it would be one for another story that goes beyond the 12th century this one is set in.

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Map of Outremer in 1190 with Saladin’s Empire (pink) dominating it

On the other hand, the events outside Byzantium before and after 1195 would play out as they did in real history. First of all, the 3rd Crusade would still be carried out by Philippe II of France and Richard I of England wherein the English would reach Outremer by sea and still capture Byzantine Cyprus in 1191 like in real history where Richard I captured it from the same Isaac Komnenos who here was killed off in 1187, although Richard I would not really rule Cyprus but instead sell it off of the Templar Knights who in 1192 would sell Cyprus to the former King of Jerusalem Guy de Lusignan. The English and French then under Richard I and Philippe II would proceed to the Holy Land defeating Saladin’s forces at the Battle Arsuf in 1191 and again at the Battle of Jaffa in 1192 which at the end however would only succeed in the Crusaders taking back the coast and not the city of Jerusalem itself, although still restoring the Kingdom of Jerusalem but with a new capital being the coastal city of Acre.

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3rd Crusade led by Richard I of England arrives in Outremer, 1191

The 3rd Crusade then in this story like in real history would end in a partial success for the Crusaders but not a great victory as expected, but in other areas things would still play out as they actually did in reality as in the Seljuk Sultanate in Asia Minor their sultan Kilij Arslan II would still die in 1192, in Hungary Bela III would die in 1196, in Sicily Norman control of it would finally end in 1194 when the ruling Norman Hauteville Dynasty would end therefore Sicily would pass on to the hands of the new Holy Roman emperor Henry VI the son of Frederick Barbarossa, and in Serbia Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja who already being very old would in 1196 abdicate and retire as a monk in the monasteries of Mt. Athos in Byzantine Greece taking the name of Simeon wherein he would appoint his son Stefan Nemanjic to succeed him as the Grand Prince of Serbia thus beginning the Nemanjic Dynasty that would rule Serbia for the next centuries while Nemanja himself would die as a monk in 1199 at 86.

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Stefan Nemanja of Serbia in retirement after 1196 as a monk renamed Simeon

The more important part however is if the devastating 4th Crusade of 1204 that will come and conquer Constantinople will happen or not, and the answer is it is very unlikely in this story’s case for it to happen considering Byzantium here is far more stable than it was in real history during the reign of Isaac II’s brother Alexios III. The reasons for the 4th Crusade’s attack on Constantinople would be that for one, considering that Isaac II Angelos when coming into power in 1195 already blinded and exiled his jealous older brother Alexios, the 4th Crusade would not happen as in real history when Alexios III Angelos took over the empire from his younger brother Isaac who he had blinded in 1195, Isaac’s son Alexios who was released from prison found himself in Venice by 1202 asking for military aid to overthrow his uncle and place him on the throne promising Venice and the Crusader army they summoned a large sum of money and an army to help them in their Crusade to again take back Jerusalem but in return this only led the Crusaders to arrive in Constantinople and later conquer it out of greed, but with Alexios III removed from the scene here, this kind of event would not come to happen.

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Alexios III Angelos, Byzantine emperor in real history (r. 1195-1203), older brother of Isaac II

On the other hand, the more significant reason for why the 4th Crusade that would attack and conquer Constantinople in 1204 would definitely not happen is because Byzantium and Venice in this story already reconciled with each other making a sacred alliance under the blessing and supervision of the pope and Patriarch of Constantinople and if broken both leaders of either Byzantium or Venice would face immediate excommunication, whereas in real history Venice and Byzantium already became mortal enemies since Manuel I declared war on Venice in 1171 with no more going back thus it would only take one opportunity for Venice to attack Constantinople itself out of revenge, and this opportunity was the arrival of the armies of the 4th Crusade in Venice by 1202 as well as the exiled son of Isaac II Alexios in which Venice here led by the doge Enrico Dandolo who in 1171 was one of the many blinded under Manuel I only agreed to ship them to Outremer if they would attack Constantinople.

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Enrico Dandolo, Doge of the Republic of Venice (r. 1192-1205)

In this story however, there would still be a need for a 4th Crusade to be summoned by the time the 13th century came as the 3rd Crusade never really succeeded in taking back Jerusalem from Saladin’s new empire, but since Byzantium and Venice had already reconciled with a sacred alliance, the Venetian Republic even though led by Enrico Dandolo since 1192 who strongly despised Byzantium for blinding him would still have to transport the Crusaders, but due to following the sacred alliance would instead ship the Crusaders directly to Egypt in which they planned to use as their base to invade Jerusalem rather than stopping at Constantinople first. Now if the 13th century would begin in such a way wherein the sacred alliance between Byzantium and Venice would still be in place, then none of the tragedies Byzantium would face under the Crusader army which in 1204 attacked and looted the city for days and afterwards captured it causing a temporary end for the Byzantine Empire for 57 years with Constantinople as the capital of their new Latin Empire would never happen, therefore the 13th century would more or less proceed with everything looking well for the Byzantines in the meantime. Of course, this kind of peacetime would not last forever as possibly one day Isaac II may do as he did in real history and ruin things possibly by raising taxes again that there would be another Bulgarian rebellion to once more declare Bulgaria free from the empire, or maybe Serbia may end up again refusing to pay tribute and then declare war on Byzantium. Now these speculations of what could happen in the 13th century would be a story for another time and so would be the devastating 4th Crusade of 1204, and so I will have to end the story right here with Isaac II Angelos as emperor as the 12th century comes to an end.             

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English and French forces of the 3rd Crusade defeat Saladin’s forces at the Battle of Arsuf, 1191
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The Byzantine Empire before the 4th Crusade (purple), 1203
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Map of the 4th Crusade (1202-1204), in real history
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The 4th Crusade and the Venetian fleet attack Constantinople (1203-1204), in real history

The 12th century was one interesting and very eventful time for the Byzantine Empire from beginning to end as it was one that began with things looking bright for it with 3 consecutive long-reigning seemingly “legendary” emperors from the Komnenos Dynasty in the span of 99 years which were Alexios I (1081-1118), John II (1118-1143), and Manuel I (1143-1180). At the same time, the 12th century was also a time not only for the Byzantines to have a big story but everyone around them as well from the now emerging powers of Europe including England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Hungary, to the Italian republics like Venice, the Crusader states of Outremer, the Normans of Sicily, the Muslim powers of the Middle East like the Zengid Dynasty and then Saladin’s empire, the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in Asia Minor, and the newly independent powers of Serbia and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire. With so much happening around Byzantium, the 12th century was a very rare one especially with Byzantium coming into contact with all these said powers around them especially with the powers of Western Europe, although this century would not only be the first but also the last time Byzantium and the kingdoms of Western Europe so well-known in world history would be in major contact with each other mainly due to the Crusades, which then makes the 12th century ever more intriguing. What it means here that this century would also be the last for Byzantium and the west to have major contact with each other is mainly because this was the last century for Byzantium to be a major world power as by the time the next century which is the 13th begins, the end for Byzantium begins when Constantinople is attacked and captured by the 4th Crusade, and even though the Byzantine Empire would be restored 57 years after its fall to the 4th Crusade in 1204 and the establishment of the Latin Empire in Constantinople, Byzantium would never recover again and instead just stay as a local power in the Balkans. Considering that the 12th century is the last time for Byzantium to be a dominant power in Europe and the Mediterranean, this chapter will be the last one to talk about Byzantium in a larger-than-life way with so many other powers around it involved, as the next 3 chapters of this series which will then be the last leg of it will rather focus on Byzantium in smaller-scale with the empire shrunken to a regional power. At the same with Byzantium in the 12th century this story is set in having so much contact with Western Europe, this was also the exact time the stereotypes we all have about the Byzantines coming from westerners up to this day as corrupt, treacherous, arrogant, tyrannical, and scheming considering how people like Manuel I, Andronikos I, Isaac II, and so many others of this time lived their lives with all the double-crossing, paranoia, and decadence, but their characters no matter how flawed shows that this period in Byzantine history had a lot to tell especially in how flawed the Byzantine Empire was making it again more interesting. Now when writing this chapter set in the 12th century, there happened to be many what if scenarios to choose from as the 12th century from beginning to end was full them and a lot of them were in fact discussed in this story such as what if Anna Komnene instead of John II came to the throne in 1118 after their father Alexios I’s death, what if John II’s eldest son Alexios lived and succeeded his father rather than the youngest son Manuel I in 1143, what if Manuel I had no son and instead had Bela III of Hungary inherit the whole Byzantine Empire therefore making it one with Hungary, and what if Andronikos Komnenos was already dealt with earlier. As a matter of fact, the alternate history premise of this story was not even the original one making this the first ever chapter in this series to have a revised premise, as many months ago when planning out all my alternate history chapters for this series, for this one being chapter IX set in the 12th century, the original premise of this story was just to primarily focus on the reign of Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195) and if he ruled much longer enough to survive the coup of his brother Alexios III in 1195 and finish off the Bulgarian rebellion once and for all, which would possibly avoid the 4th Crusade from happening. However, I came to realize that the original premise for this story would not explain much about the 12th century as a whole but only about the latter part of it, and so in order to put the entire 12th century’s story in it as well as the conflict between Byzantium and Venice to explain the tensions that would lead to the attack on the empire by the 4th Crusade, I decided to change the premise to make it more about Manuel I to explain the entire conflict, but more significantly if his son Alexios II survived. On the other hand, I was also either considering the what if of Bela III inheriting Byzantium after Manuel I’s death or if Manuel I killed off his troublemaking cousin Andronikos to stop Andronikos’ reign of terror later on, but I did not end up with both, as the first option which concerns Bela III would be too complicated and confusing for me to write about as I am not very familiar with Hungarian history the way I am with Byzantine history and if I went with the second option, the story would be less climactic as it ends. Therefore, since I wanted a more exciting and thrilling story that would involve all the big names of the 12th century including Andronikos Komnenos and Isaac Angelos, I went with the more obscure yet more authentic option of Alexios II surviving the attempt on his life by Andronikos and therefore coming to rule the empire along in a ruthless but effective way despite his young age. At the same time, I also chose to go with the option of Alexios II unexpectedly ruling successfully in order to carry out the kind of climax I always wanted to put into one of my Byzantine Alternate History stories which here was the scene of the murdering of all imperial rivals happening simultaneously with a solemn event happening which here was the reconciliation between Byzantium and Venice, which happens to be a scene inspired from the climax of the movie The Godfather (1972). When thinking about and writing about this climax for this story, it made me think that if the Byzantines could finish off most of their problems in this century that way including making peace with Venice again, then perhaps all their problems would solved, but unfortunately in real history with Isaac II Angelos as emperor and his brother Alexios III after him in the last years of the 12th century as emperors ruling incompetently, these events would not happen making them only fantasy. The next chapter of this series will then start off going back to reality, and so Isaac II Angelos too will return, although since it will begin sticking to reality the Byzantines and Venetians would have never made peace, therefore the 4th Crusade would still happen and attack Constantinople in 1204. The 2nd Bulgarian Empire which in this story was dealt with before it could rise too will return in the next chapter as its alternate history scenario will be what if the Bulgarians took back Constantinople from the Latin Crusaders instead of the Byzantines? On the other hand, it may seem like the Komnenos Dynasty had died out in real history with the brutal execution of Andronikos I in 1185 and in this story with Alexios II’s unexpected hunting accident death in 1195, but either way the Komnenos Dynasty still lived on as true enough the Angelos Dynasty that succeeded was related to the Komnenos line by blood and so would be the next dynasties following it until the end of Byzantine history in 1453 due to the large extended family Alexios I created back in his day, and as a matter of fact even the dynasty bearing the Komnenos name did survive as well as after Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204, the Komnenos branch of Andronikos I carried on by his grandsons established the breakaway Byzantine Empire of Trebizond that lasted until 1461, outliving the main empire by 8 years. At the same time too, Isaac II Angelos no matter how much bad reputation he gets also has the legacy of being an ancestor to many of the European dynasties that live on even to this day as I forgot to mention that Isaac’s daughter Irene being married to the German duke Philip of Swabia through their children had descendants all across Europe, therefore making Isaac II and more significantly the Komnenos line of Alexios I he came from the ancestor of these several European monarchies if one were to carefully analyze. Now, I have to say that this story with so much happening especially with the Crusades, Venice, the Seljuks, Serbia, Bulgaria, the Normans Hungary, and so much shifting alliances and conflicts all crossing paths at the same time as well as putting a very complex kind of climax, it was a very tricky one to write but also a very engaging and intriguing one. On the other hand, before I finish off, I also have to thank my friend Ana for giving some ideas in writing this chapter by sharing with me the alternate history story on 12th century Byzantium this one was patterned after, but at the same time I would also like to thank the artists including Ana who’s works were featured in this chapter in order to make its respective century’s story more engaging. Well, this is all for Chapter IX of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler… thank you for your time!       

