Byzantine Alternate History Chapter X- The 2nd Bulgarian Empire Captures Constantinople, 1235

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IX- 12th Century

It was Constantinople’s darkest hour- even perhaps, than that, two and a half centuries later, which was to see the city’s final fall to the Ottoman sultan.” -John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Decline and Fall, on the 4th Crusade’s 1204 Sack of Constantinople


Welcome to the 10th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time in chapter IX of this 12-part series, I went over the events of the 12th century to identify what led to bringing the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire to its knees and what could be done to avoid such a fate which would take place in 1204 wherein the Byzantine capital Constantinople would be sacked by the army of the 4th Crusade thus leading to the fracturing and temporary loss of the Byzantine Empire in an instant. The previous chapter ended with the 12th century ending and 13th century beginning with all things in favor of the Byzantines with their alliance with Republic of Venice resuming and all threats to the empire systematically eliminated, therefore no catastrophic sacking of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204. However, since the chapters of this alternate history series are not continuous with each other in plot, this chapter will begin with the events of real history taking place, therefore the events of the 12th century still led Byzantium to a downward spiral that will culminate in 1204 when Constantinople itself gets attacked and captured by the army of the 4th Crusade assisted by the Republic of Venice. Before beginning the chapter, I just have to say that now being at chapter X, I have realized that I have now gone a very long way as this chapter is going to be the first part in the last leg of this 12-part series wherein we now move on to the late Byzantine era. Now, the 13th century would already begin terribly for Byzantium due to the corruption and ineptness of its ruling dynasty, the Angeloi Dynasty that rose to power in 1185 when the nobleman Isaac II Angelos overthrew the previous Komnenos Dynasty and established his own and in his reign, the empire drastically fell into a chaotic period particularly seen when the Bulgarians who have been under Byzantine rule for almost 200 years rebelled and declared independence creating the 2nd Bulgarian Empire that would be there to stay. Though Isaac II was aware that his empire was in great trouble wherein a lot of these problems were actually caused by his own corrupt policies, he never succeeded in restoring order to his empire as in 1195 he was overthrown and blinded by his jealous older brother Alexios III Angelos who as the new emperor proved to be even more of an incompetent disaster than his younger brother. In the meantime, as political instability was brewing in the Byzantine Empire, over in Western Europe a new Crusade was called for by the new pope Innocent III in 1198 who once more convinced the nobles of Europe to take up arms and again depart for the Holy Land and recapture the holy city of Jerusalem which in 1187 fell back to Muslim rule as the 3rd Crusade in the 1190s also failed to recapture Jerusalem. Things would however only get worse for the Byzantines when both the Republic of Venice and the deposed son of Isaac II which was Alexios IV Angelos got involved in the 4th Crusade as Venice here under its ruler or doge Enrico Dandolo being Byzantium’s mortal enemy at this time was the one to provide ships to transport the Crusaders to the Holy Land while the arrival of Alexios IV who sought for help from the new Crusade to put his father back in power as well as himself would cause the Crusade to divert to Constantinople. Though Alexios IV was successfully put in power as well as his father, it came at a great price as Alexios IV was to offer a large debt to the Crusaders which he promised but could never fulfil, thus what resulted from this was a great disaster so unimaginable. In 1204, with Alexios IV and his father killed in local Byzantine coup in Constantinople, the Crusaders and Venetians with a great desire for revenge and tired of waiting to be paid while camped outside Constantinople attacked it overwhelming the defending Byzantine forces and on April 12 of 1204, the Byzantine capital Constantinople itself fell to the army of the 4th Crusade followed by a brutal sacking, burning, and looting of the city that went on for days making this one of the greatest crimes committed against humanity.

Seal of the Latin Empire, established in Constantinople, 1204

At the end, the 4th Crusade never made it to their objective which was the Holy Land and instead took over Constantinople establishing their own Latin Empire in it, thus ending the Byzantine Empire at least temporarily. The leaders of the 4th Crusade including the Republic of Venice then carved up the fallen Byzantine Empire among them establishing their own Latin (Western European) states in what was Byzantine territory, in which all of these states including the Latin Empire of Constantinople collectively would be known as the Frankokratia or “Rule of the Franks” in Greek. The Byzantines however would manage to survive the fall of their capital in 1204 and due to the imperial family growing large as with the previous ruling Komnenos Dynasty intermarrying with a large number of the noble families of Byzantium, these noble families all related to each other would establish their own Byzantine Greek successor states in the remains of the old Empire. The 3 major Byzantine successor states established after 1204 included the small Empire of Trebizond in the far eastern corner of the Black Sea founded by the direct descendants of the Komnenos Dynasty, the Empire of Nicaea in Western Asia Minor not far from Constantinople founded by the Byzantine noble Theodore I Laskaris, and the Despotate of Epirus in Western Greece founded by the relatives of the previous Angelos Dynasty. Out of the 3 Byzantine successor states, it was the Empire of Nicaea that grew to be the most successful among them that in only a span of a few decades, they would become the most powerful state in the area, although with a great amount of difficulty as most of the 13th century would see the lands of Greece, Thrace, the Balkans, and Asia Minor turn into a total warzone with Empire of Nicaea, Latin Empire, Despotate of Epirus, Seljuks of Asia Minor, 2nd Bulgarian Empire, and occasionally the new Serbian Kingdom at a constant war with each other over who would be the most dominant power of the area. Long story short, the Empire of Nicaea under the strong leadership of its emperors Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1221) and his successor John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) turned out to be the most successful of these new states and true enough the legitimate successor of Byzantium, while the Latin Empire based in Constantinople did not last long as the Latin rulers that ruled it true enough never had any long-term vision to build an empire as they just captured Constantinople unexpectedly in 1204 only intending to loot it, thus the Latin Empire of Constantinople having weak rulers with a lack of vision and being neglected by Western Europe would only last for 57 years. It is then known in real history that even though the Byzantines lost Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204, the Byzantine Empire was only gone for 57 years as in 1261 the forces of the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea by surprise recaptured Constantinople from the Latins thus ending the 57-year Latin occupation of Constantinople and re-establishing the Byzantine Empire, although the new Byzantium would no longer be what it was before 1204 as the damage caused by the Crusaders’ invasion turned out to be beyond repair. Now, during this 57 year period between 1204 and 1261, the Byzantines being the Empire of Nicaea here could have actually taken back Constantinople before 1261 considering how powerful the Byzantine Empire of Nicaea turned out to be and how the Latin Empire at Constantinople turned out to be a failed state, and true enough there was one such event in 1235 wherein the forces Empire of Nicaea led by their emperor John III Vatatzes together with his ally then the 2nd Bulgarian Empire with their forces led by their ruler or tsar Ivan Asen II could have taken back Constantinople. However, the siege of Constantinople by both John III of Nicaea and Ivan II of Bulgaria failed as mistrust erupted between both rulers over the question on which of them would take Constantinople, while the walls of Constantinople still proved to be too impossible to breach, therefore the Latins continued to hold onto Constantinople until they eventually lost it back to the Byzantines in 1261. Now the big question here is that if the siege of 1235 was a success with the Bulgarians being the ones to take over Constantinople, how would things turn out to be and would the Bulgarians hold the Byzantine capital for long?

Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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

Map of the Division of the Byzantine Empire after 1204 with the respective flags and seals of post and pre-1204 states
The 4th Crusade and the Venetian fleet attack Constantinople, 1203-1204

Now the 13th century was true enough a very tragic, chaotic, and bloody time in the history of the Byzantine Empire as it saw a very unique scenario of the empire disappearing for a full 57 years from 1204 to 1261 and its capital Constantinople occupied and desecrated by western invaders which were ironically the Crusaders who were supposed to be holy warriors, but the 13th century too saw the Byzantine Empire rise up from the ashes and be restored while it also featured some of the most colorful characters in Byzantine history. However, even though Byzantium was restored it would no longer be a significant power anymore despite having 2 more centuries left to live on, therefore the 13th century was really the beginning of the end for Byzantium. This chapter will therefore be a very unique one in this series as this will be the only where the main story which is Byzantium does not exist but rather the main story will be on the Empire of Nicaea which was the exiled Byzantine Empire from 1204 to 1261. On the other hand, the 13th century no matter how tragic it was for Byzantium was also a very interesting period as this was the time Byzantium being in exile as the Empire of Nicaea rediscovered its Ancient Greek roots thus beginning the birth of Byzantium’s Greek national identity, therefore this 57-year period gave the Byzantines the time to reinvent themselves as when their empire was restored in 1261, they became fully aware they were a Greek power compared to before 1204 when they saw themselves as more or less a multiethnic empire. The 13th century has fascinated me so much as well that in the recent special edition article I made in ranking the 12 centuries of the Byzantine Empire’s existence, I ranked it at #4 while at same time, most of my Byzantine era Lego films that I made for my Youtube channel No Budget Films are set in the 13th century covering the events of the 4th Crusade in 1204, the Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople in 1261, and the final Byzantine-Latin conflict and the Sicilian Vespers Rebellion in 1282, while recently I have also produced and narrated a 3-part audio epic series on the 57 years of the Byzantine Empire in exile for my channel as well, though I’ll save the mentions of my 13th century Lego films and audio epics for later wherein I’ll link all of them, though this article too will feature some of the 13th century’s characters in Lego from my previous films.

Logo of my channel- No Budget Films

Now when writing this chapter for my 12-part Byzantine Alternate History fan fiction series, I have once again come across the century in the history of Byzantium that I have put a lot of attention to in my films, but this time I will be writing about the 13th century in a much different perspective as rather than just retelling history like I did in my channel, I am going to alter it this time by coming up with an entirely fictional scenario of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire taking over Constantinople in 1235, which in fact they almost did. As a matter of fact, the whole what if scenario of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire of Tsar Ivan Asen II taking over Constantinople in 1235 was one of the reasons that led me to create this entire 12-part Byzantine Alternate History series as well as the what if for chapter I of this series. Both of these what if scenarios were then what led me to create this series while the other ones covered in the past 8 chapters were just thought of along the way, therefore since I have thought about writing this what if scenario of Bulgaria taking over Constantinople for a very long time now even before conceptualizing this series, this chapter is going to be a very special one. Now the time jump from the previous chapter to this one will be quite a short one as in fact some of the same characters from the last one, mainly the Angelos emperors will return here, although the largest difference in this one is that the events will start off with what actually happened in real history, therefore this chapter will begin with the Angelos emperors beginning with its founder Isaac II as an incompetent emperor in which he was remembered as such, while the rulers of his dynasty that followed him which were his older brother and son were in fact even worse than he was. This chapter will then show that the Byzantine Empire drastically changed from how it was in the previous 12th century as mentioned previously when it saw itself as the dominant power in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean under the rule of 3 consecutive strong emperors from the Komnenos Dynasty which were Alexios I (r. 1081-1118), John II (r. 1118-1143), and Manuel I (r. 1143-1180) to becoming a shameful shadow of its former self that had to suffer the humiliation of falling to the 4th Crusade in 1204, and the bridge between this time of greatness to a humiliating fate in 1204 would be the less than 20-year rule of the incompetent Angelos Dynasty (1185-1204). The fateful event of the fall of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade in 1204 was hinted a number of times in the previous chapter but never did happen due to the plotline of the previous chapter being on how to avoid the fateful 4th Crusade from sacking Constantinople and also that the previous chapter was only limited to the 12th century, however in this chapter this fateful event of 1204 will come and go as well, as here for this chapter on the other hand, the main plotline will be on what happened after Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade n 1204. The climax for this story will then take place in the year 1235 when the exiled Byzantines as the Empire of Nicaea under Emperor John III Vatatzes allied with the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Asen II had gained the upper hand and therefore were able to turn the tide of war and finally attempt to recapture Constantinople from the dying Latin Empire established there in 1204 with a very action-packed siege with some trickery involved. The twist then will be that in 1235, the allied Byzantines of Nicaea and Bulgarians would capture Constantinople ending the rule of the Latin Empire earlier than it was in real history, except that with an act of betrayal Constantinople would instead fall under the rule of the Bulgarian Empire, although possibly not for long as in real history as well the Bulgarian Empire of Ivan Asen II too may have just seemed like a dominant power for a time as after Ivan’s death in 1241 the power of the Bulgarians declined, therefore allowing the exiled Byzantines in Nicaea to continue rising in power and influence. Eventually, the Byzantines also as the Empire of Nicaea under another emperor which was Michael VIII Palaiologos successfully recaptured Constantinople in 1261, and here begins the story of the restored Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologos Dynasty founded by Michael VIII which would rule the empire until its final end in 1453. This chapter however will no longer cover the latter part of the 13th century with the restored Byzantium under the Palaiologos Dynasty, but would instead only end in 1261, the same year Byzantium was restored in real history, although for an extra twist this story before getting to 1261 will actually have a secret ending that is true enough only fictional.

13th Century Lego films and Videos from my channel, No Budget Films:           

Louis de Blois: The Hidden History of the Crusade (2017)

Summer of 1261: A Byzantine Epic (2019)

War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic (2020)

The 57 Years: Byzantium in Exile Part I (2020)

The 57 Years: Byzantium in Exile Part II (2020)

The 57 Years: Byzantium in Exile Part III (2020)

To set the stage for the confusing 13th century this chapter is set in, we will begin discussing in detail the catastrophic 4th Crusade in 1204 and its aftermath. The confusing part then happens after 1204 with the remains of the Byzantine Empire divided into various Latin powers established by the leaders of the 4th Crusade and Greek ones established by the surviving Byzantine nobility, though the trickiest part is about which of the 3 Byzantine successor states after 1204 which were the Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond, and Despotate of Epirus was the legitimate successor of the former Byzantine Empire itself.

Flag of the Empire of Nicaea (Byzantine Empire in exile, 1204-1261)

At the end however, it was really the Empire of Nicaea that proved to be the actual successor of the old Byzantine Empire as it turned out to be the largest and most successful of the 3 successor states, while it also was the one that from the very beginning was plainly existing in order to recover Constantinople one day, and true enough it was the one to recapture Constantinople and reestablish the Byzantine Empire in 1261 after eliminating all its obstacles. The Empire of Nicaea on the other was able to not only survive but grow thanks to the vision and persistence of its founder Emperor Theodore I Laskaris and his successor and son-in-law John III Vatatzes, and the second one John III would be the lead character of this story who happens to be one of Byzantium’s most underrated greatest emperors being a very rare example of a Byzantine ruler who was basically a Renaissance man, both strong military man as well as very popular and in fact even well-loved by his subjects as he brought in an age of economic growth and military superiority despite his empire being one in exile, and in his 32-year reign, the Empire of Nicaea became a thriving one even when it all seemed like everything was lost.

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

At the same time, John III was one ruler with a great legacy as he started the Greek cultural revival among the Byzantine people in exile thus giving them a new sense of purpose, which therefore makes him be remembered as the “Father of the Greeks”. Although John III in real history died in 1254 just 7 years before Constantinople was recovered from the Latins therefore never seeing Constantinople being Byzantine again, he at least paved the way for the ultimate reconquest of 1261 by annexing the territory of the Empire of Nicaea into Europe, recovering the city of Thessaloniki, surrounding the Latins to Constantinople, and establishing good relations with neighboring powers in order to expand his empire at peace. In the meantime, as John III was expanding the exiled Byzantine Empire in order to recapture Constantinople, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire to the north was exactly doing the same thing given that Constantinople had fallen to the 4th Crusade which then gave the opportunity for the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire as well as its neighbor the Serbian Kingdom to expand, and for Bulgaria even more considering they had an ambitious ruler which was Ivan Asen II who was in fact intent to capture Constantinople for the Bulgarians, wherein here in this story he would in fact even make it the Bulgarian Empire’s new capital. All while the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, and even the other Byzantine successor Despotate of Epirus was at a race with each other on whoever of them is first to capture Constantinople, the Latin Empire ruling from Constantinople was the one in trouble even if they have been around for a very short time, and as you will see whether the Byzantines and Bulgarians together took back Constantinople in 1235 or not, the Latin Empire either way at the end turned out to be a failed state that was barely able to sustain itself, and that if Constantinople’s powerful centuries old walls could have been breached, then the Latin Empire would have just faded away in an instant, and true enough the Latin Empire ended that way in 1261 when a small Byzantine force found a secret way into the walls and at the dead of night regained their old capital. Now with all these happenings in the 13th century, especially with the Bulgarians, exiled Byzantines, and Latins in conflict with each other you would see exactly the stereotypes of each other more and more evident with the Byzantines as wise and diplomatic but also scheming, the Bulgarians as unpredictable as savage, and the Latins as basically greedy and nothing much.

Flag of the Mongol Empire, the story of the 13th century

At the same time, a much larger threat far more powerful than any of these said powers was to arise from the far east of Asia, and this was the rapidly growing Mongol Empire, and true enough the 13th century too would be commonly remembered as the century of the Mongol Empire as it was here when the Mongols first came into the picture and expanded so vastly creating an empire that stretched from China all the way to Eastern Europe covering China, Russia, Persia, Central Asia, Asia Minor, and parts of the Balkans and due to the rapid expansion of the Mongols, the Seljuk Empire of Asia Minor that had been for almost 2 centuries a threat to the Byzantines ever since their conquest of Asia Minor after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 as mention in chapter VIII of this series would be devastated and brought to its knees by the Mongols and so would the 2nd Bulgarian Empire after Ivan Asen II’s death in 1241. The exiled Byzantines however would be the ones lucky as they were spared from the expansion of the Mongols and with their neighbors being the Seljuks in the east and the Bulgarians in the north devastated by the deadly attacks of the Mongols, the exiled Byzantines would grow and prosper, thus the Mongols can be the one to thank for allowing the Byzantines to rise up again from the ashes and once more take back their capital. Now the larger stories of the 13th century which is that of the rise of the Mongol Empire and of the kingdoms of Western Europe is whole different story altogether as this chapter’s story to be more straightforward is to be limited only to the story of the Byzantines and their road to recovery, although both the Mongols and the powers of Western Europe too will have a small part here. Before beginning, I would like to thank the Youtube channel Kings and Generals for providing detailed information on the 4th Crusade which they covered in one of their most recent videos, while I would also like to thank the artists (Ediacar, Spatharokandidatos, AlexiosI, Byzantinelegacy, HistoryGold777, Amelianvs, Giuseppe Rava, Kzvasilski, TimbukDrew, FaisalHashemi) whose works will be featured here in order to guide you viewers through the very complex 13th century.

Map of the restored Byzantine Empire (yellow), after 1261
Map of the Mongol Empire at its greatest extent, late 13th century

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IX- Preventing the 4th Crusade in the 12th Century

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

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople

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


The Leading Characters: 

John III Doukas Vatatzes- Byzantine emperor of Nicaea (1222-1254)

Ivan Asen II- Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1218-1241)

Theodore Komnenos Doukas- Despot of Epirus (1215-1230)

Jean de Brienne- Emperor of the Latin Empire in Constantinople 

Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes- Son and successor of John III 

Elena Asenina- Wife of Theodore II, daughter of Ivan Asen II

Baldwin II Courtenay- Emperor of the Latin Empire in Constantinople

Michael II Angelos- Despot of Epirus, successor of Theodore Komnenos Doukas  

Andronikos Palaiologos- Grand General (Megas Domestikos) of the Empire of Nicaea 

George Mouzalon- General of the Empire of Nicaea

Michael Palaiologos- General of the Empire of Nicaea, son of Andronikos

Alexios Strategopoulos- General of the Empire of Nicaea

The Background- The 4th Crusade, 1204          


In 1195, the incompetent ruling Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos who had been in power for almost 10 years set off on a military campaign to finally defeat the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire which had formed 10 years earlier when the Bulgarians once under the rule of the Byzantine Empire rose up against Byzantine authorities declaring themselves independent due to the corrupt tax policies imposed on them by the emperor Isaac II.

