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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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


 

1. The 10th Century           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The 5th Century           

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

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

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Battle of Chalons, 451

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The 6th Century           

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

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

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

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

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Court of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602)

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

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

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

4. The 13th Century          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium

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

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

5. The 11th Century              

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

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

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

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

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Seljuk Turks ride from the steppes into Asia Minor

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

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Defeat and capture of Romanos IV by the Seljuks, 1071

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

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)

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

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

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

 

6. The 4th Century               

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Map of the Roman Empire under Constantine I, 330

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

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

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

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Council of Nicaea, 325

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. The 12th Century         

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

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

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. The 15th Century          

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Map of the reduced Byzantine Empire in 1450 (purple)

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

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Flag of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century

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

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

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

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

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

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Ottoman sultan Mehmed II captures Constantinople, 1453

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

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

9. The 9th Century           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. The 7th Century          

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. The 14th Century

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Byzantium in 1350 (blue)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

12. The 8th Century           

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The Byzantine Empire in 717 (purple)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Byzantine Alternate History 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) 


 

Part I.

Prologue- The Reign of Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer and the Peak of the Byzantine Renaissance (1000-1028)            

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In the year 1000 as the 2nd millennium AD begins, the Byzantine Empire was at its rise to a time of prosperity and influence as not only did it have a powerful and well-organized professional army that was capable of crushing any enemy army whether Arab, Bulgarian, or nomadic Pecheneg, but it was a cultural power wherein its imperial court culture and state administration was sought after that foreign powers like their rival Holy Roman Empire in Germany even began to adopt Byzantine court customs. On the other hand, Byzantium at the turn of the millennium had also culturally influenced powers far away such as the empire of the Kievan Rus’ (consisting of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) as it is through Byzantium that the people of the Kievan Rus’ empire converted to Orthodox Christianity thus falling under the Byzantine sphere of influence. Ruling the Byzantine Empire at its apogee of cultural and military power at the turn of the millennium was Emperor Basil II who had already been ruling the empire alone since 976 and before that had already ruled as a co-emperor since he was only 2-years-old in 960.

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

In 1000, Basil II was a skilled administrator and soldier but also a tough and ruthless commander as well as a strict micromanager with his army and the state administration, though it is quite hard to believe how Basil II became this kind ruler with this kind of ruthless ruling style especially in war and living life like an ordinary soldier, that it would make you think that he grew up on the battlefield coming from a military family, but true enough he did not. Basil II was in fact a purple-born emperor or Porphyrogennetos born in the palace in 958, he too was the son of the emperor Romanos II (r. 959-963) and the empress Theophano, as well as a grandson of the famous scholarly emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959) and true enough Constantine VII and his son Romanos II- who had been mentioned in the previous chapter- were not at all tough military men but highly sophisticated palace emperors that never even set foot in a battle. The reason though to why Basil II grew up to be different being a soldier emperor were the difficulties he faced when growing up as when he was only 5 in 963 his father Romanos II died suddenly and his mother Theophano had to marry the rising star general of the time Nikephoros II Phokas who became emperor here after marrying Theophano to rule as young Basil’s protector but in 969 Nikephoros II despite doing so much to strengthen the empire’s military power was killed in his sleep as part of a conspiracy by his nephew who became the next emperor John I Tzimiskes,who would also rule as Basil’s protector and only after John I’s death in 976 did Basil II come to power as the senior ruler as his younger brother Constantine VIII had already been his co-emperor ever since 962. Now a lot of Basil II’s tough personality, capability in commanding and inspiring his troops, and living a simple lifestyle like an ascetic monk was said to be heavily influenced by his stepfather Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas who as emperor did not enjoy luxury but instead was most happy in the battlefield with his soldiers and Basil II was very much the same as his stepfather that way. Though Basil II was the senior emperor in 976, his rule was not secure as the two ambitious generals Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas challenged his rule by proclaiming themselves emperors seeing Basil as a palace born ruler was a weak one as true enough Basil up until 985 was under the control of his grand-uncle the eunuch Basil Lekapenos. Basil eventually grew tired of being a puppet of his corrupt eunuch grand-uncle and so in 985, Basil II without any hesitation banished his grand-uncle from the palace under charges of corruption and conspiring with the rebels and in 986, Basil II wanting to show that he was not a weak ruler and that the empire was ruled by a member of the ruling dynasty and not by eunuchs or ambitious generals decided to personally lead the army for the first time against their northern neighbor and enemy the Bulgarian Empire but lacking military experience here, Basil II was defeated in battle by the Bulgarians.

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Bardas Phokas the Younger, Byzantine general, art by Akitku

This defeat in 986 gave Basil II a strong desire for revenge against the Bulgarians and a lifelong goal to defeat them once and for all and absorb the entire Bulgarian state into the Byzantine Empire, although Basil’s defeat to the Bulgarians in 986 also exposed his weakness and created an opportunity for the general Bardas Phokas to rise up against Basil. Basil II however was able to defeat the rebellion of Bardas Phokas in 989 with the assistance of an army of 6,000 warriors from the Kievan Rus’ Empire which would be known as the Varangian Guard and with them, the rebel army of Phokas was swiftly destroyed while Phokas himself died from a stroke. The Varangian Guards then proved to be a successful military unit in the Byzantine army that form here on, they would become the new elite bodyguard force of the emperor and warriors from as far as Scandinavia wherein they knew Constantinople as Miklagard or the “Great City” would come to the emperor’s service as part of the Varangian Guard unit.

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Varangian Guard soldier, introduced to Byzantium in 988

Meanwhile in 991, as Basil II was heading back to Bulgaria in a campaign against them, the other rebel general Bardas Skleros was at this point was an old and broken man who had no more support as a lot of his rebel forces and that of Phokas defected to Basil II’ army and without anyone to turn to anymore, the old Skleros peacefully surrendered to Basil II before dying days later. The defeat and death of Bardas Phokas in 989 and Skleros’ surrender in 991 would show that Basil II had gained more military and political abilities and after 991 Basil II would rule alone as the supreme authority with no one to challenge him. Now if you wonder how all of a sudden Basil II became the supreme and unchallenged authority of the empire, this was not only because he defeated his powerful rivals but because of his new policies, and the kind of policy Basil II would be remembered for was in putting away the old military aristocracy of Asia Minor which included that of the families of Phokas and Skleros and replacing them with new rising families that would be completely loyal to him, and these new aristocrats loyal to Basil would include the Komnenos family as well as the generals Nikephoros Xiphias and Constantine Diogenes. Basil II was also known to have confiscated property and wealth of the powerful landed aristocrats in Asia Minor known as the Dynatoi as a way to limit their power showing that the emperor was the supreme authority and not these landed military families, although Basil II also continued with the laws his predecessors passed which was to stop the powerful landed families from expanding their land by buying land from the small farmers while these laws also made sure that these small farmers would not sell their land as they were to pay taxes and by selling their land, there would be no more taxes for the empire’s revenue and certainly Basil II was the type that relied heavily on taxes for his military campaigns. In the meantime, as Basil II’s authority was ever increasing due to his policies to limit the power of the aristocrats, Basil II was able to continue his campaigns against the Bulgarian Empire in the north without any interruptions between in the first decade of the 1000’s according to the historian John Skylitzes (1040-1101), however the thing is that there are not that much sources that document a large part of Basil II’s reign from the 990s to 1010s, therefore there is a lot of missing information on the history of Byzantium at this point in time. However, what is known in this period is that while the Byzantines were at war with Bulgaria in the north, their recently conquered territories in Syria to the south were threatened by the new Arab power of the Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt under the caliph Al-Hakim who is usually described as a madman as he was known to brutally persecute Christians, and Basil II here himself rushed all the way from the Bulgarian frontier south to Syria with his army with such great speed to defend it against the advancing Fatimids.

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Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, Caliph of the Fatimid Caliphate (r. 996-1021)

In 1000, Basil II signed a truce with Caliph Al-Hakim in order for Basil to resume his war with Bulgaria in the north and in the next years, Basil II would launch raids into Bulgarian territory and capture a number of important fortresses and cities as a way a strategy to further weaken the Bulgarian state before carrying out the complete Byzantine conquest. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Empire to the north of Byzantium had once been a major political and military power in the early 10th century but in the 960s it had been destroyed by the Kievan Rus’ army and in 971, Bulgaria itself was conquered by the Byzantine emperor John I Tzimiskes although not entirely as only the eastern third was conquered while the western 2/3 of Bulgaria still remained independent and resisted against Byzantium with a new dynasty rising being the Cometopuli wherein a member of it being Samuil who was a Bulgarian general soon enough became the ruler or tsar of Bulgaria attempting to restore the old power of the Bulgarian state except that right when Bulgaria was rising again, Basil II put all his attention in finishing them off.

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Samuil of the Cometopuli, Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire (r. 997-1014)

By the 1010s, Samuil was still the Tsar of Bulgaria, though the only major decisive battle between the Byzantine forces of Basil II and Samuil’s Bulgarian forces would only take place in 1014 at the Battle of Kleidion at a mountain pass in what is today’s border of Greece and Bulgaria. Here, Samuil planned to ambush the Byzantine army as they were going to march at this mountain pass but before the battle, Basil’s general Nikephoros Xiphias knew of the plan and so he attacked the Bulgarian forces from behind while Basil II and the main army consisting of the new Varangian Guard unit of massive axe-wielding Norsemen as well attacked the Bulgarian forces directly at the mountain pass. At the end of the day, the Byzantine forces under Basil II and the generals Nikephoros Xiphias and Constantine Diogenes won a decisive victory over Samuil’s forces, although Samuil was able to escape but the Byzantines were able to make 15,000 prisoners of war and to send Samuil a message, Basil had them all blinded except for one man out of every group of 100 which was to lead his group back to the Bulgarian capital of Ohrid.

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Basil II rides into Athens after completing his Bulgarian conquest, 1018

When seeing his men blinded, Samuil suffered a heart attack and died shortly after later in 1014 while Basil for winning a decisive victory over the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion and brutally blinding his Bulgarian prisoners would earn the sobriquet of the “Bulgar-Slayer” or Boulgaroktonos in Greek, and the defeat and Kleidion and death of Samuil would put Bulgaria into chaos and succession crisis which allowed Basil to conquer the rest of Bulgaria with ease for the next 4 years. In 1018, after the murder of the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Vladislav, the Bulgarian nobles or boyars seeing there was no more chance for Bulgaria to survive unless they were put under the protection of the Byzantine Empire all surrendered to Basil II and so by 1018 the entire Bulgarian state which had been around for more than 300 years since the Bulgars first arrived in the Danube in 680 was wiped off the map, and here the Byzantine Empire extended all the way to the Danube River having almost the entire Balkans under their control. Following the complete annexation of the Bulgarian Empire, Basil II toured his recently conquered lands ending his tour in Athens to give thanks to God in the Parthenon which under the Byzantines became a church, then after this Basil would return to Constantinople celebrating a triumph.

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Emperor Basil II and the Varangian Guards, in real history, art by Amelianvs
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Byzantines under Basil II defeat the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion, 1014
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Bulgarian prisoners of war blinded by Basil II after their defeat at the Battle of Kleidion, 1014
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Emperor Basil II the “Bulgar-Slayer” at the cover of his book The Menologion

      

With the entire Bulgarian Empire that had once been a power in the Balkans wiped off the map and annexed into the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantine army became a feared force by all the powers around them while the blinding of the Bulgarian POWs sent a message to other foreign powers beyond to not mess with Byzantium or else suffer the fate of Bulgaria. In fact, right after the conquest of Bulgaria, the Serbian states that neighbored it also surrendered to Byzantium fearing they would be destroyed like the Bulgarian Empire while to the northwest of it, the Kingdom of Croatia too accepted the authority of Basil II and agreed to be a vassal paying tribute to Byzantium also fearing they would suffer the fate of Bulgaria if they did not pay tribute, thus practically with Croatia vassalized all of the Balkans was under Byzantine control.

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Emperor Basil II in his later years

Basil II on the other hand despite ruthlessly crushing the Bulgarians in battle had managed to deal with the annexation of Bulgaria mercifully by making sure his new Bulgarian subjects were to be treated as equals to the Byzantines, that they would pay less taxes, also that their nobility would still be allowed to keep their land, and the Bulgarian Church was to be semi-independent and this was all to make sure that the Bulgarians would stay loyal to the Byzantines and integrate instead of rebelling against their conquerors, and true enough Basil’s policy regarding the annexation of Bulgaria turned out to be successful. In the meantime as Basil II was busy with the conquest of Bulgaria, he had also concluded an alliance with the rising maritime power of Italy which was the Republic of Venice in order to use Venetian ships in transporting Byzantine troops around Southern Italy as the main Byzantine navy was too busy in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, and to be specific what was happening in Byzantine Southern Italy at the same time the Bulgarian campaign was happening was that the local Lombard population rose up in rebellion under the Lombard nobleman Melus of Bari against Byzantine rule in Southern Italy. As for Byzantine Southern Italy, back in the 10th century the 3 Themes (military administered provinces) there of Calabria, Lucania, and Apulia had merged into a larger province known as a Catepanate under the control of a military governor called a Catepan which was more powerful than the standard military governor known as the Strategos, although a major percent of the population in Southern Italy consisted of the Germanic Lombards which had been settling in Italy ever since the late 6th century when conquering Byzantine Italy and because of them being the majority, the Lombards sought to overthrow Byzantine rule. In 1017, the Lombard nobleman Melus came across a group of armed pilgrims in Southern Italy and these pilgrims happened to be a new group of warrior people known as the Normans who came from Northern France. The Normans meanwhile have a very interesting story as at the beginning, they had started out as a band of Viking warriors from Norway which in 911 under their leader Rollo had settled in the Northern coast of France which then was the Kingdom of West Frankia as the King of West Frankia here offered the Viking Rollo here some land in exchange for them to protect West Frankia from other foreign raiders. Over the decades, West Frankia would evolve into the Kingdom of France and these Norsemen becoming known as the Normans settled and assimilated in Northern France which under them became Normandy, while also they had adopted the Frankish culture and language, French names, Latin Catholic Christianity, and a feudal system of governance which was to grant land to knights for their victory, although soon as landed knights kept rising up over the decades, Normandy which was too small ran out of land that a lot of knights became adventurers looking for lands abroad to settle in, thus they came across Southern Italy which they saw as fertile and could make them gain a lot wealth.

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Norman knight, early 11th century

In 1018 meanwhile, the same year Basil II conquered the Bulgarian Empire, these Norman knights in Southern Italy joined forces with the Lombard rebels of Melus of Bari and clashed against the Byzantine imperial army including the fierce Varangian Guards at the Battle of Cannae- ironically the same place the army of Carthage under the general Hannibal defeated the Romans in 216BC- but here the Byzantine army again proved its strength by crushing the Lombard-Norman alliance, thus Melus fled to Germany where he died, but the Byzantines seeing the strength of these Norman mercenaries were impressed and had decided to enlist them to the Byzantine army in Italy as mercenaries even giving them land there. Now back to Basil II, as the emperor he devoted his time to commanding the army that he was hardly present in the Imperial Palace in Constantinople but instead in army camps with his soldiers and instead of wearing the lavish silk robes the palace emperors like his father and grandfather wore, he preferred wearing his purple cloak over his armor and being a soldier emperor, he even ate with his men. Meanwhile, the historian Michael Psellos who did not meet Basil personally as he was still a child in Basil’s reign based on what he heard from Basil’s soldiers that he met describes Basil as someone who was shorter than average in height with a stocky built but looked impressive riding his horse while also Basil was described by Psellos as austere in tastes and not an articulate speaker that was even bad at the grammar of the Greek language and instead spoke in such a boorish and unsophisticated way with foul language.

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Basil II on a horse, art by Oznerol-1516

Basil II now had a reputation of being cold-hearted, cruel, boorish, bad-tempered, and foul-mouthed that he never had any real friends or was never really close to anyone and neither did he want any friends, but he was nevertheless highly respected and feared by his army and subjects and that the children of his fallen soldiers that also enlisted in the army saw him as their father as in fact a lot of the children of Basil’s fallen soldiers themselves were put under the his protection and he had them all raised to be tough and capable soldiers. Also being the disciplinarian micromanager, Basil was someone who noticed everything especially when it came to his soldiers’ behavior in the battlefield especially when it came to staying in formation and if a soldier charged out bravely and broke formation despite killing a number of enemy soldiers, Basil would not reward this soldier for his bravery but instead dismiss him from the army without any question. On the other hand, though being a ruthless conqueror, Basil was at the same time a very skilled diplomat that he was able to annex entire states through diplomacy which was seen in 1001 when he absorbed the entire Georgian principality of Tao found along the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire into the empire itself by making a deal with their prince David III that when he dies, Basil would claim his entire principality for further protection, thus when David III died in 1001 his entire state became a Byzantine Theme.

