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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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


 

1. The 10th Century           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The 5th Century           

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

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

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Battle of Chalons, 451

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The 6th Century           

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

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

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

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

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Court of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602)

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

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

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

4. The 13th Century          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium

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

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

5. The 11th Century              

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

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

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

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

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Seljuk Turks ride from the steppes into Asia Minor

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

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Defeat and capture of Romanos IV by the Seljuks, 1071

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

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)

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

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

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

 

6. The 4th Century               

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Map of the Roman Empire under Constantine I, 330

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

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

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

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Council of Nicaea, 325

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. The 12th Century         

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

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

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. The 15th Century          

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Map of the reduced Byzantine Empire in 1450 (purple)

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

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Flag of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century

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

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

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

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

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

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Ottoman sultan Mehmed II captures Constantinople, 1453

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

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

9. The 9th Century           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. The 7th Century          

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. The 14th Century

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Byzantium in 1350 (blue)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

12. The 8th Century           

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The Byzantine Empire in 717 (purple)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Byzantine Alternate History Series: Chapter V- Emperor Artavasdos, the Unlikely Hero of the 8th Century

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 8th century AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses. Also keep in mind that this story has some content that may be disturbing to some readers.

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

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

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

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guide to the Thematic System of the Byzantine army (from Wikipedia); this article contains a lot of terms of Byzantine army units
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A Renaissance era depiction of Byzantine Iconoclasm (breaking of religious icons)

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

Byzantine History for Everyday People- Reactions to Quotes from Byzantium

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

The Sieges of Constantinople

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

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Related Videos to this era:

The 22-Year-Anarchy (Eastern Roman History)

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


The Leading Characters:

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

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

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

Constantine V Kopronymos- son and successor of Leo III

Anastasios- Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople

Niketas- Byzantine general, son of Artavasdos and Anna

Nikephoros- son of Artavasdos and Anna

Tzitzak- Khazar wife of Constantine V

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

Eutychius- The last Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna

Character images below of these selected characters from this story, Illustrated by Powee Celdran:

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


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

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

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Flag of the Rashidun Caliphate, the 1st Islamic Empire

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

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Emperor Constans II of Byzantium (r. 641-668), Illustration by Powee Celdran

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

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

Following the death of Constans II in 668, Caliph Muawiyah I using his fleet took over some of the Byzantine ports of Asia Minor launching the first Arab Siege of Constantinople in 674, although this was not really a major attack but a series of intermittent skirmishes on Constantinople by the Arab army and fleet and up until 677, the siege was not coming into any results until the young emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-681), the son of Constans II counter-attacked the Arab fleet head-on using the secret superweapon Greek Fire for the first time totally obliterating the Arab fleet and army.

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

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

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Asparukh, Khan of the Bulgars (r. 681-700)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Justinian II’s Quinisext Council, 692

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

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Mutilation of Justinian II’s nose, 695

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arabic lamb dish, cooked by Konon for Justinian II

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

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Aqueduct of Valens, Constantinople

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

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Emperor Justinian II in his 2nd reign (705-711) with his golden nose replica

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

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Emperor Justinian II Rhinotmetos, 2nd reign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prince Masalama, general of the Umayyad forces

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

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The 6 emperors of the Byzantine 22-year-Anarchy (695-717)- Leontios (top-left, r. 695-698), Tiberius III (top-middle, r. 698-705), Justinian II Rhinotmetos (top-right, r. 705-711), Philippikos Bardanes (bottom-left, r. 711-713), Anastasius II (bottom-middle, r. 713-715), Theodosius III (bottom-right, r. 715-717), art by Powee Celdran, images recreated from their respective coins 
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Umayyad Caliphate forces arrive and conquer Visigoth Spain, 711
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Map of the Umayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent, 710s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Umayyad forces at the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Leo III the Isaurian

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

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Leo III’s Ecloga

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

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

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

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Early-Byzantine era religious icon

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

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The Chalke Gate at the Imperial Palace of Constantinople

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

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Byzantine Iconoclasm from the 9th century Chludov Psalter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Orso Ipato, First Doge of the Republic of Venice