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

The Bulgarian subjects of the Byzantine Empire no longer wanting to pay taxes to the corrupt imperial court of Constantinople and wanting to be free of Byzantine imperial influence and returning to their old Bulgarian roots rebelled under two Bulgarian boyars or nobles Asen who became Ivan I and Theodor who became Peter II declared themselves as the new rulers or tsars of the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire also known as the “Vlach-Bulgarian Empire”, as the first Bulgarian was defeated and conquered by the Byzantines back in 1018 by the Byzantine emperor Basil II (r. 976-1025). For the next 10 years following the Bulgarians’ declaration of independence in 1185, the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos being at least aware that he caused this major problem of Bulgaria declaring independence due to his corrupt tax policies campaigned several times to crush the Bulgarian rebellion and return them once again under Byzantine imperial rule, but all attempts to do so failed. In 1195, Isaac II prepared one more campaign and this time it was to be a massive invasion of the new Bulgarian Empire to finally finish them off once and for all wherein he would be assisted by his ally the Kingdom of Hungary which would invade Bulgaria from the north, but at the end this campaign would never come to happen due to conspiracy.

Blinding of Isaac II Angelos, 1195

As Isaac II had already marched out of Constantinople to prepare his troops for battle in Thrace, he left his camp to go on a short hunting trip with his son Alexios for relief but while Isaac and his son were away, Isaac’s older brother who was also named Alexios usurped power by bribing the soldiers to proclaim him emperor, and when Isaac and his son returned to the camp, they were stopped and arrested while Isaac was blinded with a burning metal rod by orders of his older brother, thus Isaac and his son were brought to Constantinople to be imprisoned while Isaac’s older brother who had him blinded and imprisoned became Emperor Alexios III Angelos. Now the reason for why Alexios III deposed and blinded his younger brother remains mostly unclear but it can certainly be said that Alexios III was jealous that his younger brother was the one to become emperor instead of Alexios who was the older one, although Isaac II did not become emperor back in 1185 by blood but by a popular uprising against the former tyrant emperor Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-1185) who Isaac II overthrew and the people lynched to death.

Alexios III
Alexios III Angelos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1195-1203), older brother of Isaac II, art by myself

The bigger reason however to why Alexios III usurped power from his younger brother was a well-planned conspiracy by the Byzantine nobility who began to feel that Isaac II who they initially backed in 1185 was no longer their intended puppet emperor as at first they believed Isaac II was someone easy to manipulate in order to tolerate the corruption of the nobility but as the years passed, Isaac II had after all turned out to be someone not too easy to manipulate as he did in fact act on his own decisions even if they were not made well while he had turned out to be popular with the people too, therefore the nobility wanted someone much easier to manipulate and this was Isaac’s older brother Alexios who was basically an incompetent degenerate with no interest in ruling. With Isaac II blinded and imprisoned in 1195, Alexios III now ruled as emperor and even though he really wanted the position his brother had, he only wanted to have it basically because he was the older brother and nothing more, and as emperor his rule had turned out to be far more incompetent and corrupt than that of his younger brother Isaac II thus making Isaac II’s incompetent rule look like a great one compared to Alexios III’s. As emperor, the first thing Alexios III did was to cancel Isaac II’s military campaign to finally crush the Bulgarian Empire once and for all as Alexios here needed the campaign money in order to generously bribe the aristocrats and people of the capital to back him and compensate them for blinding his brother as Isaac II was true enough still popular with the masses and him being overthrown upset them. Alexios III when ruling had shown clearly no interest in it leaving his wife Euphrosyne Kamatera and the corrupt aristocrats that backed him to run the government while Alexios himself indulged in pleasure also making the sale of government positions legal as Isaac II before him at least only tolerated it but did not make it legal. Due to Alexios III having no interest in ruling his empire, the Seljuk Turks of Asia Minor again raided Byzantium’s eastern border capturing a large amount of land while Alexios III did not seem to care much about it and in the north due to the campaign of Isaac II being cancelled, the Bulgarian tsars Ivan Asen I and Theodor-Peter had their way and resumed their raids again this time taking large amounts of Byzantine lands in Thrace for their empire and again the emperor did not seem to care about his lands in Thrace being lost to the new Bulgarian power. In Bulgaria however, despite them gaining the upper hand against Byzantium their tsar Ivan Asen I was assassinated in 1196 being stabbed to death by a Bulgarian boyar leaving his brother Theodor-Peter to rule alone, although Ivan Asen I here had a son also named Ivan Asen who would be the future ruler of Bulgaria but was however still too young to rule.

Henry VI, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1191-1197)

Back in Byzantium, as the incompetent and wasteful Alexios III was ruling, in the Christmas of 1196 the Holy Roman emperor Henry VI who was both the King of Germany and just recently made the King of Sicily- after the fall of the Norman Kingdom there in 1194- threatened to invade the Byzantine Empire if Alexios III did not pay a tribute of 5,000 pounds which here was an act of Henry VI avenging the blinding of Isaac II as Henry happened to related to Isaac II in a far way with Henry’s brother the Duke of Swabia Philip being married to Isaac’s daughter Irene. Alexios III however despite his empire already in financial ruin due to all the wars with Bulgaria decided to pay this heavy tribute as he had no choice and so he had the tombs of the Byzantine emperors of the past at the Church of the Holy Apostles looted in order to find gold to pay this tribute while he also imposed a heavy tax on his people known as the Alamanikon or “German tax”. By 1197, Alexios III had raised enough funds to pay this tribute but luckily the Holy Roman emperor Henry VI died in 1197 before he could either collect the tribute or invade Byzantium, therefore there was no need to pay this tribute anymore so instead Alexios III used these funds to conclude peace again with the Seljuks in Asia Minor. Alexios III then again returned to indulging himself, appointing incompetent governors who were nothing but his favorites to administer the provinces, and allowing corrupt officials to sell of the sails and anchors of the deteriorating imperial fleet, and by being so uninterested, lazy, and even brainless as a ruler, the contemporary historian of this time Niketas Choniates (1155-1217) even mentions that Alexios III would sign any document given to him even if these documents were to agree to very stupid things such as sailing on land, plowing the sea, or even moving the mountains to the depths of the sea. In Bulgaria, their tsar Theodor-Peter in 1197 too suffered the same fate as his brother Ivan Asen I a year earlier as here Tsar Theodor-Peter was stabbed to death although under mysterious circumstances, and with both the brothers that ruled the new Bulgarian Empire dead, in 1197 they were succeeded by their younger brother Kaloyan who had turned out to be an ambitious ruler wanting to sever all Bulgaria’s ties with Byzantium and as a direct threat to the Byzantines, Kaloyan in 1198 entered into correspondence with the new pope Innocent III offering to acknowledge the supremacy of the pope and the Latin Church rather than the Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople, however Kaloyan was later only crowned as “King of Bulgaria” instead of “emperor” by a Papal Legate sent to the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo.

Uprising of Theodor-Peter and Ivan Asen in Tarnovo, birth of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, 1185
Map of the expansion of the Bulgarian Rebellion and 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1185-1196)
Ivan Asen I (left, r. 1185-1196) and Theodor-Peter Asen (right, r. 1185-1197), brothers and co-founders of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire
The Byzantine Empire (purple) during the reign of Alexios III (1195-1203)

In 1198, the Italian Innocent III was elected as pope at only 37 which was quite young for a pope although his young age also made him a very energetic and ambitious ruler, and the moment he was elected as pope, he already began making plans to launch a new Crusade to take back the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslim Ayyubid Sultanate. Now if you remember from the previous chapter, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem which was one of the 4 Crusader states of Outremer (the Levant) in 1187 fell to the new Muslim power which was the Ayyubid Sultanate when the city of Jerusalem itself was captured by this new sultanate’s founder and first ruler Saladin. Following the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, the 3rd Crusade was launched in an attempt to recover Jerusalem, however this 3rd Crusade by 1192 only partially succeeded being only able to recapture the Mediterranean coast from Saladin instead of the city of Jerusalem itself and with the armies of the 3rd Crusade at least successfully recovering the coast of Palestine, the 3rd Crusade ended with its leaders the kings of England and France returning to Europe again resuming war with each other.

Pope Innocent III

The new pope Innocent III however was someone who would not let the issue of not being able to recover Jerusalem pass and being the kind of pope who wanted to assert himself as the authority over the rulers of Europe, Innocent III immediately began laying plans for a massive 4th Crusade to finally take back Jerusalem now that Saladin since 1193 had died, therefore the pope sent word all across Europe encouraging nobles to take up arms and raise armies to depart for Outremer on a new Crusade. This new Crusade however would take a few years to fully come into action as the nobles called to lead it needed time to raise and prepare their armies while the more powerful kings of Europe turned out to be too busy to take part in a new Crusade as first of all the Holy Roman Empire fell into succession crisis following the death of Emperor Henry VI in 1197, the King of England Richard I the Lionheart who led the previous 3rd Crusade had died in 1199 when at war with the King of France Philippe II his former ally in the 3rd Crusade, and now that Richard I was dead Philippe II of France in 1200 went into a full-scale war with England now ruled by Richard I’s brother John.

Map of Outremer at the time of the 3rd Crusade (1190-1192)

The pope meanwhile already came up with his plan on how to get the Crusaders to Jerusalem which was by first invading Egypt and from there the Crusader army would march north, as hearing from the previous reports of Richard I of England, Egypt was the more vulnerable part of Saladin’s Empire while it was too dangerous to attack from the coast of Palestine being much more heavily guarded. The Crusaders however had no easy way of getting to Outremer unless they got there by sea as a march by land that would pass Byzantine lands would take almost an entire year or more, while the kingdoms they came from had no powerful navies, and so they had to turn to the largest naval power of the Mediterranean at that time which was the Republic of Venice. The Crusade planned by Innocent III then only came into full force with a leader in 1201 and this leader was the Marquis of Montferrat Boniface who may have just ruled a small and insignificant state in Northern Italy, though he was still a very rich and influential noble. Meanwhile, as Venice was expecting a large Crusader army of more than 30,000 men as the Crusaders promised they would send an army of 4,500 knights, 9,000 squires, and 20,000 infantrymen while agreeing to pay Venice a total of 85,000 silver marks, the Venetians halted all their trading operations for an entire year in order to construct the most powerful fleet in the world to transport the Crusaders, considering that the Venetians had a way to mass produce ships even centuries before the Industrial era. In 1202 however, a Crusader army of only 12,000 arrived in Venice which was a lot less than expected as a large number of the knights and soldiers who were French did not trust the Crusade’s assigned leader which was the Italian Boniface, and so a lot of these French Crusaders skipped Venice and sailed to Outremer on their own through other ports. The Venetians though were angered that an army of only 12,000 arrived as they stopped their trading operations to construct a large fleet to transport them and even worse for the Venetians, the Crusaders did not have the silver which they promised to pay Venice.

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

The ruler or Doge at this time was Enrico Dandolo, who had been ruling Venice for 10 years now and was already in his 90s and blind but still very energetic and physically strong, and if you remember from the previous chapter Dandolo was one of the thousands of Venetians living in Constantinople that were arrested in 1171 when the Byzantine emperor then Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) declared war on Venice, and Dandolo here was not only arrested but blinded by the Byzantine authorities which then made Dandolo have a lifelong desire to have revenge on the Byzantines. With the arrival of only 12,000, the doge Dandolo came up with a solution for the Crusaders to pay up the amount they owed to Venice to transport them in order to continue the Crusade, which was to have these Crusaders attack the port of Zara in Croatia right across the Adriatic from Venice which was once a Venetian port but had been lost to the Kingdom of Hungary 20 years earlier in which they would use the looted wealth taken from Zara to pay up the Venetians. Most of the Crusaders either willing to push through with the long-awaited Crusade or wanting to take some wealth for themselves agreed to attack Zara even if it was under a fellow Catholic Christian kingdom which was Hungary while some did not agree with attacking fellow Christians and so those who did not agree backed out from the Crusade, though the Crusader attack on Zara was still carried out anyway. The doge Dandolo then made up his mind agreeing to set sail and join the Crusade himself despite his old age as deep inside he was intending to divert the Crusade to Constantinople and attack it out of revenge, and with Dandolo’s very encouraging speech, the army of the 4th Crusade doubled with an addition of 20,000 Venetian citizens taking up arms joining the Crusade as marines and sailors.

4th Crusade attacks and captures Zara, 1202

The Venetians and Crusader armies from different parts of Western Europe in 1202 then set sail for Zara which fell to them instantly after the Hungarian authorities of the city surrendered to them allowing the Crusaders to loot the city as long as they left its people unharmed. The pope soon enough discovered that the Crusade he planned true enough did not go out as expected as it attacked a fellow Christian city which was Zara and so the pope sent envoys to Zara with a letter threatening to excommunicate all the leaders of the 4th Crusade and Dandolo if they dare attacked Zara, however it was too late as when the Papal envoys came Zara was already sacked. The leader of the 4th Crusade Boniface of Montferrat only arrived to meet up his men in late 1202 in Zara when it already fell back to the Venetians and along with Boniface was a young Byzantine envoy which was no other than the imprisoned prince Alexios Angelos, son of the deposed and imprisoned emperor Isaac II Angelos. Now Alexios Angelos in 1201 had been smuggled out of prison in Constantinople by Pisan merchants and when smuggled out, Alexios found his way to Germany where he sought refuge in the court of his brother-in-law Philip the Duke of Swabia and there Alexios was just waiting for the right opportunity to get some military support to put himself in the Byzantine throne as well as to return his blinded and deposed father back in power, and luckily for Alexios the right opportunity came just a year later with the 4th Crusade which was already headed east. When hearing of the Crusaders’ financial struggles in paying their debts to Venice to transport them, Alexios offered to pay them 200,000 silver marks, as well as to provide them with an army of 10,000 Byzantine troops to assist them in taking back Jerusalem, and most important of all to submit the Byzantine Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople to the pope’s authority all in order to help Alexios oust his uncle Alexios III from power and put he and his father back in the throne. The Crusader leaders here agreed to help young Alexios take the Byzantine throne as they could not refuse this offer as it was to pay them a lot too, but it was Dandolo who was more than ever willing to help young Alexios IV as it was to reward Venice very greatly, but it also provided Dandolo an opportunity to fulfill his dream in attacking Constantinople out of revenge before he dies of old age, while the pope when hearing that uniting the Byzantine Church with the Latin Church was part of the objective agreed to having the Crusade stop at Constantinople first, but little did the pope know that Dandolo and the other leaders were intending to sack Constantinople. In 1203, the new massive Venetian fleet with the Crusaders including Dandolo and Alexios departed Zara and set sail to Constantinople. Soon enough the Venetian fleet with the army of the 4th Crusade arrived at the Marmara Sea before the walls of Constantinople and as the people of Constantinople were shocked seeing a massive fleet headed their way, the Crusaders on these ships too were stunned at the impressive skyline of the Byzantine capital.

Complete flag of the Republic of Venice
Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice, preaching the Fourth Crusade in St Mark's Basilica, Venice
Doge Enrico Dandolo’s speech to the Venetians, 1202
4th Crusade era Venetian ship
Leaders of the 4th Crusade: Enrico Dandolo, Baldwin of Flanders, Boniface of Montferrat, and Geoffroi de Villehardouin
Map of the 4th Crusade (1202-1204), in real history
Watch this to learn more about the 4th Crusade of 1204 (Kings and Generals).

Over in Constantinople, the emperor Alexios III Angelos no matter how incompetent and inactive he was in ruling, he was aware that the Venetian fleet with a large army was approaching and in fear of losing the throne as he knew that his nephew escaped and was now headed to put himself in power, Alexios III prepared the city’s defenses and rallied his people, although he could not do anything more as the provinces did not send reinforcement troops to defend the capital and the fleet stationed at the capital made up of only 20 ships were out of function as just mentioned earlier, a corrupt official sold off their anchors and sails.

The old Doge Enrico Dandolo sacking Constantinople, 1204
Doge Enrico Dandolo (right) and Prince Alexios Angelos (left) on a Venetian ship approaching Constantinople, 1203

Alexios III at first attempted to make peace with the Crusaders but his terms were rejected and young Alexios was then brought into the harbor of Constantinople or the Golden Horn together with the Crusade’s leader Boniface in a boat, and rather than cheering at the arrival of the young prince Alexios, the people looked and mocked him while the Venetian fleet just attacked the sea walls of Constantinople anyway. The Crusaders formed 7 divisions to attack different parts of Constantinople’s walls led by each of the leaders with the 8th division being the Venetians and their fleet, and the first attack was on the Galata Quarter north of the Golden Horn harbor which was less defended than the main city itself but this area too was attacked first in order to gain access into the Golden Horn harbor. The Galata Quarter soon enough fell to the Crusaders and when taking over it, the Crusaders headed to the tower that controlled the chain blocking the Golden Horn harbor- which had been around since the 8th century built by Emperor Leo III (r. 717-742) to defend Constantinople from the large-scale Arab invasion of 717 if you remember from chapter V of this series- wherein they gained control of it and lowered the great chain allowing the Venetian fleet to storm into the Golden Horn.

4th Crusade army attack the land walls of Constantinople, 1203

The land walls on the west side of the city built back in the 5th century were however still too powerful for the Crusader army no matter how large they were to breach, although the shorter sea walls along the Golden Horn were much weaker which the Venetian marines aboard their ships exploited thus, they attacked these lower walls using siege ladders as well as the high masts of their ships in order to get through these walls. The Byzantine troops defending the walls however only numbered up to 15,000 with 5,000 of them being part of the elite Varangian Guard sworn to protect the emperor which was still an existing unit in the Byzantine army even up to this point in the 13th century, and even if the Byzantine troops were outnumbered, they at first were able to push back the invading Crusader and Venetian troops. The Venetians however gained the upper hand when Dandolo himself despite his old age jumped off his ship onto the beach along the Golden Horn’s sea walls in full armor carrying Venice’s flag which then encouraged his men to bravely fight and at the end, the Venetians were able to capture 25 of the sea wall’s towers. The Byzantines however once again tried to push back the invaders but failed when the Venetians lit a massive fire across the sea walls to prevent a counter-attack and as for the emperor Alexios III when seeing that the sea wall along the Golden Horn fell, he led a small force out of the land walls to charge at Crusaders besieging it but when Dandolo sent reinforcements to the Crusaders at the land walls, Alexios III fled in fear back into the city.

Alexios III Angelos, older brother of Isaac II

At night, Alexios III not surprisingly as the weak and cowardly emperor he was decided to abandon the city for good and flee in fear taking 1,000 pounds from the imperial treasury. The next day, as there was no more emperor as he fled the city, the people rushed into the imperial palace’s prison and there they freed Alexios III’s younger brother the former emperor Isaac II Angelos who had been locked up there for over 8 years, and when broken out from prison, the blind Isaac II who was still popular among the people was dressed in the purple imperial robes and proclaimed emperor in the same way he was back in 1185 as a young man when it was also the people of the capital that rallied under him. Isaac II however after being blinded and locked up in prison for 8 years had not only lost his sight but his sanity, physical strength, and ability to think and rule properly, therefore the Byzantine senate as well as the Crusader leaders camped outside the city only confirmed that Isaac II was to rule as co-emperor with his son Alexios, while Isaac II also received the 4th Crusade leaders well and confirmed his son’s promises to them.