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King George I of Georgia (r. 1014-1027)

Now after the conquest of Bulgaria, Basil II having the Georgian state of Tao under his control used it as a platform to launch a full expedition against the main Georgian Kingdom itself to the north and in 1021 again led the army in battle against the Georgians which resulted in victory for the Byzantines whereas the Georgian king George I fled the battle. In the meantime, Basil II was able to annex a number of Armenian states along the border that had been allied with the Georgian Kingdom into the empire in order to further protect them which included the Armenian principality of Vaspurakan which also became a Byzantine Theme, and in 1022 Basil II was able to score another major victory over the Georgians thus conquering a number of Georgian lands. At the same time though, Nikephoros Xiphias the hero of the Bulgarian War who was in Asia Minor here rebelled against the emperor with support from the defeated George I of Georgia, although Basil proving himself to be effective again crushed Xiphias’ revolt and despite Xiphias helping Basil win victory in 1014 against the Bulgarians, he was not shown mercy and forced to become a monk. Now having secured the annexation of the small Armenian and Georgian states along the eastern border into the empire itself, Basil II turned to his other ultimate goal which was the complete Byzantine reconquest of Sicily which had for 2 centuries now been lost to the hands of the Arabs and this full campaign against the Arabs in Sicily was to be carried out in 1026 but before 1026 came, Basil II died in December of 1025 in Constantinople. Now Basil II known as the “Bulgar-Slayer” would be remembered as one of Byzantium’s greatest emperors, in fact the second most influential emperor since the 6th century Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) and in Basil’s case it was because he was able to achieve the total conquest of Bulgaria while at the same time was able to show the known world that the Byzantine emperor and army was all-powerful, however Basil II still made a very great mistake which was in succession. Basil II as it turned out had never married his entire life therefore never having any children as he wanted to rule and live like an ordinary soldier and ascetic monk that he also had no woman ever close to him his entire life except his mother Theophano who had already died back in the 990s. Fortunately, Basil II had a brother the co-emperor Constantine VIII who had been his co-emperor since the very beginning, although he had no sons but 3 daughters who were even forbidden to marry by their uncle Basil II as Basil thought that if his nieces married then the authority of their Macedonian Dynasty would be threatened.                        

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Map of the Byzantine Empire and all its Themes at its apogee at the death of Basil II, 1025
Watch this to learn more about the life and reign of Basil II (Kings and Generals).

Basil II died on December 15 of 1025 at the age of 67 as Byzantium’s longest reigning emperor and now the new emperor, Basil II’s younger brother Constantine VIII who was named after his grandfather Constantine VII had come to power as the sole ruler of Byzantium at 65 after ruling as a co-emperor with only a ceremonial function for a full 63 years but the problem was that Constantine VIII despite growing up through same difficulties in the dynastic succession his brother did never had any experience in ruling nor training in running an empire and neither was he influenced by the ruling styles of his former protector emperors before which were Nikephoros II Phokas and John I Tzimiskes.

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Emperor Constantine VIII of Byzantium (r. 1025-1028), younger brother of Basil II

Constantine on the other hand was very much like his father Romanos II who lived a life of pleasure without a care for the real world and the whole time when Basil II was fighting wars or reforming the government, Constantine spent his time hunting, feasting, enjoying comedy shows, and playing Polo or Tzykanion, and only once in his life he joined his brother in a military campaign which was in 989 in the war against Bardas Phokas, but that was it for Constantine. Now Constantine unlike Basil who was short and quite unattractive was tall, athletic, and graceful as well as a skilled horseman who even trained his own horses while he too was married although when he came to power in 1025 his wife had already died, but with her he had no sons but 3 daughters in which the eldest one Eudokia was physically deformed therefore she chose to stay away from public affairs and become a nun while his two other daughters Zoe and Theodora were seen as fit except both were unmarried and were already quite old. By the time Constantine VIII came to power in 1025 he had already been suffering from gout but the worst part though was that he had no state experience and so the golden age of Byzantium Basil II and his predecessors worked so hard to attain would all of a sudden fade away in Constantine VIII’s reign, thus his reign is described as an “unmitigated disaster”, “breakup of the system”, and “a collapse of the empire’s military power”.

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Coin of Basil II and his brother Constantine VIII as co-emperors

In his reign, all of Basil II’s reforms regarding the military and cutting down the aristocracy would already become undone so quickly as Constantine having no government experience was easily manipulated by the powerful people of the court and within months, by listening to the advice of some aristocrats the reforms of Basil II to limit their power were already undone and a lot of these military aristocrats had gained their land back. In the imperial court meanwhile, Basil II had gotten rid of the administration run by corrupt eunuchs which he greatly loathed but with Constantine a lot of these corrupt eunuchs returned to power and for the imperial court, he filled up these positions with incompetent administrators loyal to him rather than competent and experienced ones. Though not having the skill and ambitions of Basil II, Constantine VIII had his cruelty which was seen with his persecution of the nobility for the slightest insults against him and when it came to dealing with punishing those who conspired against him whether they really committed a crime or if the crime was just made up, Constantine made blinding his favorite form of punishment. One example of Constantine VIII’s cruelty was in 1027 when he accused the Strategos of the new Theme of Vaspurakan Nikephoros Komnenos of plotting against the emperor and when brought to Constantinople, Nikephoros was blinded in front of the emperor and over in Western Greece when the people rebelled against and killed their oppressive governor, Constantine punished the people so severely and even had their bishop blinded. Constantine though may have been brutal and quick to anger but he was also someone very emotional that he would be extremely remorseful after blinding or executing someone. However, Constantine was not young and healthy and in 1028 he already knew he was dying and so it was time he thought of a successor which was to marry his daughter Zoe despite his brother wanting none of his nieces to marry, but in order to continue the dynasty, Constantine fell for the competent general and Byzantine governor of Antioch Constantine Dalassenos to marry Zoe and succeed him. Dalassenos then set off on a journey to Constantinople to be crowned but midway through it he found out that he was no longer the candidate for succession as the emperor as usual was convinced by the senate that a weaker ruler must succeed him as the senate wanted someone that could easily manipulated as Dalassenos was a strong general that could be too independent, therefore the senate relied on one of their own which was the Prefect or city mayor of Constantinople Romanos Argyros to marry Zoe and succeed Constantine. Romanos however was already happily married though Constantine VIII had Romanos and his wife arrested and brought to the palace where Constantine forced Romanos to divorce his wife and banish her to a nunnery and marry Constantine’s daughter Zoe or else Romanos and his wife would be blinded as usual with Constantine’s punishments. Romanos then chose the first option and married Zoe as he true enough had some ambition to be emperor and only 3 days after the wedding, Constantine VIII at 68 died on November 11, 1028 as the last male ruler carrying the Macedonian Dynasty’s name. 

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Blinding of Nikephoros Komnenos under Constantine VIII’s orders in 1027, Madrid Skylitzes

 

Empress Zoe and the End of the Macedonian Dynasty (1028-1057)          

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The gradual decline of Byzantium’s imperial power had already begun in the 3-year reign of Constantine VIII (1025-1028) right when the empire was it its strongest which meant that there was still some hope for its imperial power to be revived as it had been only 3 years wherein Byzantium’s power deteriorated, but this was not the case here as the new emperor Romanos III Argyros was very much as incompetent as Constantine VIII.

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Emperor Romanos III Argyros of Byzantium (r. 1028-1034)

Coming to power in 1028 after Constantine’s death and marrying his 50-year-old daughter Zoe, Romanos III was already 60 and had a good amount of government experience except that he was more or less an idiot with unrealistic ambitions, but really he was just insecure as for one he was not part of the ruling dynasty but had only married into it and as emperor he had big shoes to fill as he wanted to imitate the rule of Basil II and continue it, though he was very far from Basil II when it came to military and political skills. Romanos III as emperor too wanted to pattern his rule on that of the great Roman emperors of the past including Trajan (98-117) for his military might, Marcus Aurelius (161-180) for being a philosopher-king, and Justinian I the Great in terms of military and construction projects, but the truth was that Romanos was nowhere near these great men in ability. Now back to Zoe, this had been the first time she had married, and even though already 50, she was said to still be very beautiful, looking like she was still in her 30s and as a matter of fact, back in 1002 when she was much younger, she had been arranged to marry the half-Byzantine Greek Holy Roman emperor Otto III except when arriving in Italy, Zoe found out the man she was going to marry had died, then again in 1028 she was arranged to be married to the German prince Henry, son of the current Holy Roman emperor Conrad II, except that Henry was only 10 while Zoe was 50 and true enough the marriage never came to be as she already married Romanos. Zoe however had the looks but not the brains and though she held real power as she was part of the ruling dynasty, the same historian Michael Psellos describes her in an insulting way that she did not care about state affairs or the good of the empire but rather only cared about spending on luxuries that she in fact spent on the most expensive perfumes and silks from as far away as India.

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Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita of Byzantium, daughter of Constantine VIII

Zoe’s marriage to Romanos though at first which was thought to be a happy one turned out to be the opposite as both were already old and passed the age to bear children that Romanos was said to even consult sorcerers on taking potions and even surgery to make him and Zoe sexually younger in order to have children, but at the end none of this worked and neither did their marriage that in only months after their wedding, the couple would no longer share the bed together. Meanwhile, Zoe’s younger sister Theodora who was not as attractive but smarter than her had an affair with the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Vladislav’s son Presian who was a hostage in Constantinople and together they conspired to assassinate Romanos III but the plot was uncovered and Presian was forced to become a monk while Theodora was banished by Zoe to become a nun. Now with Romanos III’s tax policies, it all seemed like the strong economy was about to fall apart as Romanos wanting to please the landed military aristocracy exempted them from taxes and also allowed them to resume buying off land from small farmers to expand their estates, thus the farmers too losing their land could no longer pay taxes and due to all this, the empire’s revenue would begin to decline. Becoming unpopular with his failed tax policies, Romanos III decided that it was time to prove his popularity by personally leading his troops in battle despite his old age and so in 1030 he led the army himself without realizing that this would be another stupid decision as for the past 5 years since Basil II’s death or even longer, the empire was relatively at peace and now here in 1030 Romanos III for no clear reason would break this streak of peace by declaring war on the Arab Emirate of Aleppo in Syria despite them being allies of the Byzantines. The worst part now was that the area of Syria was a desert and Romanos had decided to attack in July, the hottest summer month and even the Arabs of Aleppo seeing it was not a good idea even asked Romanos to renew their peace agreement with Byzantium to avoid war, but Romanos hard-headed as ever refused these peace terms as well as the advice from his generals to give up the campaign, thus he continued the war. It was not surprising that in August of 1030 Romanos’ army was ambushed by the Arabs at the Battle of Azaz where the Byzantines lost a humiliating defeat, although not a lot of men as a large number including the emperor were able to flee, but the Byzantine camp as well as their supplies ended up looted by the Arabs, thus this battle exposed the vulnerability of the Byzantine army for the first time.

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George Maniakes, Byzantine general

The Byzantines however did not accept their defeat and so luckily for them, a local general in the area which was George Maniakes, a large and intimidating man with a brutal reputation and said to have a voice loud like thunder tricked the Arab army of Aleppo by offering them wine for a dinner feast thus and when getting them all drunk, George was able to destroy every last one of them catching them off guard and mutilating all of the dead Arabs’ noses and ears sending them to the emperor as proof. Now finishing off the war with the Arabs in Syria with some success, Romanos III returned to strengthening his popularity with the people in Constantinople and now knowing he was not that much of a successful commander, he turned to construction projects and here to make a better picture of himself, he put a lot of the state’s money into building a large and lavish church at one of Constantinople’s hills known as the Peribleptos church, meaning “seen from everywhere”. This church however was not so much built as a sign of Romanos’ devotion to God but to glorify himself and show off his wealth, though also by this time, his marriage to Zoe was going from bad to worse that both being away from each other started having their own lovers. As for Zoe due to being away from Romanos, here by 1032 she had fallen in love with a man almost 30 years younger than her which was Michael the Paphlagonian, a native of Paphlagonia from Northern Asia Minor who although not from any noble family was from a family that became wealthy due to their profession as ship builders, although Michael before meeting Zoe was a money changer but was able to come across the empress as Michael’s older brother John known as the Orphanotrophos meaning “director of the orphanage” was the rising court eunuch finance official in Romanos III’s court. Now the eunuch John by 1032 had his first major moment in the imperial court when he arrested Constantine Diogenes, the same general that helped Basil II defeat the Bulgarians in 1014 if you remember for charges of plotting against the emperor. Constantine Diogenes though had been married to a niece of Romanos III but when discovered that he was conspiring against the emperor, he was brought to the Palace of Blachernae along Constantinople’s land walls to be interrogated by the eunuch John but rather than confessing his part in the plot and the names of his co-conspirators due to not wanting a humiliating end of being executed, Constantine instead committed suicide by jumping off the palace’s wall. The Diogenes family thus became disgraced, however Constantine here in fact had a 2-year-old son Romanos Diogenes who would remain unharmed back in their family estate in Cappadocia, though he would true enough be a general and even the emperor one day. Romanos III’s health meanwhile began to worsen by 1033 that he was said to have turned into a “walking skeleton” losing a lot of weight and hair while his skin also began to turn pale, and this was possibly due to cancer, and Zoe did not give a care about her husband’s failing health but instead thought of ways to poison him to quickly finish him off, though Romanos still survived many poisoning attempts by Zoe and Michael who were lovers and to get Michael closer, Zoe had him become a servant in the palace who was in charge of cleaning Romanos’ feet and helping Zoe dress up, and it is here where their affair would grow ever more passionate despite their large age gap. Now in April of 1034, Romanos III finally died in his bath, a fate similar to that of the Byzantine emperor Constans II in 668- if you remember from chapter IV of this series- and Romanos’ death was not due to natural causes as when he was soaking in his tub, the servant sent by Zoe carefully drowned his head in the water and being already sick, Romanos quickly died without it looking like he was assassinated even if he was. The Patriarch of Constantinople Alexios I was shocked hearing of the emperor’s death but more shocked seeing Michael and Zoe in their purple imperial robes sitting on the throne, though after being bribed, the patriarch crowned both Zoe and Michael while Romanos III would be buried ironically in the Church of Peribleptos which he had built.         

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Romanos III in his 1030 Syrian military campaign, art by Ancient City Lullaby
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Defeat of the Byzantines to the Arabs at the Battle of Azaz in 1030, Madrid Skylitzes
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Assassination of Romanos III in his bath in 1034, Madrid Skylitzes
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Wedding of Empress Zoe and Michael the Paphlagonian in 1034, Madrid Skylitzes

Watch this to learn more about Empress Zoe (Jack Rackam).

Michael IV the Paphlagonian in 1034 was now another emperor that came to power despite having humble origins, though he would be the last of these emperors and only in his 20s, Michael was handsome and energetic possessing a lot of intelligence despite not being that educated, however Michael on the other hand was not all perfect as even though he was young, he was already known to be suffering from epilepsy which was very obvious to everyone. Zoe then thought that Michael would be a much more devoted husband unlike Romanos III before him but again it turned out to be the opposite as when coming to power, Michael IV had Zoe confined to the women’s quarters of the palace forbidding her to have the slightest say in his rule and instead Michael not having much political skills relied heavily on his older brother the eunuch John in the state’s finances and administration, despite John being extremely corrupt and greedy.

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Emperor Michael IV of Byzantium (r. 1034-1041), art by Grayjoy15

As emperor, Michael would intend to sideline the ruling Macedonian Dynasty which was basically Zoe and instead put his family members, the Paphlagonians in high-ranking positions in the government as he was here actually planning on replacing the ruling dynasty with his own. Michael IV’s reign began badly with famine and a locust plague in 1035 while at the same time the Nomadic Pecheneg tribes from the north of the Danube attacked Byzantine territory in the Balkans and the Serbs too declared independence from Byzantium when a Serb prince refused to return the money he found in a shipwreck to Byzantium, and considering his condition of epilepsy he would be prone to ambitious generals wanting to seize the throne in their name, but being a decisive thinker Michael was able to put down a number of them. Though being an epileptic, Michael IV wanted to still show he was capable in carrying out full scale military expeditions and so in 1038 he decided to finish what Basil II failed to do before his death in 1025 which was the complete Byzantine reconquest of Sicily from the Arabs and with the fleet already assembled by Basil II years earlier, Michael ordered the postponed expedition to resume putting the empire’s rising star general George Maniakes in charge of it while Michael’s brother-in-law Stephen the admiral was in charge of the navy and at the same time this large expedition would also include a multinational force consisting of the elite Varangian Guard unit led by the exiled Norwegian prince Harald Sigurdsson– known as Araltes in Greek- who would be the future King of Norway Harald III Hardrada as well as Lombard and Norman mercenaries from Italy. Not to mention, George Maniakes back in 1037 being in command of the eastern armies since Romanos III’s reign had successfully recaptured the city of Edessa in Syria for the empire from the Arabs which meant that this expedition to Sicily would not be too hard now that he had a lot of experience in fighting Arabs. The expedition to reclaim Sicily thus was mostly successful that in only 2 years between 1038 and 1040, the Byzantines and their allies were able to successfully take back almost the entire island after the recapture of Syracuse, though right before completely driving off the Arabs from the island, George lost support from his Lombard allies while the Normans unhappy with their pay abandoned the Byzantines and returned to mainland Italy and rebelled. The admiral Stephen meanwhile after being mistreated by the hot-tempered George wrote a letter to the eunuch John and Michael IV accusing George of conspiring to overthrow Michael IV and so John recalled him to Constantinople to be imprisoned, thus the expedition to recapture Sicily ended in tragedy right before it could completely succeed.