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

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

           

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

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Khazar women’s fashion sample

In this story’s case, Tzitzak came to Constantinople in her native dress decorated with tons of gold and silver scales as well as headdress full of jewelry and not speaking any Greek, therefore having an interpreter with her and to all the people of Constantinople, her appearance totally left everyone questioning it, although this was not the first time an emperor would marry a Khazar woman as Justinian II’s wife Theodora was a Khazar although when she arrived in Constantinople in 706, Theodora was already dressed in Byzantine robes. What was particularly intriguing to those who saw Tzitzak up close was the tattoos seen around her upper-body as was a nomadic Khazar custom and the when taking a good look at Tzitzak privately in the palace’s baths to see if she was healthy which she seemed to be, Maria was shocked to see all the tattoos on Tzitzak’s body but still approved of her well-behaved personality anyway, and later when Constantine came to see her, he was surprised to see the amount of tattoos when removing her dress, but for Constantine he’d rather have an exotic foreign wife than a Byzantine woman who he found boring and conservative in dress and appearance. Tzitzak was then baptized and renamed to the Greek Irene (although would be known as Tzitzak in this story) and after being baptized she would marry young Constantine, then in the next years she would have to learn Greek which now completely took over Latin as the empire’s language.

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

It also happened in 732 when the Umayyad Arab forces from Spain invaded the Frankish Kingdom but suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Tours to the Frankish army under their general Charles Martel thus putting a full stop to the Arabs’ advancement into Europe. As for Artavasdos, still the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos with Anna would meanwhile remain in the Armeniac Theme’s capital of Amasea where they would have more children including another son named Nikephoros all while Anna being away from Constantinople for this story’s case would continue her art projects in painting icons away from her father’s eyes, though Artavasdos would see it but not react to it anyway as he still respected whatever his wife did being happily married to her. The 730s meanwhile was not a much recorded part of Leo III’s reign and so here on a few occasions, Artavasdos and Anna with their children would travel to Constantinople for some family functions wherein for this story Leo himself would cook the flavorful Arabic food he grew up with for his family this time, although in this story’s case nothing would go that pleasantly as envy and distrust would start erupting between family members especially between Anna and her father over their views on the use of icons, Constantine and Anna as Constantine would soon grow more and more envious of his older sister as she was more liked and got more praised and attention for her art and literary works while Constantine did not despite him also doing them, but the bigger hatred was of course between Artavasdos and Constantine as Artavasdos still felt betrayed by Constantine’s birth.

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Arabic food cooked by Leo III

Artavasdos when in Constantinople would try to do whatever it took to get rid of the lazy and arrogant young Constantine that Artavasdos when seeing him would mockingly call Constantine “Kopronymos” remembering the incident of Constantine as a baby shitting on the baptismal water thus angering Constantine and at one point, he intentionally pushed Constantine in the imperial palace’s halls making it look like it was an accident and another time, as Mario added Artavasdos would accuse Constantine of stealing his jewelry telling it to Leo III himself except Leo here refused to believe it seeing his son would not do such a thing. Meanwhile, Leo III’s war on icons was still brewing stronger especially in Constantinople that not a day would go by with soldiers looting churches to confiscate icons and bonfires in almost every square of the city wherein icons were burned much like in Nazi Germany where books were burned in bonfires, while Leo III too would have the previous coins of Justinian II with Christ’s image that were still around melted down to make new coins. When in Constantinople seeing icons burned in these bonfires, Anna had enough of her father’s useless and superstitious policy of destroying icons as Anna being a more educated person knew the icons had nothing to do with the empire’s setbacks.

