If you do not want any spoilers, please order The Usurper on Amazon.
Welcome back to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! For now, I am taking a quick break from my 12-part Byzantine Alternate History fan fiction series as I have just completed chapter XI of it and I’m now on the way to the series’ grand finale, chapter XII. For this quick break, I am doing this short but very special article which will be a review and my own personal reaction to the latest Byzantine era setting novel I have read which is The Usurper (2020) by Emanuele Rizzardi, which if you remember I briefly discussed in my latest alternate history chapter. For those who are not familiar with the book or want to order a copy of it, please check it out on Amazon before you read this article as it will contain some spoilers about the book, but for those who know about it, especially those who have already read it and may have some opinions about it whether positive or negative, please keep in mind that this article will basically express my thoughts about the book.
First of all, The Usurper (originally L’usurpatore) is the second novel of the Italian novelist and president of Byzantion Cultural Association Emanuele Rizzardi who prior to this wrote L’ultimo Paleologopublished in 2018 and just this year published his 3rd novel Lo stendardo di Giove, although “The Usurper” is the first of his books to be translated into English by both Rizzardi and Michael Gardiner, and what I read was the English translation of the original Italian one. Although the book is already a year old, I still chose to order it through Amazon and read it just recently as despite being already well educated about the history of Byzantium, I still want to know more and see different takes on it which would include historical fiction novels such as this one as well as the graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale (2020) by Spyros Theocharis in which I also made a similar review and fan reaction article for it earlier on this year. This then would be the second time I would be doing a review and reaction to a Byzantine era novel, and to sum it all up I would say that “The Usurper” is a very interesting read with a total of 23 chapters featuring an exciting and at the same time suspenseful story to tell, although it may have had some dull moments in between the entire story itself was a very interesting one, especially for those who are very familiar with Byzantine history as it discusses a period in Byzantine history not very well-known to those not familiar with the entire history of Byzantium. The novel basically follows the story of Alexios Philantropenos in his own perspective, who is a lesser-known figure in Byzantine history but at the same time a very underrated one who was a young general in the late 13th century related to the ruling Palaiologos Dynasty sent by his uncle the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) to the defense of Asia Minor, once the heartland of the Byzantine Empire that had fallen into anarchy as the threat of the Turks have increased over the years. Alexios sent to take care of the Turkish threat in Asia Minor particularly posed by the powerful warlord Karman Bey of Miletus initially succeeds in doing so, but at the end he comes to realize the harsh reality of the world he is living in which is that of a corrupt and decaying Byzantium, which then later puts Alexios in the position of rebelling against his uncle the emperor and usurping the throne in order to save his dying empire.
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For almost a year now since “The Usurper” was released, I have already been coming across it in posts by the author himself in the Byzantine history Facebook groups I am part of such as Roman and Byzantine Historyand Byzantine Real History while also seeing an interview of the author about this particular novel in the Youtube channel Eastern Roman Historythat I also follow, which then made me curious about it.
However, it was only just 2 months ago when I finally decided to order a copy and read it, and surprisingly it was for me an interesting and in fact even an enjoyable read. As mention earlier, this is the second time I have read and done a review article on a Byzantine era historical fiction novel, the first one being the graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale, which is however a very totally different kind of novel compared to this one I am reviewing now as the former is more of a colorful and lively graphic novel set in a famous and at the same time glorious period in Byzantine history (the 10th century) that basically shows you how life was in that time, while this one “The Usurper” is something I would call a much more serious novel set in a lesser known but still interesting period in Byzantine history (the late 13th century) that does not only show you but immerses you to life in that time, also featuring a time when the Byzantine Empire is in decline with an underrated tragic hero as its lead character which is the general Alexios Philanthropenos. Now for this article, I would basically be giving you reasons on why to buy this novel and what makes it an exciting and engaging one that not only shows you what life was like then but immerses you into the late 13th century Byzantine setting, then I would proceed to giving my own opinions about the novel and my own suggestions if I were to rewrite it. At the same time, I have to say that when writing this article, I did in fact have the honor of interviewing the author Emanuele Rizzardi by messaging him through Instagram, whom I have asked a couple of questions about the novel such as why he chose the late 13th century setting and Alexios Philanthropenos as the lead character, in which these answers will be mentioned here throughout the rest of my article. In addition, I have also done my own artwork of the novel’s lead character Alexios Philanthropenos specifically for this article as being the lead character, Alexios is someone I find very likeable and heroic who deserves much more attention than he actually does, and true enough I think “The Usurper” does a great job in giving justice to Alexios Philanthropenos, who is one of Byzantium’s greatest yet forgotten heroes who could have saved the empire from decaying if he did not meet such a tragic end of being betrayed and blinded.