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

This expedition then was the last Byzantine attempt in taking back Sicily, although there was some reason too for why the troops had to be recalled as at the same time, Bulgaria once again erupted in rebellion. On the other hand, Harald Hardrada was recorded in the Viking sagas that he had campaigned and fought bravely in all corners of the empire during Michael IV’s reign and after the Sicilian expedition, he battled the uprising of the Lombards and Normans in Italy but lost, but then Harald and his men were immediately recalled to join the Byzantine forces in Bulgaria when the uprising broke out there. As it turned out, the policy of Basil II to keep the taxes for the Bulgarians low was violated as the eunuch John began to impose heavier taxes on the empire’s Bulgarian Themes for his own personal use thus triggering a revolt among the Bulgarian population there, although their uprising in 1040 was also for nationalistic purposes as the Bulgarians even after being conquered by Basil II still felt a sense national identity thus wanting independence from Byzantium, and so the Bulgarians rallied under a man named Delyan, a Bulgarian hostage who escaped Constantinople and returned to Bulgaria where he claimed that he was a grandson of the former tsar Samuil.

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Peter II Delyan, Bulgarian Uprising leader and tsar (1040-1041)

The Bulgarian rebels under Delyan then seized the city of Belgrade in the Balkans and here Delyan was proclaimed by the rebels as their tsar being renamed Peter II in opposition to the Byzantine emperor and within months the rebellion grew stronger as it swept across the Balkans by 1041. With the situation in Bulgaria becoming worse, Michael IV here despite his health already becoming worse due to epilepsy and a new condition of swelling legs, he decided to lead the army himself and put down the Bulgarian uprising of Delyan once and for all. The Byzantines here assisted by the Varangian Guards under Harald Hardrada fought a difficult war against the Bulgarian rebels but at the end still managed to succeed while Delyan himself was captured. Now there are two stories regarding Delyan’s fall and death in which one was that his cousin Alusian who was a Byzantine double-agent tricked and blinded him then sent him over to Constantinople to be executed and the other one was recorded in the Viking sagas wherein Harald Hardrada himself cut down Delyan in battle, and this story would go for the version in the Viking sagas and so Delyan here in 1041 was killed by the Viking Harald Hardrada who would become known as the “Bulgar-Burner” the same way Basil II before was remembered as the “Bulgar-Slayer”. The cities and areas that had fallen to the Bulgarian rebellion then returned back to the empire’s control but Michael IV soon enough was that sick that he was near death wherein a seizure could happen at any time. By December of 1041 as Michael IV was close to death, he named his nephew also named Michael, the son of the admiral Stephen and already made a Caesar as his successor, and Michael IV too had made his older wife Empress Zoe adopt his nephew too. Before his death on December 10 of 1041, Michael IV retired to a monastery and even when Zoe begged to see him before his death he still refused, thus he died without seeing his wife for the last time.            

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The 1038-1040 Byzantine Expedition to reclaim Sicily from the Arabs, Madrid Skylitzes
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George Maniakes, Byzantine general in charge of the Sicilian Expedition, art by Amelianvs
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George Maniakes sent back to Constantinople in humiliation in 1040, Madrid Skylitzes
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Michael IV leads his army against the Bulgarian Uprising in 1041, Madrid Skylitzes
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Death of Michael IV as a monk in 1041, Madrid Skylitzes

The rise of the Paphlagonian family of Michael IV thus definitely showed that the age-old Byzantium had wherein nobodies when having connections to the imperial court could even rise up to become emperor whether they were to do it for the good of the empire or if they were just gold diggers. Michael IV however due to the strong influence his family began to have over the imperial court was able to continue his Paphlagonian Dynasty as his nephew Michael V succeeded him.

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Empress Zoe, art by Grayjoy15

As the present day historian Anthony Kaldellis put it, the rise of the Paphlagonian family of Michael IV shows that the republican systems of Ancient Rome still lived on to the 11th century and true enough Byzantium did not have any laws saying that their emperor had divine rights wherein they could only be succeeded by their eldest sons, therefore this is what allowed either ambitious generals or opportunistic gold diggers like Michael IV to grab the opportunity and take the throne, though in this case the long-time Macedonian Dynasty was still in power through Zoe even if her role was only ceremonial but true enough the people too had a say in the imperial government and here Zoe despite not really doing anything was popular with the common people for the reason of being part of the legitimate dynasty as it was usual for the common people to prefer someone legitimate rather than a usurper. Now for an emperor to be able to consolidate his rule without being challenged, he had to both be able to please his people but also be feared by them otherwise if he was too soft, he would be an easy target, though the emperor too should not be too terrifying as this could make seen as very unpopular for being too tyrannical, and the perfect example who had a balance of being loved and feared was Basil II.

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Emperor Michael V of Byzantium (r. 1041-1042), nephew of Michael IV, art by Ancient City Lullaby

In the case of the new young emperor here which was Michael V, he did not have any of the qualities of a strong ruler being both loved and feared, instead he appeared too harsh to his subjects on the outside but on the inside was very weak and emotional and as a matter of fact not independent as his uncle the eunuch John was still the power behind him. At the beginning of 1042 with Michael V in power, he released a number of political prisoners his uncle Michael IV imprisoned including the general George Maniakes who was returned to his position as the Catepan of the Themes of Southern Italy, but the fatal mistake Michael V made here was in banishing his stepmother Zoe from the palace and sending her to a nunnery in the Princes’ Islands outside Constantinople in the Marmara Sea. The people of the capital had apparently loved Zoe and looked down on their rulers the Paphlagonians who they all saw as nobodies that just grabbed the throne for no good reason and when finding out Zoe was banished, thousands of people marched in the street demanding that Michael V to return her to power. The young Michael V having no popular support due to his low birth then agreed to return Zoe to the palace but when returning, Zoe however released her younger sister Theodora from the nunnery where she was sent to years ago and by popular demand declared her co-empress against Michael V in order to please the people. Michael V then with his other uncle fled the palace to the Monastery of Stoudion in Constantinople although the mob followed them there where they seized and blinded both of them. Now the historian of this period Michael Psellos first appears in the picture here as a secretary in the imperial court wherein he had witnessed Michael V and his uncle seized and blinded in which he says that the young Michael childish as usual screamed and kicked as he was being blinded, and in this story’s case we will again go with the version from the Viking sagas wherein it was again Harald Hardrada that had blinded Michael V.

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The empresses Zoe (left) and Theodora (right) in their join rule, 1042

Now in April of 1042, the sisters Zoe and Theodora would rule the empire together as co-rulers while Michael V would die 4 months later as a monk from the injury caused by his blinding, and although Zoe was the higher authority in name as she was the older sister, Theodora was the power behind Zoe as she had more intelligence. For 2 months, both Zoe and Theodora ruled together but soon enough the Byzantine Senate objected to their rule as they saw that women could not rule for a longer time, therefore a man was needed to run the show while on the other hand, the joint rule too was becoming a bit too unbearable as both sisters were eventually competing with each other on who had more favorites while Theodora grew jealous of Zoe for having more public support. A man was thus needed to run the empire and it was up to Zoe to choose her 3rd husband even if 3rd marriages were seen as unacceptable by the Orthodox Church- if you remember from the previous chapter- and this time the 64-year-old Zoe who was still attractive would have to choose her husband among 3 candidates and the person she chose was her old lover from before who was here the 42-year-old Constantine Monomachos, a senator and civil aristocrat from the capital.

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Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos of Byzantium (r. 1042-1055), 3rd husband of Zoe, art by Skamandros

The new emperor Constantine IX was generally a pleasure- and peace-loving person due to his origins as a city and not landed military aristocrat from the provinces and although is he described by Psellos as somewhat neglectful towards state affairs and hated stress therefore only wanting to be emperor to enjoy life’s pleasures to the fullest, he was still someone who would act on issues when needed and for Constantine IX in his reign, he would face more difficulty than time to enjoy life. As someone who only fought wars when necessary, Constantine IX put a lot of money into funding universities, learning centers, and churches in Constantinople and it was also in his reign when this era’s primary source Michael Psellos would rise to prominence as Constantine IX would be Psellos’ patron despite Psellos slandering him. As with Zoe, Constantine IX as the 3rd husband finally allowed her to freely spend on luxuries as he enjoyed spending on them too, though at the beginning of his reign what both he and Zoe would put their attention to is in getting rid of the regime of the troublemaking Paphlagonians by banishing the family members of Michael IV which included the corrupt eunuch John, and not to mention it was also around this time when Harald Hardrada ended his service in the Varangian Guard returning home to Norway rich with the wealth he made serving the empire. Now the emperor on the other hand was someone who was easily paranoid by conspiracies especially by powerful generals even if they did not make their imperial ambitions known and these ambitious generals included George Maniakes in Southern Italy who Constantine IX fearing an uprising by him ordered him to be recalled to Constantinople. In Italy, George was furious about this and when hearing from the emperor that he was going to be replaced, he declared himself emperor and rebelled against Constantine IX as he had grown tired of going back and forth from military service. George and his army then crossed over to the Balkans in 1043 where he faced off the emperor’s army but right before he could win the battle, he was wounded thus later dying from his wound and in the panic his army switched sides back to the emperor while George’s head was paraded back in the capital. Soon after George Maniakes’ rebellion was defeated, Constantine IX met a surprise invasion by the fleet of the Kievan Rus’ from the north as apparently some time ago, some Rus merchants had been killed by an angry mob of Constantinople’s locals triggering the Grand Prince of Kiev Yaroslav I the Wise to attack Byzantium despite the Byzantines and the Rus having concluded an alliance back in Basil II’s reign.

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Yaroslav I the Wise, Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (r. 1019-1054)

The Byzantine fleet however won the naval battle against the Kievan Rus’ fleet near Constantinople while the emperor and Psellos who records this event watched it from above a hill and with the defeat of the Rus, both Constantine IX and Grand Prince Yaroslav settled peace wherein Constantine married off his daughter from a previous marriage to Yaroslav’s son the future Grand Prince Vsevolod I while their son, the future Grand Prince Vladimir II born in 1053 used the name Monomakh which was the Rus’ translation of his grandfather Constantine IX’s last name Monomachos. Following this short conflict with the Rus, Constantine IX marched an army further east into Armenia in 1045 wherein he captured the far-flung small Kingdom of Ani in what is now modern Armenia after its ruler refused to submit as a vassal to the empire, thus Constantine IX expanded even further east than Basil II did before him but this expansion would soon enough further expose Byzantium to more enemies from the east. As part of wanting to avoid ambitious generals from rising up in order to rule in peace, Constantine IX suspecting his nephew the general Leo Tornikios of having imperial ambitions had Leo fired from command and forced to retire as monk, however this action backfired as Leo was popular with his army that in 1047, they rose up against Constantine IX proclaiming Leo as their emperor thus marching to Constantinople to besiege it. Now Byzantium had not had any major civil wars for almost 60 years since the one between Basil II and Bardas Phokas and it was only here in the reign of Constantine IX when civil wars would return first with George Manikaes in 1043 which was not that large but this one in 1047 against Leo Tornikios was a much more serious one as the rebel army actually managed to attack the walls of Constantinople. The emperor in fact almost lost his throne and life when defending the capital from the rebels due to his lack of military experience but by having some political experience and public support, the people themselves volunteered to fight on his side while he managed to win by bribing off Leo’s men to abandon him and switch sides to the emperor. Leo after being defeated fled but was captured and blinded by the emperor’s men, and although Constantine IX was victorious, this civil war weakened military presence in the Balkans by the time a mass migration of the wild and unruly Pecheneg people from the north of the Danube arrived in 1048 which eventually led to a devastating war between the Byzantines and rebellious Pecheneg settlers.           

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Michael V arrested by the mob at the Stoudion Monastery before his blinding in 1042, art by Ediacar
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Empresses Zoe (left) and Theodora (right) in the palace, art by Eldr-Fire
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Crown with Emperor Constantine IX (center), Empress Zoe (left), and Empress Theodora (right)
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Top view of the Armenian capital of Ani, annexed into the Byzantine Empire by Constantine IX in 1045
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Byzantine Civil War of 1047 between Constantine IX and Leo Tornikios, Madrid Skylitzes

Now over in the east, the expansion of Byzantine territory further east wherein no Byzantines had set foot in for over 4 centuries would turn out to be more of a liability than an achievement for the Byzantines as this conquest exposed them to new and unheard enemies from the east and in this case, it was the sudden but rapidly growing empire of the Seljuk Turks. The origins of these Turkic people known as the Seljuks meanwhile remain to be shrouded in mystery, although they were named after their nation’s founder Seljuq, a warlord from the Oghuz Turkic people of the Central Asian steppes that had served the former Khazar Khanate of Southern Russia along the Caspian Sea as a military leader but when the Khazar state was destroyed in the 960s by the Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ then which was Sviatoslav I, Seljuq led his men east wherein they arrived deep in the steppes of Central Asia (today’s Kazakhstan) wherein they encountered Arab traders and converted to Islam. With their conversion to Islam, the people of Seljuq became united but at the same time this also attracted hundreds of nomadic people from the area to join their cause and the moment their movement grew, they began to expand and build a nation in the steppes. Their first leader Seljuq died by 1009 and his descendants would be the one to carry out his bloodline ruling their people; thus, their empire took its name from its ruling dynasty named after its founder.

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Seljuk Turks ride from the steppes into Asia Minor

The difficult situation these Seljuk people went through when living in the steppes made them hardline Muslims thus making them not only Jihads but more specifically Ghazi meaning Muslims fighting other Muslims and being part of the Sunni sect of Islam, the Seljuk Turks made it their mission to fight the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt which belonged to their rival Islamic sect of Shia, while their purpose for expanding to and conquering what is Iran, Iraq, and Eastern Asia Minor was to find more land for their sheep to graze as it was too dangerous in the Central Asian steppes with all the other nomadic invaders coming in. At the beginning, the Seljuks started out as mercenaries serving their more powerful neighboring states, then in 1035 their people when gaining more military experience would establish their own state in the region of Khorasan north of Iran and from there, they would continue expanding westwards. The Seljuk people too had expanded their lands by taking advantage of the weakness of other states such as the still surviving but out of function Arab Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq, and now forming their own state, the Seljuks adopted the Islamic culture and religion but still kept their nomadic ways of fighting such as horse archery and the lifestyle of moving their tents around.

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Seljuk Turk warrior, 11th-12th century

In 1046 due to the Byzantines expanding too far into the east by capturing Ani, they would encounter these Seljuk warriors for the first time and in 1048 their forces would clash for the same time at the Battle of Kapetron, which resulted however in victory for the Byzantines as the Seljuks did not yet come in large numbers. Over in Italy meanwhile, the Norman mercenaries had the same kind of expansion story the way the Seljuks did in the east and just like the Seljuks who expanded by taking advantage of the weakness of their neighboring states, the Norman mercenaries in Italy did the same as after the failed Byzantine reconquest of Sicily in 1040, the Norman mercenaries with them began seizing land in Italy for themselves. The power behind the ambitious expansion of the Normans in Italy was the noble Hauteville family of knights from Normandy which consisted of 12 brothers and following their victory over the Byzantines in 1041, the Hauteville brother William known as the “Iron Arm” would establish the Norman County of Melfi in Southern Italy together with his other brothers. Present day historian Anthony Kaldellis now says that these Normans expanded their power through acts of piracy and terrorism in which they created trouble in Southern Italy by attacking locals in order to force them to pay them money in exchange for protection which led to them to annex their lands in Southern Italy to their control.

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Normans in Southern Italy, 11th century

The Normans despite their courage in battle were more or less just greedy and bloodthirsty conquerors that took pleasure in pressuring weaker people in order to rule over them, which is why in this story’s case the Normans are the true villains of the 11th century more than the Seljuks. In very little time, the Normans would capture the Lombard Principality of Benevento thus making their holdings in Southern Italy much larger that the pope here which was the German Leo IX would already become threatened by the expansion of the Normans fearing that they would soon attack Rome. In 1053, the pope himself led an expedition with allied forces consisting of Lombards, German mercenaries, and even the Byzantine forces from the still surviving Byzantine Catepanate in the south against the Normans and would clash at the Battle of Civitate which resulted in a decisive victory for the Normans commanded by the late William’s brother Robert Guiscard whose sobriquet Guiscard was French for “the Cunning” as he was cunning in battle.

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Robert Guiscard de Hauteville, Norman leader in Southern Italy, later Duke of Calabria and Apulia

The pope was then taken as a prisoner by the Normans although treated well as the Normans too were devout Catholics while over in Byzantium, Constantine IX was in a difficult situation as he had to face conflicts with the Seljuks in the east, Pechenegs in the Balkans, and Normans in Italy all at the same time. The constant spending on these wars which too included the civil war against Leo Tornikios in 1047 and all his wasteful spending on construction projects and luxuries as well as money he handed out to please his people as he was known to be a generous spender, the economy of the empire would fall so severely that it was in Constantine IX’s reign wherein for the first time in the 700 years of Byzantine history that their standard currency which was the gold coin known as the Solidus would be devalued and so the standard gold coin would no longer be purely made of gold, which was indeed very embarrassing for the prestige of Byzantium as the world power. In order to keep the empire’s tax revenue flowing, Constantine had to push for a new kind of political system across the empire known as the Pronoia System which would be Byzantium’s feudal system replacing the centuries old Thematic System, and in this new governing system land would be granted to particular individuals in exchange for military service and those who are granted the land are required to collect taxes from it which would fund the imperial treasury.