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Sample image of faces damaged by Iconoclasm (not Byzantine)

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

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

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

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Playing music in the Byzantine era

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

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

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


The War of the Emperors (The Climax)        

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

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Coin of Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos

Artavasdos here had the worst day of his life when Constantine V was crowned as the empire’s sole emperor and so Artavasdos rather than attending the coronation in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople went hunting alone in the Opsikion Theme- in this story- while Anna and their children attended. Here Artavasdos was already 54 but still looking as young and strong as he was when helping Leo III come to power in 717 with long dark hair and a long beard while Anna here at 33 despite having already had 9 children was still looking young and beautiful as ever, while Constantine V at 23 looked very young too with thick and long dark curly hair and a short and stocky stature like his father, though he was quite overweight and bad in posture. Constantine V spent the first few months of his reign in 741 consolidating his power and continuing enforcing the Iconoclast policies of his father and true enough soldiers continued their constant raids into houses and churches across the empire confiscating icons and burning them. While the war on icons continued to rage on, Anna and her resistance movement of women still continued to horde and restore icons in the middle of the night while Constantine V now had everything he wanted as emperor and almost every night he would host lavish and wild parties at the imperial palace dancing and drinking to the point of getting hangovers. As a bisexual, Constantine enjoyed having young men and women at his parties barely clothed except for a toga over their underwear and in these parties, Constantine too would get high by inhaling a flower that could be used as a drug from Asia Minor. Both Anna and Artavasdos now had their own reasons to hate Constantine as not only was he an Iconoclast extremist and an obstacle to Artavasdos but he was also an excessive young man that cared more about pleasure than for the good of his empire and so here in their house in Constantinople, Artavasdos when at his bedroom with Anna told her that it was time to get rid of Constantine for the good of the empire by poisoning him and Anna was also intent on doing it as part of revenge on him destroying her icons the previous year. Artavasdos here also told Anna in private that Constantine V needed to go as they both knew Constantine had a health condition which was epilepsy which was a valid reason to make him not completely suitable to be emperor as just a simple health condition could discredit someone from being emperor for the emperor needed to be seen as a perfect human and Artavasdos having no kind of health condition or deformity would be a perfect candidate for the throne. In this story’s case in one night in March of 742 while Constantine V was having another wild party in the palace, Anna decided to attend it to as being the emperor’s sister, she would definitely be allowed entry and so in her house, she dressed up for the occasion in more lose and revealing clothes as for Constantine, the more skin showing the better. The dress Anna put on here was simply a red silk Ancient Roman style dress which was just an easy to put on red sleeveless tunic just fastened above the shoulders with a pin and a red toga cloth known as a Stola draped over it with only two belts to hold up the dress where one was fastened below the chest and the other at the waist, and when wearing it she realized how comfortable it was compared to the more conservative and difficult to wear Byzantine style dresses of her time.

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Sample Roman red dress with a Stola