Isaac II Angelos, returned as emperor (1203-1204)

Now that Alexios III fled the city and Isaac II was released from prison, Isaac II was crowned as emperor again together with his son now Emperor Alexios IV Angelos as co-emperors, and with Isaac being disabled from years of imprisonment, Alexios IV was to rule as the effective emperor while his father only as a puppet as Isaac was the one more popular among the people. Although the 1203 siege by the Crusader army was over, the Crusaders and Dandolo still did not leave Constantinople, therefore they set themselves up in the Galata Quarter only agreeing to leave Constantinople and set off for Outremer when Alexios IV would finally fulfill his promise of paying their debt of 200,000 silver marks and providing an army of 10,000 Byzantine troops to assist them. The problem now was that Alexios III when fleeing the city took most of treasury with him and Alexios IV himself did not have that amount of money he promised and so Alexios had to negotiate with the Crusaders to extend the period to pay his debts by another 6 months, although the Crusaders soon enough started growing so impatient being on standby for months that at one point a group of Crusaders attacked the Muslim quarter of the main city by shooting flaming arrows to it and due to the winds, a massive fire broke out it Constantinople all while Alexios IV happened to be away in Thrace hunting down his escaped uncle which at the end resulted in nothing.

Alexios IV
Alexios IV Angelos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1203-1204), son of Isaac II, art by myself

When Alexios IV returned to the capital, a large fight broke out in the main city between the local Greek inhabitants and the Latin mostly Venetian merchants, and these Latin merchants wanting to escape the troubles fled to Galata to seek refuge with the Crusaders and Venetians which then even gave them more of a reason to resume their attack on Constantinople. Alexios IV now wanting to fully pay off his debts in order to get the Crusader away for good decided to have precious relics, church ornaments, and even religious icons melted down and turned into coins but doing such actions especially destroying icons would only make him grow more and more unpopular with the people seeing this as something equivalent to the most despised Iconoclast movement centuries ago mentioned in previous chapters of this series. At the end of 1203 and beginning of 1204, the people of Constantinople turned to rioting against Alexios IV for his stupidity in both melting down sacred icons and for agreeing to pay such a large amount of money to the Crusaders and as the weeks passed, the rioting further intensified. To deal with the angry mob, Alexios IV and his father Isaac II sent their relative the secretary Alexios Mourtzouphlos who was Alexios III’s son-in-law to negotiate with them but instead, Mourtzouphlos was proclaimed emperor by the senate, people, and Church at the square outside the Hagia Sophia cathedral and to fully to secure himself as emperor, Mourtzouphlos bribed the discontent Varangian Guards who were not paid by Alexios IV.

Alexios IV strangled to death in prison, 1204

Now having the support of the Varangians, Mourtzouphlos marched with them into the imperial palace where they dragged young Alexios IV from his bedroom to the prison and in prison, Alexios IV at only 22 was strangled to death by the Varangian Guards at Mourtzouphlos’ orders. Shortly, after when the disabled Isaac II Angelos who was now more than ever traumatized from past events heard that his son was killed, he could not take it any longer, thus he died from a heart attack out of shock and sadness at 47. With both Alexios IV and his father Isaac II dead, Mourtzouphlos then became Emperor Alexios V and as emperor he wanted to prove that he would be far more competent and decisive than the past 3 Angelos emperors and so right when his reign in January of 1204 began, Alexios V immediately had the walls along the Golden Horn that the Crusaders and Venetians destroyed rebuilt fearing that the Crusaders still camped at Galata would launch another offensive to avenge Alexios IV thus confiscating the properties of the corrupt officials linked with the Angelos emperors to finance the repairs.

Alexios V Mourtzouphlos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1204), art by Spatharokandidatos

Alexios V also tried to counter-attack the Venetian ships with Byzantine fire ships which failed, and also decided to no longer honor the debts that the late Alexios IV was to pay the Crusaders and Venice which was not completed yet as Alexios IV was killed off. Alexios V too went off to the Crusaders’ camp to confront Dandolo himself to formally cancel Alexios IV’s debts and ask him in the Crusaders to leave for good, but when at the camp, Dandolo already set up a trap to ambush Alexios V although right before he was ambushed by the Crusader cavalry, Alexios V fled swiftly angering Dandolo. In March of 1204, Dandolo and the Crusader leaders at the Galata Quarter made the final decision to again attack Constantinople but this time to no longer install a puppet Byzantine emperor but to take the city for themselves and divide the remains of the Byzantine Empire among each other, then in April the Crusader again laid siege to the sea walls along the Golden Horn that had just been repaired.

Medieval illustration of the 4th Crusade’s attack of Constantinople, 1203
4th Crusade, Venetian fleet attacks Constantinople’s sea walls, 1203
Defending Varangians clash with attacking Crusaders, 1203
Alexios V bribes the Varangians to proclaim him emperor, 1204

From April 9 to 12 of 1204, the Crusaders and Venetians resumed their attack on the same sea walls along the Golden Horn they attacked the previous year, except this time the Byzantine forces were much weaker and demoralized while the elite Varangian Guard again went on strike due to lack of pay and because of all this, the defending Byzantines could no longer hold out against the Crusaders.

4th Crusade army storms Constantinople’s walls, 1204

On April 12, the continuous attacks by the Crusaders created a small breach on the Golden Horn sea walls and right here at this point, Constantinople fell to the army of the 4th Crusade who then stormed into the city through this small breach. The emperor Alexios V however still tried to rally the remains of the army as well as citizens to repel the Crusaders that night but with no success as the Crusaders had already stormed into the city in the thousands and so Alexios V boarded a fishing boat and fled Constantinople the same way Alexios III did a year earlier. On the same night, another Byzantine noble which was Constantine Laskaris was crowned as emperor in the Hagia Sophia but to no success as when the Varangians who were still on strike refused to support him while the Crusaders had proceeded to looting the houses of the city, Constantine had no more chance to succeed and in the dawn of the next day he fled Constantinople to the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor which was less than a day away from the capital together with his brother Theodore Laskaris, who was a son-in-law of the previous emperor Alexios III. With no more resistance from the Byzantine army, Constantinople was left to be pillaged for 3 days straight by the Crusaders and with so much valuables the sacking went on day and night making this one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity. The Venetians and Crusaders however came up with a plan to divide the loot equally amongst each other with half of all the spoils going to Venice, although many of the Crusaders out of greed and excitement took as much plunder they wanted from the churches, mansions, and houses of Constantinople. The knights however refrained from harming the citizens as it was part of their chivalry code to not harm civilians, though the uneducated soldiers which were the majority did not follow such rules and so they massacred as many Byzantine civilians as they saw.

Niketas Choniates, Byzantine historian (1155-1217), survivor of the 1204 Sack of Constantinople, recreation of the original manuscript depicting Choniates, art by myself

The same historian Niketas Choniates who was present here when the Crusaders stormed into Constantinople based on his experience when fleeing the city here wrote that the Crusaders savagely destroyed precious ornaments and icons, carted away important works of art, and worst of all looted the most holy site of the Hagia Sophia wherein they chopped up its altar dividing the pieces which contained previous gems among themselves and when doing so, the Crusaders allowed mules into the Hagia Sophia to cart out their loot which dropped their excrements all over the cathedral’s floor when carting the items out. Apart from all the looting and atrocities committed against the people of Constantinople, the Crusaders too seeing no great value in the Ancient Greek and Roman statues that were preserved in Constantinople melted them down to be made into coins, and eager to find more wealth to take home, the Crusaders broke into the Church of the Holy Apostles as well to rob the tombs of the past emperors which Alexios III back in 1197 had looted to pay the heavy tribute to the Holy Roman emperor, and even though most of the imperial tombs were already robbed by Alexios III, the Crusaders still looted them anyway including the tombs of the great emperors of the past Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) and Heraclius (r. 610-641) wherein they found Justinian I’s body still being intact despite being dead for already more than 6 centuries.

Crusaders loot the tomb of Emperor Justinian I in 1204, art by Amelianvs

The brutal massacres and the looting only ended 3 days later on April 15 of 1204 but by this time the pillaging and fires made half of the city’s population homeless leading to a lot of inhabitants to abandon Constantinople for good either fleeing to Kaloyan’s Bulgarian Empire or to the new states being formed by Byzantine exiles from Constantinople. The Venetians on the other hand despite hating the Byzantines still had respect for its valuable treasures and so when stealing these treasures, they at least kept them intact, and such Byzantine treasures looted by the Venetians included the bronze statue of the 4 horses above the Hippodrome which the Venetians dismantled and reassembled back in Venice at St. Mark’s which was their main cathedral, while other precious objects taken to Venice included porphyry and marble columns from the 5th and 6th centuries, as well as the colossal statue of the 5th century emperor Leo I the Thracian (r. 457-474) who if you remember was the lead character of chapter II of this series, although the statue of Leo I never made it to Venice but was instead washed up in the beach of Barletta in Southern Italy wherein this statue still remains up to this day.

Colossus of Barletta, Barletta, Apulia, Italy
Colossal statue of Byzantine emperor Leo I from Constantinople, now in Barletta

For the Crusaders on the other hand, they would never make it to their main objective anymore which was Jerusalem as when looting Constantinople, they felt content enough with what they took and so many returned to Europe with important relics they looted in which they enriched their cathedrals back home with them, thus a large percent of the looted relics ended up in the churches of Paris and all over France as well wherein most of these Crusaders came from. Now about the 4th Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople, the French knight Robert de Clari who was present here writes that Constantinople had an endless amount of wealth to loot while the modern-day English historian John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) says that the sacking of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204 was the city’s darkest hour even more than it would be a century and a half later when Constantinople would finally fall to the Ottomans. With the 3 days of looting and violence over, the leaders of the 4th Crusade then settled down, divided Constantinople among themselves, and met together to decide on which of them would take over Constantinople as the new emperor, and the first choice was no other than the Crusade’s leader Boniface of Montferrat who now married the late Isaac II Angelos’ wife Margaret of Hungary which then made Boniface have a legitimate claim to the empire as he was in a way related to the previous Angelos Dynasty. The Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo too was offered the position of emperor wherein he could possibly move Venice’s capital to Constantinople, however Dandolo declined the offer as he was too old but he suggested that one of the Crusade’s leader which was the Count of Flanders Baldwin IX should accept the position as the new emperor of Constantinople as he was much younger and more charismatic. Baldwin IX was then elected as Emperor Baldwin I and no longer as a Byzantine emperor but a “Latin emperor” as with Constantinople being taken over by the westerners known as the “Latins”, the territory they would rule around Constantinople would be the “Latin Empire”, although even if Dandolo declined the offer, the Latin Empire was more or less a puppet of the Republic of Venice which got the largest share of the lands once part of the Byzantine Empire divided among the Crusade’s leaders.

The 4th Crusade’s Sack of Constantinople, 1204
Crusaders looting Constantinople
Crusader army loot the streets of Constantinople, 1204
Looting of the Hagia Sophia in 1204, art by Ediacar
4 Horses from Constantinople’s Hippodrome, taken to Venice
Constantinople falls to the 4th Crusade, 1204
Watch this to learn what was lost when the 4th Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204 (Kings and Generals)

The Fragmentation of Byzantium (1204-1228)               


With the army of the 4th Crusade in 1204 capturing Constantinople, not only were Constantinople and its buildings in ruins but the entire geography of the Byzantine Empire as well and with no more Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, the leaders of the 4th Crusade divided what was once the Byzantine Empire among themselves, and together all newly established Latin states in Byzantine territory would be known as the Frankokratia meaning “Rule of the Franks” in Greek, as the Byzantines here still mostly referred to the Latins of Western Europe as “Franks”.

Baldwin I “Baldwin IX of Flanders”, the first Latin emperor of Constantinople (r. 1204-1205)

The state that the Latins created as their successor state to the Byzantine Empire was the Latin Empire which was based in Constantinople with one of the 4th Crusade’s leaders Baldwin I as its emperor, although this newly formed Latin Empire could barely call itself an “empire” considering that the lands Baldwin I controlled only consisted of Constantinople, its surroundings in Thrace, the Marmara Sea and its islands, and only a small portion of Northwest Asia Minor along the Balkans, while the Latin authorities of Constantinople too could barely run their empire the way the Byzantines did. In the following year 1205, the other leaders of the 4th Crusade followed in establishing their own states in the remains of Byzantine Greece, basically doing what the Crusaders did a century earlier in Outremer when forming their own 4 separate states there if you remember from the previous chapter.

Seal of the Crusader Kingdom of Thessalonica, established in 1205

These new states formed in Byzantine territory were the Kingdom of Thessalonica established by the 4th Crusade’s real actual leader Boniface of Montferrat who became the first King of Thessalonica controlling the region of Macedonia with Thessaloniki as its capital, then in the Southern Greece which was the Peloponnese Peninsula a new Crusader state was founded there which was the Principality of Achaea by the Frenchmen William I de Champlitte and Geoffroi de Villehardouin who were also both leaders of their own divisions in the 4th Crusade who became the first princes of their newly established Crusader state of Achaea which would later on turn out to be the most successful of these Latin states, and in Central Greece another new Crusader state was established as well which was the Duchy of Athens by the Burgundian French knight Otto de la Roche who was again one of the 4th Crusade’s leaders. On the other hand, the Republic of Venice that transported the Crusaders to Constantinople was the one that got the largest share of territory when the old Byzantine Empire was divided as here Venice got the important islands of Corfu, Cephalonia, Negroponte (Euboea), Crete, Rhodes, Lemnos, as well as the port of Dyyrhachion in Albania, while most other islands in the Aegean fell under the rule of the noble Venetian Sanudo family who in 1207 established the Duchy of the Archipelago consisting of these islands they acquired for helping their Republic of Venice in the 4th Crusade. As for the Byzantines, there was no way for their civilization to die out and one of the reasons for this was that if you remember from the previous chapter, the previous ruling Komnenos family created such a large extended family by marrying off their relatives to the other noble families of Byzantium, and now at the beginning of the 13th century the extended imperial family was very large that almost all the powerful nobles of this time were all related to each other thus all having a claim to restore the empire. The nobles which were the Laskaris brothers Theodore and Constantine as well as large number of the population that escaped Constantinople the exact day the Crusaders stormed in set themselves up in the rich city of Nicaea along a lake which they intended to use as their base to regroup the scattered Byzantine forces around Asia Minor and eventually one day take back Constantinople from the Crusaders, however neither of the brothers despite forming their own exiled state in Nicaea could call themselves “emperor” due to their position being not fully secured as the Latins of Constantinople too had plans to take over Nicaea and the lands around it to establish another new Crusader state there which would be the Duchy of Nicaea that would be under the rule of one of the 4th Crusade’s top generals the Frenchman Louis I de Blois who in late 1204 together with the Latin emperor Baldwin I’s brother Henry of Flanders who was also one of the 4th Crusade’s leaders crossed the Marmara into Asia Minor and defeated a Byzantine army led by the Laskaris brothers.

19621326_1949588575288511_7453261707407652486_o copy
Lego figure of Louis de Blois, French general of the 4th Crusade

The Laskaris brothers too were unsecure as also due to Constantinople being lost to the Crusaders, a number of Byzantine general stationed in Asia Minor and Greece controlling small holdings there seeing all was lost proclaimed themselves as emperors, such generals that did so included Leo Sgouros in the Peloponnese, as well as Theodore Mangaphas and Sabas Asidenos in Asia Minor. Meanwhile, even before Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade’s army in April of 1204, news that the large army of the 4th Crusade was camped outside Constantinople reached the far southeast corner of the Black Sea still under Byzantine rule which was Trebizond and here, fearing that Constantinople would be lost to the Crusaders which in fact did happen, Alexios and David Komnenos who were grandsons of the former Byzantine emperor Andronikos I Komnenos who was deposed and executed by his people in 1185 seized the city of Trebizond with military support from the Kingdom of Georgia to its northeast ruled by the powerful queen Tamar the Great.

Queen Tamar the Great of Georgia (r. 1184-1213)

Basically, right when Constantinople fell to the Crusaders in April of 1204, the Komnenos brothers Alexios and David now having Trebizond and its surroundings as theirs proclaimed themselves co-emperors establishing their own Byzantine Empire known as the “Empire of Trebizond” and as its rulers they referred to themselves as Megas Komnenos meaning “Grand Komnenos” to emphasize their legitimacy over all the other successor states formed by Byzantine nobles as these brothers were direct descendants of the Komnenos Dynasty and its founder Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118). Another Byzantine noble to put his claim on the throne and to restore the empire was Michael Angelos, the cousin of the former emperors Isaac II and Alexios III Angelos who in 1205 established his own state in Western Greece which was quite a large one along the Ionian Sea known as the “Despotate of Epirus” with the city of Arta as its capital.

Seal of the Despotate of Epirus, founded by Michael I Angelos in 1205

Although no matter how large his state was, Michael I Angelos could not call himself an emperor or Basileus but instead only as Despot which was basically a ruler with absolute power but not at the same level of power as an emperor, as Michael I here did not have much legitimacy to be called an emperor, although Epirus would still turn out to be the most unharmed of the 3 new Byzantine successor states in which the others were Nicaea and Trebizond as Epirus was protected by mountains on the east which was its border with the new Latin state of Thessalonica. In the meantime, the former Byzantine emperors Alexios III who fled Constantinople back in 1203 and Alexios V who fled right when the Crusaders stormed into the capital in 1204 were still alive and in fact both former emperors even met up with each other in Thrace later on in 1204 but both did not get along well as both had a claim to the Byzantine throne and so Alexios V was blinded by his father-in-law Alexios III. The blinded Alexios V was later captured by the Crusader army in Thrace and brought back to Constantinople to face trial for murdering Alexios IV who was the Crusaders’ ally but Alexios V still defended his action saying that Alexios IV was the one that committed treason against his empire by inviting the Crusaders, however Alexios V was still found guilty.

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Death of Alexios V in Lego by being thrown of a column in Constantinople, 1204

In December of 1204, Alexios V was executed in a rather unusual way by being brought to the top of the Column of Theodosius I in Constantinople where Alexios V was pushed off by a Crusader soldier, thus Alexios V was thrown off the column to his death when hitting the ground. Now in early 1205, the Latin Empire’s forces added new territories in Northwest Asia Minor to the Latin Empire after Theodore Laskaris’ forces were defeated again in battle by the forces of Henry of Flanders and Louis de Blois wherein Theodore’s brother Constantine was captured and possibly even killed in battle when his forces were defeated by the Latins, as Constantine after this disappears from the historical record. In the meantime, the Byzantine nobles and people of the cities of Didymoteicho and Adrianople in Thrace now under the rule of the Latin Empire were unhappy with their new overlords and so they asked for assistance from the 2nd Bulgarian Empire and its tsar Kaloyan to the north to help them drive away their Latin overlords despite Kaloyan being at odds with the Byzantines, but with the Latins taking over Constantinople Kaloyan now feared they would invade Bulgaria next.

Kaloyan, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (r. 1197-1207)

Before Kaloyan and Bulgarian army could arrive to assist the people of Adrianople, the people of Adrianople revolted declaring their city free from Latin rule but the Latin emperor in Constantinople Baldwin I could not let it happen and so he marched out of Constantinople with his army together with his general Louis de Blois and the very old Enrico Dandolo to besiege and take back Adrianople. Right when the Latins laid siege to Adrianople, Kaloyan and his large Bulgarian army of 40,000 appeared and charged at the Latin Crusader army. What then followed was the Battle of Adrianople in 1205, ironically on more or less the same site the Battle of Adrianople in 378 between the Eastern Romans (Byzantines) and Goths was fought in if you remember from chapter I of this series wherein the Romans in real history suffered a heavy defeat to the Goths with their emperor Valens (r. 364-378) killed in it as well. Now in this Battle of Adrianople, the Bulgarians won a decisive victory almost annihilating the Latin army where their general Louis de Blois was also killed in battle too while the Latin emperor Baldwin I was taken as a prisoner by the Bulgarians. The very old Enrico Dandolo however escaped alive back to Constantinople but just 2 months later he died there at the very old age of 97.

