Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XI- The Serbian Empire Takes Over and Saves a Dying Byzantium in the 14th Century

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 13th and 14th Centuries AD. This story will begin with real events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

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

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

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

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

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Flag of the Ottoman Beylik, future Ottoman Empire

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

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

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

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

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

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Logo of my channel- No Budget Films

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

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

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

Part I (1261-1274)

Part II (1274-1282)

Part III (1283-1320)

Part IV (1320-1341)

Part V (1341-1354)

Part VI (1355-1391)


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

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Palaiologos Dynasty coat of arms

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

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

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

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

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

The Story of 3 Plagues Across the Centuries

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople

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


 

The Leading Characters:

Andronikos III Palaiologos- Byzantine emperor (1328-1341)

Anna of Savoy- Byzantine empress, wife of Andronikos III

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

John VI Kantakouzenos- Usurping Byzantine emperor

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

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

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

Umur Bey- Bey of the Turkish Beylik of Aydin

Alexios Apokaukos- Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire

Matthew Kantakouzenos- Byzantine general and son of John VI

Suleiman Pasha- Turkish general and son of Sultan Orhan

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Michael VIII Palaiologos enters Constantinople in triumph, 1261

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

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

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

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

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

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Michael VIII Palaiologos, restorer of Constantinople, art by Ediacar

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

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Byzantine-Genoese alliance flag

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

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Seal of the Latin Principality of Achaea in Greece

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

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Byzantine army mixed units in the 1263 Peloponnese campaign

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

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Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium

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

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Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily since 1266

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

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

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

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

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

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Council of Lyon, 1272-1274

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

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Michael VIII Palaiologos

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

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Charles of Anjou’s coat of arms

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

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Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185

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

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

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

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

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

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Kingdom of Aragon flag

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

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

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

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Uprising of the Sicilian Vespers, 1282

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

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Fresco of Michael VIII Palaiologos

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos II Palaiologos Lego figure

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

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

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

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

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

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Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Catalan Company coat of arms

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

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Grand Catalan Company army in Asia Minor

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

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

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

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

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

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Mercenary army of the Grand Catalan Company

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

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

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

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Osman Bey, sultan since 1308

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Theodore Metochites, Byzantine politician and friend of Andronikos II

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

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Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos as an old man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Savoy coat of arms

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

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Icon of Andronikos II Palaiologos, abdicated in 1328

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ibn Battuta, North African explorer, visited Constantinople in 1332

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

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

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

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

       

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

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Andronikos III Palaiologos, art by Androklos

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

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Fresco of John Kantakouzenos as Megas Domestikos of Andronikos III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alexios Apokaukos, Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

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

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Personal flag of King Stefan IV Dusan of Serbia

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

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

          

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

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2nd Bulgarian Empire army, 14th century

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

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

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

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Turkish army of Umur Bey, 14th century

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

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

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

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Byzantine army in the 1341-1347 Civil War

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

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

          

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

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

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

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

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

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Theodora Kantakouzene, daughter of John Kantakouzenos and wife of Orhan

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

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John VI Kantakouzenos, Senior Byzantine emperor since 1346

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

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

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

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Kantakouzenos family coat of arms

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

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

 

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

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

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Aftermath of the Plague of Justinian, 542

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

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Black Death in Byzantium, 1347

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

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A Black Death patient being treated

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

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Black Death plague doctor in Western Europe

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

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Cartoon map of Dusan’s Serbian Empire

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

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A page from Dusan’s Code of Laws

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

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Postcard of Emperor Dusan in battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ottoman sultan Orhan as an old man

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

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Army of Dusan’s Serbian Empire

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

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Early Ottoman army, 14th century

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

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Mounted 14th century Serbian knight

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

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

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

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

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

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Knights of Dusan’s Serbian Empire

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

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Gallipoli Peninsula in Thrace, site of the 1354 earthquake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Epilogue (in real history)               

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pope Urban V

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

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

           

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

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14th century Ottoman Janissaries, introduced by Murad I

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

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

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

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

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

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Prince Lazar of Serbia (r. 1373-1389)

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

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Serbians and Ottomans clash at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389

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

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

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

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

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


 