While Anna was dressing up, Artavasdos came in giving her the vial of poison which Anna put deep inside her dress right at what was her underwear, a piece of cloth tied around the chest- the one seen in the 4th century Roman mosaic- which she tightened it more to hold in the poison vial and it was here when she told Artavasdos the whole truth that she was in fact leading a the resistance against Iconoclasm and Artavasdos did not really seem to mind as he never really cared about Iconoclasm anyway and would just do whatever it took to get rid of Constantine and it was here at this party through Anna that would be his first opportunity to get rid of Constantine as Leo III was now dead and Artavasdos with Leo still alive would not do any harm to his family. Before leaving Artavasdos kissed Anna and brushed his hand down her body, also to make sure the poison vial stayed in place inside her clothes. The party then went on in the imperial palace and Anna was able to enter freely looking for the drinks being served to Constantine although she failed to carry out the plan as she soon enough couldn’t help but indulge herself in the alcoholic drinks and later, she got too drunk that the poison vial slipped out of her dress into a couch while she later crashed into one of the beds nearby waking up the next day when the party was over. The next day as the palace staff cleaned up the room where the party the night before was, they found the vial of poison and a headband and when Constantine saw it, he knew the headband belonged to Anna, therefore Constantine concluded Anna was attempting to poison him. Anna however happened to be inside the palace and when woken up by the palace staff cleaning it, she was immediately brought to Constantine in her sleepwear who then pulled her hand dragging her to the palace courtyard where he had the palace guards chain her up to one of the columns and afterwards tear off the back of her nightgown while Constantine pulled out a whip ready to whip her himself. Now as emperor, Constantine had the right chance to punish his older sister that made him feel so miserable and here he viciously whipped Anna’s back on and on and as he remembered all the moments Anna got all the attention instead of him, he increased the power of the whipping until Anna passed out, and at the end, Constantine gave Anna 30 lashes until her back was filled up with bruises, although there was not much bleeding as it was only a soft leather whip that was used on her. The first people to pick up Anna later on and help her recover were her two younger sisters Irene and Kosmo as well as her mother Maria who put her in a cold bath in their part of the palace where Maria looking at her daughter in the bath saw all the wounds at her back. Anna waking up felt some kind of discomfort as her mother and sisters were present while she was naked in the bath but she told her mother here exactly what happened and that Constantine is insane, while also Anna told her mother that Constantine does not know yet she is leading the resistance against Iconoclasm but if he finds out he’ll have everything they worked so hard to restore destroyed and them all executed regardless if they’re his family members. Maria told Anna here that it was now time to rise up against Constantine V and replace him with Artavasdos but it was also hard for Maria as this meant getting rid of her son although she asked that Constantine should instead suffer a more humane punishment which was to just have his tongue cut off if Artavasdos succeeded in his rebellion. Some nights later after Anna recovered from her wounds, while she and Artavasdos were at their bed in their house in Constantinople, Artavasdos while looking at the wounds in Anna’s back as she was lying down with only the blanket covering her told her some valuable information he heard from Constantine V which was that the reigning Umayyad Arab caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik launched another attack into Asia Minor and that Artavasdos was asked to take part in the counter-attack by leading the Opsikion Theme’s troops. Here, Anna told Artavasdos that this was the right opportunity to strike against Constantine V by doing it in the middle of battle abandoning Constantine V’s forces there.

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Iconoclasm continues under Constantine V
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Dressing up a Byzantine era woman

           

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

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldier

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

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

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

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

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Pope Zachary, Patriarch of Rome (741-752)

It also happened that back in 741, the new pope Zachary was elected and in 743 when hearing of Artavasdos coming to power and restoring icons, here in this story’s case he congratulated him agreeing to have the Church of Rome in good terms with Constantinople again. Soon enough, the message to restore icons were spread to the western parts wherein Leo III had previously replaced their bishops with Iconoclast ones but with the Iconoclast policy gone under both Emperor Artavasdos and Patriarch Anastasios of Constantinople, the icons were freely allowed to be restored. Back in Constantinople, in this story’s case, Anna had managed to actually get Constantine’s wife Tzitzak who was left behind in Constantinople to support icons after having a couple of drinks together and this would be possibly because women were more attached to religious icons than men. With the army of Artavasdos fully assembled, they all marched into Asia Minor under Artavasdos’ command while the Armeniac Theme under Niketas would meet them along the way, although Artavasdos chose to attack Constantine V in waves but was not expecting that Constantine V led his entire army from both the Anatolic and Thracesian Themes to confront Artavasdos’ forces. The two sides met near the city of Sardis in Western Asia Minor in May of 743 and being outnumbered to the entire Thematic armies of Constantine V, Artavasdos’ and Niketas’ forces were defeated here although both father and son still survived as Niketas fled north and Artavasdos back to Constantinople to gather the second batch of his troops. 3 months later, Niketas and his Armeniac Theme army was spotted and cornered in the town of Modrine near the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor where Constantine with such a fury led a charge defeating the Armeniac troops again forcing Niketas to flee. Niketas though would still manage to regroup his army and blockade the Dardanelles strait to prevent Constantine passage into Europe but later on outside the city of Nicomedia on the way to Constantinople, Niketas lost again to his uncle due to Niketas being too young and inexperienced in fighting battles and when losing, Constantine captured his nephew Niketas himself personally beating him up to the ground and later shipping him to Constantinople to be imprisoned. Having defeated Niketas, Constantine then crossed the Dardanelles Strait into Thrace and later arriving outside Constantinople’s walls laying siege to it. Constantine V though did not entirely lay a siege but more of a blockade by both land and sea and after some 2 months by November of 743, the defending army tired of being locked in surrendered allowing Constantine V entry while Artavasdos together with Anna and Nikephoros made it in time to flee across the Bosporus to the Opsikion Theme while Niketas was left in a prison within Constantinople.          