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Pecheneg warrior

In the meantime, Zoe had died quietly in 1050 at the age of 72 and in 1053 the Pecheneg rebellion in the Balkans came to an end despite the Byzantines losing in battle against them, although the general that led the Byzantine troops here Nikephoros Botaneiates who had shown great skill and bravery in fighting was promoted to the high rank of Magistros, although to conclude the issue, the emperor had to settle a deal with the Pechenegs allowing them settle within the empire’s borders. The most significant event in Constantine IX’s reign however happened in 1054 and it was not a very pleasant one as it had to do once more with the differences of the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church which had had already been separate and usually at odds with each other ever since the 8th century- back in chapter V of this series if you remember- when the Byzantines at that time had the policy of breaking icons known as “Iconoclasm” which then made the Church of Rome led by the pope grow independent from the Church of Constantinople and even though the Byzantines gave up breaking icons in the mid 9th century, the damage was too much that both Churches could no longer reunite and here in 1054 was the final separation between both Churches of Rome and Constantinople. In 1054, the issue regarding the two Churches mostly had to with the supremacy of the pope or Patriarch of Rome over the Christian world while the theological issues here were mostly minimal as it was just whether the use of unleavened bread the Latin Catholics of the west use for Mass or the leavened bread the Byzantines of the east use was correct, though there was one major theological issue that had to be settled here in 1054 and this had to do with term Filioque whether the Holy Spirit proceeded and was thus equal to the Father and Son and believed by the Western Catholics or if the Holy Spirit just proceeded from God the Father as believed by the Byzantines.

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The Filioque Controversy explained, difference between the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church

This issue however had some political reasons too as back in Southern Italy in the lands the Normans had conquered which had been Byzantine lands, the Norman occupiers by order of Pope Leo IX who now sided with them after he was captured by them the previous year (1053) ordered that these Byzantine Orthodox churches in Southern Italy be converted to Catholic churches wherein Latin and not Greek rites would be practiced. The emperor Constantine IX was willing to comply with the pope’s orders as he did not want any conflict, but the troublemaker here was the current Patriarch of Constantinople Michael I Keroularios who was greatly furious about the pope’s orders as a lot of people in Southern Italy which were Byzantine Greeks were still Orthodox in faith and in retaliation to the pope’s threatening to shut down the Orthodox churches in southern Italy if they did not convert, Patriarch Michael had all Latin Catholic churches in Constantinople shut down without giving any conditions. The pope however before his death in 1054 decided to settle things peacefully with the patriarch by sending the French cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida and other papal legates to Constantinople but when arriving at the Hagia Sophia, it was a trick as instead of negotiating, Cardinal Humbert laid the pope’s excommunication order on Patriarch Michael who was so insulted from this that in return he excommunicated Humbert and his delegation, thus this was the final split between both Churches known as the “Great Schism” as after this there is no going back to unity for both if not for a few unsuccessful attempts to reunite in the following centuries of Byzantine history. This event was then a very shameful one especially for Constantine IX who had to shamefully watch it happen although this was also the end for him as just a few days into the next year 1055, Constantine died peacefully at age 55. A fun fact here is that even up to this day in the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, there is a mosaic depicting Empress Zoe on the right with her husband on the left offering gifts to Christ, and as it turns out the husband in the mosaic up to this day is Constantine IX, her 3rd and final husband though back in the time of this story, the left mosaic’s face had been changed twice when Zoe had a new husband which means that before Constantine IX’s face was in place there it was Michael IV’s, and before him Romanos III’s.           

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Mosaic of Emperor Constantine IX (left) and Empress Zoe (right) offering gifts to Christ; the image of Constantine IX before his face used the faces of Zoe’s previous husbands Romanos III and Michael IV when they were alive
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Norman victory at the Battle of Civitate in Southern Italy, 1053
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The Great Schism of 1054, Patriarch Michael I Keroularios and Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, Madrid Skylitzes
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Map of the final divide between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds after the Great Schism of 1054

Watch this to learn more about the Great Schism (Kings and Generals).

At his death in 1055, Constantine IX Monomachos however had no male heirs although luckily the last remaining member of the Macedonian Dynasty was still alive and this was Zoe’s younger sister Theodora who had been Zoe’s co-ruler ever since both came to power in 1042 and the whole time Constantine IX was in power, Theodora still kept her position. Theodora now in her 70s was at least still agile as she would have to rule the empire alone now, thus making her the second woman to rule Byzantium alone with Empress Irene of Athens (797-802)- the lead character of chapter VI of this series if you remember- being the first sole female ruler of Byzantium. Theodora due to her old age and being a woman was not really taken seriously as a ruler that she would become a target for plots by ambitious generals, and this was already seen right when she came to rule the empire alone in early 1055 as Constantine IX before his death named the governor of the Theme of Bulgaria Nikephoros Proteuon as his heir, however Theodora had already beat Proteuon to the throne and so Proteuon was arrested and forced to become a monk.

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Empress Theodora Porphyrogenita of Byzantium, sole empress (1055-1056)

In her reign, despite Theodora not being seen as fit, she still did all she could to run the empire well although her style of ruling was not very effective as her rule was mostly influenced by her eunuchs. In addition, Theodora removed a number of highly skilled generals from their positions and replaced them with her loyal eunuchs while she did the same too with Church officials which offended Patriarch Michael Keroularios. At this time, Michael Psellos had retired as a monk in a monastery ever since 1054 but in 1056 he was recalled to Constantinople by Theodora but shortly after, Theodora suddenly fell ill coming close to death yet not even having named a successor. It was now certain that the Macedonian Dynasty that had been in power ever since its founding by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian in 867 without any interruptions despite a number of other families marrying into it and ruling through them would come to an end, and without having been married her entire life as well having no children, Theodora had to name her successor at the last minute. Before her death on August 31 of 1056, Theodora named her elderly finance minister and court secretary Michael Bringas as her successor and thus Theodora died as the last ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty.

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Emperor Michael VI Bringas of Byzantium (r. 1056-1057), former court secretary of Theodora

The new emperor Michael VI Bringas known as Gerontas or “the old” in Greek now was not entirely chosen by Theodora but since she was too weak to say something, she just agreed with her eunuchs’ choice and Michael VI was for them the perfect choice as he was an old man who was both weak and unambitious that he could be easily manipulated by them or that he could easily grant them favors. The military aristocrats of the Themes in Asia Minor meanwhile saw that the new emperor was someone they could take advantage of in terms of easily rewarding them but when meeting him they were proven wrong as Michael VI told them “deeds first, rewards later”. Michael VI too being a civil aristocrat from the city was a snob towards the military aristocracy of the provinces who he saw as backwards and unsophisticated and so he did not reward them as much as he did with the city’s aristocrats, though he underestimated the military as they were still a lot more powerful than he thought and among the military aristocrats, the one who felt most insulted by the emperor looking down on them was Isaac Komnenos, a general who had been in the Byzantine army ever since the days of Basil II, yet he too was one of the many young orphaned soldiers placed under Basil II’s care long ago as Isaac’s father Manuel had died a long before while his uncle was the same Nikephoros Komnenos Constantine VIII blinded back in 1027. As it turned out, Isaac was one of the generals dismissed by Theodora earlier but he had a strong support base that included his childhood friends who were now in their 50s and already powerful generals which included his younger brother John Komnenos and friends Constantine Doukas, Katakalon Kekaumenos, and the same Nikephoros Botaneiates that fought against the Pechenegs in 1053. Having had enough of the empire run by eunuchs, empresses, civil aristocrats, and weak emperors, Isaac felt this was time to put the empire under the rule of strong military men again like it was under Basil II and thus bring back the glory days of the empire and so in June of 1057, Isaac declared himself Emperor Isaac I Komnenos with the support of his military cronies, while the Varangian Guard too shifted to Isaac’s cause and in August he and his rebel army clashed with Michael VI’s imperial troops at the Battle of Hades in Asia Minor where Isaac and his rebels won, thus they headed straight to Constantinople where the emperor Michael VI did not want to accept his defeat that he even agreed to settle peace with Isaac adopting him his as his son and making him a Caesar. Michael Psellos was the one sent to Isaac’s camp across the Bosporus to negotiate with him but the emperor’s proposals were rejected although Isaac only agreed to it if he were made co-emperor of Michael VI but back in the capital, the people broke out in a massive riot in favor of Isaac. Michael VI was now hopeless and so here it was the patriarch Michael Keroularios who happened to be the kingmaker that convinced Michael VI to abdicate as the empire was in need of a stronger emperor like Isaac and so Michael VI retired to be a monk allowing Isaac to take the throne and be crowned by the patriarch.

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

 

 The New Regime and the Road to Manzikert (1057-1070)      

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Once again, the common people of the empire had a say when they all backed the military man Isaac I Komnenos as their new emperor in opposition to the useless Michael VI and once Michael VI abdicated and retired to a monastery, Isaac I was emperor being the first of the Komnenos line which will later on rule the empire.

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Mosaic of Emperor Isaac I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1057-1059)

When coming into power in 1057, Isaac I was 50 and in appearance was tall and intimidating with a loud voice, though what made his position a powerful one despite having no legitimate ties to the previous Macedonian Dynasty was that he both had powerful friends who were all high ranking generals and he belonged to the Komnenos family, a crony family of Basil II that rose to prominence under him and as emperor, Isaac was clear about his intentions to restore the glory days of the Byzantine army under Basil II that had been neglected by the past weak civilian emperors. The people and most especially the army tired of being ruled by palace emperors like Romanos III and Constantine IX that only cared to spend on churches and luxuries were now satisfied with their new soldier emperor although Isaac was a bit too rough around the edges despite being highly educated. Isaac’s first acts were to appoint his conspirators against Michael VI to the highest court positions such as his brother John who was made the Kouropalates or head of the palace as well as the empire’s top commander or Domestikos of the western armies based in the Balkans while Michael Psellos who despite serving the previous regimes was still kept in a high court position for switching his support to Isaac and it was here during Isaac’s reign where Psellos would get all the information about Basil II despite Psellos never meeting Basil in person, although Isaac when he was younger did and it was through Isaac where Psellos would get to known what Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer was like. Now ruling the empire, Isaac I’s top priority was to restore the army and its pay and when it came to taxes, Isaac was a strict tax collector that did not go with second chances while at the same time he was also not a lavish spender like the previous emperors but rather he only spent on the most necessary things which for him was the army and the soldiers’ pay. Isaac I’s major reform in terms of the state’s economy was in cutting off bonuses for court officials and the land grants to certain people which Constantine IX introduced as Isaac’s main goal here by doing this was to reverse the devaluing of the standard gold currency that took place under Constantine IX. Isaac I too had made it clear to everyone that he was to rule as a strongman emperor and something like a military dictator by minting coins with his image holding a sword instead of a scepter or orb like the previous emperors, although Isaac soon enough over did his image as a strong emperor that he would start becoming unpopular for issuing his reforms too soon such as his strict policies in taxation and cancelling bonuses, and the group of Byzantine society that he became most unpopular with was the Church as he cancelled donations given to them by the nobility while he imposed taxes on the Church was well. Once again, the troublemaker was the same patriarch Michael Keroularios who even went as far as threatening to remove Isaac from power as he after all put Isaac in power therefore, he could take him down and he believed he could as he also successfully put down Michael VI. Isaac in 1058 however grew tired of the patriarch’s arrogance which was already made very clear when the patriarch wore the purple boots reserved only for the emperor but before Patriarch Michael could organize a plot, Isaac immediately acted on this and had the Varangian Guard arrest the patriarch and send him to an island in the Marmara Sea. The patriarch despite being sent to exile still refused to resign and so back in Constantinople, Isaac held a council with the objective to legally depose Patriarch Michael but before the council was concluded in early 1059, the patriarch had died in exile.

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Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Hungary, est. 1000

Meanwhile, the situation with the new enemy being the Seljuk Turks in the east grew more severe during Isaac I’s reign that they began penetrating deep into Byzantine Armenia already but without much success while in the Balkans, the Pechenegs continued their raids and so did the Magyars who at this point had already transformed into the Kingdom of Hungary since the beginning of the century. Isaac would however only personally lead the army once in his reign which was in the summer of 1059 in the Balkans where he battled both the Hungarians and Pechenegs, although there are not that much sources recording this 1059 campaign, but what is known is that Isaac here concluded a peace treaty with the Hungarians in the city of Serdica in Bulgaria while with the Pechenegs, he was successful in crushing them. On his return trip to Constantinople, Isaac was caught in a storm and almost killed that a rumor was spread that he died, although Isaac still returned to the capital becoming more paranoid of everyone due the rumor according to Psellos who was present here. Later in 1059, Isaac as a hunting enthusiast went out on a hunting trip outside Constantinople but during the hunt, he fell ill with a fever which lasted for days that he would soon start fearing he would die any time soon and so it was time he named a successor. Isaac meanwhile had been married to the Bulgarian princess Ekaterina, the daughter of the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Vladislav and sister of Presian who if you remember was the lover of Theodora who plotted to kill Romanos III before, and following the annexation of the Bulgarian Empire in 1014 by Basil II, Ekaterina was taken to Constantinople as an important hostage wherein later on she would marry Isaac due to his connections with the emperor Basil II then, although Isaac and Ekaterina had only one daughter and no sons.

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Michael Psellos, advisor and historian in Isaac I’s court

Though having no sons, Isaac had a younger brother the Kouropalates and Domestikos John who was in all ways fit to succeed him but Isaac’s daughter Maria and Psellos convinced him that he must not choose a family member but a man loyal to him to succeed him and this man was the general Constantine Doukas who was however closer to Psellos than to Isaac. Now Isaac agreed to abdicate and pass the throne peacefully to Constantine Doukas, although some weeks later Isaac recovered and felt like he had no need to abdicate but it was too late as Constantine Doukas had already been crowned as Emperor Constantine X with Michael Psellos, now the new kingmaker even placing the purple sandals on his feet. Seeing nothing could be done anymore, Isaac retired for good as a simple monk in the Monastery of Stoudion in Constantinople’s suburbs wherein he grew up and was educated in and now in retirement, he was reduced to performing the simplest tasks such as being the doorman, while not to mention it was also in 1059 when the ex-emperor Michael VI died as a monk somewhere else while Isaac unfortunately died later on in the next year 1060 here in the Stoudion Monastery at 53 when he was the kind of strongman emperor necessary for this time.        

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Coin of Isaac I Komnenos portrayed holding a drawn sword (right)
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Stoudion Monastery, Constantinople, retirement place of Isaac I after 1059

The new emperor Constantine X Doukas was by career a general though he never really had any military experience as compared to his predecessor Isaac I, and the only reason why Constantine was a general was because he was from the nobility, as in fact the Doukas family wherein he came from had turned out to be one of the original families in the Byzantine Senate ever since Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire was founded in 330 by the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), and because of his family’s status, Constantine Doukas was able to attain the rank of general without really deserving it.

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Emperor Constantine X Doukas of Byzantium (r. 1059-1067)

Though not having much military experience, Constantine though had once served as the governor of the Theme of Moesia in Northern Bulgaria but nothing much else is said about his earlier years until helping Isaac I take the throne in 1057 and then now in 1059 succeeding Isaac at the age of 53. The more interesting part though about Constantine X is that before he assisted in Isaac’s rebellion in 1057, he had been married to Eudokia Makrembolitissa, a woman 25 years younger than him who was not really anyone important except that she was only the niece of the former patriarch Michael Keroularios, though they would seem to be an odd couple as Constantine struck everyone as nothing much but a boring and negative old man while Eudokia was much younger, attractive, and flashy therefore her main reason to marry Constantine in this story’s case was because of his wealth and influence, although another reason to why they were married was because both enjoyed debating about religion and philosophy and Constantine was known to be an addict in debating about these topics which he happened to be more interested in than running the empire.

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Doukas family crest

Now as for Constantine X, there are not that much sources that discuss his reign in detail, so rather we only know the important events of his reign, as well as the people of his regime and speaking about the people he appointed, right at the beginning of 1060 when Constantine X had newly occupied the throne as the senior emperor, he already made his eldest son with Eudokia Michael Doukas who was 10-years-old here as his co-emperor as well as their newly born son Constantius, although they also had a middle child named Andronikos but he was left out from the succession for now for unclear reasons, but in this story’s case it would be because being the middle child he was neglected as Constantine too did not need another co-emperor, although Constantine’s younger brother John Doukas here was appointed as a Caesar. Constantine as the emperor lived well while his sons were to be educated by no other than Psellos who was the finest scholar of this time, but while things seemed to be going pretty well in Constantinople, there was more happening around the empire in Constantine X’s reign.

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Coat of Arms of the Norman Duchy of Apulia and Calabria in Southern Italy under the Hauteville family

In 1059 over in Italy, the Normans under the same Robert Guiscard had practically conquered all of Calabria and Apulia from the Byzantines and Lombards leaving only the very tip of Apulia where the city of Bari is under Byzantine control, and by expanding his territory to such a great extent, the pope in 1059 recognized Robert Guiscard as a duke and his territory as the Duchy of Calabria and Apulia. In 1061, the Normans armies of Southern Italy now set off to finally conquer Sicily from the divided Arabs that still held it and in charge of the campaign was Robert’s younger brother Roger, and though the expedition began with failure when battling the Arab fleet near Messina, things would go in favor for the Normans in 1062.