For those who are already familiar with the history of Byzantium, this novel will not only show you the lesser-known part of Byzantine history in the late 13th century but will immerse you in it as the story is written in a very detailed way especially in describing the locations and people of the time.
The story mainly takes place in Western Asia Minor in the 1290s wherein 30 years have passed since the Byzantine Empire has been restored after its fall to the 4th Crusade followed by the 57-year period of Latin rule over Constantinople (1204-1261), and even though the empire was restored, imperial rule especially in Asia Minor had already been disintegrating. A lot of this was due Asia Minor being left neglected by imperial authorities who instead focused their attention to Byzantine territories in Greece and the Balkans thus leaving Asia Minor to be threatened by the rise of the expanding Turkish states or Beyliks that have been moving westwards due to the pressure of the Mongols from the east and the decentralization of the Seljuk Turkish Empire that had ruled most of Asia Minor for about 2 centuries. Rather than showing a Byzantium at a time of glory as a world power, this story does a unique thing of showing a Byzantium at an age of decline, which is something I find new and interesting as most historical fiction books with a Byzantine setting would more or less like to talk about an age of glory and imperial power, but in the case of “The Usurper” it does it the other way around showing readers something new which is a much a more vulnerable Byzantium. Since this book talks about a lesser-known time in Byzantine history showing the empire in decline, I would really suggest that this book would be for those who are already familiar with the whole history of Byzantium in order to get to know more information about this period in Byzantine history.
It takes the reader through a journey across Asia Minor in the Byzantine era as most of the story’s setting is in Byzantine Asia Minor or at least what was left of it in the late 13th century with only the beginning and end of it not as it begins in Thessaloniki and ends somewhere outside Constantinople. Using Asia Minor as the story’s primary setting is therefore something I would say is a very unique feature for a Byzantine era historical fiction novel as most books of this genre set in the Byzantine era would usually use the capital Constantinople as its primary setting, but true enough Byzantium was more than just Constantinople but the empire as a whole especially in this period in Byzantine history where there was more happening outside the capital than within it. This novel then does a great job in representing Asia Minor, the heartland of the Byzantine Empire that it barely if not even has a single scene set in the imperial capital featuring the famous landmarks of the imperial palace, Hippodrome, and Hagia Sophia. The story then follows the journey of the general Alexios Philanthropenos from 1293-1295 starting off at his house in Thessaloniki then taking you to Kallipolis (Gallipoli), then across the Dardanelles Strait into Asia Minor first to the decaying city of Dardanelles, the fortress of Paleokastron, and to the ancient city of Nymphaeum which Alexios would use as his base for his entire Asia Minor campaign. From Nymphaeum, the story takes you through Alexios’ battles against the Turkish warlord Karman Bey and his allies in Philadelphia, the Meander Valley, Tralles, Nysa, Priene, Ephesus, and many places in between, then finally to Nicaea where the story’s climax takes place. As the story takes you through Western Asia Minor it does not only tell you about an adventure but describes in detail the landscape, the people and their customs, climate, and the system of Byzantine governance there, and this is what I meant by saying that the story does not only show you Byzantium in this time but immerses you in it.
The lead character Alexios Philanthropenos is a likeable heroic character with a great character development as when he is introduced where the story opens, he is at first seen as a young and idealistic general who wants to prove his ability as a military commander when he is appointed by his uncle the emperor Andronikos II as the commander or Doux of Asia in 1293, but as the story progresses, he gets a taste of the reality of war and even of power that would have a great impact in the changing of his personality. Alexios Doukas Philanthropenos (1270-1340s) is actually a real historical figure and the story itself is based on his campaigns in which it is written in his own point of view wherein he refers to himself in first person as he narrates the story of his lengthy Asia Minor campaign 30 years later to his son Michael all in one letter. Alexios however despite being a great general and loyal solider to his empire is barely remembered in history and a lot of this had to do with him being betrayed and blinded at the end of his campaigns as a result of him usurping the throne from his uncle although unwillingly.