    

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 6th century AD. This story will begin with events that have happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses. Fictional scenarios in this story will be marked by footnotes (1). This will be an extremely long article!

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

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

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

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

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

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

The Story of 3 Plagues Across Centuries

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Constantinople: The Queen of Cities and its Byzantine Secrets

The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect

Justinian the Great Related Videos:

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

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

Emperor Justinian I (Thersites the Historian)

Justinian I’s Wars (Thersites the Historian)

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


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

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Emperor Justinian I the Great action figure

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


The Leading Characters: 

Justinian I- Byzantine emperor

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

Flavius Belisarius- Byzantine general

Narses- Byzantine eunuch general

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

Theodora- Byzantine empress, wife of Justinian I 

Vigilantia- Sister of Justinian I, mother of Justin II

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

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

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

Germanus- Cousin and original heir apparent of Justinian I

Matasuintha- Wife of Germanus, former Ostrogoth princess 

Liberius- Elderly Byzantine general

Tribonian- Jurist of Justinian I’s court

John (Ionnes) the Sanguinary- Byzantine general in Italy 

Totila- Ostrogoth King of Italy (541-552) 

Athanagild- Visigoth rebel leader in Hispania and later king 

Khosrow I- Shah of the Sassanid Persian Empire 

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

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

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


I. Part One

The Background- Before Justinian (The Real History)

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

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

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

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

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

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Tauresium, Macedonia, birthplace of Justinian, 482

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

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Eastern Roman Excubitor (elite palace guard)

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

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

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

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

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

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Follis coin issued by Anastasius I

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

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

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

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Diptych of Anastasius I, victory over the Sassanids, 506

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Justinian as a young man studying, by Dovahhatty

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

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Theodora as an actress by Jean-Benjamin Constant

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

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King Kaleb I of Aksum

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

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Pope St. John I

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

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

The Early Reign of Justinian I (527-540)

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

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Emperor Justinian I the Great (aka Flavius Petrus Sabbatius)

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

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Flavius Belisarius, Byzantine general

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

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Belisarius’ Bucellarii cavalry

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

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

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

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

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

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Map of the Battle of Dara, 530
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The Fortress of Dara, Byzantine-Sassanid border

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Dara, 530 (Kings and Generals).       

Back in Constantinople, Justinian had a pretty good start as emperor and even if he did not need to be on the battlefield, he knew he could count on his generals like Belisarius and Sittas as well as a barbarian named Mundus, the son of the king of the Gepids, the Germanic tribe settling in Pannonia (Hungary) who in fact was even a descendant of the Scourge of God Attila the Hun from the 5th century. The Gepids here had made peace with Justinian by sending Mundus to him to be appointed as Magister Militum and was charged with fighting off the raiding Slavs and Bulgars in the Balkans and when Belisarius was demoted after his failure at the Battle of Callinicum in 531, Mundus replaced him as commander of the eastern forces.

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6th century power couple, Justinian I and Theodora

Justinian meanwhile still continued spending all day and night at meetings, reading up on new strategies, studying his empire’s borders, and inspecting Constantinople seeing what new buildings had to be built that he barely had any time for parties or for a little fun all while his younger sister Vigilantia was his polar opposite. Now, no one would really know that Justinian did indeed have a sister but this story here will try to tell a bit more about her even if history does not say much and in this version, Vigilantia, born in 490, came to Constantinople with her mother some months after Justinian did back in 497, though being only 7 when she moved, she was too young to experience the hard life of a peasant unlike Justinian who did as he was already 15 when he moved to Constantinople. Unlike Justinian who was hard working and ambitious, Vigilantia was a wasteful glutton who spent all day drinking, partying, and sleeping with other men- at least in this version- though she had married a man named Dulcidius, possibly an aristocrat and would have 3 children, the eldest son named Justin the Younger born in 520 in Constantinople and was named after his grand-uncle and founder of the dynasty Justin, the second one being Marcellus, and a daughter named Praejecta. Shortly after becoming emperor, Justinian already launched one of his greatest projects in which he would be most remembered for throughout the ages, the Corpus Juris Civilis or “Body of Civil Laws” completed in 529 by a talented jurist he appointed named Tribonian who had extensive knowledge of Roman laws all the way back to the first emperor Augustus Caesar (r. 27BC-14AD) and this compilation of all laws going back to Augustus’ reign was to codify all Roman laws into one book by removing all conflicting laws and making them all consistent to each other; this book would then be divided into 3 parts first being the Codex which would be all the laws issued by Justinian, the Digest consisting of laws from the past emperors, and the Institutes which would be a handbook for all students of laws.

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Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis

Some of the laws made by Justinian here forbade civilians from carrying weapons like axes and spears as they could incite rebellion with it but this happened to be unpopular with many of rural citizens who live to carry weapons, while other laws here stated that no one could make rivers or lakes their private property. These laws at the same time highly favored Orthodox Christians and was to convince all to convert to Orthodoxy as it disapproved of the beliefs of Arians, Monophysites, Pagans, and Jews and Justinian himself indeed hated the Jews for feeling they were above everyone else especially in economic matters and part of his policy was to ban Jews from the army as the army was really made up of Christians- mostly Orthodox- fighting for their faith, on the other hand Justinian had also closed down one of the empire’s last Pagan academies in Athens to stop the spread of their beliefs that contradicted Orthodoxy while at the same time he issued laws for teachers to teach history in the form of Christian propaganda.

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Stamp of Tribonian presenting the Code of Laws to Justinian, 529

Justinian not having any ties to the aristocracy of the empire appointed people based on merit and absolute loyalty to him and not by connections and wealth and these included the jurist Tribonian and the finance minister John the Cappadocian, a man of low birth from Cappadocia in Asia Minor but with strong administrative skills and ruthlessness as well and no matter how corrupt he was by torturing rich tax payers forcing them to pay and this sure indeed filled up the treasury more especially since Justinian was to pay 11,000 pounds of gold a year to Khosrow. For the longest time, the rich including Jewish merchants had found ways to get exempted from paying taxes while the poor were usually hurt and Justinian knowing what it was like coming from the lower classes of society knew that the rich could no longer escape this privilege, though this surely made him unpopular with the rich. As for Theodora now as empress, feeling insecure because of her low birth, she wanted to assert her power by strongly promoting court ceremony practices making everyone that met her bow down lying face-down on the floor in front of her and her husband and to kiss their rings and that none could question her, only she could.

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Justinian I and Theodora at the imperial court

People that met her and Justinian no matter how high in society they were including senators had to wait in line in a stuffy room in the palace before it was their turn and with such difficulty just to meet the imperial couple, these said officials and senators felt like they were treated as slaves. On the other hand, Theodora took part in almost every meeting Justinian had advising him too in legal matters that Justinian called her his “partner in his deliberations” and part of Theodora’s acts as empress was in making Justinian issue laws that further protected women’s rights especially for actresses like her before. Meanwhile in early 532 at the same time as Justinian and Khosrow settled peace, the chariot races began civil unrest in Constantinople when the blue and green factions continuously beat each other up in the streets and for inciting such violence, Justinian ordered the blue a green faction leaders hanged but the execution true enough failed for 2 leaders who later hid in a church while the mob rushed to Hippodrome for a day of a another chariot race wherein Justinian and Theodora sat in the imperial box but to their surprise the entire mob shouted “Nika!” or “victory!” over and over again, though Justinian at first did not bother, instead he tried negotiating with them but it did not work.

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John the Cappadocian, Finance Minister of Justinian I

The mob then in a rampage burned everything in Constantinople, liberated prisoners, and damaged property and part of the buildings burned included the old Hagia Sophia church and the Baths of Zeuxippus, one of the structures that predated Byzantine Constantinople in 330. Wanting to get over the violence, Justinian asked the mob what they wanted and they demanded that John the Cappadocian and Tribonian who they all saw as corrupt be fired though when getting back to the palace, Justinian found out that a number of senators had paid off the people to riot so in return he fired these senators and spoke to the people again that he too fired John and Tribonian in which he actually did not and as the people continued rioting, Justinian resorted to threatening to kill them all if they did not stop. The people true enough did not stop and even chose to elevate the old Hypatius, nephew of Anastasius I as emperor who almost came to power in 518 if he sat on the chair with the note but here Hypatius did not want the throne although once he was lifted in the streets, he had a change of heart.

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The Green Faction of Constantinople at the Hippodrome, by Akitku

At the palace, Justinian was more terrified of what was to come that advisors told him to just let go of the throne, leave Constantinople, and take it back one day but Theodora stepped in convincing Justinian that the riot needs to be dealt with once and for all. At this time, Mundus who was in charge of the east returned to Constantinople while Belisarius was in the city too and here another court official of Justinian, the Armenian eunuch Narses who in this story’s case according to Justinianus was originally a slave from Armenia born in 478- like in real history- and bought by Justinian during his uncle’s reign. Narses now possessed a great amount of natural intelligence but lacked education and here in 532 he was assigned to bribe off some of the rioters most of them being blues while Belisarius and Mundus were tasked to put the Hippodrome on lockdown before they send their troops inside it. With the rioters trapped in the Hippodrome, Belisarius’ and Mundus’ men including Hunnish mercenaries killed up 30,000 rioters in a single day while the leaders either got their property and wealth confiscated, exiled, or executed, and Hypatius here was executed while John and Tribonian were reinstated to their positions. Seeing Constantinople in ruin, Justinian was sad but at the same time saw the ruins of the city as an opportunity and making the most of the destruction, he ordered that the city be rebuilt in a grander scale like never before, and the building here he so desired to rebuild was the church of the Hagia Sophia.

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Justinian I and Theodora surrounded by senators and courtiers
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Chariot racing in Constantinople
Slaughter in the Hippodrome at Constantinople in AD 532
Massacre of the 30,000 at the Hippodrome ending the Nika Riot, 532
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Justinian and Theodora inspect the aftermath of the Nika Riot, 532

Watch this to learn more about the Nika Riots, 532 (Invicta).

         

Over in the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa based in Carthage, their king Hilderic, the son of the Vandal king Huneric (r. 477-484) and the grandson of the Vandal Kingdom’s founder Genseric (r. 428-477) was an ally of the Byzantines and when coming to the throne in 523, he maintained friendly terms with Justin I and later with Justinian following Justin’s death. Hilderic happened to be a half-Roman, his mother was Eudocia, the daughter of the Western Roman emperor Valentinian III (r. 425-455) and a granddaughter of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) making Hilderic one of the last descendants of the Theodosian Dynasty, and the Vandal Kingdom despite being a barbarian power adopted Roman customs and were most famous for their navy as the rulers of the Western Mediterranean waters.

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Hilderic, King of the Vandals of North Africa (r. 523-530)

The Vandals had been Arian Christians like many of the barbarian powers, but Hilderic due to his Roman half tolerated the Orthodox-Catholic religion in his kingdom which angered his cousin Gelimer who in 530 deposed and imprisoned Hilderic which angered Justinian in Constantinople even more as Hilderic was his friend who had come to Constantinople a few times before. Gelimer responded to Justinian telling him to mind his own business as North Africa was not his kingdom and as for Justinian, this was a perfect excuse for him to start a war as his reign was marked by the policy of “Intervention Imperialism” meaning that he would invade a land when they were at conflict with each other wherein he would take the side of one faction. To put it short, Justinian despite having the dream to take back all the western provinces the Romans lost to the barbarians would invade these lands if given any reason to do so unlike other rulers of the past who would strike first and invade all because they wanted to, but for Justinian, he thought invading when there is a perfect reason was the smart move. In the past, there had been two attempts to reconquer the Vandal Kingdom and return it to Roman rule and both failed, first was in 460 when the western emperor Majorian (r. 457-460) built a fleet in Southern Hispania but had never even left the port as traitors in his army convinced by the Vandal king Genseric burned the fleet before it even left and in 468, the eastern emperor Leo I launched a fleet of 1,000 ships carrying 100,000 men to invade Carthage but before the battle, the fleet’s commander Basiliscus- who usurped the throne in 475- agreed to a peace with Genseric resulting in half the fleet destroyed and the mission failing. Justinian here in 533 now knew he wouldn’t fail especially since he assigned Belisarius for the job and that he had a full treasury due to John the Cappadocian’s efforts.