Baldwin’s Tower in Tarnovo, Bulgaria

As for Baldwin I, his fate is unknown but it is most likely that he died imprisoned in the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo as a tower that still stands there up to this day is known as “Baldwin’s Tower” where he was imprisoned, although the circumstances for his death later in 1205 are unclear but it is said that Baldwin had an affair with Kaloyan’s wife and out of revenge Kaloyan killed Baldwin in prison afterwards turning Baldwin’s skull into his drinking cup, a Bulgarian tradition done to rulers they defeated in battle, and if you remember from chapter VI of this series the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802-811) in 811 suffered this same fate of having his skull made into a drinking cup when defeated in battle by the Bulgarians. The crushing defeat the Latin Empire faced to the Bulgarians at Adrianople thus was the beginning of their end even if it just happened a year after the Latin Empire was established, thus this defeat would allow the Byzantines of Nicaea to now gain the upper hand.

Map of the fragmentation of the Byzantine Empire into different Latin and Byzantine states after 1204
2nd Bulgarian Empire army defeats the Latin Empire’s Crusaders at the Battle of Adrianople, 1205
Latin emperor Baldwin I captured and brought to Tsar Kaloyan as a prisoner, 1205

With the Latin Empire’s forces defeated at Adrianople and their emperor Baldwin I taken as a prisoner by the Bulgarians, Baldwin I’s brother Henry of Flanders in Constantinople at first took over the Latin Empire as its regent but in the following year 1206 when getting news of Baldwin’s death in prison, Henry was crowned as the second Latin emperor.

Henry of Flanders, Latin emperor (r. 1206-1216), brother of Baldwin I

Unlike Baldwin I who was plainly a warrior without much of a plan in running an empire showing little toleration to his Byzantine Greek subjects, his brother Henry was at least a much wiser ruler who was more tolerant to his Greek subjects being aware that his people the Latins were foreign occupiers in Byzantine lands. Now with the Latin Empire weakened after their defeat to the Bulgarians, the newly formed Byzantine successor state of Nicaea now was secure and so in 1205 after defeating the rebel generals in Asia Minor that established their own states there following the capture of Constantinople as well as relocating the Byzantine senate from Constantinople to Nicaea, Theodore I Laskaris was able to proclaim himself as emperor with the successor state based in Nicaea now becoming the “Empire of Nicaea”.

Theodore I Laskaris, Byzantine emperor of Nicaea (r. 1205-1221), founder of the Empire of Nicaea

To solidify his rule, Theodore I allied himself with Kaloyan and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire against the Latin emperor Henry to counter the expansion of the Latin Empire, although Henry to defend his empire allied with the other successor Byzantine Empire of Trebizond ruled by Alexios I and David Megas Komnenos. With his victory over the Latins, Kaloyan now having his way in 1207 launched an attack on the new Crusader Kingdom of Thessalonica and on the way to besieging its capital Thessaloniki, his Bulgarian forces ambushed the King of Thessalonica Boniface of Montferrat who was in fact even killed in the ambush. Kaloyan and his forces then laid siege to Thessaloniki and with Boniface dead, his very young son Demetrios succeeded him as king but right when Demetrios succeeded his father, Kaloyan and his Bulgarian forces laid siege to Thessaloniki but before being able to finish the siege, Kaloyan outside the walls of Thessaloniki suddenly suffered a heart attack and dropped dead, although legend says Kaloyan suddenly dropped dead as the ghost of Thessaloniki patron saint St. Demetrios stabbed him to death. With Kaloyan dead, the Bulgarians abandoned their siege of Thessaloniki and without children, Kaloyan was succeeded as the Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire by his nephew Boril who was a much weaker ruler and when coming into power, Boril’s cousin Ivan Asen the same son of the former Bulgarian tsar and the empire’s founder Ivan Asen I who was assassinated back in 1196 now being grown up fled north to the land of the Russians possibly to the Kievan Rus’ Empire’s successor state the Principality of Kiev to seek support to seize the Bulgarian throne. In 1208, with the war between the Latin Empire and the Bulgarians still ongoing, Boril’s forces were defeated by the Latin emperor Henry allowing Henry to take over the Bulgarian city of Philippopolis while at the same time the Serbian Principality to the west of Bulgaria under its Grand Prince Stefan Nemanjic now the one growing, it took over some parts of Macedonia from the Bulgarians and the Kingdom of Thessalonica. As for the Empire of Nicaea in Asia Minor, more and more Byzantine Greek people fled to it from Latin occupied Constantinople and Thrace being unhappy under Latin rule and one of these Byzantine Greeks that ended up in Nicaea was the same historian Niketas Choniates who then became a historian at the court of Theodore I who live there till his death in 1217. In 1208 as well, the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople too moved to Nicaea and it was only here with the Patriarch of Constantinople now based in Nicaea that Theodore I Laskaris was formally crowned as emperor. Theodore I then renewed his alliance with Bulgaria by making an alliance with Boril as well as with the new Despot of Epirus Michael I Angelos while the Latin emperor Henry on the other hand now fearing Theodore I would expand his empire made an additional alliance with Nicaea’s neighbor in the east which was the still surviving Seljuk Sultanate of Rum under Sultan Kaykhusraw I as Henry too had previously allied himself with the new Empire of Trebizond. In the meantime, the former emperor Alexios III Angelos was still alive now as a renegade looking for opportunities to take back throne and between 1205 and 1211, he had been at the Latin court at Thessaloniki and with his cousin Michael I at Epirus, though in 1211 he fled to Asia Minor to seek refuge with the Seljuk sultan Kaykhusraw I who Alexios III made an alliance with against Theodore I who was Alexios’ son-in-law married to Alexios’ daughter Anna as Alexios III did not want to recognize Theodore’s claim to the throne.

Nicaean Byzantine forces of Theodore I Laskaris clash with the forces of the Seljuks at the Battle of Antioch on the Meander, 1211

Now allied with the former emperor Alexios III and the Latin emperor Henry, the Seljuk sultan Kaykhusraw marched his forces together with Latin mercenaries to the Empire of Nicaea’s territory in Asia Minor confronting Theodore I and his Byzantine army at the Battle of Antioch on the Meander River. Now in battle, the sultan and Theodore I confronted each other face-to-face wherein the sultan struck Theodore in the head with a heavy blow from his mace knocking Theodore off his horse onto the ground unconscious, but soon enough Theodore regained his consciousness and with his sword struck the sultan’s horse knocking the sultan to the ground.

The victorious Theodore I displays the decapitated head of Seljuk sultan Kaykhusraw I, 1211

With Sultan Kaykhusraw I down on the ground and Theodore recovering, Theodore’s troops rushed to the sultan and beheaded him, afterwards displaying the sultan’s head on a spear for everyone to see and at the sight of their sultan decapitated, the Seljuk army fled in fear and panic, thus the Byzantines of Nicaea won their first major victory. The Byzantines of Nicaea thus won a pyrrhic victory here as they came very close to being defeated with their emperor Theodore I almost killed and only at the end did the tide turn to the favor of the Byzantines when Theodore I was able to get back his consciousness, and now that the Seljuks were defeated, the new Seljuk sultan which was Kaykhusraw I’ son Kykaus I concluded a permanent peace with the Empire of Nicaea wherein their borders would remain unchanged. With their defeat here in 1211, the tide of the Seljuks’ advance into Asia Minor ever since they won their first major victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert back in 1071 if you remember from chapter VIII of this series would be reversed, as here would begin the decline of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in Asia Minor. As for the former emperor Alexios III who allied himself with the Seljuks, he too was captured and brought to his son-in-law Theodore I who in return did not harm his father-in-law but instead just removed him of all his imperial titles and sent him to a monastery in Nicaea to retire for good, and later in 1211 as well Alexios III Angelos died at 58 in the monastery he was banished to.

Nicaea, Capital of the Empire of Nicaea, temporary Byzantine capital

Winning a victory over the Seljuks and their Latin allies supplied by the Latin emperor Henry, Theodore I’s popularity rose to great levels that the Byzantine Greek people too across the Marmara in Thrace living under Latin rule also began to rebel against their Latin overlords. Emperor Henry however could not accept Theodore I and Nicaea’s victory and so in 1212, Henry with an army crossed into Asia Minor and attacked the Empire of Nicaea’s territories capturing a number of fortresses too, although Henry ended up seizing too many fortresses that he no longer had enough soldiers to station them in anymore, thus Henry turned to concluding peace with Theodore I. In 1214 then, both Theodore I of Nicaea and Henry of the Latin Empire agreed to a truce which was to also agree in formally ceding the region of Asia Minor along the south coast Marmara known as Troad to the Latin Empire.

Theodore I Laskaris in armor with the decapitated head of Sultan Kaykhusraw I, art by Alexios I

Since Theodore I concluded peace with the Seljuks as well, he in 1214 too allied with them in a short campaign east against the Empire of Trebizond which resulted in the Nicaean forces and their Seljuk allies capturing the region of Paphlagonia from the Empire of Trebizond. Here in 1214, the Empire of Trebizond was now only ruled by Alexios I Megas Komnenos as back in 1212 his brother David had died, and now with Paphlagonia lost to the Nicaean Empire, Alexios I realized that with his empire now reduced by a lot gave up his ambitions to restore the Byzantine Empire and instead decided to just make his empire a regional power in the Black Sea which it would forever remain as such. Over in the Despotate of Epirus meanwhile, its ruler or despot Michael I Angelos ruled like a real despot in a cruel and tyrannical way to his subjects while he spent most his time being a violent war fanatic waging war against the Latins and Venetians in Greece, although in 1215 in Albania in the middle of his campaign to expel the Venetians from the port city of Dyrrhachion, Michael I was assassinated in his sleep by the order of his half-brother Theodore Angelos who immediately succeeded Michael as the Despot of Epirus becoming known as Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas, and now the new ruler of Epirus Theodore unlike his half-brother was a legitimate member of the Angelos Dynasty as his half-brother Michael was an illegitimate son of their father John Doukas Angelos who was the brother of the emperors Isaac II and Alexios III’s father the general Andronikos Angelos, who featured prominently in the last chapter.

Stefan Nemanjic, King of Serbia (r. 1217-1228)

The new Despot of Epirus Theodore feeling that he had every right to claim the Byzantine throne as a legitimate member of the Angelos Dynasty that once ruled it and a great-grandson of Alexios I Komnenos questioned Theodore I of Nicaea’s authority therefore not recognizing him as an emperor and the Empire of Nicaea as an empire, and so Despot Theodore after making an alliance with his northern neighbor the Grand Prince of Serbia Stefan Nemanjic who in 1217 became Serbia’s first king, and began making preparations to first capture Thessaloniki and then Constantinople from the Latins. The Latin emperor Henry when hearing of the Despot of Epirus beginning his campaign to march west decided to counter-attack and so in 1216 Henry left Constantinople to head west and crush the Epirote army before it reached Thessaloniki, though Henry died on the march in 1216 before reaching Epirus. With Henry’s death died the unfortunately last and only competent Latin emperor who could have at least made the Latin Empire of Constantinople an established power and as a ruler, Henry was tolerant but not weak and strong but not cruel, and with his death the Latin Empire would no longer have a ruler like that. Meanwhile back in Nicaea also in 1216, one young talented soldier in the service of Theodore I would rise to prominence as a general and this was John Doukas Vatatzes, a Byzantine Greek noble born in the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace back in 1192 who after 1204 was one of the many people that fled to the new Empire of Nicaea. Now due to his talent in battle and state administration, Theodore I who at this point still had no male heirs to succeed him considered making John Vatatzes his heir, and so Theodore married off his daughter Irene Laskarina to John.

Coat of arms of the Courtenay family of France

Back to the Latin Empire, with Henry dead without any male heirs, the Latin barons at Constantinople decided to elect Henry’s brother-in-law Peter Courtenay, a French noble and grandson of the former King of France Louis VI (r. 1108-1137) as the new Latin emperor, however Peter here was all the way in France, and when getting word that he had to travel to Constantinople to be crowned, he left France first to Rome wherein he was crowned by the pope Honorius III– the successor of the 4th Crusade’s planner Innocent III who had died in 1216- as Latin emperor in 1217. Despite being crowned as Latin emperor, Peter never made to Constantinople as also in 1217 when arriving in the Despotate of Epirus in Greece, he was captured by Despot Theodore and imprisoned. With Peter imprisoned, the Latin barons sent word to Peter’s sons in France Philippe and Robert Courtenay to take the throne in Constantinople but both brothers refused the offer and so it was their mother Yolande of Flanders, the wife of Peter and sister of the late Latin emperors Baldwin I and Henry that came to Constantinople to rule as its regent empress before Peter could be released or her sons would arrive.

Yolande of Flanders, Latin empress (r. 1217-1219), sister of Latin emperors Baldwin I and Henry

As the regent ruler of the Latin Empire, Yolande decided to conclude peace with Theodore I’s Empire of Nicaea and so Yolande married off her daughter Marie to Theodore I as Theodore’s first wife Anna had already died, while Yolande after she arrived in Constantinople too gave birth to her youngest child with Peter which was a son and soon to be ruler of the Latin Empire who was named Baldwin after his uncle the first Latin emperor. At the same time, Pope Honorius III continued his predecessor Innocent III’s plan in launching a 5th Crusade this time to finally recapture Jerusalem from the Ayyubid Empire as the 4th Crusade failed to do so when it sacked Constantinople and took over the Byzantine Empire, and so in 1217 as well the 5th Crusade was launched consisting of a large number of European powers including France and the Holy Roman Empire with the same King of France Philippe II from the 3rd Crusade joining again this time as an old man, and an allied force from the Seljuks of Asia Minor too.

Pope Honorius III, successor of Innocent III

Long story short though, the Crusaders here at least made it to Egypt which was the suggested route to invade Palestine to capture Jerusalem but the Crusade at the end only made it to Egypt as it failed before the Crusaders could capture the Ayyubid capital Cairo as the Ayyubid sultan Al-Kamil ordered the dam blocking the Nile broken which then flooded the Crusaders’ camp forcing the Crusaders to surrender and return home to Europe by 1221. Meanwhile in the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, its tsar Boril lost the throne in 1218 when his cousin Ivan Asen returning from the land of the Rus with military support captured the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo, thus Ivan Asen captured and blinded Boril, and thus Ivan became Tsar Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria. To consolidate his rule, Ivan Asen II did not allow the King of Hungary Andrew II who was passing Bulgaria returning to Hungary from the 5th Crusade to return home unless Andrew gave his daughter Maria in marriage to Ivan, and so Andrew agreed to this in order to return home. The supposed Latin emperor Peter Courtenay however never made it to Constantinople as in 1219 he died in prison in Epirus, possibly under the orders of Despot Theodore while Yolande also suddenly died in 1219 which was very fatal for the Latin Empire as Yolande and Peter’s only son in Constantinople Baldwin was only 2-years-old and their older son Philippe again refused though their other son Robert finally accepted the offer to be Latin emperor but it would take him some time to travel from France to Constantinople and in the meantime, the French knight Conon de Bethune who was a general of the former Latin emperor Henry was elected to rule as the regent of the empire for young Baldwin but within only a few months Conon had died.

Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, Regent of the Latin Empire (1220-1221)

Looking for a new regent, the Latin barons turned to the cardinal from Rome Giovanni Colonna who had previously joined Peter on the trip to Constantinople but was captured in Epirus, although Cardinal Colonna managed to get released from captivity and in 1220, he was made the regent ruler of the Latin Empire but unfortunately as only a religious leader he had no government and military experience, thus things would already go all downhill here for the Latin Empire. In the Empire of Nicaea, Theodore I Laskaris then died in 1221 at 46 at least leaving behind a much more stable and thriving empire than how he had founded it with a strong government system patterned exactly on the old Byzantine government system back in Constantinople before 1204, but the major problem here was that his succession plan was disputed as his intended successor John Vatatzes was only his son-in-law and so Theodore’s younger brothers Alexios and Isaac Laskaris challenged John’s claim to the throne of Nicaea which would lead to a short civil war.

The 5th Crusade, Crusaders besiege the port of Damietta in Egypt, 1218
Ivan Asen II seizes the Bulgarian throne from his cousin Tsar Boril, 1218


At Theodore I’s death in 1221, the Empire of Nicaea went a long way from a fragile new state to a strong and functioning one that now had a true purpose which was to preserve Byzantine civilization that was thought to have been lost when the Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, and one day recapture Constantinople.

Robert Courtenay, Latin emperor (r. 1221-1228)

As for the Latin Empire in Constantinople meanwhile, in 1221 as well their official emperor Robert Courtenay, the son of Peter and Yolande finally arrived from France and was crowned, thus seeing his youngest brother Baldwin for the first time while the empire’s regent Cardinal Colonna stepped down and returned to Rome. The Latin Empire Robert came to rule however was in financial straits due to the loss of great amount of territory to the Despotate of Epirus and Bulgaria while their crushing defeat to the Bulgarians back in 1205 at Adrianople significantly reduced their army, and the young emperor Robert when coming into power did not do anything to solve his empire’s problems, instead he continued to waste away his empire’s treasury using the funds to host lavish parties almost every night where he would waste away getting drunk. Now in Nicaea, John III Doukas Vatatzes at 30 was now emperor in 1222, and quite coincidentally when coming to the throne his son with his wife Irene Laskarina was born and this son was named Theodore after the empire’s founder and his maternal grandfather Theodore I.

Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea and his wife Empress Irene Laskarina

John III although was not yet secure in power as Theodore I’s younger brothers Alexios and Isaac were in clear opposition to him seeing John was a lowborn usurper as the Vatatzes family he came from was not an established noble family, and so Alexios and Isaac went to Latin held Constantinople itself to seek military assistance from their emperor Robert, and Robert not caring much about his empire and his limited army gave the Laskaris brothers troops anyway to help them beat John III in battle. The Nicaean forces led by John III himself and the brothers Alexios and Isaac Laskaris with their allied Latin Crusader army met at the Battle of Poimanenon in 1223, and in this battle taking place in an empty field with a single church, John III being a capable soldier won an easy victory over the Latin army and the Laskaris brothers, thus the brothers Alexios and Isaac who were captured were blinded under John III’s orders then sent in exile to a monastery where they would live out the rest of their days in. The defeat of the Latin army in 1223 by John III’s forces was another heavy blow to the Latin Empire as due to this defeat, the Latins lost all their territory in Asia Minor which John III annexed into the Empire of Nicaea which now by having this land gained control of the Marmara Sea, thus allowing the Byzantines of Nicaea to now cross back into Europe. With the Latin forces so severely reduced after this defeat to the Empire of Nicaea, the Latin Empire would then have no more troops to defend their neighboring Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica from the rapid advance of the Despot of Epirus Theodore Komnenos Doukas who in 1224 then laid siege to Thessaloniki.