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Roger de Hauteville, brother of Robert Guiscard, later Count of Sicily

By 1063, the Normans would practically conquer almost all of Sicily after defeating the Arab forces at the Battle of Cerami, and here one brave but at the same time, the henchman of the Hauteville brothers Robert and Roger would prove his skill and bravery in battle and this was Roussel de Bailleul, who would later serve as a mercenary for the Byzantines. Back in Constantinople, Constantine X proved that he wasn’t a very competent emperor although on the positive side he was neither idiotic nor wasteful in spending but what made him unpopular with his subjects was because he was basically boring, unattractive, negative, bigoted, and demanded heavy taxes especially since Isaac I before him ruled too short to fill up the empire’s treasury again and restore the original value of the gold solidus coin. Not having any of his predecessor Isaac I’s skills as a strongman running the empire, Constantine decided to discontinue Isaac’s military reforms which turned Isaac’s supporters against him seeing Constantine as a traitor to their movement that in 1061, they plotted to assassinate him in his ship, however they got into the wrong ship as Constantine already set sail in another one and so to punish these conspirators, Constantine only exiled them and confiscated their property rather than doing something harsh like blinding or executing as Constantine was not really a brutal punisher despite being generally hateful towards people and intolerant towards non-Orthodox Armenian Christians who he persecuted. When it came to raising funds, Constantine X resorted to going as far as selling off court positions and for the army, just like Constantine IX before him, he was very much neglectful that he simply decided to disband 50,000 soldiers in the Armenian army as there was no longer that much state funds to pay them, therefore replacing them with mercenaries from all over including Pechenegs, Turks, Normans, and more as they did not need to be paid in a regular basis like the regular army was.

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Alp Arslan, Sultan of the Seljuk Empire (r. 1063-1072), art by Hatem Art

The decision to disband the army however came at the worst time possible as right here, the Seljuks continued their raids into Byzantine territory and what was even worse for the Byzantines was that in 1063, the Seljuks got a new leader or sultan which was Alp Arslan which meant “Great Lion” in their language- although his real name was Muhammad Chaghri– a great-grandson of their founder Seljuq who was a very ambitious ruler compared to his predecessors. In 1064, the Seljuks led by Alp Arslan were able to capture the strategic Armenian capital of Ani from the Byzantines, the same city Constantine IX’s conquered almost 20 years earlier as well as the surrounding areas, and when capturing Ani, the Seljuks carried out such brutal atrocities including massacres on the locals that it sent shockwaves across the empire thus showing for the first the time how capable and deadly the Seljuks were when it came to war. In 1065, the Byzantines faced another disaster which was the loss of their Danube frontier city of Belgrade to the expansion of the Hungarians while at the same time, the Oghuz Turks that were now settling north of the Danube raided imperial territory in the Balkans but their attacks did not last long as a plague broke out there killing many and forcing the remaining ones to retreat. In the meantime, the Normans were not only succeeding in Italy but in other parts as well as in 1066, the Normans had their most famous conquest which was their successful invasion of Anglo-Saxon England under the Duke of mainland Normandy in France William the Conqueror who seeing that England being weakened was able to conquer it with success after the fateful Battle of Hastings, thus he became the first King of England. It also happened in 1066 that the same old Viking Harald Hardrada that served Byzantium under Michael IV before but now became the King of Norway died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England when trying to invade Anglo-Saxon England, but despite the Saxons’ victory their state became too weak that it fell to the Normans later that year. Back in Byzantium, the situation regarding the invasions had already proved too much for the aging Constantine X to handle and so he did not do anything at all and by the time 1067 came, his health had grown worse as already when coming to power in 1059, Constantine X was already unhealthy and overweight and in May of 1067, he died at 61 while on his deathbed he demanded his wife Eudokia to take a vow never to remarry as Constantine wanted to be succeeded by no one else but his sons which is why he already made them co-emperors.         

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Oghuz Turks
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Battle of Stamford Bridge and the death of the King of Norway Harald III Hardrada, 1066 England
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Battle of Hastings, Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, 1066

Though Constantine X’s eldest son with Eudokia Makrembolitissa which was Michael was already 17 here, thus being of legal age to rule alone, he was just as passive as his father and lacked the full training to be sole ruler, so instead his mother Eudokia had to be confirmed as both the regent for her co-emperor sons Michael and Constantius and the ruling empress or Augusta. The state administration for now however was not really under Eudokia’s management but rather by Constantine X’s brother the Caesar John Doukas and Michael Psellos who still remained serving the imperial court. This time however was a bad one in particular for the empire to have no senior male emperor running it as the Seljuks under Alp Arslan following their capture of Ani had expanded to a much larger extent that their territory had stretched across the entire eastern border of Byzantium, thus completely cutting off Byzantium’s border with the Arab powers of Syria and Mesopotamia, and so it was at this point when the Byzantine and Arab worlds that had bordered each other for the past 4 centuries would no longer border each other anymore due to the expansion of the new power of the Seljuk Empire. Despite the dire situation the empire was in wherein it needed a strong emperor in charge, Eudokia still kept her promise to her late husband to never remarry and wait until her sons are capable enough, although this power vacuum true enough caused ambitious generals to grab the opportunity and take the throne by marrying the widowed empress and among them was the same old Nikephoros Botaneiates who by this point resigned from his position as the governor of Antioch and the young Cappadocian Romanos Diogenes- the son of the late Constantine Diogenes who committed suicide back in Romanos III’s reign in 1032 when accused of conspiracy- now finally coming into the picture. Romanos Diogenes who was in the Balkans was much closer to Constantinople and after Constantine X’s death in 1067, Romanos was accused of planning to usurp the throne and so he was arrested in the Balkans and locked up in prison in Constantinople.

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Empress Eudokia Makrembolitissa oversees Romanos Diogenes in prison, 1067, art by Ancient City Lullaby

The thing here for Eudokia was that not only did she need a husband as an emperor but someone to be a father for her children as aside from her 3 sons with Constantine X, they had 3 additional daughters Anna, Theodora, and Zoe and when seeing Romanos for the first time in prison, Eudokia immediately fell in love with him as Romanos unlike her late husband Constantine X who was old and unattractive was handsome, energetic, and charismatic with green eyes and long brown hair and Romanos too was only a year older than Eudokia being 37 while Constantine before him was a full 25 years older. Between the 65-year-old Nikephoros Botaneiates and 37-year-old Romanos Diogenes, Eudokia definitely fell for Romanos and with the approval of the Byzantine Senate, the Caesar John Doukas, Michael Psellos, and the current Patriarch of Constantinople John VIII Xiphilinos, Romanos and Empress Eudokia married on the first day of 1068 whereas Romanos too was crowned as the senior emperor Romanos IV Diogenes and finally Eudokia and Constantine’s middle son Andronikos was crowned as co-emperor together with his two brothers Michael and Constantius.

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Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes of Byzantium (r. 1068-1072), 2nd husband of Empress Eudokia

The leading people of the administration like the Caesar John Doukas and his son Andronikos Doukas who was a general in training, as well as Michael Psellos disliked the new senior emperor Romanos IV who they now saw as the new gold digger who only married Eudokia for wealth the same way how they viewed Eudokia marrying Constantine X before, though they also saw Romanos as a far from capable opportunist as for one he came from a disgraced family as his father in 1032 killed himself rather than confessing his crime and the army Romanos commanded was not the kind of feared and disciplined professional Byzantine army but an undisciplined and disorganized band of mostly foreign mercenaries including Slavs, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Franks, but Romanos at the same time was also a strict disciplinarian and so he was able to quickly discipline his unruly troops. In the meantime, the Seljuk Turks who now had gained allies among the nearby Arab powers and other Turkic nomads mindlessly raided deep into Byzantine Syria, Cilicia, and Cappadocia, even sacking Caesarea, the capital of the Theme of Cappadocia. Alp Arslan however never really intended to invade Asia Minor but only the eastern parts of the Byzantine Empire such as Armenia and Syria in order to gain access to march into the Levant and Egypt held by the Fatimid Caliphate, although at the same time he had been threatening the Kingdom of Georgia northeast of Byzantium in order to get some access to the Black Sea. The problem however was that most of Alp Arslan’s army was disorganized and so they mindlessly penetrated Byzantine Asia Minor without Alp Arslan’s orders, although Romanos knew very little and so he began his reign immediately campaigning in Asia Minor. Romanos IV was the kind of military emperor that disliked being in the capital and having to be involved in court politics and just a she was crowned emperor in early 1068, he immediately gathered his army and campaigned all over Asia Minor with successful results. The Seljuks and their other Turkic allies though proved to be an easy enemy to kill in battle as they travelled light, were barely armored, and primarily only used their bow but the problem with them was that they moved too fast, therefore it was too difficult to be able to contain their raids that here when Romanos was campaigning in Cilicia against a group of Turkic raiders, he got news that another group had breached into the region of Pontus to north, thus he had to rush there and later when being able to capture a band of raiding Turks near the mountain city of Tephrike in Eastern Asia Minor, a large number of them escaped. Another example of how these Turks moved so fast and were able to escape so quickly was later in 1068 when they reached as far as the Anatolic Theme in Western Asia Minor even sacking its capital Amorion and by the time Romanos rushed to Amorion’s defense, it was too late as the Turks escaped back to their base in Eastern Asia Minor. Romanos IV then again spent the next year (1069) once more campaigning in Asia Minor against the uncontrollable Turkic raiders that now resumed attacking the cities of Melitene and Iconium, and hoping he could contain them this time Romanos once again attacked with some success that he was able to pursue the Turk raiders across the Euphrates River.

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Ivory carving of Emperor Romanos IV (left) and Empress Eudokia (right)

Romanos then decided to march further east to capture the fort of Ahlat along Lake Van in Armenia to build a permanent defense there against the Turks, but at the same time, the Turks attacked in the south raiding into Cilicia where the Byzantine army there at least drove them away. Alp Arslan in the meantime was not around to control his people’s mindless raiding into Byzantine territory as he was too busy in the south battling his primary enemy, the Fatimid Caliphate while Romanos waiting for a response from Alp Arslan, returned to Constantinople in 1070 where he would spend most of the year in while he appointed his general Manuel Komnenos, nephew of Isaac I and son of the late John Komnenos (died in 1067) to be in charge of the eastern armies. Empress Eudokia meanwhile being 39 was still able to bear children with Romanos and so in 1070, she had given birth to her twin sons with Romanos which were Leo and Nikephoros Diogenes, which was something positive for the couple but for the rest of the imperial Doukas family such as Eudokia’s children with Constantine X and the Church, the birth of these twins was seen as trouble as one day it could create a major succession crisis on whether Eudokia’s children with Constantine would rule the empire or her sons with Romanos. On the other hand, Romanos too from his previous marriage already had a son named Constantine who was estranged from him so therefore Constantine would never enter the imperial palace and join the imperial family but rather live quietly away from the politics of Constantinople. Another person that was now in the picture of the politics in Constantinople was the Georgian princess Maria of Alania, the daughter of the King of Georgia Bagrat IV who since 1065 had married the co-emperor Michael Doukas as part of Michael’s father Constantine’s alliance with Georgia back then when he was still alive. Maria earlier on in 1056 as a very young girl was brought to Constantinople to be educated under the patronage of Empress Theodora but after Theodora’s death that same year, Maria had to return to Georgia only to return to Constantinople in 1065 to marry the co-emperor Michael and now 1070 she was 17 and in appearance was skinny with reddish-brown hair and pale skin, but despite her somewhat weak appearance, she possessed a lot more ambition compared to her bookish and passive husband. Back to Romanos IV, in the capital he resumed the unpopular economic measures of Isaac I years earlier by doing the same in cancelling bonuses and cutting the budget for beautifying the capital and for spending on court ceremonies and chariot racing in the Hippodrome and instead diverting the budget for the army which made him highly unpopular in the capital. Romanos however saw that it was necessary he cut the budget on these things which he saw as unnecessary as it was obvious that the situation was dire not only in Asia Minor with the Seljuk raids but in Southern Italy where Byzantine control was only limited to the city of Bari which now was already under siege by the Normans.

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Seljuk Turkish army of Alp Arslan, 11th century

 

Part II.

The Climax Part I- The Battle of Manzikert (1071)         

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The year 1071 would indeed be a fatal one for Byzantium as at first in April, the Byzantines had completely lost control of Italy after 500 years of rule when their last city of Bari finally surrendered to the Norman brothers Robert Guiscard and Roger who had been besieging it for the past 3 years, thus these events would according to Robin Pierson of the History of Byzantium Podcast would be the one that would forever make Byzantium culturally and physically distant from the west as Italy was their last holding in the Western world which they held onto since Justinian I’s time in the 6th century. The complete loss of Italy to the Normans was shocking to the emperor Romanos IV but his priority was still Asia Minor as for the past year being back in Constantinople, Romanos had been preparing his army and raising up to 40,000 which as usual of this time due to the disbanding of most of the professional eastern army by Constantine X included a large portion of mercenaries except this time it was very multinational with Armenians, Georgians, Arabs, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Oghuz Turks, Russians, Khazars, Slavs, Pechenegs, Franks (Germans), and Normans which were under the command of the same Roussel de Bailleul of the Battle of Cerami in 1063, while the elite Varangian Guard was to be at his side as they battle Seljuks. Romanos IV true enough used the budget he cut for the capital’s buildings and chariot races to build up this massive army and to pay for their supplies and new superior weapons which he invested heavily on. No matter how much the people booed at him for being no fun or no matter how much he was seen as the kind of military dictator like Isaac I, Romanos did not care as he was doing all of this to defend the empire against a serious threat which was that of the Seljuks which were actually not that serious as again their sultan Alp Arslan was more intent to just take over Byzantine land to gain access to fight the Fatimids of Egypt.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldier in Romanos IV’s army, art by myself

Romanos however was another emperor who wanted to restore Byzantium and its army which had deteriorated over the past years of rule by the weak civilian emperors that neglected it to the glory days of Basil II where the Byzantine army was the most well-organized force in the known world that was feared by everyone, so therefore he wanted to show the Seljuks that they were not dealing with a disorganized force but the world’s most powerful army. On the other hand, Romanos wanted to live up to the name of his father who had helped Basil II ultimately defeat the Bulgarian Empire at the Battle of Kleidion in 1014 and also bring honor to his family that had been disgraced with his father’s suicide in 1032. Alp Arslan however had previously captured the Byzantine fortresses of Manzikert and Archesh along Lake Van though only for strategic purposes as these fortresses controlled the trade routes in the area, but in Constantinople Romanos saw this as a declaration of war, although he did not immediately declare war but instead sent word to Alp Arslan over there that he wanted to conclude a treaty with him. The real purpose for this agreement however was to trick Alp Arslan into attacking him while Alp Arslan was unprepared and once he settled the agreement, Romanos marched out of Constantinople back to Asia Minor but what here would be Romanos’ downfall was his impatience and arrogance as he was intent on a full-scale war with the Seljuks even if they were not really intending to fully conquer Byzantium. In this campaign, Romanos took along with him the Caesar John Doukas’ son Andronikos as a back-up general but also part of Andronikos’ military training, though Romanos’ real reason was to keep him close being paranoid that Andronikos would steal the throne from Romanos while he is away. The march however began out terribly when Romanos’ Norman mercenaries under Roussel pillaged some villages in Asia Minor without orders, though Romanos was able to discipline them by firing a number of Roussel’s men. The army of Romanos eventually reached the area of Lake Van by July wherein they were able to recapture a number of fortresses from the Seljuks, although here Alp Arslan who was over in Syria rushed west to Asia Minor seeing this as an act of violation by Romanos of their treaty. Romanos and his forces meanwhile were able to recapture the important fortress of Manzikert from the Seljuks although they found no signs of Alp Arslan around and so Romanos sent a division of his army to encircle Lake Van in search for Alp Arslan but also to capture the other strategic fortress of Ahlat along Lake Van which was also fell under the Seljuks.

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Elite Seljuk cavalry soldier

After a few days, Romanos believing the men he sent were able to capture Ahlat sent word to them asking them to return to him at his camp near Manzikert, however this division never returned as they were true enough ambushed by Alp Arslan’s forces at the dead of night as it turned out the Turk horsemen having lived in the steppes for generations had the ability to ride and fight even in pitch darkness thus they left the survivors to retreat south to Byzantine Mesopotamia while their commander too did not think about returning as he was never really loyal to Romanos anyway. The next worst thing that happened following the loss of large number of troops was that Romanos’ Oghuz Turk mercenaries deserted and joined the Seljuks as they’d rather fight with their Seljuk Turk cousins than against them. On August 25 of 1071, Alp Arslan here sent envoys to Romanos again to conclude peace as Alp Arslan believed Romanos’ attack could have been a misunderstanding but Romanos having raised up to 40,000 troops and putting all the empire’s money into it was intent on a decisive victory in battle and so he immediately declined the peace terms and sent the envoys away. Romanos here saw it was only the right thing to attack the Seljuks and drive them away once and for all as they had invaded the lands of the Byzantine Empire the heroes of the previous century such as Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes worked so hard and sacrificed so much to fight for in order to put them back into imperial control from the Arabs, therefore he did not want their hard work to be all lost to the new enemy and so here Romanos declined the envoys’ offers, although he still negotiated smartly sending word to Alp Arslan that he would only agree to peace if it were in Ray, the Seljuk’s newly established capital in Iran.