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Gelimer, King of the Vandals (r. 530-534), by Slifer621

To test Belisarius’ ability, he was only assigned with 15,000 men and even more made the bread supply for the army moldy which was to test even how strong the health of the soldiers was and though a few suffered food poisoning, they survived it which was a sign that the whole army was in good health. Before the fleet left Constantinople, Belisarius had a bad start when two drunk Hunnish mercenaries killed a soldier but Belisarius quickly had these Huns executed and the mission proceeded as the fleet sailed west directly to Carthage. At the same time, Justinian funded a revolt in the Italian island of Sardinia which was under the Vandals to scatter the Vandal army in order to make Belisarius meet little resistance in North Africa and before arriving in the area of Carthage, Belisarius settled in Ostrogothic held Sicily first to resupply as Justinian persuaded the regent ruler Amalasuintha who he was in good terms with to use the island and from there, Belisarius quickly proceeded to North Africa landing there and crushing the Vandal forces. Hearing Belisarius had arrived, the Vandal king Gelimer killed Hilderic in prison thinking Belisarius might reinstate him and afterwards ordered his army of 25,000 men to attack Belisarius’ forces at the salt flats outside Carthage in what would be the Battle of Ad Decimum.

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Belisarius and his army in North Africa

Here, Gelimer divided the army with his brother to attack Belisarius on both sides of the salt flats but the brother was soon enough killed by Belisarius’ Bucellarii which therefore distracted Gelimer when the main battle came and as he grieved his brother’s death, Gelimer’s forces were soon easily crushed by Belisarius’ 15,000 men causing Gelimer to flee west as Belisarius without any resistance proceeded to Carthage and took over it taking over the palace right in time for the feast prepared for Gelimer’s victory but since Gelimer had lost, Belisarius sat at the throne for the feast. When taking over Carthage, Belisarius ordered his men not to plunder or kill anyone as Justinian wanted to show the local Roman people of Carthage that the Eastern Romans were to be seen as their liberators not oppressors and true enough when Belisarius took over Carthage, the people cheered as they despised living under the rule of the Vandals, especially Gelimer. However, Gelimer was still around and had grouped up with his other brother Tzazo who was previously in charge of Sardinia but kicked out when the Byzantine captured it and together, they marched to Carthage attempting to take it back, but Belisarius and his men charged out of Carthage clashing again with Gelimer at the Battle of Tricamarum at the end of 533 and again Gelimer lost his brother as Tzazo was killed in battle.

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Byzantines take over Carthage from the Vandals, 533

Gelimer attempted to flee to the mountains of Numidia but realized he was in hopeless situation, so instead he turned himself into the Byzantines as Belisarius allowed him to be spared, though Belisarius came in too late to save their ally Hilderic who had just been killed in prison. As 533 ended and 534 began, Belisarius had won the war, recovered all the wealth the Vandals looted from back in 455 when they sacked Rome including the Menorah stolen from the Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70AD. Though the Vandal Kingdom had been destroyed after only less than a century of existing and put under the direct rule of the Byzantines, the parts of North Africa further inland were under independent Moorish states that refused to be ruled by the Byzantines so to deal with them, another general named Solomon was sent to fight them in battle which later in 534 was able to crush the Moors and annex their lands all the way to what is now Morocco to the empire as Belisarius returned to Constantinople to celebrate his triumph. In 534, Northwestern Africa was annexed to the Byzantine Empire and now connected by land to Egypt while Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands too were annexed, the Vandals thus were expelled from North Africa eventually fleeing back to where they came from in today’s Germany. Back in Constantinople, Belisarius was given a triumph and in fact the first one in ages wherein he and his army marched through the city’s main street or the Mese with the spoils of war from North Africa including the Menorah while Gelimer too was paraded here and brought before the feet of Justinian and Theodora wherein Gelimer feeling angry for losing his kingdom whispered to Justinian “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” but was told to shut up, but at least he was able to retire and live out his entire life in Asia Minor. All the wealth taken from the Vandals in North Africa now allowed Justinian to complete his greatest project, the new Hagia Sophia or “Church of Holy Wisdom” in only 5 years since construction began in 532.

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

In December of 537, with all the wealth taken from North Africa, the complete structure of the Hagia Sophia including its massive dome was completed under the architects Anthemius of Tralles, a Greek-Egyptian and Isidore of Miletus, though the interiors were still bare at its completion as it would take many more years to fill in the mosaics but when entering for the first time, Justinian said out loud “Solomon I have outdone you” referring to the long gone Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem known for its size and beauty and that Justinian’s new creation had outdone it. Now, I would say the hidden meaning to this phrase of Justinian reflected his negative feelings towards the Jews and by building the Hagia Sophia, he could prove that Christianity is more superior but back to the Jewish Menorah, Justinian did not agree to keep it in the Hagia Sophia as it was a Jewish relic, instead he shipped it back to Jerusalem, its original place.

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Map of Justinian I’s Vandalic War, 533-534
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Map of the Battle of Ad Decimum, 533
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Belisarius charges at the Vandals in North Africa
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Belisarius defeats the Vandals at the Battle of Tricamarum, 533
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Hippodrome of Constantinople

 

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Hagia Sophia of Justinian I, constructed 532-537
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Justinian I enters the Hagia Sophia for the first time, 537

Watch this to learn more about Justinian I’s Vandalic War, 533-534 (Kings and Generals).

North Africa may have been restored to Roman rule, but that wasn’t Justinian’s main objective, his main objective was to reconquer Italy, particularly Rome as the fact that the city of Rome, where Roman civilization all began was not under Roman hands was humiliating. For Justinian, he had no reason to invade Italy as its regent ruler Amalasuintha as a loyal ally to him as she heavily practiced Roman customs though it was her son Athalaric that was actually the ruler in name although he did not take his duties seriously and turned to drinking, then in 534 the 18-year-old Athalaric was killed by the Ostrogoth nobility and was replaced by his uncle Theodahad, a nephew of Theodoric the Great. Amalasuintha was later assassinated in her bath later in 535 and this here finally gave a reason for Justinian to invade Italy especially since Theodahad rejected Roman customs making the local Roman population more and more angry thus wanting to be ruled once again by Roman, which was Justinian. In the eastern empire, some of the people of the older generations were alive before the west fell in 476 and therefore wanted to see the west restored to Roman rule, and Justinian was more than happy to please them.

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Theodahad, King of the Ostrogoths (r. 534-536)

Now Justinian began his reign quite unpopular that he was almost overthrown in the Nika Riot of 532 but after his conquest of North Africa in 534, he gained the respect and love of all his subjects and putting Italy back under their rule made him think he would gain their respect and admiration even more. Justinian in Constantinople was later informed of Amalasuintha’s death and Theodahad’s usurpation by an official named Liberius, one of the local Romans of Italy living under Ostrogoth rule that had been alive even before 476 and at this moment, Liberius was one of the many Romans who were alive when the western empire was still around, therefore as an old man, he wanted to die seeing his land under Roman rule again. After receiving Liberius, Justinian knew exactly what to do so again he sent Belisarius on another mission, this time to finally retake Italy and in 535, he departed Constantinople by sea this time with only 7,000 men as the rest of his army was needed to secure North Africa although Justinian also sent Mundus who was in charge of Illyria at this point to invade Italy by land first by recapturing Dalmatia, which was still under the Ostrogoths. 536 was then and odd year, and here Procopius who had joined Belisarius again as his secretary writes that in this year, a thick layer of smoke covered the sky and blocked the sun yet he had no idea what caused this, indeed made this year a bad one of the harvests. Only modern studies explain exactly what caused this event, which happened to be that volcanoes around the world erupted and the wind carried the ash the away causing this unnatural event to happen, but no matter how odd this year was, Belisarius continued to push on with the ambitious reconquest of Italy.

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Ostrogoth Kingdom flag

As for the barbarian general Mundus in 536, he succeeded in taking back Dalmatia from the Ostrogoths but was killed in battle, although his troops still managed to secure their hold there. Belisarius on the other hand swiftly retook Sicily and Southern Italy but the mission had to be aborted for a moment as news reached Belisarius that some of his soldiers in North Africa together with the surviving Vandals rebelled and named one of their own officers named Stotzas as emperor so Belisarius had to rush back to North Africa and here, he easily crushed the revolt forcing Stotzas to flee deep into the Numidian desert. Belisarius then rushed back to Italy to resume his main objective and luckily his troops still held on to what they have retaken so they proceeded to take back the port city of Naples but was proven too hard to be recaptured especially with very limited men but one day, the same old Isaurian wrestler Andreas from Dara4 found an open waterway at the aqueduct which led straight into the city so Belisarius had the hole widened and true enough the Byzantines were able to reclaim Naples with little resistance.

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Belisarius’ army in Italy

Due to Theodahad’s failure to stop the Byzantines’ advance, he was usurped and killed by an Ostrogoth noble named Vitiges who was married to Amalasuintha’s daughter Matasuintha thus ending Theodoric’s Amal Dynasty but as king, he too feared Belisarius’ advance. In Rome itself, Pope Silverius too was tired of having to take orders from the Ostrogoth king, so he sent word to Belisarius inviting him to capture Rome and without a fight, Rome was retaken and put under Roman rule again, but Vitiges was still out there but Rome was no longer the imperial city it was as years under the Ostrogoths as well as 3 attacks on the city in the 5th century (410, 455, and 472) made it a shell of its former self but Belisarius made sure it was to be rebuilt. Vitiges meanwhile marched his army to retake Rome and went as far as cutting off the aqueducts to stop the water supply for the people inside but Belisarius with his brilliance resolved to make a mill on the Tiber River using two boats and was indeed successful in providing grain supply for the people inside. This siege of Rome then went on for an entire year (537-538) and as the Goths tried every trick they could to take the city such as by throwing their dead soldiers to the river to destroy the grain mills or by using siege towers, Belisarius used any trick he could find such as building a chain at the river to stop the bodies and shooting flaming arrows at the siege towers.

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Belisarius’ ship mill, Rome

Vitiges meanwhile was tired of the fighting and as all his men slaughtered by Belisarius’ Bucellarii stationed outside the Aurelian Walls, he tried to negotiate with Belisarius but Belisarius just laughed as he wouldn’t agree to a surrender as he wanted the extermination of the Ostrogoths. After a year, the siege ended as thousands of reinforcements sent by Justinian under a younger general named John the Sanguinary broke the siege forcing Vitiges and his forces to flee using the Milvian Bridge, the same place Constantine the Great won a great victory in 312 where most of Vitiges’ men were slaughtered again by Belisarius’ Bucellarii. As Vitiges fled north to the capital Ravenna, John and his forces headed north to pursue Vitiges and managed to reclaim the city of Rimini wherein he was alter surrounded by Ostrogoths.

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Vitiges, King of the Ostrogoths of Italy (r. 536-540)

More reinforcements however came under the palace bureaucrat Narses, who now had been fully trained to be a general despite being already 60 here and unlike Belisarius who displayed such charisma to his men, Narses was more of a massive sized man with a very uninteresting personality, mostly a skilled manager in terms of military logistics; simply more like a robot doing his job, considering that in this story’s case according to Justinianus, he was slave that was bought, freed, and trained to become a general. Despite both Belisarius and Narses at odds with each other, they both relieved John who was trapped in Rimini surrounded by Ostrogoths by completely surrounding the Ostrogoth forces while Belisarius here lit several campfires in the hills to make it look like they had a bigger army but true enough did not to scare the Ostrogoths while the Byzantine fleet blocked the sea as well and so the Ostrogoths were again defeated and John being saved chose to thank Narses rather than Belisarius who did more than Narses did.

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Narses, Byzantine general

The rest of the Italian cities meanwhile such as Milan (Mediolanum) revolted against their Ostrogoth overlords inspired by the victories of the Byzantines so they requested Belisarius for reinforcements but the Byzantines were too outnumbered to send forces to all these Northern Italian cities. With the people of Milan rebelling, the Burgundians now under the Franks invaded Italy from Gaul to besiege Milan but the people there lacking an army could not hold out against the Burgundians so when getting word of this, Belisarius being too busy in reorganizing Roman control to the parts of Italy that had just been retaken sent John to reinforce Milan and attack the Burgundians but refused to as he only took orders from Narses, although soon enough John caught a fever delaying the mission thus further weakening the people of Milan who then had no choice but to reason with the Burgundians. The Burgundians on the other hand did not agree to the terms and when the gates of Milan were opened to them, they sacked the city killing almost everyone and almost razing the city to the ground while the Burgundians’ overlords, the Franks themselves invaded Northern Italy (the Piedmont region) too but after pillaging the countryside, decided to retreat to Gaul as there was nothing left for them in Italy anyway.