The Epilogue (in this story) and Conclusion            

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

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

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

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New flag of the Ottoman Empire after 1362

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

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Icon of Emperor John V Palaiologos of Byzantium

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

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

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

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

           

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

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Dusan’s Serbian Empire ball

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

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Statue of Emperor Dusan in Serbia

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

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantium for Everyday People- 5 People Respond to Byzantine Quotes

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

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


 

1. The 10th Century           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The 5th Century           

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

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

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Battle of Chalons, 451

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The 6th Century           

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

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

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

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

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Court of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602)

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

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

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

4. The 13th Century          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium

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

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

5. The 11th Century              

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

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

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

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

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Seljuk Turks ride from the steppes into Asia Minor

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

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Defeat and capture of Romanos IV by the Seljuks, 1071

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

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)

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

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

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

 

6. The 4th Century               

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Map of the Roman Empire under Constantine I, 330

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

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

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

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Council of Nicaea, 325

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. The 12th Century         

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

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

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. The 15th Century          

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Map of the reduced Byzantine Empire in 1450 (purple)

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

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Flag of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century

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

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

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

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

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

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Ottoman sultan Mehmed II captures Constantinople, 1453

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

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

9. The 9th Century           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. The 7th Century          

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. The 14th Century

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Byzantium in 1350 (blue)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

12. The 8th Century           

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The Byzantine Empire in 717 (purple)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 6 emperors of the Byzantine 22-year-Anarchy (695-717)- Leontios (top-left, r. 695-698), Tiberius III (top-middle, r. 698-705), Justinian II Rhinotmetos (top-right, r. 705-711), Philippikos Bardanes (bottom-left, r. 711-713), Anastasius II (bottom-middle, r. 713-715), Theodosius III (bottom-right, r. 715-717), art by myself
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Victory for the Byzantines with Bulgarian aid against the Arabs in Constantinople, 718
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Iconoclasm- breaking of religious icons and persecution of monks in the Byzantine Empire under Constantine V (743-775)
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Empress Irene (r. 797-802), art by myself

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

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

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VIII- A Byzantine Victory at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and Its Impact on the Empire

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 11th century AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- 10th Century

The Battle of Manzikert was the most decisive disaster in Byzantine history. The Byzantines themselves had no illusions about it. Again and again, their historians refer to that dreadful day.” -Steven Runciman, English historian