Theodore Komnenos Doukas, Despot of Epirus (r. 1215-1230), Emperor of Thessaloniki since 1224

At the end of 1224, the Latin garrison of Thessaloniki surrendered while its king Demetrios who was now grown up fled to Italy to the court of the new Holy Roman emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, and now occupying Thessaloniki and ending the existence of the Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica which was now annexed to the Despotate of Epirus, Despot Theodore proclaimed himself “Emperor of Thessalonica” only as a way to assert his authority as the legitimate successor of Byzantium in opposition to John III of Nicaea who’s imperial authority was not recognized by Theodore. Now that Despot Theodore was first to be on the winning side on the race to take back Constantinople from the Latins, John III of Nicaea could not let it happen and to stop Despot Theodore from marching further east, John III gathered a large army in 1225 and crossed into Thrace through the Dardanelles strait from Asia Minor, making this the first Byzantine crossing into Europe since 1204. Afterwards, John III and his forces were successfully able to capture the city of Adrianople from the Latins with ease making this the first Byzantine conquest in Europe since the fall of their empire 2 decades earlier, thus with Adrianople falling to Nicaea, the Latin Empire was now only limited to Constantinople and its surroundings.

John III Doukas Vatatzes, Byzantine emperor of Nicaea since 1222, son-in-law of Theodore I Laskaris

The mostly Byzantine Greek people of Adrianople then cheered and welcomed John III with open arms not as a conqueror but as their liberator as finally the people of Adrianople were once again ruled by a fellow Byzantine Greek. Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria at this point concluded an alliance with Despot Theodore to counter John III’s advance into Europe and here Ivan married off his very young daughter Maria to Theodore’s brother Manuel, then in 1227 with Theodore of Epirus and now the Emperor of Thessalonica gaining the upper hand, he managed to capture Adrianople from John III ending its Nicaean Byzantine rule after only 2 years, thus the path to Constantinople was fully open to Theodore. Over in Constantinople in 1227 too, Emperor Robert fearing Despot Theodore would capture Constantinople anytime soon travelled to Rome to ask for military assistance from the new pope Gregory IX who during this year became pope too following the death of Honorius III, however the new pope failed to send troops to Robert as at the same time, a large army from Europe headed on a new Crusade to again take back Jerusalem which here was the 6th Crusade led by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II.

Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1220-1250), leader of the 6th Crusade

On the way back from Rome to Constantinople, the Latin emperor Robert died in early 1228 when stopping over in the Peloponnese which was here still held by the Principality of Achaea leaving his 11-year-old brother who here was left in Constantinople as the sole Latin emperor Baldwin II Courtenay. As for the 6th Crusade of Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, long story short, it was a success for the Crusaders as here through diplomacy Frederick II succeeded in doing what the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Crusades failed to do which was recapturing Jerusalem, and in 1229 with Jerusalem Christian again, the Kingdom of Jerusalem based in it that fell in 1187 was restored.

John III Vatatzes’ forces defeat the Latins at the Battle of Poimanenon, 1223
Holy Roman emperor Frederick II recaptures Jerusalem in the 6th Crusade, 1229
Map of the Byzantine successor states and the new Latin states in 1228

The Climax Part I- The emperor and the tsar besiege Constantinople (1229-1235)             


As the Latin emperor Robert Courtenay died in 1228, his younger brother Baldwin II Courtenay who here succeeded him as Latin emperor was only 11 meaning he was still not yet at the legal age to rule alone, so the Latin barons of Constantinople again had to look for a regent.

Ivan Asen II, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire since 1218

Seeing the Latin Empire’s succession was in chaos and a regent was desperately needed, the 36-year-old Tsar Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria immediately grabbed the opportunity to claim for himself the regency of the Latin Empire, which was overall part of his plan to one day double-cross the young Latin emperor Baldwin II and take Constantinople for himself, therefore achieving the ultimate dream of the Bulgarians to put Constantinople under their empire. To claim for himself the regency of young Baldwin II and of the Latin Empire, Ivan offered his 5-year-old daughter Elena Asenina who was his daughter from his marriage to the Hungarian princess Maria to the 11-year-old Baldwin II, and so in 1229 Ivan sent his daughter Elena with an entourage of Bulgarian nobles to Constantinople to meet Baldwin II. The young Latin emperor Baldwin II then met the Bulgarian princess Elena who he was supposed to marry in Constantinople while Ivan II also proposed to the Latin barons of Constantinople that he will combine his forces with theirs on his upcoming campaigns. The Latin barons however soon enough declined Ivan II’s offer to be young Baldwin II’s regent as these Latin people from Western Europe did not trust a Bulgarian foreigner as these Latins saw the Bulgarians as a barbarian and inferior race, so the proposed marriage between young Baldwin II and Elena never pushed through and Elena returned to her father in Bulgaria. For the Latin barons of Constantinople, the person to be young Baldwin II’s regent had to be a fellow Latin (Western European), and not too long after they declined Ivan II’s offer they found a new candidate for the regency of the Latin Empire which was the 60-year-old Jean de Brienne, a French noble who was the former King of Jerusalem (1210-1225) when the kingdom was in exile based in Acre while also he happened to be one of the leaders of the 5th Crusade back then, however in 1229 when Jean de Brienne was elected as Latin emperor, he was still in Italy. In the meantime, Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas of Epirus felt that his ally Ivan Asen II betrayed him when Ivan tried to claim for himself regency of Constantinople behind Theodore’s back, and so in 1230 Despot Theodore suddenly but confidently led an army across the Maritsa River which was his state’s border with Bulgaria thus invading the Bulgarian Empire bringing his family along.

Tsar Ivan Asen II at the Battle of Klokotnitsa, 1230

Ivan Asen II however quickly responded to Theodore’s invasion and personally led his Bulgarian army with an addition of 1,000 Cuman horse archer mercenaries against Theodore’s forces, and being a more successful military commander than Theodore, Ivan defeated Theodore’s Epirote forces here at the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230, and although Ivan allowed the defeated Epirote Byzantine forces to retreat safely, Despot Theodore was captured and brought before Ivan. According to the Jewish-Spanish rabi Jacob Arophe who was present here, Ivan ordered two Jews to blind Theodore as Ivan knew Theodore persecuted Jews in Epirus and to make it look like the Jews were to have their revenge, they were the ones to blind Theodore, however these Jews refused to do so and so Ivan had them thrown off a cliff, therefore Ivan blinded Theodore himself. After being blinded, Theodore was imprisoned in Bulgaria thus ending the power of the Despotate of Epirus for now, while Ivan Asen II due to his victory over Epirus rapidly expanded his empire south capturing most of Thessaly, Macedonia, and Thrace including the city of Adrianople from the Despotate of Epirus.

Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire

By the end of 1230, Ivan Asen II’s 2nd Bulgarian Empire having all of Bulgaria, most of Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, and parts of Epirus was now the dominant power of the Balkans, and the spectacular part was that it had only been 45 years since the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was founded when Ivan’s father Ivan Asen I and uncle Theodor-Peter in 1185 rebelled against Byzantine rule and founded the 2nd Bulgarian Empire which at their time was just a very small state in the mountains of Bulgaria, and now just 45 years later Bulgaria was on its way to its second golden age of power and influence being close to what Bulgaria was at the beginning of the 10th century under the reign of their greatest ruler so far which was Tsar Simeon the Great (r. 893-927) if you remember from chapter VII of this series. The Despotate of Epirus following the capture of Despot Theodore was now the one in ruins, although Thessaloniki was spared by Ivan Asen II who instead installed Theodore’s brother Manuel who was Ivan’s son-in-law as his puppet ruler of Thessaloniki who was only allowed to use the title of “despot” and not “emperor”. Manuel however basically just had control of Thessaloniki as the main state of Epirus in Western Greece itself fell under the rule of Theodore’s nephew Michael II Angelos, the son of the Despotate of Epirus’ founder Michael I who was assassinated back in 1215.

John III Vatatzes’ coat of arms

At the same time as the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was rapidly growing in power influence, the same too could be said about John III Vatatzes’ Empire of Nicaea which in the 1230s started enjoying a time of peace, economic growth, and a Byzantine cultural revival as John III invested heavily in culture and part of his mission as emperor was to revive the Ancient Greek identity and culture which included art and philosophy, while his capital Nicaea too became a center of learning. John III’s son Theodore too was given the best education ever being the imperial heir, and true enough Theodore grew up to be a philosophical genius, but other than Theodore a number of other soon-to-be important people were also brought up at this time educated together with Theodore and these were the soon-to-be scholar and primary historian of the 13th century George Akropolites, a commoner who was sent to Nicaea to be educated in order to be Theodore’s protector and general in the future which was George Mouzalon as well as his two brothers, and a young noble who already showed such ambition even at a young age which was Michael Palaiologos, the son of John III’s top general or Megas Domestikos Andronikos Palaiologos, and even though young Theodore and young Michael were 2nd cousins as both were great-grandsons of the former Byzantine emperor Alexios III Angelos, there was already a strong rivalry growing between the boys, mostly over who had more ambition to restore the empire wherein Michael clearly showed he had more. Meanwhile, John III in the 1230s and even before it succeeded in capturing the Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, and later Rhodes from the Venetians, thus the Empire of Nicaea grew to be a dominant power as well which by the 1230s covered almost all of Western Asia Minor having the coasts of the Black, Marmara, and Aegean Seas, as well as a small portion of Thrace.

Ivan Asen II defeats Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas at the Battle of Klokotnitsa in Bulgaria, 1230
2nd Bulgarian Empire (orange) under Ivan Asen II by 1230

Back in Constantinople, Jean de Brienne who was to be the young emperor Baldwin II’s new regent arrived in 1231 where Jean was crowned not as regent but as senior emperor. Baldwin II however was the legitimate emperor as back in 1217 he was born in the same purple room of the imperial Blachernae Palace in Constantinople where the Byzantine imperial heirs were born in, practically making Baldwin a purple-born ruler or Porphyrogennetos, but here in 1231 with the coronation of his new regent Jean, Baldwin was demoted to co-emperor.

Jean de Brienne, senior Latin emperor of Constantinople since 1231, regent of young Baldwin II, former King of Jerusalem (r. 1210-1235)

The agreement here was that Jean would rule as the Latin Empire’s senior emperor until his death wherein Baldwin II would immediately succeed him, and since Jean was already old his death was quite close, but being the Latin emperor would not really mean anything for the old man Jean as his “empire” was basically here just Constantinople and its surroundings. The one growing ever more rich and powerful here was the 2nd Bulgarian Empire of Ivan Asen II, as now by capturing Northern Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace the Bulgarians now had control of the major road there being the Ancient Roman Via Egnatia which made their empire richer due to trade, but not matter how rich and powerful the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was, Ivan was still not yet content with not having Constantinople part of his empire, and since he now became an enemy of the Latins when they refused his offer to be young Baldwin II’s regent, Ivan had no choice but to turn to John III Vatatzes of Nicaea for an ally. Meanwhile, the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea also grew rich through John III’s smart economic policy but also because they had the luck of having their empire located in the fertile western regions of Asia Minor, and seeing that his empire could sustain itself without having to import anything, John III came up with a policy that was to ban the import of foreign goods into his empire, which was also a tactic to hurt the Republic of Venice which was their enemy as they made most of their money through trade in the Aegean area.

Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea, art by Byzantinelegacy

Apart from banning the import of foreign goods, John III encouraged his people to be self-sufficient by using their small plots of land to farm and produce their own goods and John himself even set an example by having his own farm and growing his own goods, and for setting a good example in being self-sufficient John would be more and more loved by his people. In the meantime, Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria asked for an alliance with John III and so in early 1235 Ivan II went himself across the Marmara into the Empire to Nicaea wherein he personally met up with John III at the coastal city of Lampsacus along the Asia Minor coast of the Dardanelles strait. Here, the two rulers of the two rising empires met face-to-face and coincidentally both rulers Ivan and Ioannes had the same name as “Ivan” was the Slavic name for John while John in Greek was Ioannes, and even more both rulers- at least in this story’s case- looked similar to each other in appearance with thick dark curly hair and strong eyes, and were more or less the same age with John III being older than Ivan by only a year.

Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria, art by Kzvasilski

This meeting in Lampsacus in 1235 was then a historical one as finally for once the Byzantine Empire here being Nicaea and the Bulgarian Empire would join forces for once after centuries of being against each other, and here Ivan II basically agreed to help John III’s Empire of Nicaea expand further if John III was to allow the Bulgarian Church to have its own patriarch and to further ally themselves Ivan’s daughter Elena who was previously supposed to marry Baldwin II here was to now be married to John III’s young son Theodore. John III then agreed to Ivan II’s terms, and what followed their meeting a few weeks later would be the extravagant wedding ceremony of John III’s 13-year-old son Theodore and Ivan II’s 11-year-old daughter Elena who had already joined her father to Lampsacus, as Ivan already before leaving had it in mind for his daughter to this time marry John III’s son. The extravagant wedding of young Theodore and young Elena would also happen in Lampsacus in 1235 and thousands would attend it including nobles, members of the Byzantine senate that relocated to Nicaea, the army, members of the Church, and commoners, and here the exiled Patriarch of Constantinople in Nicaea Germanus II married Theodore and Elena while John III and his wife Irene Laskarina who was Theodore’s mother as well as Ivan Asen II himself stood behind the couple as they were to marry each other. Now after marrying Theodore, Elena would more or less disappear from the historical record as the only other thing known about her is that she would have many children with Theodore later on, but here since this is a fan fiction story, Elena’s story would be different as here she would be the one to give off information to her father and father-in-law on the weak spots of Constantinople as they were both off to lay siege to it. Based on Elena’s memory of being in Constantinople 6 years ago in 1229 when she was sent there to meet her supposed husband Baldwin II, she would tell both Ivan and John that she remembers that a part of the walls which is where the imperial Blachernae Palace was a weak point as this part of Constantinople’s impregnable land walls being damaged by the 4th Crusade’s attack from 1203-1204 was not really repaired. Some weeks after Theodore and Elena’s wedding, both John III and Ivan II assembled their forces before setting sail across the Marmara to Thrace and marching to the Walls of Constantinople itself, and in this story’s case, young Elena would be brought along to show them the weak part of the walls. Now the two armies of the Byzantines of Nicaea and the Bulgarians joined forces as well as their rulers and together John III and Ivan II looked like the perfect imperial combination with John being the stereotype of the wise and brave Byzantine emperor and Ivan being the stereotype of the ruthless and terrifying Bulgarian tsar.

Wedding of the son of John III Theodore and the daughter of Ivan II Elena Asenina in Lampsacus, 1235
Young Theodore and Elena Asenina married by Patriarch Germanus II in Lampsacus with John III and his wife Irene behind, 1235
Army of the Empire of Nicaea
Army of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire

The combined forces of the Byzantines of Nicaea and of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire led by their respective rulers John III Vatatzes and Ivan Asen II both wearing their imperial armor then arrived before the still powerful 5th century land walls or the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople with their siege engines, and right when the combined Nicaean and Bulgarian forces laid siege to the walls, the Latin emperor Jean de Brienne immediately came to it defense with the few remaining Latin Crusader troops stationed in Constantinople while the young co-emperor Baldwin II secured himself inside the Blachernae Palace. Now in real history, both John III and Ivan II laid siege to Constantinople in 1235 while the land walls were defended by the Latin emperor Jean de Brienne, but nothing much more is said about this siege in 1235, and so here in this story what will be different and entirely made up to elaborate this siege would be that Ivan II had brought along his 11-year-old daughter Elena as a spy since she knew the secret of the weak spot in Constantinople’s walls. In this story, Ivan would have John and his Nicaean-Byzantine forces continue besieging the city with their catapults and other siege weapons while the defending Latins would counter-attack with their crossbows- which was a weapon more common to the Latins but less to the Byzantines- while Ivan and his Bulgarian forces would follow his daughter to the weak spot of the walls near the Blachernae Palace.

Duchy of the Archipelago seal

In real history though, the siege of the combined forces of John III and Ivan II never succeeded as for one neither of them had any idea on how to breach such a massive wall, and even though John III was a Byzantine this was his first time ever to see Constantinople and its walls, and the other reason for why in reality they never succeeded was because the Venetian fleet from the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean led by its duke Angelo Sanudo came right in time to the defense of Constantinople which made both John III and Ivan II panic and abandon the siege. Both John III and Ivan II also abandoned the siege as winter was soon to come, thus they both agreed that they would resume in the next year (1236), but before even resuming the siege the next year, Ivan then betrayed John III by refusing to send him troops and without receiving any support John III too gave up his plan to besiege Constantinople. In this story however, before the Venetian fleet from the Aegean would come to the defense of Constantinople and the Latins, Ivan and his troops would be led by Ivan’s daughter Elena to where the weak spot of the walls were seeing it still unrepaired, and here with just a little shot from a catapult followed by some tearing down by the Bulgarian soldiers, the Bulgarians would then kill off the Latin forces in this part of the walls and afterwards rush into the Blachernae Palace killing off the soldiers guarding it, then storm right in to the palace to find Baldwin II. John III and his Byzantine forces meanwhile would be the ones to continue attacking the walls defended by Jean de Brienne who here would not easily surrender believing that his side would soon have the upper hand as he heard the Venetian fleet that would come to their rescue was somewhere nearby. Now, the ironic thing here is that in this siege there were in fact 3 Johns involved as apart from the besiegers John III and Ivan II, the 3rd one was the defending Latin emperor Jean de Brienne as “Jean” was French for “John”.

Baldwin II Courtenay, Latin emperor in Constantinople

Anyway, as the forces of John III and Jean de Brienne are squaring off here, Ivan II together with his daughter Elena made it into the Blachernae Palace finding the 18-year-old co-emperor Baldwin hiding in fear under the dining table of the palace, and with no guards left to defend him, one of the Bulgarian soldiers would pull him out while Elena when seeing him would punch his face out of revenge for refusing to marry her 6 years earlier. Ivan would then have Baldwin brought out in chains while the Bulgarian troops would pour into the streets of Constantinople annihilating the few remaining Latin troops defending it before attacking the defending soldiers at the walls from behind. With the Bulgarians either killing off or forcing the rest of the Latin troops stationed at the walls to surrender, John III would order his army to halt in firing the siege engines while Ivan II himself would climb up one of the towers of the land walls and personally meet the defending Latin emperor Jean de Brienne showing to him Baldwin II in chains to prove that Jean’s side had lost. Ivan would here trick Jean into negotiating terms but before the negotiation at the walls would begin, Ivan would pull out his sword and stab Jean thus killing him, then afterwards Ivan would have the flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire mounted at the tower of Constantinople’s land walls directly across the sight of John III.

2nd Bulgarian Empire solider

At first John III would be questioning why the gate was not opened to him and his forces and why even more shocking was the Bulgarian Empire’s flag flying above the walls and so John III would shout asking for Ivan to let him in, but for a while he would be met with no response. Eventually, Ivan together with his daughter Elena and Baldwin II in chains would come out of the gate to confront John III while Ivan will first speak directly to John where Ivan would say the he agreed for an alliance in besieging Constantinople but never agreed on who would take it and since Ivan got in first, Constantinople is now his and under the 2nd Bulgarian Empire. Ivan would then kick Baldwin to the ground and have his soldiers blind him, but as the soldiers were to point the knife to Baldwin’s eyes, John would come to realize that Ivan was nothing more but a brutal and savage double-crosser and he would attempt to stop Ivan from blinding Baldwin who had done nothing wrong, but before being able to stop the blinding, Ivan himself would push John away. Both Ivan and John wearing their imperial armor would then get into an intense fist-fight with some kicking and grabbing involved outside the walls and right in front of their respective troops.