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

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

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Byzantine blinding from the Madrid Skylitzes

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

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Sawing in half execution method

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

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Drug flower inhaled by Constantine V

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

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Paramerion, Byzantine curved sword

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

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

Aftermath and Conclusion         

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

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

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

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

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

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

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

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

However in the remains of Byzantine Italy, not all went in favor for the Byzantines and by 751 with Italy being neglected by Constantine V and Leo III before him as it was too far away, the Exarchate of Ravenna came to an end when Eutychius its last exarch surrendered Ravenna to the Lombards as it proved already too impossible to hold, though the fall of Ravenna to the Lombards was also another blessing in disguise as if it stayed longer under Byzantine rule, the valuable mosaics such as those of Justinian and Theodora which had their faces would have been destroyed and the Lombards not being Iconoclasts would keep them that way when holding Ravenna. With the emperor neglecting Byzantine Italy as their problems were mostly in the east, the pope had also begun to lose faith in the Byzantines, also because of their Iconoclast policy so for protection against the ambitious Lombards, the pope would have to turn to the new powerful Frankish Kingdom up north in today’s France which was willing to fight the Lombards and could be more trusted by the pope as the Franks unlike the Byzantines did not destroy icons. From 755 onwards, Constantine V with the threat of the Arabs dealt with turned his attention north to wage war against the Bulgars who also declared war on them when feeling suspicious of Constantine V fortifying the Byzantine border with them and in this war, the Byzantines won 3 major victories over the Bulgars first in 756, then in 759, and lastly in 763 and with all these victories, Constantine surely believed that Iconoclasm was definitely a successful move. Constantine V later planned another attack on the Bulgars again in 775 but failed to as he died that year at the age of 57 and at his death, he left the empire stronger than he had founded it. According to the Russian Byzantinist historian George Ostrogorsky (1902-1976), he says Constantine V’s had an equally positive and negative reputation as on the positive side he scored countless victories against the Arabs and Bulgars making him very popular with the army especially but on the negative side he was a more vicious Iconoclast than his father that the same historian Theophanes the Confessor described him in the same vicious way as he did with Justinian II saying Constantine V was a “monster” and even a “precursor of the Antichrist” because of how extremely he went against icons therefore because of his extreme Iconoclasm, he would forever be remembered as “Kopronymos” or the “shit-named” despite him still being a capable emperor.                 

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

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

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Byzantine Cataphracts battle Arabs in Asia Minor
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New Byzantine Themes in Asia Minor by 750