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Burgundian army

In 539, after hearing of the sack of Milan, Belisarius wrote to Justinian the whole story that a lot of it was due to John taking orders from the less effective Narses and in return, Justinian recalled Narses to Constantinople while John was to now follow orders from Belisarius alone and now coming so close to taking back the entire Italy, only Ravenna was left under the control of Vitiges as Milan following the sack was ceded to the Byzantines anyway. Tired again of Belisarius constantly winning victories, Vitiges resorted to the ultimate trick of sending envoys to the Sassanid Empire asking Khosrow I to break the eternal peace with Justinian by resuming the war so that the Byzantines would have to pull out of Italy. Back in Italy, Belisarius got word of Khosrow attacking again so he decided to rush the attack on Ravenna before he would be recalled to the east and Vitiges in fear once again came up with another trick, this time asking Belisarius to accept his surrender and at the same time offering Belisarius the position of the “Western Roman Emperor” restored and Belisarius wanting the fight over accepted it, marched into Ravenna but instead of taking the throne, Belisarius arrested Vitiges as well his wife Matasuintha and here in 540 all of Italy was again put under Roman rule and Justinian’s dream finally achieved and Belisarius once again returned to Constantinople as a hero parading Vitiges and Matasuintha in his triumph though despite Italy taken back, the war left it in ruins which could still be repaired.

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Map of Justinian I’s Byzantine Reconquest of Italy (Gothic War), 535-540
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Procopius’ description of the 536 Dust-Veil
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Belisarius enters Rome and meets Pope Silverius, 536
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Belisarius defending Rome from the Ostrogoths, 537-538, by Amelianvs
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Belisarius’ campfires outside Rimini
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Milan (Mediolanum), attacked by the Burgundians in 539
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Belisarius and Narses arguing on the Italian Campaign, by Amelianvs

Watch this to learn about the Siege of Rome, 537-538 (Kings and Generals).


The Plague Years (540-550)             

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Though Italy had been retaken, Khosrow getting word from the Ostrogoths to attack the Byzantine Empire already made preparations and after only 8 years broke the eternal peace given the reason that the Armenian border people were not satisfied with Justinian’s rule and when the Byzantine forces were sent there to crush the rebellion, the general Sittas from the Persian war a decade ago was killed here in 539 fighting the rebels. Now while the 5-year war at Italy was happening, both Justinian and Khosrow did their own thing whereas as Justinian and Theodora worked on rebuilding Constantinople from the damage caused by the Nika Riots and in the process, they had ordered the decorating of the Hagia Sophia with mosaics and according to Justinianus playing Justinian, she says the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics took over 2,000 men to assemble working 24/7 day and night with one shift consisting of a thousand workers from all over the empire, at the same time too, Justinian ordered the construction of a triumphal column in the square known as the Augusteum outside the Hagia Sophia which had an equestrian statue of him.

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Assembling of the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics

At the same time, Justinian had sent explorers to the far-off places of the world such as Scandinavia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Central Asian steppes, and India to give him reports while at the same time he sent Christian missionaries to convert the people of Nubia south of Egypt. Khosrow meanwhile in this 8-year “eternal” peace tried to imitate Justinian’s Byzantium making his rule mirror that of Justinian’s in terms of sophistication but when asked by the Ostrogoths to invade Byzantine territory in 540, Khosrow broke this “eternal” peace and invaded Syria, capturing Antioch which still had not yet recovered from the 526 earthquake, and enslaved its people, bathed in the Mediterranean himself, and bribed off chariot races in different eastern cities to make the green faction win just to backstab Justinian who had been backing the blues his whole life. Khosrow though did not stay long enough as after asking more tribute money from Justinian which Justinian accepted, Khosrow returned to his empire but was now all set to launch another massive scale war against the Byzantines all while Belisarius was still in Italy. Belisarius was still able to bring Vitiges and Matasuintha to Constantinople wherein Vitiges died shortly after and Matasuintha was then married to Justinian’s cousin, the general Germanus.

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Column of Justinian I with his equestrian statue outside the Hagia Sophia

Belisarius though only remained in Constantinople for 2 weeks5 as the war had already broken out with Khosrow so again, Belisarius was sent to another campaign again with his Bucellarii and Huns and the area the way would take place in would be in Lazica (Georgia), the kingdom Khosrow wanted to annex in order to gain access to the Black Sea to launch an invasion of Constantinople and here Belisarius was to block Khosrow’s invasion. In 541, a political rivalry grew between Theodora and the finance minister John the Cappadocian and as usual with Theodora always wanting to succeed, she had Belisarius’ wife Antonina meet with John to frame him for plotting against Justinian and Theodora and as Justinian discovered this so-called plot of John, he punished John by sending him to Egypt forcing him to be a priest just to please Theodora. At the same time as John arrived in Egypt, something mysterious meanwhile had occurred there at the Mediterranean port of Pelusium wherein one sailor in a ship delivering wheat harvested from the fields of Egypt to Constantinople and this one ordinary day, this sailor felt some pains in his head, arms, and legs but thought it would go away if he just slept it out but at night he could not sleep as he started experiencing nightmares and as he woke up his eyes turned red and not only did he feel these symptoms, the rest of the crew did as well. At this exact same day, they saw a ship crash straight into the harbor of Pelusium and when this crew went to investigate the ship, they saw the entire crew all dead with black spots on their bodies and soon even the crew investigating died of this sickness. In a matter of weeks, this plague had spread across Egypt through the grain shipments and soon enough to all cities across the Mediterranean such as Jerusalem, Antioch, and a lot more when ships containing grain supply headed that way as little did the people at the port know that the ships carrying off the grain supply carried the fleas that caused the illness. 

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Justinian I of Byzantium and Khosrow I of the Sassanid Empire, by Justinianus
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Empress Theodora with Antonina (Belisarius’ wife, left), and Sophia and Vigilantia (right)
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Kingdom of Lazica (Georgia) map
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Port of Pelusium, Egypt
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The Plague begins with sailors in Egypt, 541 by Dovahhatty

       

Back then in the 6th century as this plague spread wherein people quickly started feeling ill, vomit blood, rot from the inside and then died went on, no one knew what it exactly was or what caused it, neither did doctors know the cure for it, and true enough they also caught the illness and died. Procopius here writes that this plague originated in Pelusium, Egypt but modern studies show that it originated far away in the Tian Shan Mountains of Central Asia in Western China as the plague at this time also affected China, India, and the Sassanid Empire and here as Belisarius was preparing to battle the Sassanids in 541, he was met with no fight at all as the Sassanid soldiers were affected by the plague with most of them dying from it.

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Belisarius in the Lazic War against the Sassanids, 541

This plague then was transmitted by fleas that sucked the blood of rats and transmitted it to people when biting them and these fleas then had developed inside the warehouses in Egypt wherein harvested grain had been kept for so long allowing rats to infest it, as well as fleas. The year 542 began in a very normal way for Constantinople as Justinian and Theodora did their thing by continuing the passing of laws, the workers still worked 24/7 on the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics, Narses returned to working in the palace training Justinian’s young nephews Justin and Marcellus to be skilled administrators6, while Justinian’s sister Vigilantia who hadn’t been mentioned in a long time still did as she pleased, stuffing herself up at feasts and drinking all night without a care as her brother worked so hard to keep their empire working but everything changed when the grain ships arrived at the port of Constantinople.

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Roman-Byzantine grain ship by Kate Eller

At first, people no matter who started experiencing light fevers but were advised by doctors in the city market to just not think about it as it will pass and for some, they were able to get over the fever but for others it was worse causing them to fall into a coma while others developed some acute dementia wherein, they were imagining that people were attacking them making these people jump into the waters of the Bosporus and Marmara to save themselves. The doctors then were most worried about these symptoms of dementia as they have never seen or heard of something like this before but when it came to people’s symptoms such as the swollen spots in their bodies, doctors were curious to know about it so they decided to open up the corpses of those who died from this illness (autopsy) and here they discovered that there was bacteria inside these wounds and it was this bacteria that killed the victims but they also found out that if they cut off the bacteria from the patients, the patients would be cured but would soon enough die days later due to the loss of blood.

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Transmission of the Plague of Justinian

As doctors too got infected by cutting up the plague sores, they decided to cover themselves up in full protection cloaks and masks which turned to be working out well for them. In only a few weeks, thousands in Constantinople began dying from this plague that by March of 542, as Procopius had said there had been 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a day in Constantinople alone and the only ones that remained and would forever remain uninfected were the stylites, the hermits living above columns. It was only here when Justinian began to respond to the crisis as at this point, he knew it was not only in Constantinople but in the entire eastern part of his empire and this when he sent word to all the governors around the empire to put all the cities under lockdown forbidding people from leaving their houses in order to stop the spread of the plague but little did Justinian know that the plague did not pass on so much from human to human but from flea to human and when finding out about its source being fleas, he had the a number of grain warehouses set on fire but the plague still kept spreading, and at the same time had the lockdowns lifted after a month as it too did not do anything to stop the plague.

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Stylite hermit

In the next few months, the death toll just kept rising in Constantinople and across the eastern provinces that Justinian had to pass new decrees to handle the plague and these included forcing people to wear masks- which many just chose to die rather than be forced to do something inconvenient by the state, assigning people to search houses for dead bodies each day, and to assign people to the city gates to count the number of dead carted out each day. Seeing the death toll in Constantinople rising himself, Justinian further issued an order that people must wear name tags at their wrists so that if they died away from their homes, they could be identified. With the weeks going by, the death toll still continued rising that bodies had to be buried in mass graves but with no more space left for these mass graves, dead bodies had to be kept inside a military fortress across Constantinople’s Golden Horn harbor but again with so much dead, rooms in this fortress were filled up the ceiling and among the victims was the jurist Tribonian who made Justinian’s code of laws back in 529, and though in real history the plague killed him, in this version Justinianus gives an alternate ending to Tribonian wherein he actually survives the plague but became very weak.

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Death toll of the Plague of Justinian, 542

Though not exactly said in real history but still definitely in the year 542, in which in this story’s case would be in June, the 60-year-old Justinian himself after inspecting the dead from the plague got a fever and in the next day started vomiting and having the same lymph nodes over his body then fell into a coma, thus he tested positive for the plague. He then remained at his bed not moving a muscle and as his fever kept rising, his doctors concluded that even the most powerful of people could still catch it. Theodora meanwhile did not catch it and so did Justinian’s sister Vigilantia, her sons and daughter, and everyone else in the palace but little did Theodora know that she actually caught the plague but was one of the very few rare asymptomatic cases of it- at least in this story.         

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Victims of the Plague of Justinian, 542
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The Plague of Justinian hits Constantinople, 542

Before the plague hit Constantinople, things did not go very well in Italy which had just been retaken by the Ostrogoths as the governor assigned to Ravenna named Alexander was corrupt when using the war funds given to him by Justinian to fund his own personal expenses making the defeated Ostrogoths scattered around Italy uniting under a leader from one of their own named Totila in 541. Though Vitiges was taken to Constantinople wherein he died, the Ostrogoths were still around in Italy and now under Totila they had grown even stronger and at first, they took back the city of Verona for themselves afterwards defeating the forces of Alexander at the Battle of Faventia wherein Alexander fled never to be heard from again.

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Totila, restored King of the Ostrogoths of Italy

Totila and his Ostrogoths won a few more victories before proceeding south in 542, ready to undo everything Belisarius achieved in the past years and although he still failed to take back Rome, he convinced many both Ostrogoths, Roman locals, and even Byzantine soldiers to defect to his side as he convinced them through lies that the Byzantines and Justinian were corrupt when it was only Alexander that was. The plague though hadn’t hit Italy yet but back in Constantinople, Justinian himself was near death that his sister Vigilantia who he was hardly close to him stood by his bedside and so did her 3 children who barely knew him as well7 and of course Theodora and other palace officials including Narses and Liberius were by his bedside too and seeing the worst possible scenarios to come, they were already deciding on who was to succeed Justinian.

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Justinian I as a plague victim, by Dovahhatty

While in a coma, Justinian got a shocking dream which was that Italy again completely fell to the Ostrogoths and this woke Justinian up8 and true enough the first thing he heard when waking came from Narses9 telling him the Ostrogoths have been starting to regain control of Italy under Totila. Justinian had realized he fell into a coma for a month10 but was at first too weak to do anything though as he soon started gaining the control to get out of bed but he came to realize one thing here and this was an effect of the plague which was that his voice changed wherein he started talking with a lisp11, although he at least luckily survived. Theodora here told Justinian that she handled the empire by herself and had successfully prevented all power struggles assuring everyone he would still live but for a total of 6 months including his one-month coma12, Justinian was bedridden and unable to run his empire. By December of 54213, Justinian fully recovered while the plague too had subsided in Constantinople at least, due to the fact that thousands died each day that by this point, there had been about 200,000 deaths in Constantinople alone while in the rest of the empire, the plague still kept spreading. The now recovered Justinian again took a tour of Constantinople fearing he wouldn’t get it again but instead of seeing people suffering from it, he saw dead lying everywhere with their wounds open and puss leaking as well as dead parents holding on to their children that were still alive. On this plague of 542, the contemporary historian John of Ephesus (507-588) writes a more dramatic story of the plague compared to Procopius’ more factual version as here John writes that in the eastern provinces of the empire, there had been villages with only one child surviving, herds of cows running off into wild with no one to herd them, roads completely empty, and ships stuck at sea as their entire crews were dead.