John III Vatatzes with a sword

At the end, both Ivan and John would escape each other before either of them is knocked out or killed whereas John would tell Ivan out loud that he should have not agreed to an alliance with a lunatic which was Ivan in the first place while Ivan would push his daughter Elena over to John III giving Elena an ultimatum whether to come back to Bulgaria with him, break her marriage with Theodore, and never in her life return to Nicaea or go back with John III to Nicaea and never set foot in Bulgaria ever again. Elena here with two tough choices would choose the latter and so she would never be allowed to set foot anywhere in the Bulgarian Empire again never being able to see her family ever again as she wanted to have experience as an empress when Theodore’s time to become emperor comes. Ivan would then successfully blind Baldwin II and then have Baldwin sent to Tarnovo to be imprisoned in the same tower Baldwin’s uncle the first Latin emperor Baldwin I who he was named after was imprisoned in by Ivan’s uncle Tsar Kaloyan. After loading the blind Baldwin II on a cart headed for Tarnovo, Ivan would return inside the walls of Constantinople closing the gate on John III thus putting a lifetime ban on John III from entering Constantinople which here in 1235 is now Bulgarian while John III and his troops together with Elena would retreat back to Nicaea in shame. John III here would at least be able to leave the area of Constantinople before the Venetian fleet from the Duchy of the Archipelago led by its duke Angelo Sanudo like in real history would arrive, but here it would be too late for the fleet to come to the rescue of the Latins when seeing several Bulgarian flags flying above the walls, and when hearing that Jean de Brienne had been killed and Baldwin being captured, Duke Angelo having no more purpose would turn back to the Aegean while Ivan’s archers would fire flaming arrows at the fleet to force them to turn back.

Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria, art by HistoryGold777

The Latin Empire in this story thus ended here in 1235 with Constantinople and its surroundings now falling under the rule of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, and when inspecting his recently conquered city, Ivan II would see that Constantinople was a mess as the Latin Crusaders who captured it back in 1204 did not even bother to clean up the mess they created when destroying the buildings with their siege weapons and the fire they started, while also the streets Constantinople would be full of homeless people as the Latin occupiers never even bothered to clean up and put order in Constantinople as their only purpose was to loot the city’s relics and riches, and true enough by 1235 the Latin Empire that in this story that had been destroyed had no more funds as they had already looted and sold off too many relics to the kingdoms of Western Europe that there were no more relics to sell off. Now occupying Constantinople, Ivan Asen II would decide to make it the new capital of his Bulgarian Empire with its capital Tarnovo now only as his summer residence, and even more Ivan would move the seat of the Bulgarian patriarch to Constantinople transforming the Hagia Sophia from the Catholic church the Latins turned it into to a Bulgarian Orthodox Church, then Ivan would reside in the Blachernae Palace and worst of all call himself the true “Byzantine emperor”.

The 5th century land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Walls), art by myself
Army of the Latin Empire
Blachernae Palace, Imperial Residence of Constantinople

The Climax Part II- The Revenge of the Byzantines (1236-1250)         


In real history, neither Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria nor John III of Nicaea succeeded in taking over Constantinople from the Latin Empire, thus the Latin Empire would continue to live on, except its end was already expected. For the Latin Empire, its senior emperor Jean de Brienne ended his reign in 1237 when he decided to retire to become a Franciscan monk dying later that year, though before his retirement he married off his young daughter Marie de Brienne to the 20-year-old Baldwin II who here in 1237 became the sole emperor. The Latin Empire Baldwin II came to rule in 1237 was basically nothing and with its end either to the Bulgarians or the Empire of Nicaea imminent, the inexperienced and weak Baldwin II spent most of his reign looking for solutions to raise money that he would later travel to Western Europe to beg for funds from various rulers, and one reason for the Latin Empire still having enough funds to live on was because Baldwin II by around 1240 pawned the relic of the Crown of Thorns which was one of the last relics left in Constantinople to the Venetians for 13,000 gold coins which later was bought by the King of France Louis IX (r. 1226-1270) who was possibly Europe’s most powerful ruler.

King Louis IX of France with the Crown of Thorns relic

In this story however, none of this would happen as by 1235 the Latin Empire had already ended with its senior emperor Jean de Brienne killed by Ivan Asen II himself and Baldwin II blinded and imprisoned in the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo, and Ivan here beating John III in taking Constantinople added Constantinople to his empire making it its new capital, although the process in fully making Constantinople the new Bulgarian would take years, and so a lot of the events that would happen to Ivan II in the latter part of his reign would play out the same way in this story. What would remain unchanged in this story was the rise and rapid expansion of a new threat from the far east and this here was the story of the 13th century which was that of the Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan originally named Temujin in 1206, and following his death in 1227, his successors would go different directions and rapidly expand his empire west into Central Asia, Russia, eventually west into Eastern Europe, east to China, and south to Persia and even into Eastern Asia Minor.

Mongol warrior, 13th century

The Mongols were the type of people that would stop at nothing to expand and with the fierceness, brutality, and discipline of their warriors which were mostly cavalry archers as well as the fear they brought with all the atrocities they committed when capturing cities along the way, they grew such a massive empire and by 1237 the nomadic Cuman people of Eastern Europe in fear of the savage expansion of the Mongols would here like in real history flee into Ivan Asen II’s Bulgaria. In this story as well, Ivan II like in real history would grant the Cuman refugees crossing the Danube asylum, although in real history Ivan II after betraying John III after the 1235 siege would ally with Baldwin II’s Latin Empire with his new Cuman allies, but here with the Latin Empire gone Ivan would simply just allow the Cumans to settle in his empire.

Cuman warrior, 13th century

In this story like in real history, a plague in Bulgaria would also break out here in 1237 which would result in the deaths of his wife the Hungarian Maria and their son who was to be Ivan’s intended heir, thus both theirs deaths which did happen in this story would greatly devastate Ivan now feeling a lot guilt believing that the mass migration of the Cumans, the plague, and the death of his wife and son was a punishment from God for betraying a great man which was John III, as true enough Ivan II like in real history also betrayed John III in this story. In the meantime, in 1237 Ivan II in this story like in real history would also fall in love with Irene Komnene, the daughter of his prisoner the Despot of Epirus Theodore who by this point after 7 years was still in prison, and since Ivan’s wife had died here, he would marry his hostage Irene and as a gift to her, Ivan would release her father Theodore from prison.

Ivan Asen II and Irene Komnene, daughter of Despot Theodore

Theodore after being released despite being blind would rush back to Thessaloniki where later that year he would do as he did in real history and enter the city disguised as a beggar chasing his brother Manuel who was put in charge of it by Ivan back in 1230 away, and since Theodore was no longer qualified to rule as he was blind, he would install his son John Angelos as his puppet Despot of Thessaloniki, and Theodore here despite not ruling in name would be the one running the state for his son behind him as his son John never showed interest in ruling as he chose to live life like an ascetic monk. Now Despot Theodore here would not be able to take back Epirus which he ruled first as at this point it was already under the rule of his nephew Michael II Angelos as its despot, and just like in real history Theodore’s brother Manuel here in 1239 would claim for himself Thessaly but would die in 1241 as well, and with his death Thessaly would be annexed by Despot Michael II into Epirus.

Fresco of Tsar Ivan Asen II, died in 1241

In this story, Ivan Asen II’s last years would be not so pleasant as it was in real history as the same would happen wherein the Mongols by 1240 would have already expanded into the lands once under the massive Empire of the Kievan Rus and taking over Kiev as well, thus resulting in a number of Russian nobles (boyars) to flee south across the Danube into Bulgaria leaving Ivan with the headache of having to deal with their mass migration despite Ivan in this story now having Constantinople and ruling from it. Like in real history, Ivan Asen II here would also meet his end in 1241 dying at the age of 48, though here in Constantinople which was his new capital, and like in real history he would be succeeded by his 7-year-old son Kaliman Asen I ruling from Constantinople in this story. Both in real history and in this story, the death of Ivan Asen II in 1241 would be the end of Bulgaria’s glory days and a major factor to it was the growing pressure of the Mongols that were to now after Ivan’s death impose a heavy tribute on the Bulgarians or else Bulgaria itself would suffer the consequences of being annihilated by the Mongol army. In this story, John III in Nicaea when hearing of Ivan II’s death and the weakness the Bulgarians were in now that they are under a child ruler, he would use this to his advantage in taking back Constantinople soon enough from the Bulgarians.             

Map of the Latin states and Byzantine successor states by 1237
Latin emperor Baldwin II Courtenay in Lego (r. 1228-1261, in real history)
Latin emperor Baldwin II presents the Crown of Thorns relic to King Louis IX of France
Mongol army advancing

Back in the Empire of Nicaea, John III Vatatzes when returning in 1235 would return home with the shame of losing the race to recapture Constantinople to Ivan Asen II, though he would eventually overcome the shame by focusing on growing his empire’s economy and promoting its Greek culture.

Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea

Now just like in real history, John III’s reign would see the revival of the Greek (Hellenistic) identity in the people of Byzantium and a lot of the reasons to this was that when being exiled in Nicaea, they as people came to realize that they were a kingdom of Greeks as first of all they fled Constantinople in 1204 and regrouped together as Greek speaking people, and here in the late 1230s most people who escaped Constantinople in 1204 were in fact still alive with John III being from that generation as he was already alive though not present there when Constantinople had fallen. Now, the reasons for the revival of the Classical Greek identity for the Byzantines took place during their time in exile as the Empire of Nicaea are complex and therefore having no single answer, but a lot of it was also due to the people facing the humiliation of losing their capital needing to find a sense of purpose and having a ruler like John III who was very fond of the Greek classics, he also encouraged them to rediscover it. John III too when not leading his troops in battle spent his reign searching for and collecting Ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts, sculptures, and art, and being a well-loved ruler his people also followed his example which made them more and more aware of their Classical Greek heritage which at this time they began to see as the one they were more attached as they were in fact living in the lands the Ancient Greeks once lived in, therefore the connection of Byzantium to its Ancient Roman roots would begin to fade away, though not entirely as they would still continue to call themselves the “Roman Empire”.

Byzantine fresco of Alexander the Great

With this revival of the Greek classics ongoing in John III’s empire, John III himself would be seen by his people reconnecting to their Greek heritage as the new Alexander the Great, the legendary Ancient Greek King of Macedonia from the 4th century BC, and other than the visionary warrior emperor Alexander was, John III was also seen as a “philosopher-king” like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) as John III ruled wisely. Of course, John III would encounter a lot more challenges and losses along the way and one of the biggest ones he would face was in 1239 which was the death of his wife the empress Irene Laskarina, daughter of the Nicaean Empire’s founder Theodore I. Here in 1239 in this story just like in real history, Irene would die from a severe injury caused by a horse-riding accident a few years ago that made her unable to give birth for life that the only child she and John would have was their son Theodore, and little did she know that the accident would slowly cause her death in 1239. Irene’s death thus was greatly mourned by the people their empire as she too was well-loved the same way her husband was, and even more she was the one who put more attention in Nicaea’s cultural revival by funding monasteries and learning centers, and for the people of the Nicaean Empire, what they admired most about Irene was her strong moral character which also encouraged them to also be like her. Now, the death of his wife would not stop John III from growing his empire and in this story when finding out Ivan Asen II had died in 1241, John would immediately resume his ambitions to take Constantinople back for the Byzantines seeing an opportunity here as now the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was at a weak position with their new ruler Ivan’s son Kaliman Asen I being only a child. John III here however would not immediately return to Constantinople’s walls and lay siege to it but instead do as he did in real history which was in prioritizing the Byzantine reconquest of Thessaloniki seeing Constantinople as the ultimate prize. In 1241 following Ivan Asen II’s death, John III being also a skilled diplomat would do as he did in real history by inviting the former Despot of Epirus and Emperor of Thessaloniki Theodore Komnenos Doukas who here had no title but was still the power behind his son John that ruled Thessaloniki to come over to the Empire of Nicaea in Asia Minor. The former despot Theodore here would like in real history also be received well by John III in Nicaea where John would treat Theodore like an uncle as Despot Theodore was much older than John, and here John and Theodore would frequently dine with each other in one of John’s seaside palaces along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, and true enough John too was someone fond of good food and in this story’s case expensive seafood which he and Theodore would enjoy eating together overlooking the sea while also drinking expensive wines. The whole point however for John III treating Theodore so well was to lure Theodore into staying in Nicaea forever and never return to Thessaloniki as a way for John to get Theodore out of the way and take Thessaloniki for himself, and true enough Theodore here in his stay in the Nicaean Empire even though treated well with all the best luxuries was more or less a prisoner as for the entire time he was there, he was not permitted to go anywhere without John III’s watching. Now this whole time spent with the former despot Theodore gave John some valuable information in capturing Thessaloniki and in 1242, John III would begin preparing his fleet and army for the invasion of Thessaloniki wherein he would take Theodore with him as an honorary prisoner.

John III Vatatzes in imperial armor on a horse

As I forgot to mention, John III too had one challenge that he had to deal with his entire life which was chronic epilepsy that he frequently suffered unexpected seizures, but this still did not stop him from marching out into battle leading and inspiring his troops himself, and in 1242 following in the footsteps of the legendary Alexander the Great who his people saw him as, John III and his grand general Andronikos Palaiologos leading a large army taking Despot Theodore as an honorary prisoner set sail across the Aegean to Thessaloniki while in Nicaea John III left his now grown up son Theodore to be in charge of it as at this point he was already training under his father to rule the empire. Without any resistance, the Nicaean fleet would arrive before the walls of Thessaloniki where the fleet of John III would lay siege to it from the sea, though soon enough the siege engines of John III would turn out to be not as effective against Thessaloniki’s walls, thus the siege would continue for months. By the end of 1242, John III camped outside Thessaloniki would receive terrible news from his son Theodore in Nicaea and this was that Mongols who for the past years have been expanding west now invaded the territory of the Seljuks in Asia Minor wherein the Mongols brutally sacked and destroyed the city of Erzurum. John III here would be forced to abandon his siege and rush back to Asia Minor fearing that the Mongols would proceed further west and attack the Empire of Nicaea itself, though he would not tell his honorary prisoner Despot Theodore the reason why he had to return. With John III rushing back to Asia Minor, Despot Theodore would then be left behind to enter Thessaloniki and negotiate with his son John, and here Thessaloniki’s ruler John being uninterested in ruling would instantly agree to surrender Thessaloniki to John III but his father would slap him telling him to man up and not give up that easily, and so Theodore’s son John Angelos would continue to rule Thessaloniki until his sudden death in 1244 while his father would continue to run the state for him from retirement in the town of Vodena near Thessaloniki. Following John Angelos’ death in 1244, his father Theodore could still not claim the rulership of Thessaloniki being blind, therefore Theodore would make his younger son Demetrios Angelos his new puppet ruler of Thessaloniki and unlike his brother John who was a simple ascetic, Demetrios was a debauched young man more interested in partying and seducing married women than ruling that he would instantly lose his popularity the moment he came to rule Thessaloniki that his people would soon demand that the much wiser John III of Nicaea should rule them. When returning to Nicaea, John III would prepare for the imminent Mongol invasion of his empire by quickly raising and training a larger army, construct new siege engines, and have stronger quality weapons made considering that in 1243 the Mongols defeated the Seljuk forces at the Battle of Kose Dag in Eastern Asia Minor. However, John III would soon enough find out that the Mongols had left Asia Minor as their recent attacks forced the Seljuks and the breakaway Byzantine Empire of Trebizond north of them to pay tribute to them thus making the Mongols retreat back east and north, and with the Seljuk state east of the Empire of Nicaea weakened to the point of near extinction by the invasion of the Mongols, the Empire of Nicaea was the one to be lucky here, thus allowing them to further grow again.

Byzantine Thessaloniki
Byzantine era Thessaloniki
Mongols defeat the Seljuks at the Battle of Kose Dag in 1243, art by Giuseppe Rava


Though the Empire of Nicaea was spared from a massive Mongol invasion, there was still a chance that the Mongols would one day attack Nicaean territory, and so to further protect his empire John III had to turn to an alliance with possibly the most powerful state of Europe of this time which was the Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen.

Seal of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire

In 1245, the 53-year-old John III sealed his alliance with Frederick II by marrying Frederick’s 14-year-old daughter Anna Hohenstaufen who travelled from Italy to Nicaea, and although she was married to John III both would never have feelings for each other due to their large age gap. Anna would instead be closer to John’s now grown-up son Theodore and Theodore’s wife Elena the daughter of Ivan Asen II who was now also grown up, and together what all 3 had in common was a love for philosophy and thirst for knowledge. In 1246, just like in real history Ivan Asen II’s son and successor Kaliman Asen I would also die at only 12 except here he would die in the Bulgarian’s new capital Constantinople, thus he would be succeeded as tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire by his younger brother Michael Asen who was only 7, therefore Bulgaria here would be under the regency of its boyars again. In 1246 as well, John III would get word from the people of Thessaloniki that they are tired of being ruled by the decadent and irresponsible Demetrios Angelos and instead preferred that John take over Thessaloniki and make it part of his empire. John III here would be torn between two tough decisions whether to attack Bulgaria and take back some lands in order to take advantage of the situation of their empire in chaos due to the Mongols now raiding their northern border while a child ruler was in charge or to answer the call of the people of Thessaloniki and overthrown their unpopular ruler Demetrios. John here in this story’s case like in real history would choose to sail back from Asia Minor to Europe to first attack Bulgarian territory taking advantage of the chaos in their empire, and in this story’s case he would prioritize this first as his goal was to now finally capture Constantinople considering that the Bulgarians were now weak while their child ruler ruling from it could possibly easily surrender it. Within only 3 months in 1246, John III like in real history here would quickly capture most of Thrace and all of Northern and Eastern Macedonia from the Bulgarians, while here in this story he would again have his grand general Andronikos Palaiologos take care of Constantinople wherein Andronikos with a few soldiers would inspect Constantinople’s walls to look for ways to besiege it. John III when camping in the town of Melnik in Thrace (in today’s Bulgaria) which was one of the towns John III had just recaptured from the Bulgarians, he would hear that the nobles of Thessaloniki were conspiring to overthrow their ruler Demetrios and hand him over to John.

John III Vatatzes icon

Using diplomacy this time, John III would write to Demetrios asking for him to personally come to Melnik to negotiate terms, but Demetrios when hearing of this refused to see John III at Melnik suspecting that it was trap set up by John. With Demetrios refusing John’s terms, John with Andronikos then marched his army from Melnik to Thessaloniki wherein they would lay siege to its walls on arrival. After only a few days, the conspirators that planned to overthrow Demetrios and hand Thessaloniki over to John III opened the gates to John III’s Nicaean army, and when marching into Thessaloniki the people would cheer and welcome John III as their new ruler in open arms, similar to what the people of Adrianople did back in 1225 when John III marched in. Demetrios would then be captured and sent by John III to Asia Minor to be imprisoned for life while Demetrios’ father Theodore being retirement and still alive would no longer care much about the events going on around him. Now with Thessaloniki, Macedonia, and Thrace under the hands of the Empire of Nicaea, John III would place Andronikos in charge of all these recently conquered lands in Europe as its governor while John III in this story’s case would then have the time to focus on once again laying siege to Constantinople and capturing it from the Bulgarians. In real history, John III was said to have laid siege to Constantinople again in 1247 or 1248 except this time with no alliance with Bulgaria and in real history it was still the Latin Empire under Baldwin II that John III was trying to recapture Constantinople from. In this story’s case, John III would lay siege to Constantinople also at this point and considering that a large portion of the Bulgarian army was away as they had to defend their northern border which was the Danube River from Mongol raids, John III here could easily capture Constantinople. In this story’s case, John III would have to temporarily abandon his siege in Constantinople in 1248 when hearing that his newly appointed governor of Thrace and Macedonia Andronikos Palaiologos had died as in real history Andronikos also died in 1248, and with Andronikos’ death John III would replace Andronikos as the governor of Thrace and Macedonia with Theodore Philes, though John III like in real history too would assign Andronikos’ eldest son Michael Palaiologos to be in charge of the towns of Serres and Melnik in Thrace. Michael Palaiologos despite taking the position of his late father Andronikos was never close to his father as Andronikos after the death of his first wife which was Michael’s mother died when Michael and his siblings were very young, Andronikos remarried and had another family of his own, therefore abandoning his children with his first wife including Michael. Michael’s tough upbringing due to having no parents to watch over him heavily influenced his cruel and ambitious personality he had when grown up, and by the time Michael was appointed as an imperial governor in 1248, he already began showing his ambition to one day take over the empire himself and take back Constantinople. Eventually, it was in fact Michael Palaiologos that did succeed in taking back Constantinople from the Latins later on in 1261, but in this story’s case John III in 1248 would finally succeed in taking back Constantinople, though in this story from the Bulgarians and not the Latins.