Alexios too has a background of being from a distinguished military family in Byzantium as his father Michael Tarchaneiotes was a general that served the previous emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) who was the father of the current emperor in the story Andronikos II, and in his father’s side Alexios is related to the ruling Palaiologos Dynasty with his grandmother being a sister of Emperor Michael VIII, while Alexios’ last name of Philanthropenos that he uses comes from his mother’s side. Where the story opens, Alexios is a young man who is relatively new to military life and has in fact never set foot in Asia Minor his whole life, and despite only having taken part in a few campaigns in the Balkans, the young Alexios is already assigned by his uncle the emperor- who even comes to Alexios’ house in Thessaloniki at the dead of a winter night- to lead the campaign to drive away the raiding Turks from Byzantine Asia Minor as the emperor finally comes to realize the severity of the situation there which his father Michael VIII indirectly caused by putting all attention the west. At first, Alexios is only given a few thousand men to assist him in his battles, but after winning one victory after another his army multiplies as more and more people in the war-torn, impoverished, and neglected Asia Minor are inspired to join him believing he will do the job of saving them which their emperor Andronikos II and his father Michael VIII before him had failed to do. In his campaigns against the Turkish Beyliks, Alexios does not only prove to be a capable warrior and inspiring commander but a skilled diplomat as well that he manages to persuade the Turks despite them being seen as the enemy to fight alongside his army using the Turks’ disunity and their tribal rivalries to his advantage, but at the same time also convincing them that they would work better together to later on fight their common enemy which was the larger threat of the Mongols from the east. Though successful in securing Asia Minor and not only containing the Turkish threat but reconquering lost lands, Alexios is soon enough viewed as a threat by the emperor who believes Alexios to be disobeying orders when allying himself with the other Turkish tribes and imposing his own policy of recapturing lands in which both were not part of the emperor’s orders, though at the same time the emperor seems to be threatened as well believing that Alexios’ popularity would soon lead to Alexios taking throne. Alexios on the other hand is conflicted here which makes him a very interesting character as he is torn between loyalty to his uncle the emperor Andronikos II despite his incompetent rule and duty to the empire and its people as a whole to save them from corruption and decay.
At the end, as the people of Asia Minor grow tired of Andronikos II’s rule, they rally under Alexios whose victories over the Turks and how he used the money looted from the enemy to rebuild the damage of the cities in Asia Minor, thus they proclaim him as their emperor (Basileus) against the reigning Andronikos II. At first Alexios is unwilling to allow himself to be made emperor seeing it as treason to the empire itself but eventually ends up deciding to put his claim on the throne becoming known as the “Iron Basileus” not out of greed but to save the empire itself from letting it destroy itself and return to it to the glory days of old. When deciding he has to usurp the throne for the greater good of the empire, Alexios once finished with his campaigns against the Turks prepares his men to march to Constantinople to overthrow the emperor but unfortunately only makes it to Nicaea where he is betrayed by some of his own troops and is blinded, thus ending his rebellion that could have saved the empire. Now Alexios Philanthropenos seems to be a very obscure choice for a historical figure in Byzantine history to do a complete novel about compared to more famous great figures such as Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), his general Flavius Belisarius (505-565), Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 976-1025), Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), or the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453), but when asking the author why his choice was Alexios Philanthropenos and this part in Byzantine history, he says it is because nobody really speaks or writes much about him, yet he still has a great story, while it is also his main interest to speak about people who did great things in the past but have been forgotten because of tragic circumstances that they face, which in Alexios’ case was his rebellion against the emperor that led to his betrayal and blinding. As for the rather more obscure late 13th century setting, the author says he chose it because it is that because no matter how not so well-known this time was, it was a very important transition period in history where the centuries rule of the Byzantines over their heartland Asia Minor comes to an end while the rule of the Turks over Asia Minor would begin, thus soon enough leading to the establishment of the Ottoman Empire that will in 1453 take over Byzantium and later on be the master power of the Mediterranean, Balkans, and the Middle East. As for me, I would definitely say Alexios Philanthropenos is a truly interesting character mostly because of his conflicted personality and his ability not only as a soldier but as a diplomat and politician at a relatively young age and he too would have had so much more potential if only he were not betrayed and blinded.
Alexios is then one of the many figures in history who could have done great deeds if only they did not meet their end too soon and similar figures to Alexios in Roman and Byzantine history include the Western Roman Empire’s general Flavius Stilicho (359-408) who could have saved his empire from being destroyed but was unfortunately betrayed and executed, although the great Roman/ Byzantine general of the past Alexios is compared to is Flavius Belisarius of the 6th century that the contemporary Byzantine historian of Alexios’ time which is Nikephoros Gregoras (1295-1360) in fact praises Alexios by calling him the “Belisarius of the Palaiologan era”, and in the book he is in fact also dubbed as a “new Belisarius” referring to Alexios’ deeds in battle and service to the empire. Where the book ends, the story fast-forwards 30 years later and Alexios despite being blinded is still alive, and in real history Alexios 30 years later is in fact called to military service again as he begins to get his sight back.