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Welcome to the 8th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter VII of this 12-part series, I went over the origins story of the Byzantine Renaissance from the 9th to 10th century on how the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) went gradually from a troubled empire fighting to defend itself to the ultimate military and cultural power in the medieval world. Though the last chapter experimented in retelling the rise of the Byzantine Golden Age from the 9th to 10th centuries by only taking out one character being Empress Theophano, therefore her son Emperor Basil II as well, which meant that a lot of the events turned out very much like how they did in real history, so basically nothing had changed although only in the short-term, as in the long-term things may be different for the Byzantines without Emperor Basil II, though that would be a very hard question to answer. Anyway, this chapter will begin like all chapters in this alternate history series, meaning that the altered course of history from the previous chapter will not continue to the next, therefore this chapter will start out with the events of real history taking place, meaning that the ruling dynasty even if it could be true that they were in fact the Amorians would still be called the Macedonian Dynasty here, as it is historically called and Emperor Basil II known as “the Bulgar-Slayer” who is Byzantium’s longest reigning emperor will be in power at the turn of the 11th century, or more importantly the turn of the 2nd millennium AD. It was at the beginning of the 11th century that the Byzantine Empire under Basil II was again since the 6th century at its peak of cultural and military power that Byzantium here had an empire again controlling almost the entire Balkans all the way east into Armenia and Syria and west to Southern Italy while the army was so powerful that all other powers from beyond feared it especially considering how the Byzantine army was able to defeat the Bulgarian Empire itself, the emperor meanwhile became a supreme authority in the medieval world, the sophisticated Byzantine imperial culture was respected and revered by all including their rival western empire the “Holy Roman Empire”, and the state itself was well organized one. However, as is the case with many empires, what follows its peak of power and influence is its decline and the case of Byzantium here in the 11th century was no exception as following the death of the great ruler Basil II in 1025, it would all go downhill gradually for the Byzantine Empire, thus this period would be known as the 11th Century Crisis. In this period known as the 11th Century Crisis, a series of weak and even bad leadership by some emperors, the constant fighting of wars, corruption in the government especially by greedy eunuchs, ambitious and power-hungry generals on the quest to gain the throne, and disastrous reforms in society would create a gradual economic decline in Byzantium and for the first time in Byzantine history the devaluation of their standard gold currency, but the worst part was that when all these setbacks were happening, the Byzantines would encounter new and unheard of enemies for the first time being the Seljuk Turks from the east and the fierce Norman warriors from the west. True enough the history of the Roman Empire, which extends all the way to the Byzantine Empire’s timeline does repeat itself as centuries ago the Roman Empire was the dominant world power in the 2nd century but what followed this time of power and prosperity was an age of decline being the 3rd Century Crisis which in fact was one of the events that led to the division of the Roman Empire, thus the creation of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire in 330, and centuries later here in the 11th century, the same would happen again to the Eastern Roman Empire wherein after an era of power and prosperity would be an age of political, economic, and military decline the same way it was for the 3rd century old Roman Empire. On the other hand, 4 centuries earlier (the 7th century), if you remember from chapter IV of this series, the Byzantines after defeating their traditional eastern enemy being the Sassanid Persian would unexpectedly face the rise of a new enemy which was here the Arabs from the mysterious Arabian Desert of the south uniting into an empire known as the Caliphate under the faith of Islam and for the past 3 chapters of this series set in the past 3 centuries, the major conflict for the Byzantine Empire was always with these Arab powers but after 3 centuries of conflict, as told in the previous chapter, the Byzantines gained the upper hand and turned the tide of war against the Arab enemies from the east. Now in this chapter, we will say goodbye to the Arabs as the traditional eastern enemy of the Byzantines for 4 centuries as after beating them in battle so many times, the Arabs from being an invincible force of destruction would become severely vulnerable and divided, but even though the Byzantines may be on the winning side after finally weakening the Arabs, a new power from the east is to arise unexpectedly the same way the Arabs did back in the 7th century. Here in the 11th century, from the steppes of the Central Asia, the unexpected power that would rise and within decades already pose a threat to Byzantium are the Seljuk Turks, a band of unknown tribal nomadic Turkic people that had recently united, converted to Islam, and formed an empire with a powerful cavalry army that will be a deadly force even to the superior and disciplined professional Byzantine army.

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Seal of the Seljuk Empire, the new power in the 11th century

The gradual decline of Byzantium in the 11th century after its golden age would culminate at the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the first major battle between the centuries old Byzantine Empire and the new power of the Seljuk Empire which resulted in the most severe and humiliating defeat the powerful Byzantine army faced so far, thus showing that the Byzantine Empire’s army that was thought of as all powerful around the world was indeed not as powerful as it seemed, therefore it is considered the beginning of the end for Byzantium. Now when speaking of the Battle of Manzikert, a lot of people who know Byzantine history see it as a terribly tragic event like it was one battle that all of a sudden turned all of Byzantium’s successes around, but the truth is that even before this fatal battle, things were already going to go terribly for the Byzantines, thus what really led to the defeat of the powerful Byzantine army and the decline of its imperial power and prestige was not this defeat but the greed, corruption, and bad leadership the empire had been going through for the past decades following the death of Basil II in 1025. However, the real event that brought the powerful Byzantine Empire to its knees in the 11th century was in fact not the Battle of Manzikert itself in August of 1071 but its aftermath as following the defeat of the Byzantines here, their emperor Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071) after being betrayed by a rival general was captured by the Seljuk Turk’s sultan Alp Arslan and the emperor’s capture thus created panic and chaos in the empire and with this chaos, civil war erupted and so did a number of generals who used the chaos as an opportunity to seize the Byzantine throne for themselves rather than defending the empire against the new Seljuk enemy, thus this led to the weakening of the Byzantine state and the fall of the Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor to the Seljuks as well as the collapse centuries old Thematic System or the Themes. The aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert was so severe that shockwaves reached as far as Western Europe that in 1095, the new Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos who rose to power to save the empire from destruction sent a distress signal to the pope to send armies from Western Europe to help the Byzantines drive the Seljuks away from their heartland, but instead what came out of this was the First Crusade that would start a world-famous movement in the Middle Ages being the Crusades. The aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert meanwhile was so shocking that it became one of the major factors that led to the rise of the Crusades as well as the rise of the Ottoman Turks due to the Seljuks’ occupation of Asia Minor and they would centuries later carry out the ultimate end of Byzantium in 1453, and true enough if the Byzantines won the Battle of Manzikert, then there would possibly be no Crusades and no Ottoman Empire centuries later. The main point of this story however is not altering history by having the Byzantines win a total victory over the Seljuks at Manzikert, thus becoming a world power again and making the Crusades never happen but rather the point of this story will be if the Byzantines won the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, would the empire’s corruption and political instability still cause its decline?