Michael Asen, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (r. 1246-1256), son of Ivan Asen II

Now the circumstances in this story’s case for why John III in 1248 was able to recapture Constantinople from the Bulgarians won’t be really explained in full detail, but it was mainly because the Bulgarian forces left defending Constantinople’s walls were outnumbered as most were in the north having to defend their Danube border against the Mongols, and so here after weeks of being under siege the Bulgarian garrison of Constantinople would open the gates to John III and his army, while the Bulgarian tsar Michael Asen who here was ruling from Constantinople would just easily surrender Constantinople to John III as Michael Asen being very young really had no interest in controlling Constantinople anyway. Michael Asen would thus be able to return to the 2nd Bulgarian Empire’s original capital Tarnovo unharmed only on the condition that Baldwin II who Ivan Asen II imprisoned 13 years earlier there after taking Constantinople in 1235 was to be released. It was however too late for the former Latin emperor Baldwin II in this story as during these 13 years of imprisonment in Tarnovo, he had already died possibly from starvation or disease. Now John III then in 1248 in this story would achieve the ultimate goal of his life which was the return of Constantinople to Byzantine rule, and it is here in 1248 in this story where the Empire of Nicaea’s story ends not by dying out and fading away from history but by once again becoming the Byzantine Empire that was thought to be lost forever when the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204. The return of Constantinople to Byzantine rule thus meant the restoration of the old Byzantine Empire, although here John III would be the one to rule from Constantinople while his son Theodore would rule as co-emperor from Nicaea, and now to consolidate the return of Byzantium and its newly gained dominance over all the powers that were the successor states of pre-1204 Byzantium such as Epirus and Trebizond, as well as the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, John III would turn to settling peace agreements with all of them, and with his people John III would be ever more loved.

Melnik, Bulgaria
Constantinople, returned to Byzantine rule in 1248 by John III in this story


The Epilogue (in real history)             


In real history, John III Vatatzes would die in 1254 still never able to recapture Constantinople from the Latins, but even if he never achieved it, he at least lived long enough to see his empire becoming the most dominant of all the pre-1204 successor states seeing it grow even more powerful than the 2nd Bulgarian Empire. The biggest conquest of John III happened to be Thessaloniki, thus making the Empire of Nicaea at its largest extent and to secure his claim on Thessaloniki, John III settled peace with the Despotate of Epirus ruled by Despot Michael II Angelos to prevent Michael II from taking it back. In 1251, Despot Michael II of Epirus broke his peace agreement with John and suddenly laid siege to Thessaloniki attempting to take it back from the Empire of Nicaea but the Nicaean forces still resisted successfully defending Thessaloniki before John III’s arrival in 1252.

Michael II Angelos, Despot of Epirus (r. 1230-1268), art by Alexios I

Here, Despot Theodore now very old came out of retirement to assist his nephew Michael II against John III, thus they both fled north to capture some towns from the Nicaeans but when hearing John III in 1252 arrived to relieve Thessaloniki for Michael II’s army, both Theodore and Michael II fled into Arta, the capital of the Despotate of Epirus itself. Both Theodore and Michael II at first thought of regrouping their troops in Arta where they would launch a counter-attack against John III’s forces, but when hearing that their Albanian allies defected to John III, Michael II and Theodore abandoned their plans and decided to resume their peace with John III. Michael II after ceding back the fortresses and towns they captured back to John III then continued to rule as the Despot of Epirus while his uncle Theodore personally met up with John III again in Vodena, the same place Theodore had been living in retirement all this time. John III despite usually showing mercy to his defeated enemies this time did not as he had gown extremely fed up with Despot Theodore’s treachery and so John III this time without any second thoughts had Despot Theodore sent to Asia Minor to be imprisoned for life, and in the following year 1253 the blind 73-year-old Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas finally died in prison somewhere in Nicaean territory in Asia Minor. In the meantime, John III’s daughter-in-law Elena Asenina who had been married to John III’s son Theodore since 1235 had died sometime in 1252 at only 28 possibly due to pregnancy complications, but at least she had 6 children with Theodore including a son named John born in 1250 who was named after both his grandfathers, John III Vatatzes and Ivan Asen II. In 1253 then, Michael Palaiologos who was appointed as the governor of Serres and Melnik in Thrace had the courage to speak about organizing a plot to overthrow John III and take over the empire, which eventually led to his imprisonment by orders of his arch-rival John III’s son Theodore. John III however showing some mercy and seeing potential in Michael agreed to release Michael from prison shortly after as long as Michael burned his hands by holding two red hot irons in front of John III to prove his loyalty. After burning his hands by holding these irons, John III released Michael, which John III in fact even rewarded Michael by marrying off his 13-year-old grandniece Theodora Vatatzaina who was the granddaughter of John III’s lesser-known brother Isaac Vatatzes to the 30-year-old Michael, while Michael too was awarded by John III with the new position of Megas Konostaulos which meant “Grand Constable”, or in other words the equivalent of a police general in Byzantium as Michael proved to be a strong military man. In the following year 1254, John III together with his son Theodore set off on another adventure, this time to travel into the lands of the Seljuks deep within Asia Minor to provide them with military aid against a possible Mongol invasion, however as John III began to age his epilepsy grew worse. John III and his son Theodore then never completed their mission as in late 1254 John III suffered a strong epileptic seizure and died at the age of 62 at the city of Nymphaion, part of Nicaean territory in Western Asia Minor. John III was then buried at a monastery he founded in that area while his death was mourned by all his people as he was the leader that they all looked up to and through his courage and great conquests despite suffering from a major challenge throughout his life which was epilepsy, he gave his people hope and inspiration in a time when they were so humiliated due to losing their capital. John III was then succeeded by his only son the 32-year-old Theodore who was present at his father’s death, and becoming emperor Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes chose to rule with his mother’s last name “Laskaris” instead of his father’s last name “Vatatzes” to assert his legitimacy as the grandson of the Empire of Nicaea’s founder Theodore I Laskaris.

Emperor Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes of Nicaea (r. 1254-1258), son of John III

As emperor, Theodore II possessed a lot of knowledge as he grew up being a well-educated and intellectual scholar making him fond of philosophy, theology, math, science, and history rather than warfare, but he was also well-trained to run an empire by his father. Theodore II however was not as capable and masculine as his father was as first of all the loss of his wife Elena two years earlier led him down a path of depression and growing up in the palace as the imperial heir with all the luxuries he wanted such as playing Tzykanion (Byzantine polo) made him a spoiled and entitled ruler who did not really care about anyone else’s opinions except his own, and already when coming to power in 1254 he dismissed a lot of the aristocrats from high positions in the government believing they were useless, thus replacing them with his loyal friends most of which were commoners that were educated with him like George Mouzalon who became Theodore II’s grand general or Megas Domestikos who would then be in charge of Asia Minor while Theodore was to campaign in Europe.          

Map of the Latin states and Byzantine successor states by 1255
Version 2
Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes Lego figure
Elena Asenina of Bulgaria, wife of Theodore II Lego figure, died in 1252

Though the new emperor Theodore II appeared more as a scholar than a soldier the way his father was, he still ruled energetically, and when beginning his reign he fulfilled his father’s goal in making a defensive alliance with his eastern neighbor the Seljuk sultan Kykaus II against the Mongols who were still harassing the Seljuks by invading their territory and even if the sultan Kykaus II already agreed to pay tribute to the Mongol Empire’s ruler Mongke Khan, Kykaus II still did not directly pay homage to the khan by travelling to his court, thus giving a reason for the khan to continue raiding Seljuk lands, but now with military support from the Empire of Nicaea, the Seljuks could now stand against the powerful and destructive Mongol raids.

Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes, Emperor of Nicaea

Theodore II however would already fall out with the aristocrats as his reign began not only because he favored commoners over them but also because Theodore no longer prioritized the reconquest of Constantinople from the Latins, and many of the older population of the Nicaean Empire who had seen their capital fall to the Crusaders in 1204 were still alive and at least wanted to die seeing Constantinople under Byzantine hands again, thus they were upset with their new emperor for not letting them see their dreams come true. On the other hand, Theodore II still kept it in mind to take back Constantinople one day but as of 1255 he had other problems to deal with in which one of them was the 2nd Bulgarian Empire which struck back again by invading Nicaean territory in Thrace as the Bulgarian tsar Michael Asen who was at this point already grown up took advantage of John III’s death by continuing raids on Nicaean-Byzantine territory. In early 1255, Theodore II after raising an army of peasants from Asia Minor as he believed they were more effective than foreign mercenaries crossed the Marmara into Europe for the first time in his life to repel the Bulgarian invasion of Thrace while leaving behind his top general George Mouzalon to take care of affairs in Asia Minor. Long story short, Theodore II after several months drove off the Bulgarian invaders from Thrace and Macedonia and to chase the remaining Bulgarian troops back to their empire up north, Theodore had his general which was the aristocrat Alexios Strategopoulos lead a group of the army to chase them away but in a mountain pass in the Rhodope Mountains when hearing the horns of the shepherds, Alexios mistook the sound as the horns of the Bulgarian army, thus he ordered his men to retreat in panic dropping their equipment in the process. Now the reason for this fiasco at the Rhodope Mountains happening was also due to Alexios being an aristocrat not wanting to take orders from the anti-aristocrat emperor Theodore II, thus Alexios returned to Nicaea where together with Michael Palaiologos who had turned out to be a supporter of the aristocrats and since childhood a rival of Theodore despite being Theodore’s 2nd cousin plotted to overthrow Theodore. When returning to Nicaea in Asia Minor, Theodore discovered the plot thus he had Alexios and the other nobles that took part in it imprisoned while Michael escaping imprisonment escaped at the middle of the night and fled east to the Seljuk Empire to serve in the army of Sultan Kykaus II as a general dressed in Turkish military attire.

George Mouzalon, general of Theodore II Lego figure

In the following year 1256, Michael Asen resumed his raids into Nicaean territory in Thrace which forced Theodore II this time with George Mouzalon to again cross into Europe and expel the Bulgarians, but seeing he could negotiate with Michael Asen, Theodore arranged a meeting wherein both of them would agree to terms, which at the end it was successful and the Bulgarians wherein the Bulgarian troops were to leave Nicaean territory in Thrace for good. This peace treaty however was very humiliating for the Bulgarians that in late 1256 Tsar Michael Asen was overthrown and stabbed to death by his cousin Kaliman Asen II who took over as the new Bulgarian tsar, although he did not have much support, therefore Michael Asen’s brother-in-law Mitso and the Russian boyar Rostislav Mikhailovich who was one of the many Russian nobles that fled into Bulgaria from the Mongols laid claim to the Bulgarian throne, although Mitso beat Rostislav here and took the throne.

Stefan Uros I, King of Serbia (r. 1243-1277)

In the meantime, Theodore II’s success against the Bulgarians made the Despot of Epirus Michael II nervous that he made an alliance with his northern neighbor the King of Serbia Stefan Uros I who had ruled Serbia since 1243 against Theodore II, but wanting to solve the conflict with Epirus through Diplomacy, Theodore II arranged for his daughter Maria to marry Michael II’s son Nikephoros at Thessaloniki. As young Nikephoros travelled to Thessaloniki with his mother Theodora, Theodore captured Theodora after Nikephoros and Maria were married, and holding Theodora hostage, Theodore II sent word to Despot Michael II that he would release Michael II’s wife Theodora only if Michael II was to cede Epirote territory which included the port of Dyrrhachion to Nicaea. Michael II then agreed in order to get his wife back, thus by the end of 1256 the Empire of Nicaea grew even larger now that it controlled the entire important trade route the Via Egnatia, and now that the Empire of Nicaea had territory north of Eprius including the port of Dyrrhachion in Albania, its territorial extent now extended to the Ionian Sea wherein right across it was already Italy. Theodore II too just like his father John III suffered from chronic epilepsy and in 1257, Theodore’s epilepsy had grown worse and as the months passed, his health began to fail that his contemporary chronicler George Akropolites who was educated together with him describes that Theodore drastically lost a lot of weight that he was already reduced to a skeleton, while his failing health would further increase his depression and the instability of his temper as well as making him despise the Bulgarians more seeing them as sorcerers and poisoners. Being not able to personally command the army anymore, Theodore II had no choice but to recall the person that troubled him most which was Michael Palaiologos from his service to the Seljuk sultan in Asia Minor as someone strong was needed to command the troops in Europe against the forces of Michael II of Epirus that resumed their attacks on Theodore’s recently gained territories north of Epirus. In the meantime, Theodore II concluded peace with the Mongol ruler of Persia Khan Hulagu where both agreed that the Seljuk sultan Kykaus II was to be a vassal of Hulagu, while Theodore II at the same time concluded peace with Bulgaria in 1257 as by this point a Bulgarian boyar named Konstantin Tih claimed for himself the Bulgarian throne after assassinating Mitso but to legitimize his claim, he had to marry a member of the Asen dynasty which here was Theodore II’s other daughter Irene who at her mother Elena’s side was a granddaughter of Ivan Asen II.

Fresco of Tsar Konstantin Tih of Bulgaria (r. 1257-1277, left) with his wife Irene Laskarina (right), the daughter of Theodore II

Back with Michael Palaiologos, he had successfully defeated Michael II’s Epirote troops that had invaded Theodore II’s recently gained lands but Theodore with his health worsening grew more and more paranoid of Michael Palaiologos and so he had Michael recalled to Nicaea fearing that if Michael would have scored more victories, he would be proclaimed emperor by his troops. Back in Nicaea, Michael Palaiologos was thrown in prison as Theodore II suspected him of plotting, but this would only make things worse as with Michael leaving his campaigns, the Epirote forces once again took back the lands Theodore II just gained north of Epirus and in prison, Michael now would plot Theodore II’s death as Theodore was already sick, therefore it was the perfect time to kill him off once and for all. Theodore II eventually released Michael from prison in 1258 but later that year, Theodore’s health worsened that his death was already very near therefore he named his only son John who was only 7 here as his successor while he was to be under the regency of Theodore’s closest friend George Mouzalon until John would grow up. Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes then died on August 16 of 1258 in the imperial palace of the city of Magnesia in Western Asia Minor at the age of 36, and it is most likely that he died from his worsening health condition, although with his chronic health condition of epilepsy worsening it would still take him a few more years to die, therefore it is also possible that Michael Palaiologos who had always been looking for ways to have revenge on Theodore for bullying him since childhood grabbed the opportunity here of Theodore being sick, thus poisoning Theodore to give him a quick death.          

Peasant army of the Empire of Nicaea, art by TimbukDrew
Meme of the chad Michael Palaiologos and the virgin Theodore II Laskaris
John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes, son and successor of Theodore II Lego figure, Emperor of Nicaea (r. 1258-1261)

Just shortly after Theodore II’s death in 1258, Michael Palaiologos’ ambition to take over the empire could already be clearly seen as during Theodore’s funeral taking place in the same monastery his father John III was buried in back in 1254, the Latin mercenaries that were under Michael command being the empire’s police general suddenly hacked George Mouzalon who was supposed to be Theodore II’s young son John IV’s regent to death, while at the same time George’s brother Andronikos who was also loyal to Theodore II was murdered, though the other Mouzalon brother Theodore survived but was never heard from again. Following George Mouzalon’s murder, George’s wife fled to Michael’s house in Magnesia where Michael revealed to her that he was behind the plot against her husband as Michael told her to not say anything about it or she will be killed the same way. Despite his regent George Mouzalon being killed, Theodore II’s 7-year-old son John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes still succeeded to the throne in 1258 first under the regency of the Patriarch of Constantinople exiled in Nicaea which was Arsenios Autoreianos, though a large percentage of the Byzantine nobility in Nicaea as well as the senate backed Michael Palaiologos as the time they were at now was a troubled one with enemies on all sides which was mainly Epirus in the west and the potential threat of the Mongols at large making a child ruler which was John IV unable to handle this kind of situation, therefore a strong and ruthless military emperor was needed, and this here would be no other than Michael Palaiologos.

Michael Palaiologos, Regent Emperor of Nicaea (1259-1261)

To further put a claim to the throne of the Empire of Nicaea, Michael began spreading lies about the threat of the Mongols worsening as well as Epirus growing now that Epirus allied with the dying Latin Empire in Constantinople and with the new German king of Sicily Manfred Hohenstaufen, the son of the late Holy Roman emperor Frederick II who had died back in 1250. On New Year’s Day on 1259, Michael Palaiologos was officially crowned by the patriarch as co-emperor though Michael was the one crowned with the imperial crown while young John IV only with an ornate headdress that was not a crown, thus from here on it was Michael Palaiologos that was to effectively rule the Empire of Nicaea and lead it to victory while John IV was only to be a puppet. Now being in charge, Michael in 1259 had the general Alexios Strategopoulos who Theodore II imprisoned back in 1255 released from prison as Alexios was needed on a massive military campaign planned by Michael. Alexios together with Michael’s younger brother John Palaiologos then set sail for Greece to clash with the forces of Michael II’s Despotate of Epirus who now allied themselves with the King of Sicily Manfred, the Latin Principality of Achaea in Southern Greece founded in 1205, and the same Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean still under Duke Angelo Sanudo who came to the defense of Constantinople back in 1235. The forces then clashed in the epic Battle of Pelagonia in September of 1259 somewhere in Northern Greece which at the end resulted in victory for the Nicaean forces under John Palaiologos and Alexios Strategopoulos when a large number of the Epirote forces led by Despot Michael II’s son John defected to the Nicaeans as apparently Michael Palaiologos had bribed John knowing he had issues with his father to betray his father in battle.

Seal of the Latin Principality of Achaea in Greece

This battle too was also the last recorded appearance of the Varangian Guard in battle, though it resulted in the end of Latin dominance in Greece as the Prince of Achaea here which was William Villehardouin was captured by the Nicaean forces and escorted to prison by the Varangians, while the threat of the Despotate of Epirus too was neutralized. This victory then cleared all obstacles for the Empire of Nicaea allowing them to prioritize on their main objective which was the Reconquest of Constantinople, thus in 1260 Michael Palaiologos prepared for his ultimate goal and so he set off from Nicaea sailing across the Marmara again to the Walls of Constantinople. Michael here in 1260 again put Constantinople under siege but at the end, he again failed even though the Latins no longer had much of a defense as what Michael really needed here was a navy to support him. The Latin emperor Baldwin II and Michael then met wherein Michael agreed to a one-year truce with Baldwin II which really meant that Baldwin should prepare his defenses as a year later, Michael would return but this time with a full-scale invasion.