It features a variety of colorful characters whether historical or fictional and other than the lead character Alexios Philanthropenos, this includes the likes of Alexios’ military advisor and former soldier Michael the Armenian, the mercenary captain Konstas from Venetian held Crete, the old mercenary captain Theodore and his silent and enigmatic but fearless in battle adopted daughter known as simply as “the bastard”, the Turkish warlord and ally of Alexios Osman who is in fact the mysterious founder of the Ottoman Empire, and the bloodthirsty Turkish warlord Karman Bey who is the story’s main antagonist who Alexios is sent to fight. Other interesting characters in the story includes Alexios’ young wife Theodora who joins him in his campaign, Alexios’ doctor and priest friend Angelos who however sadly met his end too soon being torn to death by wolves, the governor of Nicaea Libadarios, Osman’s son Orhan who would eventually succeed his father as the second Ottoman sultan, the Metropolitan of Philadelphia Theoleptos and the noblewoman Irene Choumnos who push Alexios to usurp the throne, the young boy soldier Philippos from the Cretan mercenary forces, the members of the ruling Palaiologos family, and last but not the least Alexios’ uncle the emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos himself who is actually the real antagonist of the story who hides his corrupt and power tripping side with his friendly personality. The story in fact does not only center on the lead character and his thoughts and feelings but also on how the other characters feel about their objective and about each other with the most notable parts being the recurring bad blood between the Turkish warlord Osman and the Cretan mercenary captain Konstas when both are serving under Alexios, and how the old military advisor and the mercenary Theodore were old friends and how they have lost faith in the empire especially in their emperor and how he had neglected their homeland which is Asia Minor which is also how the people of Asia Minor feel especially about how the corruption in their empire and the court in Constantinople while their emperor leaves them alone to defend themselves which eventually triggers them to all rally under Alexios believing he would make the empire a better place for them.
It blends in a good number of fictional elements to a real historical setting while featuring a number of interesting side stories as well which makes this more of an engaging novel instead of just another history book that only stays true to the facts.
At the same time, the novel is very much based on actual events in real history and when asking the author about it, he says that he based the novel on primary sources such as that of the contemporary historian of that era George Pachymeres (1242-1310) who does in fact make an appearance in the novel in its latter part being the one giving word to Alexios that the emperor plans to make Alexios his Caesar which Alexios refuses now coming to believe that he must take over the entire empire itself to save it. In his time, George Pachymeres not only wrote a historical account on Byzantium from 1255-1308 describing the reigns of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282) and that of his son and successor Andronikos II’s, but he also wrote about arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, as well as on Aristotelian philosophy, the architecture of Constantinople in his time, a number of poems, and an autobiography. Other than Pachymeres, the author also used Byzantine military manuals by modern authors as his sources, especially for the novel’s very descriptive battle scenes whether taking place in open fields or in besieging cities. For me, one of the most interesting even if almost totally inaccurate part was that of Osman joining forces with Alexios’ troops as they both had common enemies first being Karman Bey and then the Mongols.
This part of Osman joining forces with Alexios did in fact surprise me a lot as I had never heard of Osman at one point joining forces with the Byzantines, and when asking the author if this was historically accurate he says that the most correct answer to this is “no” because we know very little of Osman’s story as true enough Osman remains to be a very enigmatic historical figure that sources written about him at his time do not exist, and rather he was only written about years after his death which was in around 1324. However, when asking the author about the Osman part of the story, he also said that the part of Osman helping Alexios could be a possibility as in Alexios’ 1293-1295 campaign in Asia Minor he was in fact helped by many minor Turkish beys which could have been Osman who at this time was true enough only a minor Turkish warlord with a small state along the Byzantine border in Northwest Asia Minor. Whether the part on Osman’s involvement in helping Alexios in his campaigns is factual or not, I still think it was a good choice to put Osman into the story as in this rather obscure time Osman would be one of the most well-known figures despite his origins story being a mystery, as after all Osman after his death would leave behind a great legacy which was that of founding the Ottoman Empire and the unbroken dynasty named after him (Osmanli) that would rule this empire uninterrupted, and this empire of Osman would be the one to be able to conquer Byzantium in 1453 and afterwards become a major world power that would exist up until the 1922 shortly after World War I. On the other hand, Osman’s involvement in Alexios’ campaigns also makes sense as Osman swore loyalty to Alexios as his emperor and not to the reigning emperor Andronikos II, and following Alexios’ blinding in 1295 Osman in the story true enough severed his ties with Byzantium and would eventually become the most immediate threat to the Byzantines when Osman began his empire in 1299, and it was in fact Osman and his forces that crushed the Byzantine army at the Battle of Bapheus in 1302, which would be the event that would begin the end of Byzantine rule over Asia Minor and the rise of Osman’s Beylik that would soon become an empire.