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Aftermath of the Plague of Justinian, 542

543 then would be the worst year ever for the Byzantines as though the plague struck in 542, in 543 all the mess had to be cleaned up one by one by a newly recovered Justinian but despite all the hardships, letting go of all his ambitious projects was the last thing he wanted but with all the damage caused by the plague especially on the economy, considering the extreme death toll on the people of the empire that created a scarcity of workers and many businesses to shut down, all Justinian could do was to put all his projects on hold and resume them another time. First of all, many of the workers who have worked in decorating the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia had died of the plague so Justinian had to put the construction on hold, for the army many had suffered died from it too so he had to now resolve to hiring mercenaries from distant lands not affected by the plague, and as for taking back Italy, Justinian decided that at this point it was not important and would return to it another time. In 543 as well, the Plague of Justinian that had plagued the eastern provinces in 542 had totally become a pandemic when ships arrived in Italy bringing the plague there, soon enough it had spread to the Frankish Kingdom in Gaul when ships arrived in Marseilles, later on in Visigoth Spain and Byzantine North Africa as well, and by 547 it had reached Britain now controlled by different Saxon rulers. Now if the Byzantine Empire and the rest of Europe was hit hard, the Sassanid Empire was hit even harder by the plague that Khosrow did not want to continue his war with Byzantines fearing that his soldiers might pass on the plague to him but over in Byzantium, Justinian knew that with Khosrow now idle, this was the perfect opportunity to attack the Sassanids, not by force but by bringing the plague there.

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Sassanid Empire flag

Here is when history literally changes as in reality, the war between Byzantium and the Sassanids would continue up to 562 without achieving much results again. Prioritizing the western reconquests again, Justinian now decided to get the plague away from his empire by closing the entire eastern border with Sassanids and sending loads plague victims as well as the infected grain supply over to the Sassanid Empire, definitely enraging Khosrow14 but being too paranoid of the plague, Khosrow was now hopeless in facing this new threat from Justinian. Though the Byzantine Empire survived the plague, 1/3 of its entire population died from it but for the entire world, the plague claimed 10% of its population according to modern studies.

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Map of the spread of the Plague of Justinian
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Total death toll of the Plague of Justinian in the Byzantine Empire (1/3 of the population), by Dovahhatty

In 543 as well, Totila managed to retake Naples and again using his tricks to get people to his side, he spared all its citizens when in fact all he wanted was to rule Italy for himself. Justinian in 544 recalled Belisarius from the Persian border- as in this story’s case, the war with the Sassanids was no longer ongoing- and sent him to Italy invading by sea from the south again, except this time Justinian was now growing more jealous of Belisarius’ previous victories and the fact that he had the plague and Belisarius did not as I would think so and due to Justinian’s growing envy, he did not provide Belisarius with funds this time especially since he was using them for the plague’s relief effort in helping citizens affected by it so Belisarius here had to pay for his own soldier’s food and equipment.

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Flavius Belisarius in the 540s, by Amelianvs

Procopius too joined Belisarius again this time and had recorded that this long war and the plague created a great famine in Italy but despite everything happening, Belisarius focused on cleaning up Italy from the Ostrogoths and Totila meanwhile laid siege to Rome again, and like Vitiges before took almost 2 years and only by December of 546 was Totila able to retake Rome for the Ostrogoths when he bribed off Belisarius’ Isaurian troops to let them scale the walls at night and when taking over the city, Totila here showed his true intention to completely level the city and afterwards he proceeded south to hunt down the last of the Byzantines including the same old John the Sanguinary who pained Belisarius years earlier. With Totila away from Rome, Belisarius meanwhile used this as an opportunity to retake it again and by the spring of 547, Belisarius took back Rome once again, though Totila returned but failed to take back Rome, instead he took over the other cities nearby such as Perugia.

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Belisarius re-enters Rome, 547 by Amelianvs

Belisarius now was short of supplies so he had no choice but to return to Constantinople to ask for supplies from Justinian himself but true enough, it was actually Theodora that had now planned to recall him for it was her that was jealous of him and suspicious that Belisarius due to his popularity will one day be acclaimed emperor by the people thus overthrowing her and Justinian. When Belisarius arrived back in Constantinople in 548 however, he was met with a shocking surprise, which was that Theodora had died. Back in 542, Theodora in this case happened to be an asymptomatic victim of the plague but this did not mean the disease would one day have a toll on her life as by this point in 548, she grew extremely weak due to contracting cancer being a long-term effect of the plague and on June 28, she died at age 48. Though before Theodora died, she arranged for her niece Sophia, the daughter of her older sister Comito and the late general Sittas to marry Justinian’s eldest nephew Justin. Now Sophia who in this case was now 20 at this point and had grown up to be very beautiful just like her aunt Theodora was back in her day in the 520s except Sophia unlike Theodora who was an actress, Sophia was a high-society young lady15. Justinian was deeply affected here as the love of his life had died that in this story’s case, Justinian became vegetarian as eating meat and fish would remind him of his days with Theodora enjoying a full meal.

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Last days of Empress Theodora, 548

Though the plague was still going on and off in Constantinople, Justinian decided for once to give up on spending on the plague efforts and instead pour in a lot of gold for a lavish funeral for Theodora and despite how many times Theodora and her Monophysite point of view gave Justinian headaches, there was no other woman than her but strangely the couple despite being married for more than 20 years never had any children but by arranging Justin and Sophia’s marriage, Theodora here considered Justin to be their successor and even if Justinian was not close to him, Theodora thought he was the best choice only because he was the eldest nephew. Now at the funeral at the Church of the Holy Apostles, thousands of mourning citizens- especially women who all thanked her for passing laws protecting their rights- gathered outside while only family members as well as the Patriarch stayed inside for the ceremony and in attendance inside included Germanus with his Ostrogoth wife Matasuintha, Vigilantia again with her 3 children who were now all grown up, Theodora’s sister Comito and her daughter Sophia, and of course Justinian himself who was teared up so much that no one recognized him anymore16. Belisarius who had not trusted Theodora and vice-versa out of respect attended the funeral and so did Narses, Liberius, and Tribonian who in this case survived the plague.

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

Justinian being so heartbroken refused to speak to anyone, even Belisarius who had been urgently asking for supplies but soon enough when Justinian was able to speak again, Belisarius decided he did not need to ask for help anymore as now he had grown tired of war and had wanted to retire which Justinian accepted. The retirement of Belisarius was another heavy blow for the grieving Justinian as his most competent and trusted general had to go but at least his second most trusted general and younger cousin Germanus was still around who Justinian now counted on to finish off the reconquest of Italy but in this case, if Justinian were to name his own successor at this point, he would have chosen Belisarius17 but since Belisarius retired, Justinian considered it to Germanus or if not Germanus’ son with his first wife also named Justin but later on in 548, a jealous Armenian general named Artabanes and in this story’s case secretly with Procopius and John the Cappadocian who returned from Egypt following Theodora’s death hatched a plot to kill both Justinian and Belisarius in favor of Germanus. On the other hand, Germanus despite being overly talkative18 was completely loyal and had no intention to take the throne and eventually, it was the other Justin and this case with Justinian’s nephew Justin that uncovered Artabanes’ plot reporting it directly to Germanus who then had the Excubitor palace guards arrest Artabanes who instead of being imprisoned was sent to his death to fight against Totila in Italy with a very small army. In this case, Justinian still had not known of Procopius’ secret plotting19 while John the Cappadocian would remain unpunished, although he would die at this point in history (around 549) like in real history. At the same time back in Constantinople, Justinian’s nephew Justin and Theodora’s niece Sophia married in a not so lavish ceremony in the Hagia Sophia as Justinian still depressed over Theodora’s death and still spending on the plague’s relief effort could not spend on such festivities20. Justinian though considered Germanus as his heir even if Theodora earlier on backed Justin and this was because Justinian saw that Germanus had great skill and that his children will carry the blood of both the Justinian and Ostrogoth Amal Dynasty of Theodoric the Great due to Germanus’ marriage to Matasuintha. Germanus was appointed to lead the continued Italian campaign replacing Belisarius but in 550 when Germanus was still in Thrace, he too contracted the plague that still lived on and died while Matasuintha was still pregnant with their child. With Germanus gone, Justinian replaced him with the now 85-year-old Liberius who was sent to Sicily but due to his age, never achieved much except pacifying the island.

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Justinian I at the funeral of Theodora, 548 by Dovahhatty

Watch this to learn more about the Plague of Justinian (Invicta).


 

II. Part Two

The End of Justinian’s Wars (The Climax, 550-555)- In collaboration with Justinianus

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In the year 550, Justinian was now a sad old man at age 68 and now already 2 years after Theodora’s death, he was still extremely bitter also because the plague ruined his dream, he worked so hard on that he sat all day in the palace’s dining hall drinking and eating food that were of course plant based but one day an old general came, and this was the Isaurian wrestler Andreas who after many years was promoted to become a general. Now this is part of the story wherein our role-playing will come in full form and when creating this story, Justinianus came up with the idea of the vegetarian aging Justinian and due to the plague still happening, the wearing of face masks which Justinian I this case had been wearing one since the plague of 542.

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Justinian I as an old man and plague victim, 550 by Amelianvs

Andreas after serving Belisarius for many years in the Sassanid border, North Africa, Italy, again in the Sassanid border, and again in Italy went to greet Justinian but at first Justinian did not really have any idea on who he was until Andreas introduced himself and his story in the past 2 decades and as both Justinian and Andreas share some drinks of wine, Justinian begins to lighten up and ask Andreas what he has been up to though Justinian still sad tells Andreas how much the plague ruined all his plans and how Theodora’s death made him not want to think about anything anymore. Andreas however gave some hope to Justinian telling him that at least his code of laws made ages ago was something successful and that Hagia Sophia was a definitely a beauty like no other despite the mosaics still unfinished as Justinian only ordered the decoration of the mosaics to be resumed just a year ago21. The next day, Justinian and Andreas met up again and feeling some more relief after getting know Andreas, Justinian takes him for a tour around Constantinople as Andreas having been in the battlefield for years never really got the chance to fully see the imperial capital and even better, this time seeing all its secrets with the emperor himself. The first place the pair head to is the square with Justinian’s column known as the Augusteum beside the Hagia Sophia Basilica Cistern just near the Hagia Sophia which Justinian had just completed and this here was a water supply supported by hundreds of columns taken from the abandoned and destroyed Pagan temples across the empire.

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Basilica Cistern, Constantinople

After this, Justinian brought Andreas over to the now repaired Baths of Zeuxippus that had been destroyed by the Nika Riot in 532 which Andreas remembers being in it helping Belisarius kill off the rioters with his bare hands. Justinian in his usual sadness tells Andreas that it was there in these baths where he and Theodora, still an actress dated privately after they had met back in 524 and Justinian back then being already a high-ranking official in the empire could close down the baths just for him and Theodora to bathe together without seeing them having their intimate moments. In the present setting however, Justinian stopped speaking once he remembered the days he spent with Theodora there and remembering his daily routine to visit Theodora’s tomb, he took Andreas to the Church of the Holy Apostles where Justinian as usual knelt down and wept. At night, both dined at the great palace’s dining hall again where Justinian showed to Andreas his newly developed hobby of writing and singing Orthodox hymns and for Andreas, Justinian surely had a great voice that sang with so much passion yet sadness at the same time. The next day, the pair toured Constantinople again seeing how dead the city had become after the years of plague and by this point, effects of the plague were still felt but at least with 8 years since the height of plague having gone by, people were now more hopeful.