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Route of Romanos IV (purple) and of Alp Arslan (green) to the battle site of Manzikert, 1071
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Fortress of Ahlat along Lake Van today
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Emperor Romanos IV receiving Seljuk envoys from Alp Arslan before the battle, 1071

          

On the night of August 25, Romanos IV’s camp was harassed by the Seljuk horse archers who as mentioned earlier had the ability to ride and attack at the pitch darkness of night constantly fired arrows at the camp killing even a few Byzantines, however Romanos ordered his men not to fight back as he wanted everyone to all fight together during daytime. The next day (Friday, August 26), both Byzantine and Seljuk forces met formally in the battlefield outside the fortress of Manzikert while Alp Arslan too was present and had been awake before the sun rose dressing himself in white which he did seeing it as a sign that he would die in battle knowing how great Romanos’ army was in number, and here Alp Arslan also summoned his son Malik-Shah to the battlefield announcing to everyone that he will succeed him if Alp Arslan would die here. As Alp Arslan saw this battle only as something that he had to get over with as he never saw it coming, Romanos was already seeing a great victory and a triumphal parade in Constantinople ahead wherein Alp Arslan and his son would be paraded as prisoners and so right after waking up, Romanos ordered his army to assemble into organized formations.

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Battle map of the Battle of Manzikert, 1071

Here, Romanos positioned himself at the center with 5,000 men from the professional Byzantine army of Asia Minor and 500 of the Varangian Guards, while on the right flank were 5,000 Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldiers and a large number of foreign mercenaries under the command of the general Nikephoros Bryennios who was a loyalist of Romanos, on the right flank were another 5,000 professional Byzantine soldiers and foreign mercenaries under the command of Romanos’ other loyalist general Theodore Alyattes, while the division behind consisted of the reserve troops under Andronikos Doukas. The one missing however was the Norman Roussel de Bailleul and his 500 Norman mercenaries as apparently during the night, he and his men escaped as they being the stereotypical Normans and mercenaries were only in it for money and not loyalty and so they went away never to be found again. Romanos lost some hope when Roussel’s Normans deserted as well as his Oghuz mercenaries but not wanting to show any signs of fear or unease which could cause panic among his soldiers, Romanos ordered everyone to charge at the same time in formation, the same old tactic the Byzantine armies have been using ever since. The advance of the Byzantine forces and their allies in organized formations however proved to be ineffective to the loose hit-and-run fighting style of the Seljuks who here formed into a loose crescent formation in order to surround the Byzantines with Alp Arslan and his son at the center of it. The Seljuks with their ability to fire arrows when riding at full speed overwhelmed the heavy armored Byzantines and their allies but the Byzantines still resisted and despite the extreme heat of this day considering it was a summer day in August, the Byzantines still continued fighting even if no side was gaining any advantage.

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

The battle would continue to last until the sun was going down and this where everything in this story’s case would change, as in real history Romanos ordered his men to retreat to their camp as the sky started to go dark, but in this story’ case, Romanos not giving up no matter what in order to come out victorious at the end ordered his men to all continue fighting even though it was getting dark as he saw they were coming close to cornering the Seljuk cavalry. The Seljuks however like in real history would also pretend to flee here to set a trap for the Byzantines before they could return and ambush the Byzantines but in this story’s case as Romanos would see the Seljuk horse archers escaping, he would have the Cataphracts under Bryennios and Alyattes pursue them with full speed while Romanos would also order his Varangian Guards to perform their special ability to charge out in a frenzy while screaming at the same time as their large size and voice was true enough a powerful weapon to intimidate the enemy.

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Varangian Guard with his Dane-axe, 1071

The Varangians here would now attack the Seljuk cavalry cutting down hundreds of horses with their large Dane-axes while Andronikos Doukas on the other hand would here like in real history show his intention to betray Romanos who he hated. In real history though, Andronikos would only spread a rumor to his division that Romanos had been killed in battle only when Romanos retreated to the camp and so rather than sending Romanos reinforcements, Andronikos escaped the battlefield with them. For this story however, Andronikos would break out of formation and attack the Seljuks from the other side as he would want to be the one to score the victory rather than making Romanos take the credit and so Andronikos would attack Alp Arslan’s division directly. Now in this story since Andronikos Doukas did not abandon the emperor like in real history, the Byzantines would start gaining the upper hand by the time night fell and here in this story’s case, one young soldier which would be the 15-year-old Alexios Komnenos, nephew of the former emperor Isaac I and 6th son of the late John Komnenos that would fight bravely by the emperor’s side and would even lead Romanos into safety when his division came under the attack of Alp Arslan’s best cavalry as the Varangians went elsewhere fighting the rest of the Seljuks. Now in this story’s case, the battle would come to an end when a Varangian spots Alp Arslan and kills his horse by swinging his axe at his horse, thus tossing the sultan to the ground wherein he would surrender and minutes later, his entire army would pause and panic as they would see their sultan on the ground. Romanos would then retreat to his camp while Alp Arslan would later be brought to him there by Nikephoros Bryennios in chains.          

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The Battle of Manzikert in 1071, art by FaisalHashemi
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Varangian Guards (on the ground) battle the Seljuk cavalry at Manzikert
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Byzantines and Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert in meme form

In real history, after Andronikos Doukas’ betrayal, Romanos and his Varangians were surrounded by the Seljuks and after the Varangians fought bravely to the last man, Romanos after falling off his horse that had been killed and getting shot by an arrow in the hand, was captured by a common Seljuk soldier who mistook him for an ordinary soldier as well as he did not wear his crown while Alp Arslan chased away the remaining Byzantines the next day (August 27).

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Defeat and capture of Romanos IV by the Seljuks, in real history

Romanos in real history was then brought in chains to Alp Arslan’s tent where Alp Arslan mistook Romanos for a common soldier, therefore he placed his foot on Romanos’ neck but when finding out he was the emperor, Alp Arslan began to treat Romanos well. In this story however, when Alp Arslan was brought to Romanos’ camp, Romanos would be the one to step on Alp Arslan’s neck just as a sign of saying he conquered him, but would also treat him well afterwards. In real history, the terms Romanos had to agree to in order to be released were surprisingly not very demanding as Alp Arslan only requested that the Syrian cities of Antioch, Edessa, Hierapolis, and also the fortress of Manzikert be surrendered to the Seljuks to make way for their invasion of Fatimid territories in the south while Romanos was to also pay Alp Arslan 360,000 gold coins annually and to agree for marriage between Alp Arslan’s son and Romanos’ daughter from his previous marriage.

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Alp Arslan humiliates Romanos IV by stepping on his neck after Romanos IV’s capture, in real history

Here however, Alp Arslan and Romanos like in real history would end up becoming friends while Alp Arslan would be the one here that would have to agree on not so demanding terms which would just include paying tribute to the Byzantines as well as returning Manzikert and Ahlat in exchange for taking these Syrian cities mentioned earlier in order to fully carry out his conquest of Egypt, but the most demanding thing Alp Arslan would have to face here was to turn over his son Malik-Shah to Romanos as a hostage. In real history, after Romanos agreed to Alp Arslan’s terms, he was released, given gifts, and even escorted halfway into Asia Minor by Alp Arslan himself though here, Romanos would be the one to release Alp Arslan some days later and have his general Theodore Alyattes and the young Alexios Komnenos escort Alp Arslan to Syria wherein they would be the ones to personally hand over to Alp Arslan the keys to Antioch, Edessa, and Hierapolis. Romanos together with Bryennios, Andronikos, and their hostage which was the sultan’s son Malik-Shah would return to Constantinople but before arriving back in the city, Romanos would have both Andronikos and Bryennios search around Asia Minor for the renegade Roussel de Bailleul. Back in Constantinople, Romanos having lost 10% of his army in the battle and coming back extremely tired from it decided to not celebrate a triumph but would instead return to the palace being awaited with a shocking surprise. Like in real history, the Caesar John Doukas and Michael Psellos due to the absence of Romanos would plot against him behind his back thus they bullied the empress Eudokia by forcing her to retire to a monastery while the co-emperor Michael Doukas was proclaimed as the senior emperor Michael VII in October in opposition to Romanos who they declared deposed. In this case, Romanos would be denied entry into the palace by the newly appointed eunuch administrator Nikephoritzes– who’s name literally meant “little Nikephoros”- and he had been in the imperial court ever since Constantine IX’s reign in the 1050s as a secretary but had been exiled due to him spreading lies but John Doukas who was basically calling the shots for the past months with Romanos away recalled Nikephoritzes to the palace as John believed he was a competent administrator despite being a corrupt schemer, while in real history, Michael VII under his uncle John Doukas’ influence also refused to recognize the treaty between Alp Arslan and Romanos. Romanos IV was now left all alone and not even allowed to see his twin sons despite winning the Battle of Manzikert, therefore even if the Byzantines won over the Seljuks over Manzikert, the same political instability and greed would still continue to reign, so it is sad to say that even with a Byzantine victory in Manzikert, the same situation in the empire’s politics would still live on.

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Defeat of the Byzantines to the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert, in real history
Watch this for additional info on the Battle of Manzikert (Eastern Roman History).

 

The Climax Part II- The Aftermath of Manzikert (1072-1078)          

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The Battle of Manzikert in real history at first was not such an extreme loss for the Byzantines as the terms Romanos IV had to agree with Alp Arslan in order to be kept alive were not as harsh as he had thought it would be while only 10% of the Byzantine army was wiped out. The real disaster however was to come gradually after the battle as after the Seljuks had won, they were allowed to roam freely into the Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor thus changing its geography so significantly as after the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert, Asia Minor became something like a donut bitten on one side where all 3 sides along the coast were still under Byzantine hands while the center fell under the Seljuks with the donut’s bite as the area the Seljuks penetrated through to get to the center. The eventual loss of the central regions of Asia Minor including Cappadocia and Armenia to the Seljuks thus led to the collapse of the Thematic System or the Themes as most of the Themes were in Asia Minor but with Seljuk occupation they had collapsed, though the real downfall of Byzantium was not so much the loss of Asia Minor to the Seljuks but the greed of the current powerful officials of the time such as John Doukas, Michael Psellos, and Nikephoritzes who mostly neglected the collapse of the Themes in Asia Minor and instead used the defeat of Romanos IV to increase their power. In this story however, the only difference would be that the Byzantines won at Manzikert, therefore the Seljuks under Alp Arslan would have to turn the other way thus not being able to roam freely in Asia Minor anymore, while at the same time, the same Themes of Asia Minor that had been around for centuries would still stand with the situation Byzantine Asia Minor turning into a donut as I mentioned not happening, but the rest will be the same which would be the increasing greed of the imperial court and the obliviousness of the new emperor Michael VII. In this story, the same would happen like in real history when Michael VII under the influence of his uncle John Doukas would turn against his stepfather Romanos IV, except in real history since Romanos was captured by Alp Arslan, he only learned he was betrayed before he returned to Constantinople, but here even if he won the battle, Romanos would still learn he had been betrayed but already when back in Constantinople, and so when being banned from entering the palace, Romanos here for this story would just get his hostage Malik-Shah, the son of Alp Arslan into the palace while Romanos would afterwards return to Asia Minor in search for the renegade traitor Norman Roussel de Bailleul. The other difference in real history being that Romanos lost to the Seljuks was that all his credibility had disappeared therefore this gave a perfect reason for Michael VII and his court to turn on him, while also in real history the traitor Andronikos Doukas who returned to Constantinople convinced everyone Romanos had died but as soon as Romanos was discovered to be alive, they all turned on him. In this story however, Romanos would also suffer the same fate as when heading back to Asia Minor in search for the escaped Roussel, he would be ambushed by Andronikos Doukas who in this story was sent by Romanos to track Roussel. In the meantime, Romanos’ trusted general Theodore Alyattes who like in real history had also survived the Battle of Manzikert in this story, and Alyattes who in this story’s case returned to Central Asia Minor from Antioch with his troops that survived Manzikert would like in real history confront the forces of Andronikos Doukas. Alyattes being too tired after the Battle of Manzikert and travelling for kilometers would lose to the Doukas brothers and like real history get blinded with the use of tent pegs, thus with such a painful blinding, Alyattes would die a few weeks later from his injuries. Romanos then like in real history after his army’s defeat would first retreat south to his homeland of Cappadocia and then to the coastal city of Adana in Cilicia, although Andronikos like in real history would still be able to track Romanos to Adana and force the local garrison to surrender to him. Romanos was then brought before Andronikos who at least agreed to spare Romanos if he gave up his crown and the imperial purple and retire to be a monk, thus Romanos was loaded into a cart headed for Constantinople by road but before reaching the capital, John Doukas would send word to his son Andronikos that he did not agree with the terms and so here while stopping over at the city of Kotyaion in Western Asia Minor, Romanos like in real history would be betrayed and brutally blinded in June of 1072.

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Blinding of Romanos IV by Andronikos Doukas in 1072, art by Ancient City Lullaby

The blinding of Romanos was allegedly said to be done by an inexperienced Jew- which is true for this story’s case- who took 3 attempts to successfully blind Romanos and due to how bloody and slow the blinding was carried out, the injury inflicted on Romanos was so severe that within only a few weeks, Romanos like in real history who would receive no medical care after his blinding would die so shamefully exiled in one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea outside Constantinople, though at least he would be allowed a proper burial by his wife the exiled empress Eudokia like in real history. Now Romanos IV Diogenes is one Byzantine emperor with a mixed reputation depending on who wrote him as Michael Psellos who in reality just like in this story hated Romanos described him as just a power hungry glory seeker who deserved his defeat at Manzikert in real history as well as his blinding in 1072, while the other historian of Romanos’ time Michael Attaleiates (1022-1080) who knew Romanos well was more sympathetic to Romanos portraying him as a tragic hero who only wanted to do what was best to save the empire from the immediate threat of the Seljuks. Now I would say that a more unbiased way to see Romanos IV was that he was he was someone who would do whatever he thought was right in order to drive away the Seljuks and save his empire but his major flaw though was his arrogance and impatience especially when brashly marching out to battle the Seljuks in Manzikert even if the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan never wanted a full war with Byzantium anyway. And though having to end up with such a tragic fate, Romanos in this story would be the one to thank for saving Asia Minor from collapse through constant Seljuk raids that would take place in reality. On the other hand, Sultan Alp Arslan too would meet his end in 1072 just like in real history, and here as Alp Arslan was preparing to invade his people’s ancestral lands in Central Asia known as Turkestan, he captured a local governor who he had sentenced to death, but before being executed, the governor pulled out his dagger and stabbed Alp Arslan in the chest killing him. Alp Arslan would then be succeeded by his son Malik-Shah I who in this story will be leave Constantinople and return to the Seljuk capital of Ray, although as a ruler he would not be as ambitious as his father and in this story’s case at least, Byzantium and the Seljuks would not be in much conflict with each other anymore.            

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Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Empire and his court
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Sultan Malik-Shah I (r. 1072-1092), son of Alp Arslan, and his court
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Michael Psellos (left) and Emperor Michael VII Doukas (right)

In this story’s case, the reign of Emperor Michael VII Doukas as senior emperor following the Battle of Manzikert and the absence of Romanos IV in 1071 would not turn out to be as disastrous as it was in real history, mainly because the expansion of the Seljuks deep into Asia Minor would not happen due to losing to the Byzantines at Manzikert and following the death of Alp Aslan in late 1072, the Seljuk Empire would weaken in power. Though as he is usually described in real history, Michael VII in this story will be the same kind of incompetent emperor oblivious to the chaos growing in the empire around him, except that with the absence of the continued Seljuk raids in this story, the empire would not be in so much chaos, though Michael’s weakness would surely be an advantage for ambitious generals all over Asia Minor to rebel and put a claim on the throne.

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Emperor Michael VII Doukas of Byzantium (r. 1071-1078), son of Constantine X and Eudokia

Though Michael VII looked strong and tall in appearance with thick curly hair, big eyes, and a large chest, he was weak on the inside being more interested in studying ancient verses thus people complained about him saying that he was more fit to be a bishop than an emperor, and truly he was the wrong kind of emperor in this time of crisis. The major inconvenience of Michael VII’s reign however was that there were so many people in his court with high positions of power as for instance his two other brothers Andronikos and Constantius as well as his half-brothers the twins Leo and Nikephoros Diogenes which were the sons of Romanos IV and Michael’s mother Eudokia were all co-emperors, while Michael’s wife Maria of Alania was now the senior empress or Augusta and his uncle John Doukas still held the title of Caesar, although here one of Michael VII’s sisters which was Theodora had already married Domenico Selvo, the leader or Doge of the rising Republic of Venice in Italy. Michael VII however being a weak ruler was someone easily influenced and here in 1073, he had been completely under the influence of his new eunuch advisor Nikephoritzes and acting under the bad advice of Nikephoritzes, Michael had sidelined his uncle John Doukas forcing him to retire to his estates in Asia Minor while Michael Psellos too would start feeling neglected as his former student the emperor started favoring Nikephoritzes over him and so Psellos here would retire to a monastery once again like he did back in the last years of Constantine IX’s reign before Psellos returned to the court under Empress Theodora (1055-1056). Now retiring to a monastery for good like in real history, Psellos would peacefully finish his Chronographia which is the primary although mostly biased source of this 11th century story.