Now when talking about the interesting side stories of the novel, this include stories like how Michael VIII Palaiologos established his dynasty in 1261 when blinding the legitimate ruler which was the boy emperor John IV Laskaris (r. 1258-1261) who ruled the exiled Byzantine Empire at Nicaea, and in the story’s setting even more than 30 years after, this incident would still be remembered especially by the people of Asia Minor who had overall still preferred the former Laskaris Dynasty over the current Palaiologos one, and the one major twist in the story is that Alexios himself is in fact related to the previous Laskaris Dynasty which made the people proclaim him as emperor believing he is the legitimate one while the current emperor Andronikos II is the actual usurper being the son of the man who usurped the throne from John IV Laskaris who was in fact still in fact alive in this story’s setting although unfit to rule due to being blinded. Another side story in the novel that recurs a lot is that of the emperor’s brother Constantine Palaiologos who just a few years before the story’s setting had been removed from command for simply disobeying the orders of his brother the emperor which is the same fate Alexios would face.
War scenes are very descriptive that it makes this story not only one of adventure but of the harsh reality of war, and this is also one of the reasons why the novel not only shows you but immerses you into the Byzantine world at that time.
First of all, the battle scenes which the novel features a lot of is written in a very detailed manner describing the smallest things that happen from swords clashing with shields to very graphic scenes of blood and guts spilling out as well as the differences battle tactics used by the Byzantines and Turks whereas as the Byzantines and their mercenaries fight more as heavy infantry with heavy weapons such as long spears and large swords while wearing heavy armor whereas the Turks fight more as light infantry and cavalry using shorter spears and bows. It also describes siege warfare and more advanced methods of it in detail such as the part where Alexios and his army infiltrated the city of Priene in Asia Minor by sneaking through its aqueduct to get to their main target Karman Bey who would be killed off here, which I would say is one of the most memorable parts of the novel together with the part when Alexios’ men successfully besiege Nysa prior to this by blocking off the river to cut off the population’s water supply. Though it may contain a lot of action sequences especially battle scenes, it would not be overall the usual war adventure type of story as with the story progressing, the more and more it would seem like a war drama with all the deaths, intrigues, and the trauma caused by war especially in a long one like the one featured in the story. As a true war drama, the book does in fact contain a lot of graphic violence, and some notable scenes that contain this kind of graphic violence and disturbing elements would be the battle between Alexios and his allies against Karman Bey and his allies wherein Karman Bey no matter how fearsome he is known to be breaks down in tears when his son is gruesomely beheaded in battle by Alexios’ men which causes Karman’s forces to be defeated as he flees. Another example of war’s harsh reality here is that in wars especially in the Middle Ages, the winning side does whatever they want and some scenes of that show this includes the very graphic part when Karman Bey brutally hung the corpses of the people of Nysa outside the city’s walls including women and children to send a message to his enemies that this would happen if they messed with him, while another disturbing one would be when Alexios’ forces had captured so many of Karman’s men to the point that a Turkish slave would be even cheaper to buy than a sheep. Other than these scenes, to put it short the novel’s war sequences show more than just fighting but the suffering all this fighting has brought to the people in the lands these battles were fought in and how soldiers like Alexios and the other characters were affected by it with the loss of loved ones and PTSD caused by it that makes people make such big decisions, in the story’s case it would be rebelling against the current emperor when they have already faced enough of his incompetent rule. On the other hand, the novel too shows that war in is not only a matter of fighting and giving or following orders but has a lot to do with both logistics and what could be called human resource management which is the case of Alexios who not only has to be a strong, brilliant, and inspiring general but a good manager that has to keep his troops in line especially since in the story he is in command of a multiethnic army consisting of Byzantines (Romans) and Turks that are not always in good terms with each other, while at the same time it also shows that a lot of funds and supplies are needed to fight wars. By showing this harsh reality as a result of war, it makes the novel a much more realistic one for readers in showing what life was like back then.