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Belisarius as a senator, 550

Andreas then asks to see Belisarius who was now retired from the army, although a senator but later that day, Belisarius himself returned to the palace and though in real history, Belisarius was no longer active after 548, here in this case in 550, regained the feeling of wanting to lead his troops again especially since he was only 45 here while all the other generals in charge of the campaign like Liberius and Narses were so much older than him. Narses on the other hand was already 72 at this point and had already been sent to Italy to replace Liberius in full command of the troops but lacking full Byzantine soldiers as well as the Bucellarii and Huns Belisarius commanded, Narses in Italy resorted to hiring barbarian mercenaries from the lands northeast of Italy, and these people were the Lombards. Back in the palace, Justinian again fell back into his depression staring out into a window while Andreas and Belisarius were catching up and seeing Justinian spaced out, Belisarius whispers to Andreas how Justinian made him fight Italy without providing funds the last time although Belisarius tells Andreas it was all Theodora’s fault and luckily, she had died. Justinian though had been staring out into that window for about 2 hours now and here Belisarius asks him why and Justinian first still does not speak but after a while he says “I miss her so much”. Belisarius then tells Justinian that he should come with him and Andreas to the high-end tavern next to the palace to get relieved of his sorrows. The 3 men head to the tavern wherein the emperor himself actually shows up in a tavern and here Justinian orders some wine and so does Belisarius but Andreas as a tough mountain orders a barbarian drink known as “mead” and here the 3 have a nice and friendly conversion about the wars they have fought in the past years. Justinian here is happy to talk about how much the Sassanid Empire of Khosrow who is still alive is just totally falling apart from the plague that Justinian brought over to the Sassanids intentionally. As they continued drinking, Andreas gives a speech convincing Justinian to not let go of the dream he has been working to achieve as it is for the good of the empire while Belisarius gives a toast saying “to Italy!” making it clear that they want to resume the war and here Justinian after drinking some wine with friends agrees saying something he never would’ve said. For his entire reign, no matter how hard Justinian worked, he was a palace emperor that never left Constantinople even if Italy and North Africa were retaken but now, at his old age he agrees to go to Italy and finish off the war against Totila. The next day, Justinian with Belisarius and Andreas as well as Justinian’s remaining family members attend a Mass at the Hagia Sophia for the good luck of their mission while Belisarius departed ahead by fleet. As for Andreas, it would take 3 more weeks to assemble his army and here he swore to Justinian that he will personally stand by his side in Italy. Justinian later asks his nephew Justin to meet him at the throne room though Justin comes in with a bad mood thinking it is a waste of time though Justinian asks him to accompany him to Italy but Justin refuses saying he hates travelling but Justinian tells him to consider it as it would be good training for Justin to be an emperor or else Justin would end up a useless glutton like his mother, so Justin then considers the offer. 3 weeks have then passed and Justinian with Andreas head over to their ship as now a fleet of 80 ships were set to again invade Italy though Justinian here feels nervous especially since he’s never been on a long trip by sea before. When at sea, Justinian constantly feels sea sick and here Andreas asks about Justinian’s early life he’s heard of and how he travelled to Constantinople for the first time from his village whether it was by sea or land and Justinian said it was by land. Justinian talks about how hard life was in the Balkans wherein barbarians constantly raided his farm which is what gave him his life-long hatred towards them fuelling his desire to conquer their lands. It was only in 497 at age 15 when Justinian back then as Petrus first met his uncle Justin who returned to his village now with some wealth promising him a better life in Constantinople and together, they travelled for kilometers by foot and then by horse. It was during Anastasius I’s early reign when Justinian settled in the capital having top-grade education provided by his uncle who was then already the imperial guard’s commander. At this time, his sister Vigilantia who was then 7 with their mother followed up and also here, Justinian despite not getting to meet Anastasius in person met his wife Empress Ariadne22.

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Empress Ariadne, daughter of Leo I, and wife of Zeno and later of Anastasius I

Now I would say what inspired Justinian’s great dreams was meeting the aging empress who was the wife of the former Zeno and daughter of the former emperor Leo I and she did have the honor of seeing the Western Roman empire still around while her father was emperor of the east with the great western emperors like Majorian and Anthemius being her father’s co-emperors and she too had the honor of meeting Anthemius himself when he was still in the east. Now this case wherein young Justinian had met Ariadne may be totally made up but I’d say this was a great source of inspiration for young Justinian especially since he met someone who was there to see the days when there was still hope for the west and it was her that inspired him to dream big. Back in the present setting, Justinian felt a bit of frustration when Andreas reminded him of his peasant background but Andreas told him in return to not see it that way as despite his low birth, Justinian was able to achieve a lot and so Justinian admitted here that he never thought he would go this far.     

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

 

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

At this point, history is again totally altered wherein the palace emperor Justinian the Great himself finally leaves Constantinople and travels by sea for a total of 3 weeks to Italy, the land he always dreamed of holding on for the empire. Now I would say that if Justinian was so fixated in putting Italy back under Roman hands, his intentions would only be very fitting if he actually went to Italy himself to see the land where Roman civilization all began and so in this case, he actually goes to see his cultural motherland. Justinian though may have had no Roman-Italian blood but being a Roman citizen of Illyrian and Thracian blood from the Balkans and a native Latin speaker, Italy and more particularly Rome itself was seen as his spiritual home. Now after 3 weeks at sea, the fleet carrying Justinian arrived at the Bay of Naples in Italy while Belisarius, in this case arrived much earlier on in Italy’s eastern coast to meet up with the same general John the Sanguinary who pained him over the years who here was still commanding the troops in Italy.

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6th century Byzantine infantryman, by Foojer

At this point in late 550, Naples had already been liberated from the Ostrogoths but just a year earlier, Rome which Belisarius took back again fell again to Totila who using Belisarius’ return to Constantinople managed to once again retake Rome and sack it. When in Naples, Justinian here personally gave orders to his soldiers in taking back Rome and with so passion in his speech, he encouraged them that they are doing this to preserve the great legacy of Rome, of the great emperors of the past like Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Aurelian, and Constantine and after making his speech, Justinian remembered the words the people shouted when wanting victory “Nika!” even if it reminded him of the horrors of the 532 riots, but all the soldiers too shouted the same thing. Justinian accompanied by Andreas and their Excubitor guards marched north to Rome and Justinian having no experience in fighting battles told Andreas he’d just stay at their camp in Janiculum Hill overlooking Rome while Totila who was not in Rome at this time had its walls strengthened to make any Byzantine attempt to retake it impossible but Andreas remembering how he helped Belisarius recapture Naples almost 2 decades ago when the Gothic War in Italy began by using a tunnel, he remembered that the walls could be breached if his men dug beneath it. Andreas’ men including his Heruli mercenaries dug deep beneath the Aurelian Walls and in only a few hours, a part of the walls collapsed and when Justinian woke up from his nap, he noticed that the walls were breached and seeing it, he had a change of heart, thus he mounted his horse and together with the Bucellarii cavalry charged straight into Rome and to their surprise, Totila’s forces were very limited but still eager to face off the Byzantines, the Ostrogoths charged in a frenzy but were all slaughtered by the arrows fired by the Bucellarii as they rode with full speed while Justinian too managed to kill a number of the Ostrogoths before making it to the Roman Forum where Andreas planted the Byzantine banner to signal victory. Now in real history, Rome only returned to the Byzantines once again when the Gothic War ended in 552 but here by the end of 550 with Justinian fighting the battle himself, Rome came back to Byzantine hands much earlier on thus turning the tide of the Gothic War to the Byzantines’ favor.

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Trajan’s Column, Rome

Justinian was overjoyed now that he had finally seen Rome, the eternal city that ruled the greatest empire of its time- in which in reality he never saw- and when in Rome, Justinian and Andreas headed to the Column of Trajan which was now neglected and seeing it, Justinian told Andreas how Trajan has been such an inspiration to him ever since Justinian was barely an adult studying Roman history. What really inspired Justinian most about Trajan was that in his reign (98-117AD), the Roman Empire was at its greatest extent north to south from Britain to Egypt and west to east from Portugal to the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea and Justinian here wanted to achieve just that for his own empire and now with Rome taken back and all of Italy almost theirs again, he knew he could achieve his lifelong dream before he died. As Justinian mentioned his imperial dreams, Andreas reminded him of the question of succession and Justinian here said that he had it under control as he asked for his nephew Justin to come over to Italy in order to train to be an emperor. With Rome back under their hands, Justinian now thought of visiting Ravenna which here was still under Byzantine hands as the Ostrogoths were still scattered around Italy.

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The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Emperor Trajan, 117AD

Now in 551, both Justinian and Andreas travelled north to Ravenna and would stay there for a long time, especially since Justinian had to fix the Byzantine administration of Italy, which was based there and during their stay in Ravenna, Justinian finally saw the mosaics in the church of San Vitale which he had commissioned years earlier which were to depict him and his court together with Belisarius, Narses, John the Cappadocian, senators, priests, and Excubitor guards by his side while across it was the one of Theodora and her court and seeing it, Justinian was in tears especially since he saw Theodora’s face and when seeing his own portrait, he too remembered the good times as he looked very young in it, remembering his early days as emperor when he was still attractive despite being over 40 but now at this point at 68, he was looked far different as he gained so much weight while his hair turned gray, and face started enlarging due to age and seeing Andreas, Justinian told him he will commission of mosaic of him in Ravenna as well- which had never happened in reality due to Andreas not existing anymore after 530.

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6th century Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The pair later toured Ravenna seeing it so dead after years of war and plague and in their walk, they also took a look at the beautifully decorated Mausoleum of the Western Roman empress Galla Placidia, the daughter of the last united Roman emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) and seeing more of Ravenna, Justinian was amazed at how beautiful the mosaics were but was disappointed in remembering its shameful history under the incompetent western emperors that resided there like Honorius (r. 395-423) and Valentinian III that contributed to the fall of the west.

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Mosaics of the Galla Placidia Mausoleum, Ravenna

It was here in Ravenna where Justinian discovered there was a hidden plot against him all along by Belisarius’ secretary Procopius who was in Constantinople at this time and it was through Andreas where Justinian learned of it as the two were staying in Ravenna. Andreas here told Justinian that Procopius was plotting in a more subtle way which was that he was writing a secret book to slander Justinian and Theodora known as the Secret History which is a very biased account on Justinian’s reign and was only discovered in the 16th century and only made public in 1623, and this source is what gave many others a negative perspective on Justinian’s reign and Theodora’s sexual activities but on the other hand, Procopius in his main source on Justinian’s reign and the history of the Western and Eastern Roman empires entitled Wars, he remains the most valuable source as is very factual here. The truth however was that Procopius strongly envied Justinian for becoming emperor despite coming from humble origins as Procopius thought that if Justinian coming from nothing could come to power23, so could he but not wanting to fall out of favor with the imperial court, Procopius did not want to make his intentions clear so his solution was to write them all down somewhere for no one to see it.

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Procopius’ Secret History

Justinian meanwhile never knew of this work by Procopius but in this case, when being revealed of it by Andreas, he knew that Procopius was not to be trusted and what further angered him was how Procopius said Justinian walked around the palace at night in the form of monster similar to a Hydra and worse for Justinian, Theodora the love of his life was slandered. Andreas here told Justinian everything Procopius had told him and one of this- as Procopius did in fact write in is Secret History– was a slanderous accusation on Theodora in her earlier life as not only an actress but a prostitute wherein she performed a very explicit act of Leda and the Swan wherein Theodora as an actress stripped off all her clothing lying on the ground placing bird feed on her naked parts for the swans to feed on; of course this cannot be proven true because Procopius had not yet met Theodora when she was an actress and in this story’s case with Justinian knowing Theodora as an actress, he knew this was all an accusation.

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Theodora as an actress performing the act of “Leda and the Swan”

Andreas further tells Justinian24 that Procopius told him that he saw Theodora already as empress in the palace when at functions with other women dressed in something very explicit which Justinian never knew about and this outfit that she dressed in was a very lose dress that looked like it could easily slip off and had exposed too much skin leaving her shoulders completely bare (this here is the outfit Theodora is seen wearing in a 19th century painting by Jean-Benjamin Constant that inspired her look in the game Civilization V and Dovahhatty’s version of her). Justinian on the other hand was a man of strong Orthodox Christian morals but when hearing about all of this about Theodora, he accepted it as she was already gone and this was to be stuck in the past but surely- in Justinianus’ version- he never knew of this dress as he only knew Theodora like him wore purple robes decorated with jewellery but when hearing of it, Justinian knew that this could be a new fashion trend for future women considering that Justinian had just sent monks to the far away empire of China, known to them as Seres to smuggle silkworms in order for the Byzantines to manufacture their own without spending so much on imports.

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Empress Theodora in the so-called dress as described by Procopius, by Jane Arts (inspired by Jean-Benjamin Constant’s painting)

Justinian after hearing everything about Procopius was enraged especially hearing what was said about Theodora so he decided he had to punish him when returning to Constantinople but at the same time, he got word that his nephew Justin was going to arrive in Ravenna and the next day, both Justinian and Andreas headed to the harbor to greet Justin. Justinian at first nicely greets his now 30-year-old nephew but Justin rudely answers back that the sea trip made him seasick and that he has no purpose in Italy and therefore just wants to return to Constantinople but Justinian tells him that his first candidate for succession Germanus had died and wanting to honor Theodora’s choice of naming Justin his successor, Justinian believed that this mission in Italy will train Justin to be a strong ruler like his uncle and not a degenerate like his mother25. In the next few days in Ravenna, Justin begins developing a bond with his uncle that he was never really close to as real history too never mentions their bond and here Justin bonded with his uncle by accompanying him during meetings with government officials and military commanders in Ravenna. After a while Justinian remembered his sister Vigilantia who he had not seen and spoken to since Theodora’s funeral back in 548 though Justin tells his uncle that his mother was all fine and still stuffing herself as usual and Justinian hearing about this had some sense of relief.