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Coin of Michael VII (center) with his brothers co-emperors Constantius and Andronikos Doukas beside him

In this story however, since the Byzantines came out victorious over the Seljuks at Manzikert, they unlike in real history would not have to pay annual tribute to the Seljuks, instead the Seljuks would pay tribute to the Byzantines, therefore the economic instability and collapse in Michael VII’s reign would not happen in this story as it did in real history where the economy was so severely ruined with the standard gold solidus again devalued but this time by an entire quarter, thus Michael VII earned the nickname Parapinakes meaning “minus a quarter” as he devalued the gold currency by a full quarter. Though despite not devaluing the currency here in this story due to the income the empire received from the tribute collected from the Seljuks, the standard gold solidus would still not regain its former full gold value it had before Constantine IX’s reign in the 1040s-50s but again like in real history, the main reason for Michael’s downfall was his corrupt eunuch advisor Nikephoritzes. Like in real history, Nikephoritzes would do the same in this story in further causing starvation in the empire by banning free grain trade and putting himself in complete control of it, thus the prices for grain would begin to rise. The economic policies of Nikephoritzes here would like in real history cause the soldiers in Asia Minor and the Balkans to mutiny due to lack of pay while in the Balkans as well, the same will happen like in real history in 1073 when the Bulgarians would rise up once again against Byzantine imperial authorities being the second Bulgarian rebellion since 1040 against Michael IV and again it would be against the corrupt taxations of a eunuch official whereas in the last time it was against the eunuch John and this time against Nikephoritzes. This Bulgarian uprising here too would also be one not only regarding imperial taxation but about Bulgarian national identity, therefore the need to declare independence from Byzantium and again like in 1040 when the Bulgarian uprising’s leader Delyan was said to be a descendant of the last great Bulgarian tsar Samuil, the leader here in 1073 which here though was the Serbian nobleman and ruler of Duklja Constantine Bodin also claimed to be a descendant of Tsar Samuil.

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Constantine Bodin, Ruler of Duklja (Serbia) and leader of the Bulgarian Uprising of 1073

The rebellion in Bulgaria would soon enough prove to be too difficult for the imperial army in the Balkans to contain that it would spread across the region, although at the end the uprising would fully be crushed by the same general from Manzikert Nikephoros Bryennios who in this story after returning west with Romanos IV would be assigned by Michael VII to the Balkans whereas Bodin was captured and the cities taken by the rebels returned to Byzantine rule. Meanwhile, Michael VII seeing all of Byzantine Italy had fallen to the Norman duke Robert Guiscard did not care to take it back anymore as he was already facing many problems and even though in this story’s case due to the Byzantines winning in Manzikert and most of Asia Minor not falling into the hands of the Seljuks therefore there would be no ambitious generals all setting up their own independent lands, the problem in Asia Minor would again come from a Norman which is no other than the escaped Roussel de Bailleul. In real history though, Roussel and his Norman mercenaries joined the forces of the young Alexios Komnenos who accompanied his older brother Isaac in a campaign to drive the Seljuks away from Asia Minor where Isaac ended up captured, therefore Roussel and his 400 Normans saw this as an opportunity to escape and establish their own state in Asia Minor. In this story, though the Seljuks would not penetrate into Asia Minor due to losing to the Byzantines at Manzikert, Asia Minor due to losing 10% of its army at Manzikert would still be weakened in terms of defense, giving the Norman Roussel de Bailleul who comes back into the picture after disappearing for some 2 years, the right opportunity to do as his Norman people did in Italy by attacking the locals in order to demand pay from them in order to stop their attacks and put them under their protection, thus by doing these acts of terrorism, Roussel like in real history would be able to create his own small independent Norman state in Asia Minor with only 400 men.

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Roussel de Bailleul, Independent Norman leader in Asia Minor (1073-1076)

Now the Byzantine historians of this time often portray the Normans as treacherous, greedy, and violent which is actually very much true about them and no matter how the Normans would see themselves as cultured French people and devout Catholics, they were still stuck in the violent and greedy ways of their Viking ancestors, and now that the Normans by the 1070s had an empire ruled by different dynasties that now had control of England, Normandy, and Southern Italy, Roussel being in Asia Minor wanted to add it too into the wider Norman Empire. Michael VII however would not be oblivious to Roussel’s rebellion as by 1074, Roussel had already gained some significant control of Asia Minor making the city of Ancyra (today’s Anakara) as his capital, and so Michael VII would call his uncle John Doukas out of retirement and together with his son Andronikos, who returns to the picture after he last appeared when blinding Romanos IV in 1072, they would head into Roussel’s territory together with a unit of Varangian Guards and an army under the now aged general Nikephoros Botaneiates who would come back into the picture after many years of retirement, but at the end the Byzantines would suffer a defeat in battle due to the strength of Roussel’s famous Norman heavy cavalry and Botaneiates deserting John and Andronikos Doukas seeing he was too old to fight. With his victory, Roussel would further grow his lands in Asia Minor taking over a number of Byzantine Themes before reaching the Asian shore of the Bosporus right across Constantinople. Wanting to legalize his holdings in Asia Minor, Roussel like in real history here would proclaim John Doukas who became his captive as his puppet emperor against his nephew Michael VII. In real history, Michael VII growing nervous of Roussel’s ambitions in 1075 had made an alliance with the raiding Seljuks in Asia Minor agreeing to give them all the lands in Eastern and Central Asia Minor they had been raiding in exchange for defeating Roussel, and even though the Seljuk raiders in real history were able to successfully battle Roussel’s forces, Roussel still escaped east while only John and Andronikos Doukas were captured by the Seljuks. This event and not Manzikert in real history was then what led to the ultimate loss of Asia Minor to the Seljuks as after their success in battling Roussel’s forces, the Seljuks successfully gained control over most of Asia Minor. In real history though, both John and Andronikos Doukas were released when Michael VII paid their ransom to the Seljuks, though for agreeing to be made as Roussel’s puppet emperor, Michael VII forced his uncle John to renounce all his ambitions and titles given to him in exchange for not being blinded, thus John had retired as a monk while his son Andronikos would still survive although he would have to retire from public service due to being badly beaten by both his Norman and Seljuk captors. In this story however, Michael VII would not consider an alliance with the Seljuks as they were not present raiding Asia Minor, therefore a large portion of Byzantium’s heartland would not fall under their control, however Michael would still pay his uncle and cousin’s ransom though this time to Roussel and not the Seljuks and the same fate in real history would happen to John and Andronikos whereas John would be forced to retire as a monk and Andronikos from public service due to injuries.

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Alexios Komnenos, Byzantine general, art by AlexiosI

Instead of relying on the Seljuk Turks to deal with Roussel like in real history, Michael VII here would still rely on his army, and so in 1075 like in real history, Michael VII would send the young general Nikephoros Palaiologos and his army of 6,000 to deal with Roussel but due to not being paid on time, Palaiologos’ troops deserted him, therefore Michael would have to rely on another general and this would be the young Alexios Komnenos returning to the picture once again and despite being only 20 here in 1076, he possessed a lot of military skill. In 1076, Alexios’ forces like in real history would finally manage to capture Roussel in the Armeniac Theme where Alexios himself would drag Roussel in chains to Constantinople where a blindfold was placed over Roussel’s eyes to pretend he was blinded as Alexios here had been thinking that the emperor would want his prisoner brought in one piece. In this story however, Alexios when reaching Constantinople immediately executed Roussel by beheading him in the Hippodrome for everyone to see and Michael VII did not care any less as Roussel was indeed a troublemaker and thus his threat had finally ended and the lands he captured returned to Byzantine control. In real history though, Roussel would be imprisoned for a year but released this time swearing loyalty to Michael VII against a rebel general, but Roussel still switched sides but was later executed, except here with Roussel already executed in 1076 none of this would happen for now.        

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Byzantine territories in Asia Minor by 1075 (purple, bitten donut shaped), new Seljuk territories in Asia Minor in real history (green), Norman lands under Roussel de Bailleul (blue)
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Coin of Roussel de Bailleul
Watch this to learn more about Roussel de Bailleul and the Normans in Asia Minor (History Time).

In the meantime, Michael VII was growing ever more unpopular despite defeating Roussel de Bailleuil, and the main reason here was his chief finance minister the eunuch Nikephoritzes that in 1076 as well, the Byzantine garrison along the Danube in northern Bulgaria rebelled under their commander the Serb Nestor, a former slave of Michael VII’s father Constantine X who was freed and made a governor, though a lot of his wealth and property were confiscated by Nikephoritzes. The troops here demanded that the corrupt Nikephoritzes be removed from office while Nestor allied himself with the Pecheneg people beyond the Danube to gain a larger army in order to march to Constantinople. In 1077, another military rebellion broke out as well and this one was in the Balkans led by Nikephoros Bryennios, the same general that fought at Manzikert in 1071 and crushed the Bulgarian uprising in 1073 and again his rebellion had something to do with Nikephoritzes as Bryennios discovered that he was part of Nikephoritzes’ list of people to assassinate but also growing tired of the emperor Michael VII’s incompetence, he rebelled and marched to his home city of Adrianople in Thrace where he proclaimed himself emperor. Other than Nestor in the Danube and Nikephoros Bryennios in Adrianople, there would be a third general that would rise up against Michael VII and this here was the same old man Nikephoros Botaneiates in Asia Minor, although in real history Botaneiates only rebelled and proclaimed himself emperor after writing a letter to Michael VII asking him to act on the situation in Asia Minor as the Seljuks were already about to take over all of it, but in this story with the Seljuks not going as far as Central Asia Minor, Botaneiates would only rebel as he too was tired of Michael VII’s weak rule and in fear that his weak rule would later allow the Seljuks to one day penetrate deep into Asia Minor. On January 7 of 1078 meanwhile, a number of bishops gathered in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople where they all declared their opposition against Michael VII and proclaiming that Nikephoros Botaneiates should be emperor and here, Michael VII would start losing hope.

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Constantine Doukas, son of Michael VII and Maria of Alania

In the meantime, Michael and his wife Empress Maria of Alania already had a child which was their son Constantine Doukas born in 1074 and already made co-emperor together with Michael’s brothers Andronikos and Constantius who were still around, although since 1077, Michael’s cousin and John Doukas’ son Andronikos had died due to the injuries he received when captured by Roussel, though his father John was still alive and even though he was made a monk, in early 1078 after the bishops turned on Michael, John too advised his nephew that he must abdicate as throne was no longer safe for him. Alexios Komnenos on the other hand also in early 1078 arrived in the Danube garrison right in time to defeat the rebel forces of Nestor, although Nestor who allied himself with the Pechenegs escaped with them never to return again.

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Flag of the Chinese Empire under the Song Dynasty (960-1279)

At around this time as well, Michael VII would make one achievement and this was in being another one of the Byzantine emperors to send ambassadors to China which now was under the Song Dynasty, thus making him the first Byzantine emperor in more than 4 centuries since Constans II (r. 641-668)- if you remember from chapter IV of this series- to send a diplomatic mission to China as it is recorded in this History of Song that in 1081, ambassadors from Byzantine emperor Michael VII visited China, although this mission unlike the one of Constans II if you remember which resulted in something had not and by the time the ambassadors reached China, Michael VII had already been ousted from power for already 3 years as right here in March of 1078, Michael VII like in real history finally decided to abdicate in favor of Nikephoros Botaneiates and retire peacefully to a monastery.

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Younger looking Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (left) and Empress Maria of Alania (right)

Like in real history, Nikephoros Botaneiates here would gather a few Seljuk allies to help him take Constantinople and by the time he reached the capital, the nobility including the empress Maria of Alania all switched sides to Nikephoros and so Michael VII after he abdicated was forced to retire to the same Stoudion Monastery where Isaac I retired to some 20 years earlier to also become a monk. Michael’s brothers Andronikos and Constantius too were forced into monasteries in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea while Romanos IV and Eudokia’s twin sons Nikephoros and Leo Diogenes would still be allowed to remain in the palace, but Nikephoritzes in this story’s case would also flee and like in real history, he would also be tortured to death by the local commander in the Princes’ Islands under Nikephoros’ orders. The empress Maria of Alania on the other hand did not retire with her husband, instead she agreed to marrying the old Nikephoros Botaneiates who was over 50 years older than her as Maria was true enough ambitious therefore wanting to keep her power and secure her son Constantine’s succession as Nikephoros had no children anyway. The marriage between the 76-year-old Nikephoros Botaneiates and 25-year-old Maria of Alania thus seemed so outrageous as Maria was young and attractive while Nikephoros looked like he could be her grandfather, but Maria was only marrying him for political reasons as she still wanted to stay in power while Nikephoros too never really cared much about her except again for political reasons to legitimize his claim as being an old man, Nikephoros saw that Maria was too young and beautiful for him that Nikephoros even considered again marrying the former empress which was Michael’s mother Eudokia like he did 10 years earlier as she was much older, but having retired as a nun for many years already, Eudokia refused and so Nikephoros was left to marry the much younger Maria. Nikephoros Botaneiates then ironically came into the power the same way Isaac I Komnenos did in 1057 in the same kind of military revolution and thus he was crowned as Emperor Nikephoros III at 76, the oldest emperor ever so far to be crowned in Byzantine history and though in real history, Nikephoros III began his reign with the Seljuks already occupying most Asia Minor due to Michael VII’s previous alliance with them as well as his own, here his Seljuk allies being only a few in number would not gain much but being so old already when coming into power, Nikephoros III’s reign would be another unstable one.      

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The loss of Byzantine Asia Minor from 1071-1078 in real history

 

Epilogue and Conclusion   

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The new emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates may have been a better emperor if he was much younger and if the empire were not in so much chaos as here in this story, despite Asia Minor not being so devastated by Seljuk Turkish raids, the Balkans would be the one chaotic as not only was Nikephoros Bryennios still left there rebelling but the Pechenegs continued their raids too. The situation of the empire in real history under Nikephoros III though would be worse as due to getting the Seljuks and their other Turkish allies to support him, Nikephoros III gave them almost all of Asia Minor including the city of Nicaea very close to Constantinople which then became the Seljuks’ new capital, thus almost all of Byzantine Asia Minor was lost. In real history however, the main Seljuk Empire of Alp Arslan had already more or less dissolved following his death in 1072 thus never making their ultimate goal of conquering Egypt, but this still scattered his Turks around Asia Minor dividing into two major groups with one being the main Seljuk Empire’s successor state which was the Sultanate of Rum and the other one in North-Central Asia Minor being the Danishmend Turks, while in the region of Cilicia in Southern Asia Minor the Armenian people from Eastern Asia Minor fleeing from the expansion of the Seljuk and Danishmend Turks would end up there and establish their own state there in 1080 known as the Principality of Cilician Armenia.

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Flag of the Principality of Armenia in Cilicia, founded by Armenian refugees following the Seljuk conquest of Asia Minor in real history

In this story however, none of these would happen in Asia Minor, as the Seljuks would go another way heading down south into the Levant but Nikephoros III’s rule here just like in real history would be the same as he too seeing that the economy had already been damaged under Michael VII would not bother to fix it and just like Constantine X he was another boring old man that would be too old to save the empire and so he would devalue the currency again even more than it was under Michael VII as in fact under Nikephoros III, the standard gold solidus would be devalued by a full third. Though without Asia Minor being completely almost lost to the Turks here, Nikephoros III would have to suffer a number of military uprisings by a number of generals who all saw he was too old and unfit to rule and to deal with them, Nikephoros III would appoint the young Alexios Komnenos to specifically do that job.

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Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates of Byzantium (r. 1078-1081) and his court behind

The first general to rebel against Nikephoros III would be no other than Nikephoros Bryennios in the Balkans although later in 1078, Alexios Komnenos would be able to defeat Bryennios in battle afterwards blinding Bryennios who would however still continue to live. The next general to rebel had the same name as the emperor and the previous usurper and this was Nikephoros Basilakes in the Balkans who in 1079 was easily defeated thus blinded by the young Alexios but in Constantinople, the emperor would almost get assassinated by his own Varangian Guard, though to punish them he only sent them way to a fortress in Asia Minor. In the meantime, since Nikephoros III took the throne, he had cancelled the existing marriage proposal between Michael VII and Maria of Alania’s young son Constantine and the Norman duke of Southern Italy Robert Guiscard’s daughter and because of this, Robert Guiscard grew furious that like in real history, he would begin to prepare his forces to invade Byzantium. In 1080, the empress Maria of Alania had happened to adopt Alexios Komnenos despite him being only 3 years younger than her, although the reason for this was that she fell in love with Alexios behind the emperor’s back. In 1080 as well like in real history, another general again named Nikephoros from the powerful Melissenos family rose up against the emperor in Asia Minor and so Alexios was sent to crush this rebellion but on the way, he was persuaded by no other than the retired Caesar John Doukas who became a monk to instead turn on the old emperor and take the throne and soon enough, a large number of the empire’s aristocracy all backed young Alexios as he was seen as more capable to rule in a hard time like this while he too had support as he was a nephew of the former emperor Isaac I Komnenos, and so Alexios would also give up his affair with the empress as he had married Irene Doukaina, the granddaughter of John Doukas and daughter of the late general Andronikos Doukas. Like in real history here, Nikephoros III when finding out Alexios turned on him would try to ally himself with the Seljuks and attempt to make peace with the rebel general Melissenos but without success.