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Note: Since this story is set in the 11th century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.          

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Painting of the fateful Battle of Manzikert between the Byzantines and Seljuks, 1071
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The Byzantine Empire (red) at its apogee, at Basil II’s death in 1025, in real history
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Map of the expansion of the Seljuk Turks and their empire (yellow), in the 11th century
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The Byzantine Empire (pink) by 1081 after the Battle of Manzikert

 

For this story, I am writing it alone this time, although with my own twists to the well-known catastrophic Battle of Manzikert which due to how well remembered it is in medieval history as a very significantly dreadful event as the quote mentioned above says, it is a very popular what if in Byzantine history that many had in fact made their own alternate history stories and videos regarding Manzikert and its aftermath. My version here however will be my own take on the fatal battle in 1071 and therefore not a usual theory of this popular alternate history scenario as it will not only simply discuss what would happen if things went the other way around with the Byzantines defeating the Seljuk Turks, but rather it will discuss the difficult situation the Byzantine Empire went through after the Battle of Manzikert and if a Byzantine victory over the Turks could actually save the empire from falling apart in this said 11th Century Crisis or not. Basically this chapter will be a lot like the very first one of this series- Byzantine Alternate History Chapter I– except it will have more story than just pure battle scenes. On the other hand, some months ago I came across an article from Medievalists.net by Dr. Georgios Theotokis on the aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert and what really brought Byzantium to its knees (read it here), and true enough the Byzantine defeat at this battle is what ended Byzantium’s power in their heartland Asia Minor and thus the beginning of what would be the “Turkification” of Asia Minor which today is Turkey, but what I discovered from this article I mentioned that is very surprising and unlikely that caused the decline of Byzantine power in Asia Minor was not really the defeat to the Seljuks but the ambitions of the Norman mercenary leader Roussel de Bailleul who using the situation of defeat at Manzikert took for himself some land in Asia Minor declaring himself its ruler in rebellion against the Byzantine emperor and to deal with him the reigning emperor Michael VII Doukas (1071-1078) allied himself with the enemy which were the Seljuks and with their victory over the Norman mercenary, the Seljuks in return were able to take over most of Asia Minor, which was a mistake very difficult for the Byzantines to undo that it would take decades and even the call to start the First Crusade to recover their heartland. Now for this chapter, I will be exploring the era of the 11th century Byzantine Empire and the aftermath of Manzikert by putting more attention to the aftermath of the battle except with the Byzantines winning, therefore no massive Seljuk occupation of Asia Minor following the crucial battle. For its style, this chapter will be very much similar to the style of the previous chapter which is more of a fast-tracked documentary style of this era in which almost everything really is just a retelling of real history except with its own twist and it is only at the latter part in 1071 where the real twist happens wherein also the story will have more depth and detail. Basically, this story will be more like a reverse style of the previous chapter (chapter VII) which had a fast-tracked documentation of the Byzantine golden age of the 10th century and how it came to be, while this one on the other hand will be a reverse of it as it will fast-track document how the decline of Byzantium after its golden age came to be as the 11th century progressed. The story of the entire 11th century history of Byzantium which I find it to be another very interesting period in Byzantine history will be covered here as in order to explain the situation of the empire in 1071 as well as the background of the lead characters of this story and the new military aristocratic families that will rise up in this era such as the Komnenos, Doukas, and Diogenes families, we have to go back to the start of the 11th century in the reign of Emperor Basil II who’s reforms and conquests will shape the course of the 11th century history of Byzantium. This chapter will start in the year 1000 with the great and feared military emperor Basil II as the reigning emperor in order to give a background to this era where the Byzantine Renaissance from the previous century had culminated in together with the ultimate conquest of the Bulgarian Empire in 1018, then we move on to 1025 where the golden age ends with the death of Basil II wherein without ever being married or having children is succeeded by his ineffective brother Constantine VIII who dies just 3 years later. The story will the proceed to the heart of the 11th century when the crisis takes place with Constantine VIII’s daughter Zoe as the kingmaker behind her 3 husbands who were emperors one after the other in which the age of corruption and decline for Byzantium will start taking shape, then in 1056 the long-reigning Macedonian Dynasty that had ruled since 867 will come to an end with the death of Zoe’s sister Empress Theodora, the last Macedonian Dynasty ruler. Following the end of the Macedonian Dynasty, the empire would fall into a dynastic crisis with powerful aristocratic generals taking the throne and becoming emperors including Isaac I Komnenos in 1057, Constantine X Doukas in 1059, and Romanos IV Diogenes in 1068.