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Justin II, Justinian I’s nephew, selfie style portrait, by Justinianus

Meanwhile, it had already been 16 years since the Gothic War of Italy had started and just as the Byzantine reconquest of Italy had resumed, the same old general John the Sanguinary with his subordinate commander Valerian were to engage the fleet of Totila in the Adriatic Sea just outside the city of Rimini and to assist the Byzantine forces in attacking the Ostrogoths by land, Justinian decided to head south from Ravenna to Rimini with Andreas and Justin and this mission was to train young Justin in military matters. As the Byzantine fleet engaged the Ostrogoth fleet off the Italian coast, the Byzantines had easily won a victory as they had more naval experience than the Ostrogoths, though ship rams weren’t much used anymore here by the 6th century, so instead, both fleets battled each other by boarding each other’s ships. As the naval Battle of Sena Gallica was fought in 551 like in real history, Justinian and his men entered Rimini which was still under Byzantine control awaiting an attack from the Ostrogoths and Justinian recalling his earlier years as a member of the Excubitor palace guard force remembered the basics of sword combat which he would then use here while for Justin, it was the first time he would use a sword though both Justinian and his nephew here had not put on any armor. Justinian meanwhile did not know much about fighting in open battle so he simply told Justin to just follow Andreas here and so the fictional battle begins at this moment as the Ostrogoth army begins firing arrows at them. Justinian not skilled enough to face open battle hides inside a weapons’ storage room while Andreas orders the city gates to be sealed and for their archers to continuously fire back at the advancing Ostrogoths while Justin decides to have the ballistae at the city walls to fire back at the Ostrogoths.

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Ostrogoth army, 6th century

Meanwhile, in the hills surrounding Rimini several campfires were lit to make it look like a larger Byzantine army was going to clash at the Ostrogoths but again this was Belisarius pulling out the same old trick he did before exactly here years ago and this forced many of the Ostrogoths to flee, although some still stayed behind and managed to scale the walls. Justinian meanwhile got out of the building to check what was happening and as an Ostrogoth charged at him, Justinian killed him with his sword. Afterwards grabbing his spear and throwing it, killing another Ostrogoth. A number of arrows then fired towards Justinian but despite his old age, he managed to block them while running to pick up a shield inside the same building he came from while Andreas ordered his men to form a shield wall to block off the arrows. As Justinian headed inside the building to grab a shield, the building due to the Ostrogoths’ flaming arrows caught fire and as the flames continued burning the building, Justin as well as Andreas ran straight inside to rescue Justinian and Justin here was able to escape before the ceiling collapsed but Andreas was trapped inside, however a few minutes later Andreas jumped out and fell unconscious at the ground. At around the same time, the Byzantine fleet destroyed the Ostrogoth fleet while in this case, Belisarius outside routed the rest of the Ostrogoths, though Justinian and Justin were at a panic despite their victory as Andreas was knocked out unconscious. Justin then called for doctor for Andreas and Andreas was then brought to Rimini’s governor’s villa to be healed.

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Emperor Justinian I and his men mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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Empress Theodora and her court mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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Drawing of Theodora’s hidden dress according to Procopius (in this story), by Powee Celdran
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Naval Battle of Sena Gallica, 551, Byzantine victory over the Ostrogoths

 

Andreas rested for the next 2 weeks but was at least relieved hearing that the Ostrogoths had been beaten by Belisarius while Narses on the other hand who was already in Italy was continuing the fight and the search for Totila. Justin on the other hand was sent to join both Belisarius and Narses who now at least began getting along with each other especially since the troublemaking John was no longer with them and was instead sent back to Constantinople after his recent naval victory. For a much longer time now, both Justinian and Andreas were doing nothing as the wounded Andreas still had to recover from his burns while Justinian in his spare time wandered off to see the Italian countryside and coastline and seeing the countryside gave Justinian memories of his simple childhood in the Balkans while the coastline gave him memories and here he began to think how far he went in life from just a simple peasant boy in a remote part of the empire to now coming so close to ruling the known world. When meeting Andreas again, Justinian full of inspiration said he is the emperor to be “luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan” or Felicior Augusto, melior Traiano in Latin but knowing he could not achieve the dream alone, Justinian considered turning the Franks of Gaul to his side despite them planning an invasion of Italy before though when thinking if the Franks ever turned against them, he even considered a Roman reconquest of Gaul, though history never specified if Justinian aimed to take back Gaul from the Franks.

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Ruins of Aquileia, original city destroyed by Attila the Hun in 552

The year 551 then had passed and now in 552, Andreas was fully recovered from the accident that almost caused him his life and so it was time they headed to Aquileia together with Justin who had returned to them in order to face off the Ostrogoths one more time and after a long ride north, they had arrived in the ruined city of Aquileia right at the 100th year anniversary of when Attila the Hun destroyed it (452) though Justinian also remembered that nearby there was growing community in a lagoon founded by the survivors of the attack on Aquileia (today’s Venice). At Aquileia, the 3 with their small army were met with nothing, instead heavy rain started pouring while at the same time a messenger told them that Totila had headed west so the rest of them decided to escape Aquileia through the sewers as the rain was pouring and due to city being totally destroyed, there was no roof to hide under. The rains got stronger and stronger and so did the wind, thus Justinian concluded this was the worst storm he’s seen in his entire life but not wasting time, all of them including the old emperor crawled through the city’s abandoned sewers despite them almost drowning but at least they were able to get out alive exiting at a farm whereas the sky had already cleared. Justinian thought that everything was over until a spear flew at his direction thus seeing another Ostrogoth army charge at them, Justinian then grabbed that spear and threw it back at the Ostrogoths.

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Ostrogothic cavalry

Andreas saw that it was impossible to face this great number of enemies but luckily, he saw a spare carriage which he had Justinian board with him as Andreas drove it while Justin sat behind firing arrows while the rest of the army was to mount the horses stolen from the Ostrogoths. The carriage sped through the Italian countryside for kilometers running over as many Ostrogoths as possible while here Justin suddenly discovered he was skilled with a bow26 while Justinian realized he totally missed on life as he spent so much time indoors and, in the city, when experiencing so much action in this chase. Soon enough, the Hunnish cavalry of Belisarius was spotted and here they were totally crushing the Ostrogoth forces and soon Belisarius himself was spotted doing as he always did, slashing every Ostrogoth that he came across. With the Ostrogoths almost defeated, Andreas stopped the carriage while he together with Justinian and Justin jumped off rolling in the grass of the Italian countryside (in which this would be in the area of Bologna).

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Byzantine general Narses, 552

The Byzantines here had won this fictional battle which totally weakened the Ostrogoth forces but Totila had not lost yet, however at the same time another major battle occurred (factual this time) somewhere in Umbria in the village known as Taginae wherein Totila now intent to take the Byzantine throne dressed in the gold armor and purple cloak of a Byzantine emperor led a surprise charge at the army of Narses but the 74-year-old Narses ordered his men mostly consisting of Lombard mercenaries to stay still and wait for the Ostrogoths to charge at them and with his massive size and intimidating presence, Narses was able to crush and rout the Ostrogoths by having his army assemble in a crescent-shaped phalanx formation and in the Ostrogoths’ escape, Totila was killed by the Byzantine forces. Back in the north of Italy, Belisarius after this fictional victory got word of Narses’ victory and Totila’s death making him more energized to continue the war however Andreas stepped up and told Belisarius that the emperor himself was tired after this battle they have gone through.

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Totila before the Battle of Taginae, 552

Though Totila was killed, his son Teia succeeded him as the King of the Ostrogoths without a capital and with the Ostrogoths still around, Belisarius told Justinian here that they must station the army all over Italy to enhance their presence and finally finish off the Ostrogoths once and for all by killing of Teia. Justinian, Justin, Belisarius, and Andreas remained at the army camp in this part of Northern Italy for weeks and here messenger came giving word to Belisarius that the Franks hearing about the defeat of Totila were planning to invade Italy to avenge Totila and here Justinian knew that the Franks true enough betrayed him but Justinian knowing that the Franks being barbarians despite being Catholic-Orthodox and not Arian would always take the side of their fellow barbarians so here he did not bother to plan an invasion of Gaul anymore as the war Italy plus the plague effort had already drained the treasury but he still had enough funds for another small reconquest and this would be Visigoth Hispania or at least just the southern coast of it for Justinian. Ever since 549 when the Visigoth king Agila came to power, as a fanatical Arian, he had been persecuting his Catholic-Orthodox subjects causing a rebellion led by a Visigoth noble named Athanagild who supported the oppressed Catholic-Orthodox citizens there even though just like Totila he was eyeing the throne and so here in 552, news got to Justinian that Athanagild was crowned king despite Agila still reigning and seeing this conflict as a reason to defend the Orthodox Christian faith, Justinian agreed to help Athanagild but also because Justinian knew that if he retook Southern Hispania this would create a buffer zone to prevent the ambitious Visigoths from invading Byzantine North Africa knowing that a century ago, the Vandals that took over North Africa crossed the narrow strait from Hispania. The problem now was who to send to reconquer Hispania as Belisarius and Narses were both needed to clean up the mess in Italy while Justinian feeling tired decided to return to Constantinople so without any more choices Justinian asked his nephew Justin to be the one to go over to Hispania with the assistance of the now 87-year-old Liberius and since Liberius was too old to actually lead his men at front, the job was up to the now 32-year-old Justin27. At first Justin with tears objected saying this war in Italy traumatized him- in which this kind of trauma would define his reign in real history- but Justinian with such encouragement told him that to be a great emperor means to face his fears even if means dealing with them with such ruthlessness and here Justinian told his nephew about the time he almost lost to fear yet almost lost his life at the Nika Riot 20 years ago whereas Justin was only 12 here, therefore not at all involved in the events. Back then in 532, when seeing the intensity of the riot to overthrow him, Justinian kept negotiating with them to the point of threatening them with death and when nothing worked, his advisors even told him to just leave the city and let the people’s candidate Hypatius take the throne while Justinian could just one day take back the throne but Theodora stepped up in front of Justinian and his entire court with a very strong and motivating speech ending with the phrase “the royal purple is noblest shroud” meaning that she’d rather die than lose throne and Justinian here took this advice to heart and conquered his fear by having Belisarius, Narses, and Mundus end the violence with violence.

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Theodora convinces Justinian to crush the Nika Riot, 532

20 years later in 552, Justinian was still living with that fear28 but this event only made him wiser and so here he told Justin to remember that event when he feels he is about to lose and that Justin should not lose as he has the best and strongest men of the empire with him at all times being Justinian, Belisarius, Narses, and Andreas. Here would also be when Justinian would say one of his most his most famous  lines “keep cool and you will command everyone” to Justin as a word of advice. Feeling some encouragement, Justin nodded at his uncle and was told to remain in Italy with Belisarius and Narses until Liberius arrived from Constantinople while Justinian with Andreas by his side was to tour the rest of Italy to see the damage of the war in order to study on how to rebuild it from the ashes before heading back to Constantinople.

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Byzantines defeat the Ostrogoths at the Battle of Taginae, 552, by Amelianvs

Watch this to learn more about the final part of Justinian I’s Italian Conquest (Kings and Generals).

 

After the 17-year Gothic War plus the plague, Italy had turned into a depopulated wasteland that was beyond repair but I believe that if Justinian were there to see the aftermath of the war, he would know how exactly to deal with it although the damage was beyond his control but what he could do to repair Italy is to make sure it will one day be repopulated in this case, seeing the ruins of Italy, Justinian will allow people from more populated parts of the empire like Egypt and Syria to come over to Italy to settle as well as loyal barbarian allies wherein they could settle down as citizens. Before heading back to Constantinople, Justinian and Andreas visited Rome one more time and after a 3 week journey by sea, they finally arrived back in the capital and Justinian now being old, went first to Theodora’s tomb to pay his respects, then to check on the progress on the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics seeing the one with himself already completed, and then finally to bed without doing anything else for 2 full weeks as he now believed that 25 years of hard work since coming to power in 527 had finally paid off despite the reconquest of Italy not completely over and one more mission to back Hispania yet to come but Justinian knew he had done his part in growing the empire and it was now up to his generals and Justin to finish the job.