Seal of the Republic of Genoa

In early 1261, Michael made a permanent alliance with the Italian maritime Republic of Genoa which was to provide a navy to assist the Nicaean forces in recapturing Constantinople later that year as apparently at this time Genoa was at war with Venice which the Latin Empire was allied with, therefore the Genoese were more than willing to assist as they were to fight the Venetians. At the same time too, Michael sent Alexios Strategopoulos to scout the Walls of Constantinople and either look for weak spots or to ask locals for information on how to besiege the walls. Alexios however was in luck as the locals of Thrace told him that the main garrison of the Latins in Constantinople boarding a Venetian fleet left the city to raid an island in the Black Sea, thus Alexios grabbed the opportunity and before the Latin forces could return, Alexios with an army of 800 which included both Nicaean-Byzantine troops and Cuman mercenaries at the dead of night found a secret passage beneath the walls that led to a monastery inside the city.

Cuman warrior, allied forces with the Byzantines in the 1261 Reconquest

Alexios and a few men snuck beneath the walls, killed off the gate guards while they were sleeping, then opened the gate allowing his 800 men to storm in at the dead of the night. The very few Latin forces left to defend Constantinople woke up in panic seeing the Byzantines of Nicaea invade Constantinople burning the Venetian shipyards and warehouses to prevent their escape, but at the end it was all hopeless for the few Latin troops left inside. As the morning of July 25 came, the Latin emperor Baldwin II woke up and, in a panic, dropped his crown and sword but at least made it in time to board a Venetian ship headed back to France, thus Baldwin II here would be the last Latin emperor. The unexpected Reconquest of Constantinople on July 25 of 1261 thus brought an end to the 57-year existence of the Latin Empire, while this was also the end of the Empire of Nicaea, although not really the end as the Empire of Nicaea simply returned to be the Byzantine Empire that was thought to be lost forever in 1261. Michael Palaiologos in his camp somewhere in Asia Minor later got word from his older sister Irene who being excited woke him up telling him Alexios with only 800 men took back Constantinople from the Latins, and although thinking of it as a joke at first as Michael himself saw the power of Constantinople’s walls a year earlier, he was true enough proven wrong as a messenger came delivering to Michael the last Latin emperor Baldwin II’s crown and sword.

Michael VIII Palaiologos enters Constantinople in triumph, 1261

On August 15 of 1261, Michael himself entered Constantinople for the first time in his life seeing a severely damaged and depopulated city of only 35,000, and after a triumphal procession was crowned in the Hagia Sophia by Patriarch Arsenios now restored as the Patriarch of Constantinople as the restored Byzantine emperor Michael VIII, and when being crowned Michael vowed that he would restore Byzantium to its old glory, but to achieve his goals Michael was someone who used rather dirty diplomatic means to achieve them. Now to fully consolidate his rule and his new dynasty, Michael VIII before 1261 ended had the rightful emperor the now 11-year-old John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes who was still in Nicaea blinded and afterwards imprisoned in one of the Palaiologos family’s castles in Asia Minor as Michael knew that one day young John IV may come back for revenge on Michael for possibly poisoning his father.

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

Michael VIII Palaiologos would then rule for another 21 years until his death in 1282, and in his reign, he would do all he can to restore the Byzantine Empire now back in Constantinople to its old glory, but at the end he would never get anywhere far as the damage caused by the 4th Crusade when they sacked Constantinople back in 1204 had proved to be far beyond repair. Michael VIII too would have the legacy not only of restoring the Byzantine Empire but of founding the Palaiologos Dynasty which would be the longest reigning dynasty in Byzantine history that would rule until the end of the Byzantine Empire 2 centuries later in 1453, though the story of Michael VIII’s reign and that of his dynasty would be saved for another time.  

Michael VIII Palaiologos Lego figure
Empire of Nicaea’s forces defeat the allied forces of Epirus and the Latins at the Battle of Pelagonia in 1259, art by FaisalHashemi
Alexios Strategopoulos Lego figure
The 1261 Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople, art by FaisalHashemi
Coronation of Michael VIII Palaiologos in the Hagia Sophia, 1261
Watch this to see the story of the 1261 Reconquest of Constantinople in Lego (No Budget Films).


The Epilogue and Secret Ending (in this story) and Conclusion             


Now in this story’s case most of the events will play out as they did in real history as mentioned previously beginning 1250, except the only difference would be that Constantinople would once again be under Byzantine hands after John III Vatatzes would take it back from the Bulgarians in 1248. The rest of the events taking place in the last years of John III’s reign would still happen which means that even though achieving the reconquest of Constantinople, John III would here do the same as he did from 1251-1252 in defending Thessaloniki from the sudden invasion of Despot Michael II Angelos of Epirus, his daughter-in-law which was his son Theodore’s wife Elena Asenina would also die in 1252, Michael II of Epirus would give up his claim on Thessaloniki while his uncle the former Despot of Epirus Theodore Komnenos Doukas would like in real history be imprisoned in Asia Minor by John III dying in 1253. Though ruling already from Constantinople, John III in 1254 would still go on an adventure wherein in this story John III would also die from his worsening epilepsy in Nymphaion at the age of 62 later in 1254, although at least John III in this story’s case would die a happy death as he had lived to see his empire’s ultimate goal of recovering Constantinople achieved as well as getting the chance to not just as rule as an “Emperor of Nicaea” but as a “Byzantine emperor” from Constantinople. Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes here in this story would like in real history succeed his father in 1254, although Theodore II now having Constantinople thanks to his father’s capture of it from the Bulgarians in 1248 would now rule as a Byzantine emperor from Constantinople, therefore the people he was ruling now having what they for the longest time dreamt of which was the reconquest of Constantinople would no longer be upset with Theodore who in real history did not really prioritize taking back Constantinople, as here they already had it back. When ruling from Constantinople, Theodore II in 1255 would still do the same as he did in real history when campaigning against the Bulgarians in Thrace as the Bulgarian tsar Michael Asen would still raid Byzantine Thrace taking advantage of John III’s death. Like in real history, Theodore II too in this story’s case would prefer his loyal friends who were mostly commoners like George Mouzalon over the aristocracy which included Michael Palaiologos and Alexios Strategopoulos, thus Alexios would still be imprisoned while Michael would like in real history here also flee to the Seljuks to serve in their army as a general. The conquests of Theodore II in Northern Greece in 1256 would also happen in this story wherein Theodore II this time ruling from Constantinople would still turn his attention west to further expand the now restored Byzantine Empire to the Ionian Sea by capturing lands from Michael II of Epirus. At the same time, the same succession crisis in the Bulgarian Empire from 1256 to 1257 would also happen here wherein the Bulgarian throne would pass from Michael Asen to Kaliman Asen II, to Mitso, then finally to Konstantin Tih while also the marriage between the new Bulgarian tsar Konstantin Tih to Theodore’s daughter Irene would take place as well. Michael Palaiologos too in this story’s case would be recalled from his service to the Seljuks back to Byzantium to battle the Epirote forces of Michael II in 1257 wherein he would also be recalled and imprisoned by Theodore like in real history, but this here would be where things get different. Now the secret ending in this story would be that instead of Michael Palaiologos being eventually released from prison, Theodore II now tired of Michael and his schemes would show no mercy and thus blind Michael and keeping him in prison for life, thus this would fully disable Michael from seizing the throne and overthrowing the Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty like he did in real history. Theodore II however in this story would still meet the same end as he did in real history which was that of his health worsening as the months passed, although in this story due to Michael Palaiologos being blinded and imprisoned for life, Theodore II’s death would possibly not happen too sudden like in real history where in 1258 he just died less than a year after his health began to deteriorate, as here Michael would not be around to poison Theodore II. However, Theodore II would here also be too weak to personally lead his troops in battle, and without Michael Palaiologos left for the job, the job would instead be left to Theodore’s closest friend and top general George Mouzalon together with Alexios Strategopoulos who here in this story would be released from prison and would swear loyalty to Theodore II considering that the person he was more loyal to which was Michael was now out of function being blinded and imprisoned. In 1259, the Battle of Pelagonia would still take place and here it would be between the forces of the restored Byzantine Empire led by Alexios and George Mouzalon against the forces of Michael II of Epirus with his Latin allies being the Principality of Achaea in the Peloponnese and that of the Germans in Sicily, and at the end the forces of the restored Byzantium would win, thus Epirus would be eliminated as a threat. In this story, Theodore II’s death would happen in late 1259 due to his worsening health finally giving in, though at least Theodore II in this story would die seeing not only the Byzantine Empire restored with Constantinople as its capital again but it now being the dominant power of the area considering their victory over the rival the Despotate of Epirus earlier that year.

John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes, restored Byzantine emperor in Constantinople in this story

Obviously, since Constantinople in this story’s case is already back under Byzantine hands, the unexpected Reconquest of 1261 from the Latins would no longer take place, and as for Michael Palaiologos his real purpose in history was really in masterminding the ultimate achievement of the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, but in this story’s case with Constantinople already back under Byzantine hands before 1261, Michael though would probably still want to take the empire for himself by overthrowing the ruling Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty, but here with Michael already blinded and imprisoned he would never achieve it. What would happen instead here is that after Theodore II’s death in 1259, his son John IV Laskaris Vatatzes would succeed him, therefore the Palaiologos Dynasty that would rule Byzantium for 200 years would never come to exist, but since John IV is only a child, he would rule under the regency of the general George Mouzalon, who in real history was really assigned by Theodore II to rule as regent for his son until George was hacked to death by Michael’s orders in Theodore’s funeral. In real history, John IV never made it to see Constantinople himself as Michael Palaiologos in 1261 reclaimed it wherein he took the empire for himself becoming Emperor Michael VIII who later in 1261 blinded and imprisoned young John IV. Although John IV was blinded, he still lived long beyond Michael VIII’s death in 1282 and in 1290, John IV already a 40-year-old man was finally released from 29 years of imprisonment by Michael VIII’s son and successor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) who then allowed John IV to return to Constantinople where John would live the rest of his days peacefully in retirement until his death in 1305 at the age of 55. In this story, John IV would instead live long enough to rule on his own and like Michael VIII Palaiologos did in real history be the one to restore the Byzantine Empire and repopulate Constantinople, however the possible what if of John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes being able to survive his blinding on ruling a long reign would be a different story altogether, although in this story’s case John IV would like in real history also die in 1305, therefore he would see the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire himself which took place with the birth of the Ottoman Empire in Asia Minor in 1299 that will from there begin to grow.

Map of the restored Byzantine Empire (purple) by 1265


The 13th century was indeed a very complicated and in fact violent time in the history of the Byzantine Empire considering the unexpected fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire as a whole to the 4th Crusade in 1204 and how drastically the geography of what once was part of the Byzantine Empire in Greece and Asia Minor turned out to be with the formation of so many new states there, whether they were Latin (Western European) or Byzantine Greek. The 13th century too had shown that the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire which seemed to be so invincible after surviving more than 800 years of constant challenges was overall not as invincible as it seemed as basically all it would take was an incompetent ruling dynasty being the Angelos Dynasty with a power struggle, a foolish offer which Alexios IV Angelos made to the Crusader army, and an external factor which was the 4th Crusade which at the end gradually made their way into Constantinople’s walls eventually taking over the city, thus changing the entire course of the history of Byzantium in an instant. On the other hand, the 13th century also showed that there was hope in such a dark time like this when the Byzantines had to suffer the humiliation of losing their capital and being broken apart into several successor states, and what is very inspiring here is the story of the Empire of Nicaea that persisted in this time with a singular objective which was to one day reclaim Constantinople and restore the Byzantine Empire when it all seemed like it was impossible. At the end of it all, despite the loss of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade, it would still seem like one day it would be back again under Byzantine hands with the pre-1204 Byzantine Empire restored considering that for one, the Latins that captured Constantinople and founded the Latin Empire in it never really had a plan to stay and establish their own empire but rather just came there to loot the city, and at the same time the Byzantines were a proud people that would never allow their city to fall and so in their time in exile, not only the Empire of Nicaea but also its rival the Despotate of Epirus, and even the 2nd Bulgarian Empire all put a claim on taking back Constantinople, and lastly it also took a great amount of luck for the Byzantines to take back Constantinople with the Latin Empire temporarily ruling from which thus allowed the city to be taken back in one night in real history. Now, it would have just been a matter of time for Latin rule over Constantinople to end, and what only prolonged its existence up to 1261 was mainly the rivalry and constant conflicts ongoing between the Byzantine successor states of Nicaea and Epirus as well as the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, and if these conflicts between them would have not been so intense then possibly one of these 3 powers would have been first to take back Constantinople, and in this story’s case it was Bulgaria. However, even if the Bulgarians or Epirus beat the Byzantines of Nicaea in the race to take back Constantinople, the Byzantines of Nicaea would still eventually take back Constantinople and restore the Byzantine Empire as ever since they formed their empire in 1204, the recovery of Constantinople was already their objective. Now for this story, instead of choosing a more popular what if in the 13th century like if Byzantium did not fall to the 4th Crusade in 1204, I chose the quite unusual what if for the 13th century which was that if the Bulgarians under Ivan Asen II were the ones to capture Constantinople instead of the Byzantines of Nicaea, as this is one very interesting possibility that could have happened in the turbulent 13th century but this topic too covered the two most interesting historical figures of 13th century Byzantine history which was the wise and strong Emperor of Nicaea John III Vatatzes and the unpredictable and cruel Bulgarian emperor Ivan Asen II, and to put these two characters together, this fan fiction of the Bulgarians taking over Constantinople in 1235 was the perfect one to write. In addition, these characters too further expand on the stereotypes that become more evident in the 13th century with the Byzantines as both wise and scheming, Bulgarians as savage and unpredictable, and Latins as greedy and useless. The 13th century story of the Byzantine Empire too shows that things had gone such a long way as true enough the time the Byzantines were a dominant power in the Mediterranean under the Komnenos Dynasty as mentioned in the previous chapter during the 12th century was not too long ago before everything turned around in the blink of an eye 1204. However, as I said earlier that even though the Byzantines were to face this terrible tragedy of losing their capital Constantinople to the 4th Crusade, there would also be a positive side to it and this positive thing that resulted from such a tragedy was that the Byzantine being in exile as the Empire of Nicaea had the time to rediscover their Greek roots, build up an identity as a Greek power, and reinvent themselves as one.

john va
Icon of St. John III Vatatzes

Now the person to thank for all this is Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea and although as I said it would be too difficult to explain this entire Greek identity consciousness and revival, this new sense of identity would continue to define Byzantium after its restoration in 1261 now being no longer a multi-ethnic empire but a Greek kingdom. The other thing John III is to thank for is for laying the groundwork for the eventual reconquest of Constantinople, as in real history even if he did not live to see Constantinople back under Byzantine hands which only happened 7 years after his death, he at least made it a possibility that Constantinople would return to them by systematically eliminating all threats to them to allow them to achieve their ultimate goal. Overall, John III Vatatzes is one of the great but very underrated Byzantine emperors that deserves more attention especially since he basically turned an exiled empire into a strong state with a thriving economy but also gave his people as a sense of identity as Greeks which therefore makes him be remembered generations after his death as the “Father of the Greeks”, and for his merciful rule John III is in fact a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church.

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

Now John III is not only the main player of 13th century Byzantine history as the other most important 13th century Byzantine historical figure was Michael VIII Palaiologos who in 1261 in real history did achieve the ultimate goal of recapturing Constantinople, and although unlike John III who was a merciful and just ruler, Michael VIII was quite the opposite as a ruthless, scheming, and to a certain extent an even tyrannical emperor as true enough he came to power and founded his dynasty by blinding John III’s grandson John IV and overthrowing John III’s dynasty which had done nothing wrong, but in fairness to Michael VIII for all his evil doings, he at least cared a lot for the empire he restored and its survival. The reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos and his style of ruling though would be a story saved for the next chapter of this series but to put it short, even if Michael VIII restored the Byzantine Empire, he would still face a lot of challenges which would include the still ongoing threat of the Mongols and another plot from the Latins to once more take back Constantinople. Over time, the Greek identity of Byzantium would be more evident as from its restoration in 1261 onwards, Byzantium would no longer become a major world power but instead a local power in the Balkans at the same level as its neighbors the Serbian Kingdom and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire with the Byzantine Empire being the Greek power. The next chapter of this series will then go back to what actually happened in real history after the Byzantine Empire was restored by Michael VIII in 1261, which however would already be the beginning of the end for the Byzantines as new external enemies namely the new power of the Ottoman Turks in Asia Minor is to arise in 1299 while more civil wars and political intrigues are to come as well to bring Byzantium down from the inside. Just like this chapter which discussed a what if of the Bulgarians taking over Constantinople when they had the chance to so, the next chapter will discuss the possible what if in the 14th century wherein this time it would be Serbia that would take over Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire if they had the chance to, a chance they in fact did seem to have in 14th century when the Byzantine Empire after a civil war was at the point of near extinction. Before finishing, I would like to say that this chapter though a very difficult one to write considering all the events happening one after the other in the 13th century, it was also a very special one to write as for a very long time I have been covering the 13th century history of Byzantium in Lego films for my channel and now it was my chance to do a fan fiction on the 13th century topics I always cover. Well, this is all for chapter X of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler… thank you for your time!   

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 12th Century AD. This story will begin with real events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VIII- 11th Century

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


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

Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

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

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople


The Leading Characters:

Manuel I Komnenos- Byzantine emperor (1143-1180)

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

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

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

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

Andronikos Kontostephanos- Byzantine general and aristocrat

Andronikos Angelos- Byzantine general and aristocrat, father of Isaac

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

Alexios Branas- Byzantine general and usurper

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

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

Bela III- King of Hungary (1172-1196)

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

Ivan Asen I- Tsar of the new Bulgaria 

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

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

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


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

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

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

Seal of the Seljuk Empire

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

Council of Clermont, Beginning of the First Crusade, 1095

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

Peter the Hermit leads the People’s Crusade, 1096

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

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

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

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

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

The First Crusade on the march

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

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

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

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

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

Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos

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

Hyperpyron coin of Alexios I

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

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

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

Seljuk Turk army ride into Asia Minor

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

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

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

Map of the newly established Crusader States of Outrmer (Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem), 1100
King Sigurd I of Norway in Constantinople, 1110
Cypriot - The Royal wedding of Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina K - (MeisterDrucke-320920)
Feasting and court life in the reign of Alexios I Komnenos mosaic

The Reign of John II Komnenos (1118-1143)          


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

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

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

Emperor John II Comnenus, Hagia Sofia in Istanbul
Emperor John II Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1118-1143), son of Alexios I

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

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

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

Seal of the Republic of Venice

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

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

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

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

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

Seal of John II Komnenos in Venice

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

John II and his wife Empress Irene “Piroska”

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

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

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

Crusader Principality of Antioch seal

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

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

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

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

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

The Reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1176)           


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norman knight in Italy, 12th century

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

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

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

Flag of the Principality of Armenia in Cilicia

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

Reynald de Chatillon bows down before Emperor Manuel I, 1159

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

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

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

Manuel I Komnenos, art by Justinianus the Great

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

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

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

Vlach people, 12th century

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

Yaroslav Osmomysyl, Rus Prince of Galicia

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

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

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

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

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

Seal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

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

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

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

Manuel I Komnenos, art by Spatharokandidatos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Manuel I Komnenos and his wife Maria of Antioch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos Komnenos, cousin of Manuel I, art by Skamandros

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Angelos, youngest of Andronikos Angelos’ 6 sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andronikos I Komnenos face icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185

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

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

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

Pope Urban III

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

Sicilian Necktie sample

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

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

Aftermath and Conclusion          


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pageant of Kings: The Mighty King of Chivalry
3rd Crusade led by Richard I of England arrives in Outremer, 1191

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English and French forces of the 3rd Crusade defeat Saladin’s forces at the Battle of Arsuf, 1191
The Byzantine Empire before the 4th Crusade (purple), 1203