And now I have come to the very end of chapter V of my Byzantine Alternate History series but before finishing I would like to share my thoughts on this era and creating this kind of dystopian Byzantine story with a mix of family drama and more. First of all, this era in Byzantine history being the 8th century is the part of Byzantine history I am not very much interested in as most of the conflicts except for the epic Arab Siege of 717-718 were mostly internal such as Iconoclasm while the empire was also at its lowest point and not so much too was recorded on this era, which is why it is often called the “Byzantine Dark Ages”. However, despite not being so interested in this era and having not so much recorded about it, I started to think that this was the best era to experiment by adding more fictional elements especially in creating a bit more of a fictional twist with the personalities and stories of historical figures who aren’t so much documented in real history like Artavasdos and Anna as well as Constantine V, except here since this story is in favor of the Iconodules or icon supporters, I made Constantine V look like the same kind of villain Iconodule historians like Theophanes the Confessor describe him as, although just to make the story in favor Artavasdos, I kind of had to embellish Constantine V’s villainous personality as someone more sadistic, deranged, envious, and decadent than what he actually was in reality. In addition, since there are not so many conflicts in this era for Byzantium to go so much into detail about, I also wanted to use this chapter as my chance to experiment more when writing about Byzantium by adding in some more family drama, intimate romance, wild partying scenes, a bit on Byzantine fashion and art, the origins of Constantine V’s title as the “shit-named”, the story of Leo III originally being Konon which was another Byzantine rags to riches story, a totally made up scenario of Constantine V being kicked off the walls by Artavasdos which was a scene inspired by the season 2 finale of Cobra Kai, and a dystopian angle was overall this story’s genre considering the whole issue on Iconoclasm and how it became a law in the empire. As for Artavasdos, this was the most interesting part for me to write about as he is possibly Byzantium’s least known emperor but indeed was an emperor even if ruling so short and having quite an unusual name for a Byzantine emperor and no matter how insignificant he may seem, he may have actually had a great impact on Byzantine history in the long term if he stayed in power as he supported icons and with Iconoclasm being one the major reasons for the permanent and bitter schism between Byzantium and the west, then this schism in the long-term may not be so great in scale if it so happened that Iconoclasm ended earlier under Artavasdos rather than in real history when it went on for about a century more with a small break in the middle (787-815). Of course, this story also had to include Justinian II’s first (685-695) and second (705-711) reigns, the 22-Year-Anarchy period (695-717), the complete loss of North Africa, and Leo III’s reign (717-741) as a way to give some background to the situation of 8th century Byzantium as this 22-Year-Anarchy period was put here to show how bad the situation for Byzantium setting the stage for the cruel 8th century while the first 2/3 of this story with Leo III’s reign and the Arab Siege of Constantinople from 717-718 was definitely important as way to set the stage for the foundation of Iconoclasm and for the conflict between Constantine V and Artavasdos. Now lastly, I also want to talk a bit about Byzantine Iconoclasm here and even though in its time it was popular among many and seemed to be what could have saved the empire from almost falling apart considering the reigns of the Iconoclast emperors Leo III and Constantine V were successful ones, it was also as I would say a waste of time for the Byzantines that really had no purpose and scientific or logical reason and was all based on superstition as when they could have used this time to possibly fix their relationship with the pope and therefore with the rising Western European kingdoms which in turn could have strengthened Byzantium in totally turning the tide of war against the Arab in the east or the Bulgars in the north, but instead the Byzantines wasted their time in the internal issue of Iconoclasm and even though the empire would live longer beyond Iconoclasm vanished, it still ruined their relations with the pope and the west, thus in the long-term Iconoclasm was one of the driving factors for the downfall of Byzantium. Of course back then, without much science to explain things, people would turn to the most stupid of things such as destroying icons thinking it would save them without knowing it would do more harm than good. Overall, as I finish this chapter I have to realize that it was a very hybrid kind of story with the Arab-Byzantine wars fused together with a modern-era dystopian angle, religious controversies, family drama, romance, decadence, and very little details that are too less important for history to mention and this was the whole purpose of writing this chapter in particular, which was to show a more personal and emotional touch in retelling the rich and fascinating history of Byzantium and of course I would have to thank my friend Mario for helping me here in creating the littlest details for this story found here and there. Of course, here in the 8th century, no matter how far this may have been from the time of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire was still the Roman Empire in name and politics despite its culture now drastically shifting to Greek yet here the dystopian story of the Byzantine Dark Ages does not yet end as the next chapter will continue the story of Byzantine Iconoclasm ending in 787 and how Byzantium will react to the birth of new empire in the west that will come to challenge their authority.

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Empress Irene of Athens (r. 780-802), daughter-in-law of Constantine V

Up next in chapter VI of Byzantine Alternate History, the story from this chapter on Artavasdos staying in power will not continue, though the next chapter will start off not too long after this one finished which means some characters including Constantine V but this time like in reality staying power will return and here, the period of Iconoclasm in Byzantium would come to an end with Empress Irene but at the same time, Byzantium will face the rise of the new Frankish Empire of Charlemagne in 800 that had come to challenge the authority of the weakened Byzantine Empire but if Irene and Charlemagne were to marry, then possibly it would be one of the biggest what ifs in world history, thus with this marriage Europe could once again become a super-empire almost as large as the Roman Empire of old. Well, this is all for chapter V of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!