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Mosaic of Justinian I in the Hagia Sophia

After his 2-week break, Justinian met with the very old Liberius- although history is unclear on which general led the reconquest of Hispania beginning 552 but the contemporary historian Jordanes says it was Liberius- and in this story, Justinian asked Liberius to serve the empire once more by heading to Italy first to meet up with Justin and then sail to Hispania. In real history though, Justin had stayed in Constantinople this whole time and so did Justinian of course still ruling as a palace emperor but 552 was also a major year for Justinian back in Constantinople as this was when the monks sent to China finally arrived with the ultimate prize, silkworms. In this story’s case, as Justinian returned to Constantinople, the monks who were originally sent as missionaries to India but later discovered the silk to be from what is the Empire of China, the distant highly advanced empire the Romans have been hearing for centuries. Hearing from the monks of this distant land as superior as the Byzantines to culture, Justinian was highly fascinated but what struck him more was the treasure they brought home and these monks revealed it by pulling it out of their bamboo canes, and here were the silkworms that could produce the finest silk. With the economy ruined from the plague and the war in Italy, Justinian thought the best solution was for the Byzantines to build silk factories and farms in the empire in order to produce their own high-quality silk without having to import them from the Sassanids who imported them from China and in this case with the Sassanid Empire on the verge of collapse due to the plague, there were would be no one to import these silks directly from anymore.

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Silkworm in a mulberry bush

The monks told Justinian the whole process of making silk which they saw for themselves in China and that these worms would grow in mulberry bushes in which the empire had many of and so Justinian ready for this new ambitious project had mulberry bushes planted across the empire and silk factories built in the distant rural places of the empire so not many would uncover this secret process of silk making. Another issue Justinian had to deal with back at home was course Procopius where in this story’s case he discovered the lies Procopius spread about him and here Justinian confronted him ordering him to burn the Secret History and here Procopius showed his villainous side saying that he indeed deserved the throne. Andreas who was with Justinian here in Procopius’ house tried to kill Procopius but to punish him Justinian just confiscated this book and had Procopius exiled to the Crimea north of the Black Sea to live his entire life while Justinian himself took this book of lies and burned it himself.

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Procopius of Caesarea mosaic

Now Justinian here would not have Procopius executed as his previous book Wars wrote about Justinian’s reign very well and factually but Procopius still needed to answer for his false accusations, but in real history, Justinian never knew of Procopius’ accusations and Procopius lived until 570, 5 years passed Justinian’s death. However, the sources for Justinian’s later reign after 552 would no longer come from Procopius but from another contemporary Greek historian here named Agathias who was an eyewitness to all these events in the 550s. Italy meanwhile was still as impoverished as ever and the war still not over but in 553, Narses won one more victory against the Ostrogoths at Mons Lactarius in Southern Italy where the last King of the Ostrogoths Teia was killed, thus earning Narses the title “Hammer of the Goths” and finally the war was over, though the last of the Ostrogoths would go into hiding in the mountains of Italy. As for Justinian in 553, he could now fully function again but the loss of Theodora still saddened him but it was here in 553 when he headed an important Church Council known as the 2nd Council of Constantinople to once again solve the schism with the Monophysites which never really came to any results.

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The Hagia Sophia fully completed
Monks present silkworms to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian
Justinian I receives silkworms from monks coming from China, 552
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Silk production in 6th century China
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Justinian I at the 2nd Council of Constantinople, 553
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Final defeat of the Ostrogoths to the Byzantines at the Battle of Mons Lactarius, 553

Watch this to learn more about silk production in Justinian I’s Byzantium (Kings and Generals).

 

In Italy, Justin and had already departed by sea to Hispania the moment Liberius arrived later on in 552 and this case Belisarius still remained in Italy together with Narses beyond 553 but when thinking the war was all over, the Franks from Gaul invaded Italy in late 553 promising to help the Ostrogoths but were too late, though it not matter anyway as they still wanted a war with the Byzantines. The Franks split themselves up into two groups though the first one when marching south all suffered the plague as it had returned in Italy wherein a large number of them died while the other group charged at Narses’ army at the Volturnus River in Southern Italy where here in this story with Belisarius joining Narses, the phalanx of Narses’ men held back the Franks while Belisarius’ Bucellarii cavalry rushed and destroyed them all, thus Italy was spared from the Frankish attack though some Franks would join the remaining Ostrogoths in their holdouts.

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Frankish army, 6th century

Now over in Hispania, the Byzantine fleet with Liberius and Justin in this story’s case with a smaller army that came from Narses’ men in Italy arrived in what is now Malaga in late 552 and for the next year fought beside their ally Athanagild against Agila’s forces in the civil war. History though does not record much about the Byzantine reconquest of Southern Hispania except that they were supported by Athanagild and his rebels while Liberius in 553 returned to Constantinople when the Southern coast was already taken back. Since there is not much records on this conquest of Visigoth Hispania, I would not explain much about it anymore except that Justin now gaining some confidence continued leading his very small army in battle using the knowledge he learned when fighting in Italy and of course keeping to heart the advice his uncle gave him during their time in Italy. The moment the Byzantines had taken the southern coast of Spain in order to block the Visigoths from crossing over to North Africa, Athanagild felt betrayed as he only wanted the Byzantines’ help not for them to take land but since Agila was still around, Athanagild still acknowledged the presence of the Byzantines there.

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Athanagild, rebel leader and King of Visigoth Hispania (r. 554-567)

Now if Italy may have been severely damaged by the wars, Hispania was still fresh and Justin here saw that Hispania could be the new frontier for many Byzantines to settle in as it was fertile, spacious, and very significant to Roman history as this was where the great emperors like Trajan and Hadrian originated in. By 554, the Byzantine reconquest of Hispania was over and having at least the southern coast, Justinian in Constantinople ordered the conquests to stop for he had what he already wanted and here Justin would return alone to Constantinople now celebrated as a hero while Liberius at age 89 also died this year in Constantinople. In 555, the supporters of Agila fearing the success of the Byzantines in the south turned on and assassinated him defecting to Athanagild who now became King of the Visigoths. Now in 555, Justinian’s ambitious reconquest of the Meditrranean known as the Renovatio Imperii was all over and now he could focus on securing peace all over his empire. At this point, the Byzantine Empire controlled the entire Mediterranean again as a “Roman lake” and had spanned north to south from the Crimea in Ukraine to Egypt and west to east from Southern Spain to Syria but no matter how large the empire was again, it was in ruin as the plague and wars took the lives of countless that by 555, the population of the empire had dropped by a million since Justinian came to power in 527.

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Byzantines defeat the Franks at the Battle of Volturnus in Italy, 554
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Byzantine Province of Spania (purple), conquered in 554
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World Map, 555AD, end of Justinian I’s conquests (purple)

 

The Last Years of Justinian, Aftermath, and Conclusion (555-565)

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With North Africa, Italy, and some of Hispania under Roman rule again, Justinian could finally enjoy life at his old age with his remaining family members and focus on keeping the peace. The moment all the reconquests were over, Justinian no longer cared about fighting wars as that time had passed and luckier for him 555, at least in this story’s case, he finally received the most relieving news ever from the Sassanid Empire, which was that Khosrow had contacted the plague and died, though in real history the war against Khosrow went on until 562 while Khosrow himself lived until 579. In this case though with Khosrow dead and the plague still ongoing in the Sassanid Empire, there was no more Sassanid Empire as the death of Khosrow broke the empire apart into smaller states ruled by Khosrow’s sons all at war with each other and still suffering heavily from the plague and Justinian here can be indirectly credited for destroying the Sassanid Empire by sending plague victims and fleas there.

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Mosaic of the old Justinian I in Ravenna

The final dissolution of the Sassanid Empire that pained the Romans for 3 long decades had come and Justinian with a sigh of relief turned to his new hobby as an old man which was the farming silkworms and the making silks which in a few years became mass produced and a major export of Byzantium. In addition, in this story at least, the monks back in 552 gave Justinian a gift of Chinese herbs which were given to doctors and true enough these proved more effective in healing people who were still affected by the plague as by this point, the plague still kept coming on and off which still deeply worried Justinian since he wanted the population of the empire to grow but the plague’s victims were usually newborn babies. To ensure a population growth to his damaged empire, Justinian working with old jurist friend Tribonian again issued laws to encourage families especially in rural areas to keep producing children. Tribonian meanwhile would die in 556 from the long-term effects of contracting the plague28 while Belisarius too returned to Constantinople again and this time to fully retire in his estate in Thrace.

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Byzantine made silk using the Chinese technique

With everything now settled down, Justinian at last had some good time to spend with his remaining family members having frequent get togethers in the imperial palace and here, he would grow his bond with his nephew Justin by continuing to train him more to be an emperor and with his sister Vigilantia, Justinian here now done with all his hard work would finally fix their relationship that they would soon enough grow closer to each other. Out of the family members, Justin’s wife and Theodora’s niece Sophia would be the one to grow very close to Justinian as she would be the one asking for his advice in running an empire as Sophia wanted to imitate her aunt Theodora as well when her time comes to be Justin’s empress. Justinian meanwhile would try to find ways to get over his grief of losing Theodora and a lot of this would be by taking hunting trips and playing Byzantine Polo or Tzykanion with his nephew Justin, the retired Belisarius, and Andreas who was still actively in military service. As for the silk manufacturing, things have been starting to become very successful in such a short time and as the manufacturing began, the first silk product to made was a dress for Sophia, the upcoming empress and apparently the dress custom made for her was exactly the same revealing type Theodora secretly wore as Procopius said, meaning her niece knew about except for Sophia, it fit more perfectly on her as the new silks were sturdier that it would not fall off as it did with Theodora before. Now with Sophia, this dress from becoming a deep secret would become well known to the women of the empire even being introduced as a fashion trend- even if this dress is entirely fictional appearing first in the 19th century by Jean-Benjamin Constant.

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Dome of the Hagia Sophia, damaged by the 557 earthquake

The Hagia Sophia’s mosaics too had been completed but in December of 557, a terrible tragedy would happen which was a massive earthquake that struck Constantinople and since the city was so dense with very little open spaces, people had no safe place to take refuge. According to Agathias who documented this event, he says that the earthquake almost “destroyed” the city but it had lasted very quick and luckily did not kill a large number, though it still left many especially in the crowded areas homeless. In the panic as the earthquake struck that December night, people behaved as if disorder reigned but as the earthquake ceased minutes later, they all cheered and embraced each other as the worst was over while Justinian was fast asleep in the palace not noticing anything. Justinian only knew of the earthquake after waking up and when inspecting the city- here in this case with his nephew Justin- seeing so much damage again, he broke down inside as another disaster had come again in his reign. Out of respect for the people, Justinian refused to wear his crown for 40 days and with the money that the state had been generating from the silk production, he decided to use that to pay for repairing the damage caused by the earthquake. In the months following the earthquake, there too had been a change among the people’s attitudes as Agathias states as well wherein the rich who never turned to charity turned to it, while doubters began to pray, and the most vicious of men started helping others out but this only lasted short as a few months later, they all reverted to their usual attitudes. The Hagia Sophia meanwhile did not receive a lot of damage from the earthquake for the meantime but in May of 558, a terrible tragedy came again as the dome of the Hagia Sophia Justinian and his architects had worked so hard on completely collapsed, but at least most of the mosaics still remained unharmed. Despite having had too much already in his life, the very old Justinian still acted strong and had the dome rebuild and considering that a first dome was already made and that its blueprints were still around, building a second one was not so much a problem anymore, but it would take time. Meanwhile, just as Justinian thought all his wars were over29, a group of Huns known as the Kutrigurs allied with the Slavic tribes crossed the Danube River into the empire and were directly headed to Constantinople to attack it but at least were held back by the Anastasian Wall of Thrace built ages ago.

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Kutrigur Hun warrior, 559

Since most of the army was scattered across the empire stationed in the newly conquered provinces of Hispania, Italy, and North Africa, Justinian in 559 when hearing of this new invasion asked Belisarius to come out of retirement one last time to fight off these invaders- as it did happen in real history too- except in this case, the now older Belisarius was joined again by Andreas, Justinian’s nephew Justin and Justin’s younger brother Marcellus who was now an experienced general. With most of the army scattered across the empire, Belisarius here only commanded 300 of his veteran soldiers as well as Thracian locals who he asked to assist them by scattering across the woods and again to use the same trick Belisarius did before against the Ostrogoths in Italy by lighting several campfires to make it look like they have a much larger army to scare the enemy. This small battle took place in the village of Melantias just 20km west of Constantinople and it had been an easy victory for the Byzantines as the Kutrigurs and their Slavic allies fled in a panic when seeing the campfires and in their flight were ambushed by the 300 veterans led by both Belisarius and in this case Justin as well.