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

Alexios Komnenos and his forces would arrive outside Constantinople in April of 1081 wherein due to the lack of soldiers defending the walls, Alexios and his army stormed the capital and sacked it while Nikephoros III having no other options abdicated and retired again as a monk although he named Nikephoros Melissenos his successor, but when Alexios Komnenos took the throne, Melissenos surrendered his claim to Alexios. Now Nikephoros III’s name ironically meant “bringer of victory” but he was not able to score any and thus he abdicated as the last emperor in Byzantine history to have that name and in the next year, he would die as a monk at the age of 80. The new emperor Alexios I Komnenos would come to power the same way he did in real history in 1081 ready to save the empire, except without having to face the dire situation of Asia Minor almost lost to the Seljuks but the major threat he would face was the upcoming Norman invasion. First of all, Alexios would adopt Michael VII and Maria of Alania’s son Constantine as his own as well as Romanos IV and Eudokia’s twins Leo and Nikephoros Diogenes in order to secure his legitimacy and despite Alexios being married, he would still allow the empress Maria to remain in the palace while Michael VII’s younger brother Constantius would be released from the monastery and be made one of Alexios’ generals in his upcoming campaign against the Normans.

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Exiled Anglo-Saxon Varangian Guard

Like in real history, the Norman invasion of Byzantium led by their duke Robert Guiscard himself and would take place in October of 1081 and Alexios I and his forces which would include Anglo-Saxons from England exiled by their Norman conquerors in the Varangian Guard unit would march to confront the Normans. The forces of Alexios I and Robert Guiscard’s Normans would like in real history clash at the Battle of Dyrrhachion in today’s Albania in which the Anglo-Saxon Varangians would meet again with their enemy, their Norman conquerors but in a different place and desiring revenge for conquering their homeland and sending them away, the Anglo-Saxons would charge at the Normans without orders thus creating chaos in the Byzantine army which would later lead to their defeat to the Normans. In this story, the Byzantines like in real history would suffer a humiliating defeat to the Normans whereas Constantius Doukas would be killed in battle and the new emperor Alexios barely escaping from it. Alexios however like in real history would still not accept defeat and so he would find a way to bribe Robert Guiscard’s subjects in Italy to rebel against their Norman overlords, thus this had made Robert rush back to Italy to crush their rebellion while at the same time, Alexios would seal what would be a permanent naval alliance with the Republic of Venice against the Normans. Though Robert returned to Italy, his son Bohemond was still left behind to carry out the Norman conquest of Greece but in 1083 his forces would lose to Alexios I’s Byzantine army at the Battle of Larissa in Greece and in 1084, Robert Guiscard would return to Byzantine Greece attempting to carry out a full invasion this time but before being able to, he would die in 1085 like in real history when his army got hit by a local plague in Greece, thus the Norman invasion would be cut short as Bohemond would have to return to Italy to consolidate his rule as its new duke.

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Cumans, allies of Alexios I against the Pechenegs

With everything settled down, the next time Alexios I would come back into action here just like in real history is in 1091 when the Pechenegs in the thousands invade the Byzantine Balkans all the way down to Thrace in such a mindless manner and here Alexios would ally himself with the Pechenegs’ mortal enemy which were the other Turkic nomadic people known as the Cumans. Alexios I here like in real history would defeat the Pechenegs at the Battle of Levounion in 1091 where under the request of the Cumans, the Byzantines would carry out a brutal genocide on the Pechenegs wiping out every last one of them, thus the Pecheneg threat would be settled once and for all. What would not happen here which did in real history was Alexios I’s campaign against the renegade Seljuk general Tzachas who both made for himself an independent state and declared himself a Byzantine emperor using the Byzantine city of Smyrna in Asia Minor as his base, but in this story, with there being no Turks in Asia Minor due to their defeat at Manzikert, there would be no Tzachas to pose a threat to Byzantium. In real history though, Alexios I was able to defeat Tzachas only by tricking the Seljuk Sultan of Rum Kilij Arslan I who was Tzachas’ son-in-law that hated him into killing his father-in-law at a dinner which succeeded, but in this story again with no Turks in Asia Minor, none of this would happen.      

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All territories under the Seljuks in their entire history (orange)
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All territories under the Normans in their history (red)
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Battle of Dyrrhachion, Byzantine defeat to the Normans in Albania, 1081, art by FaisalHashemi
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Alexios Komnenos and Maria of Alania, art by Minahboh24
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Alexios I Komnenos, art by Diogos_tales

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Dyrrhachion, 1081 (Kings and Generals). 

  

For this story, the rest of Alexios I Komnenos’ reign would be fast-tracked, but I would still describe how the situation in the empire would be like in the 1090s considering that the Seljuks lost at Manzikert and therefore did not end up taking almost all of Asia Minor like in real history. On the other hand, the previous emperor Michael VII Doukas who had retired in 1078 to become a monk in this story like in real history would end up becoming the Bishop of Ephesus during Alexios I’s reign and would die sometime in the 1090s, although in real history Ephesus which was in Asia Minor would still be one of the few remaining territories under Byzantine hands while the rest had already fallen to the divided Seljuk powers, but in this case most of Asia Minor would still be Byzantine except for the far east where Armenia is which in this story would have already fallen to the Seljuks.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos

In real history, the collapse of Asia Minor to the rule of the Turks was so dire that even the Byzantine army which was still strong considering now that the empire had a strongman emperor again running it which was Alexios I, they still could not do anything themselves to recover all of Asia Minor from the Turks and so this meant that the emperor needed to seek military aid from Western Europe and this would come in the form of the First Crusade. Now in this story without almost all of Asia Minor lost to the Seljuks and other Turkish powers, Alexios I would have no reason to ask for military assistance from the west as Constantinople itself was not threatened anyway but I would still say that the First Crusade happened as after all the Council of Clermont in France organized in 1095 by Pope Urban II was called not really to help Byzantium fight against the Turkish invaders but to capture the holy city of Jerusalem from the Turks that had recently captured it. Now Jerusalem for over 4 centuries since the 630s- mentioned back in chapter IV of this series- had been under Muslim hands although the previous Muslim rulers of Jerusalem which were the Arab Caliphates still allowed Christian pilgrims from Europe to travel freely into the city, but with the new Muslim power of the Seljuk Turks seizing Jerusalem- which like in real history would also happen in this story- it had become too dangerous for Christian pilgrims to travel there as along the way they would be ambushed by Seljuk Turk raiders who were more fanatical Muslims than their Arab predecessors.

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Council of Clermont, Beginning of the First Crusade, 1095

When the First Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the Turks was called in 1095, a large number of knights and nobles from Europe willingly agreed to it to defend their faith but a lot of them also did it in search of land and riches and true enough the Normans of Italy led by no other than Bohemond, the son of Robert Guiscard was willing to fight in the Crusades for his own personal glory, especially to add more lands this time in the Middle East into the empire of the Normans. The first wave of Crusaders to march from Europe to the Middle East by land were however not a group of organized knights but an unruly pack of peasants led by a certain Peter the Hermit, and this movement was known as the People’s Crusade which in 1096 arrived in Byzantine lands pillaging it that Alexios I had to act on it quickly and so he had these unorganized Western European peasants quickly transported across the Bosporus into Asia Minor where they would be defeated, dispersed, and captured by the Seljuks never even making it anywhere near their main objective in the Levant.

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Knights of the First Crusade

The army Alexios I asked for however came in 1097 and part of it was his old nemesis the Norman Bohemond, and this army consisting of knights and noblemen despite being organized were however also troublesome as they never really wanted to help Byzantium regain their lands but take these lands for themselves and so to put them under control, Alexios I brought them to Constantinople to make sure they all swore loyalty to him or else they would not be allowed to continue their march. Most of the Crusader leaders however swore their loyalty but some of them still did not and even though some did, they still never remained loyal. As the Crusaders continued their march, most of Asia Minor was still returned to Byzantium as the Byzantine army had escorted them to make sure Byzantine lands were restored to the empire and true enough the city of Nicaea was returned to Byzantium in 1097 only because the Byzantine army took it back from the Seljuks by surprise behind the Crusaders’ backs, although after this the Crusaders managed to win a decisive victory over the Seljuks at the Battle of Dorylaeum in Asia Minor which then opened for them the way to march south into the Middle East.

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Bohemond, Prince of Crusader Antioch (r. 1098-1111), son of Robert Guiscard

The Crusaders had soon enough been able to reach Syria with much difficulty and in 1098, the Norman forces under Bohemond were able to capture the city of Antioch from the Seljuks thus Bohemond had claimed it for himself establishing the Norman Principality of Antioch with him as its prince. The rest of the Crusaders then proceed south and in 1099, before the next century had begun, the Crusades’ division of the Frenchman Godfrey of Bouillon were able to achieve their ultimate goal which was capturing Jerusalem and what followed the Crusaders’ capture of Jerusalem was a complete massacre of the city’s Muslim and Jewish population by the Crusaders out of revenge. In this story however, since the Byzantines again would not suffer the loss of almost all of their heartland Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks, none of these events would happen as Alexios I would not have to ask for military assistance from the west which would in real history come in the form of the First Crusade that would be both a benefit and problem for the Byzantines, although without having to ask for military assistance from the west, the First Crusade would surely still happen as Jerusalem would still fall to the Turks, therefore the pope would still have to gather the people of Europe to fight back, but thing here is that without Byzantium asking for their assistance, these Crusaders would have no way to get to the Middle East as the only way was through Byzantium itself, and so without the Byzantine emperor asking for them, the Crusaders would have to find another way to get to Jerusalem but that would be a totally different story that you would have to decide for yourselves how that would go. Anyway, I would have to end the story right here where the eventful and challenging 11th century ends and where a new era begins, and this new era being the era of the Crusades would be a story for another time. Now, what a Byzantine victory at Manzikert in 1071 would result in would simply be that the situation of Asia Minor being overrun by the Turks would not be so devastating like it was in real history, therefore no need for the Byzantine emperor to call for Western military assistance, although a lot of things would still be the same and this would be that Byzantium even though winning a victory over the Seljuks would still have to face the disaster of civil wars and rebellions as well as a damaged economy while even though Byzantium would not ask for Western military assistance against the Seljuks, the First Crusade would still more or less come to happen as their main objective was Jerusalem anyway and not to help Byzantium.

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Map of the First Crusade’s Route (1096-1099)
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Map of Asia Minor at the time of the First Crusade
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People’s Crusade led by Peter the Hermit
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Crusader forces of Bohemond capture Antioch from the Seljuks, 1098
Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders by Emile Signol
Crusaders capture Jerusalem from the Seljuks, End of the First Crusade, 1099

Our story will end right here where this roller-coaster 11th century ends, and like many centuries in the history of Byzantium, the 11th century beginning with Basil II and ending with the First Crusade was one that had only featured so many events happening as it saw Byzantium go from a world power when the century began with the reign of Basil II to an empire weakened by new enemies they never have never heard of until they came. The 11th century started off with Byzantium as the dominant power of the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe that everyone looked up to for its culture and feared the power of its army especially considering how one entire nation being the Bulgarian Empire was wiped off the map and absorbed into the Byzantine Empire. However, this age of greatness did not really continue but the power of Byzantium as an empire, as the century progressed still remained no matter how many economic and political setbacks the empire had gone through. Byzantium reaching its apogee of power and influence under Basil II also meant that it would decline after it as it usually happens that the decline of an empire usually happens after its peak and for Byzantium, the empire may have not suffered so much if Basil II were succeeded by more competent emperors but instead the rulers that followed included his good for nothing brother Constantine VIII who may have only ruled for 3 years (1025-1028), but having a weak and worthless ruler like him meant that the empire was no longer in good hands, but the worst part was to come after him and this was through his daughter the empress Zoe who wastefully spend the full treasury her uncle Basil II worked so hard to fill while her 3 husbands more or less did the same as she did. Another reason how Byzantium’s power and influence had declined was the weakening of its economy especially by corrupt eunuchs and the 11th century here had featured two notable ones first being Emperor Michael IV’s (r. 1034-1041) brother John and the other being Nikephoritzes, the advisor of the emperor Michael VII (r. 1071-1078). Fortunately, the institutions in the empire including the state bureaucracy and the well-organzied structure of the army with additional assistance such as the powerful Varangian Guards kept Byzantium strong at this challenging time and despite there being many weak, corrupt, or even idiotic rulers at this period, there were also a few strong and capable ones needed in difficult times like this that were still intent to return the empire to its old glory when there was still a chance to and these emperors included Isaac I Komnenos (1057-1059), Romanos IV Diogenes (1068-1071), and Alexios I Komnenos where this century ends and though the first two mentioned here never got the chance to fulfil their mission to save the empire from decline, the 3rd one did and under the reign of Alexios I, Byzantium would again return to being the dominant power in the Mediterranean by the time the next century begins. What I now have to say about the 11th century was that for the Byzantine Empire it was a merry-go-around as one moment there would be a weak emperor and a corrupt court then there would be a strong one willing to restore the empire’s power, then again, another weak emperor and so on, but it was still one very action-packed century with just so many stories especially about battles to tell. On the other hand, there were also some things for the empire that they could not do about as for one, having such a large empire in which the empire did after Basil II’s death in 1025 meant that there would need to be so much spending for the army and structures for the empire to keep running while the other thing that could not be controlled were the rise of new foreign enemies and the Byzantines true enough never saw the Normans in Italy or the Seljuks coming from the far east becoming a major threat so quickly. The 11th century was then a major turning point for Byzantine history as it was when a foreign power being the Seljuks for the first time invaded and would settle permanently in its heartland Asia Minor, thus the beginning of the end of Byzantium, but also a turning point in Turkish history too as the 11th century was the start of the Turkish settlement in Asia Minor which would lead to the collapse of the centuries old Byzantine Thematic System, the separation of Byzantium with the Arab world after 4 centuries of being beside each other, and later to the foundation of the Ottoman Empire and what is today Turkey. The 11th century was also a major turning point for Byzantium as in 1071 Byzantine control over Italy would permanently disappear with the Normans capturing the last Byzantine city of Bari, thus this event would forever separate Byzantium from the western world, though the other big crucial moment was the Great Schism of 1054 which forever divided the Byzantine world from the western world in terms of spirituality, and from here the west would no longer trust Byzantium and vice-versa which would be the what the next few chapters of this series will focus on. On the other hand, the 11th century was also very eventful for the larger world as this century saw the Kingdom of France rise to influence, the establishment of the Kingdom of England following the Norman conquest of 1066, the rise of the Kingdom of Hungary, the expansion of Christian Spain when tide of war had turned against their Arab Muslim occupiers with the conquests of the general El Cid, while Egypt under the Fatimid Caliphate grew in influence in this century and so did the Song Empire of China, while distant Japan too underwent the golden age of the Heian Period in this century, and another significant event too was that when this century began the Viking Leif Ericsson first discovered and settled in North America. Back to Byzantium, the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 was really the major turning point if there would have to be an event that would mark the beginning of Byzantium’s decline, but what I am really trying to prove here in this alternate history story is that even if the Byzantines won over the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert, the empire would pretty much go through the same story of the emperor Romanos IV being betrayed, uprisings everywhere, and corruption and incompetence in government with the only difference being no major Seljuk Turkish invasion and occupation of Byzantine Asia Minor. Perhaps if Romanos IV were not betrayed and thus he took back the throne successfully, then maybe things would turn out to be different for Byzantium, but for this story I did not want to go with that possibility in order to be more realistic. Now, no matter if the Byzantines won or lost to the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert, the empire had already lost a lot of its power and prestige it had at the beginning of the century over the many years leading up to 1071 and even if the Byzantines won, the empire as I said would still suffer the same kind of internal instability while the Normans from the west would still be a threat anyway. However, a Byzantine victory over the Seljuks at Manzikert would have a significant difference for Byzantium in the long term as for one there would be no massive Seljuk Turkish occupation of Asia Minor, therefore no rise of the Ottomans centuries later that would bring in Byzantium’s end in 1453, while no major Seljuk occupation of Asia Minor would also mean no need for Byzantium to ask for Western military aid, but as I said I said even if there would be no Seljuk occupation of Asia Minor, the First Crusade may still be a thing as their objective was as mentioned not to aid Byzantium but to take Jerusalem back from the Seljuks that captured it. To put simply, the Battle of Manzikert was not really a major turning point that brought Byzantium down but more like a wakeup call that shocked the empire proving that they were not as invincible as they had thought, and even if the Byzantines defeated the Seljuks here, Byzantium would still fall to its internal fighting and political instability sooner or later which is then the whole point of this alternate history story.

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

In real history, even if the Byzantines suffered a heavy defeat to the Seljuks at Manzikert in 1071, their empire would still have another 4 centuries of story to tell with more ups and downs and the next chapter of this series will go through Byzantium’s new golden age under the Komnenos Dynasty founded by Alexios I in 1081 just like in this story and how this new golden age would as usual come to an end but this time by the new force of the Crusaders, but this series’ next chapter too would explore what events in the 12th century could prevent the tragic event of 1204 when Constantinople would for the first time be invaded which here was by the Crusaders which then would be the event that would mark the permanent decline of Byzantium, but that is going to have to be a story for another time. Now, before I finish, I have to say this particular story was a challenging one to write as the scenario of what if the Byzantines defeated the Seljuks at Manzikert is already a very popular what if story in Byzantine history, but for this I just chose to basically follow my thoughts and feelings on how the 11th century would turn out if things went the other way with Byzantium winning at Manzikert in order to make it a more authentic story. Well, this is all for Chapter VIII of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!