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The Chronographia (14 Byzantine Rulers) by Michael Psellos

In this story too, there will be something like a historian’s angle of telling the story as a lot of the events of the 11th century here were told in the point of view of the historian Michael Psellos (1018-1078), a Byzantine monk, writer, philosopher, and politician who witnessed most of the events of this century himself therefore writing it all down in his famous work The Chronographia documenting the reigns of 14 Byzantine emperors from Basil II to Michael VII (976-1079), and in this story Michael Psellos himself will play an important role as he connects the early part of the century under the Macedonian Dynasty to the latter part when the fatal Battle of Manzikert takes place. This story will then be written in a more fast-tracked form until we hit 1071 where the main battle takes place and it is here where it will be more in depth with some insights of my own that I would add to the real story, and here in this chapter the most prominently featured character will be the emperor Romanos IV Diogenes who personally an army of 40,000 soldiers including a large portion of mercenaries from all over the known world against the Seljuks in Manzikert and here there will be a slight fictional angle to his story wherein he will be depicted like in real history as an aristocratic general from a disgraced family who marries the widowed empress Eudokia Makembolitissa, wife of the former emperor Constantine X Doukas in order to become emperor, but in this story Romanos IV has ambitions to take throne in order to put his life back together and gain some credit for his disgraced family’s name by intending to finally defeat the invading Seljuks Turks in battle even if the Seljuks here never really wanted to fully invade Byzantium anyway but just take some land from them in order to pass through in order to carry out their ultimate goal of the conquest of the Arab Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. Here, like in real history Romanos IV will also decide to confront the Seljuks at the massive Battle of Manzikert but for the sake of altering history, the Byzantines would win with Romanos IV coming out alive, but with this pyrrhic victory here, Byzantium would still go through a difficult situation while Romanos IV like in real history would still be betrayed by the imperial court in Constantinople while he is away.

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

Check this link to see alternate history videos on what if the Byzantines won the Battle of Manzikert, from Ripped Lincoln.


 

Now, a lot of this chapter’s information comes from the very detailed book on this era Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood by the Byzantinist historian Anthony Kaldellis, so this chapter like the book may be something like a political and economic lesson as the complicated Byzantine politics and economic crisis of the era will have a major role here, but this is to show how complex these times were but also to again give you all a clear example of the word “byzantine” meaning complicated and how it the Byzantine Empire really defined this word.

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Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood by Anthony Kaldellis

Although this chapter will have a lot of the complex Byzantine politics involved, it would also be a very action packed one with the major battles against the Turks and other powers including the Normans being the real villains of this century, Arabs, Pechenegs, and a lot more including the famous and powerful Varangian Guards fighting for Byzantium, and in addition this chapter too will mention a few side stories most especially on how these new enemies such as the Seljuk Turks in the east and Normans in the west came to be, and also how the Arabs would slowly disappear from the picture as if you take note, this chapter will be the last time the Arabs which appeared so prominently in the last 4 chapters will appear. Now in the bigger picture, the 11th century was not just a very critical period for Byzantium but for the world in general as this century primarily saw the rise of both Seljuk Turks in the east from unknown nomads to a deadly military power and the Normans in the west which would both play an important part in shaping the medieval world in general, and in this century the Normans would go a long way from Viking warriors and adventurers to dominant rulers of Europe as in this century the Norman knights would establish their own state in Italy and not to mention in 1066 the Normans from their base of Normandy in France under William the Conqueror would conquer England and establish what would be the Kingdom of England itself. What would make the 11th century a very eventful one is that it also saw the early Middle Ages transform into the High Middle Ages as most of the powers in Europe began to expand while this century too would end with the rise of a new movement that will define the Middle Ages which were the Crusades that would last for 2 more centuries, and true enough Byzantium did have a part in starting the Crusades which was their defeat to the Seljuks at Manzikert. This story will then end at the end of the 11th century and in one way or another, just like in real history the well-known fan favorite Alexios I Komnenos would still become Byzantine emperor to save the empire, although without the defeat at Manzikert he would have no reason to call for the First Crusade, though the First Crusade would still happen anyway as this story would go with the Seljuks still continuing on heading down south and capturing the important city of Jerusalem as after all, the reason for the Western Europeans or Latins to launch the First Crusade in 1095 was more to avenge the fall of Jerusalem to the Seljuks and take it for themselves rather than to help the Byzantines recover their lands in Asia Minor from the Seljuks. Additionally, this chapter too will not just be all about Manzikert but focusing too on another major issue that happened in the 11th century which was the Great Schism of 1054 that finally split the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church for good which therefore shows the “cold war” style conflict between Byzantium and the Western world again still in place, but in fact becoming ever worse. At the same time, the year 1071 was not only fatal to the Byzantines because of their great defeat to the Seljuks at Manzikert but it was also the same year when all of Byzantine Italy was lost as it had been conquered by the expanding Normans, thus this event as the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson suggests is what totally and permanently separated Byzantium from the Western world making Byzantium more and more Oriental as the centuries would go by. Before beginning I would have to thank Anthony Kaldellis for his book that I had just mentioned as well as history related Youtube channels like Kings and Generals, Thersites the Historian, and History Time, as well as the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson for providing good and accessible information to this era in Byzantine history. Also, I would just like to remind you all that this chapter is more of a retelling of real history with a few alterations such as the personalities and intentions of a few historical characters here told in a rather mocking style not so much to put Byzantium down but to look up at their history.

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Genealogy of the Macedonian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire which features heavily in this chapter
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Genealogy of the Doukas Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire which features heavily in this chapter

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- A retelling of the 10th century of Byzantium under the Amorian Dynasty

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

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

All Sieges of Constantinople


 

The Leading Characters:

Romanos IV Diogenes- Byzantine emperor (1068-1072)

Constantine X Doukas- Byzantine emperor (1059-1067)

Eudokia Makrembolitissa- Byzantine empress, wife of Constantine X and then of Romanos IV 

Isaac I Komnenos- Byzantine emperor (1057-1059)

Michael Psellos- Byzantine historian and politician

Michael VII Doukas- Byzantine emperor (1071-1078), son of Constantine X and Eudokia 

Maria of Alania- Byzantine empress, wife of Michael VII

Alp Arslan- Sultan of the Seljuk Empire (1063-1072) 

Nikephoros III Botaneiates- Byzantine emperor (1078-1081)

Roussel de Bailleul- Norman mercenary commander and independent leader of Asia Minor lands (1073-1076)

John Doukas Caesar- Imperial Court advisor and brother of Constantine X

Andronikos Doukas- Byzantine general, son of John Doukas

Alexios Komnenos- Byzantine general, future emperor

Nikephoritzes- Byzantine court eunuch advisor of Michael VII

Nikephoros Bryennios- Byzantine general

Robert Guiscard de Hauteville- Norman Duke of Calabria and Apulia (1059-1085) 

Malik-Shah I- Sultan of the Seljuk Empire (1072-1092), son of Alp Arslan

Theodore Alyattes- Byzantine general

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Seljuks (green), Normans (red)