It is not a plain black and white story as when reading “The Usurper” you would come to realize that there is in fact no good guys and no bad guys in the story as it clearly shows the reality of war where no one is neither good nor bad. This then is not the kind of story where the Byzantines being the heroes are immediately seen as the good guys while the Turks being the enemy would automatically be seen as the villains, instead it shows more conflict with both bad and good in each side of the war, which then adds a lot more complexity into the story therefore making it a more fascinating read.
The story’s lead character Alexios Philanthropenos no matter how much of an honorable man he is also has a conflicted personality which is mostly being that he makes his emotions get the best of him such as in the scene where he had the corrupt governor of Philadelphia Anastasios who allowed his city to fall to the Turks and escaped like a coward exposed in public being tied to a flagpole without knowing that the people would beat him to death. At the same time, the story also shows that the Turks even if they are Byzantium’s enemies are not entirely bloodthirsty savages as seen in the case of Osman who even if a Turk was as much as an honorable man the way Alexios was, while the main Turkish antagonist Karman Bey no matter how fearsome is portrayed also with a soft human side which was seen when he broke down into tears after his son was decapitated in battle. As for the Byzantines in this story, you can immediately tell that they are not at all the good guys despite being the protagonists, and even though Alexios may already come out as the virtuous and heroic Byzantine, most of the Byzantines who this story is on the side of are portrayed as corrupt, scheming, and petty such as the governors of Asia Minor and the emperor Andronikos II himself who is in fact the story’s secret villain as he is the one Alexios decides to strike against at the end despite failing. Here I would really think that Andronikos II is true enough the secret villain who just basically at first hides his true self which is that of a corrupt tyrant emperor, basically how the people of Asia Minor saw him in the story, while Alexios too had seen his uncle the same way the people of Asia Minor did except that Alexios at first wanted to show he was loyal to his uncle the emperor.
It tries to be authentic to the era basically in the sense that despite it being set in the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantine characters in the story such as Alexios, Theodore, Michael, and the emperor Andronikos II are not referred to as “Byzantines” but as “Romans”, thus showing the continuity of the Roman Empire of the past to the medieval era Byzantine Empire. The word “Byzantine” referring to the Byzantine Empire was true enough only coined in the 16th century after the fall of Byzantium which was in 1453 as in the Byzantine era, the Byzantine people did in fact still call themselves “Romans” despite no longer speaking Latin and having a very Greek cultural identity which was ever more evident especially from the 13th century onwards as a result of the 57-year dissolution of Byzantium by the 4th Crusade (1204-1261) which the exiled Byzantines in this time period rebuilt themselves as by rediscovering their Ancient Greek roots. The dialogue of the characters too mostly remains authentic to the Middle Ages as modern terms are hardly spoken by the story’s characters, while the word “Byzantine” is in fact never at all mentioned, thus making it truly authentic to the era it is set in.
For books that generally discuss Byzantium and its history, it is quite an innovation mostly because of its war-adventure-drama which is not so much common in Byzantine books whether written in modern times or back then in the Byzantine era. This kind of action epics like this book was not so much a common genre of literature back then in the Byzantine era wherein only a few books written back then in the Byzantine era have this kind of action-packed genre such as The Alexiad by Anna Komnene written in the 12th century and the epic poem Digenes Akritas. At this day, from what I know of there are not that much detailed war epic novels set in the Byzantine era, therefore making this one a unique Byzantine era novel. Most people would usually remember Byzantium either for endless religious debates and schisms or epic battles with thousands of Cataphract cavalry soldiers or large sized Varangians Guards clashing at enemy armies also numbering in the thousands or ships with superpowered weapons like Greek Fire. This book then truly shows that the Byzantines were not only either obsessed with religious debates or had massive battles but did in fact fight smaller scale battles no longer with large professional armies but with a mixed force of both professional troops, local Greek and foreign mercenaries, and even foreign allies which would then be the main difference of warfare in the late Byzantine era. Another unique feature of this book is that not only does it talk about battles and warfare in the late Byzantine era which is rarely talked about, but more so that it talks about it in a first-person perspective which makes the happenings in the story seem even more real.
Its ending has a very surprising element but at the same time is still a climactic one. Now for those who know the history of the late Byzantine Empire, you would definitely come across the story of Alexios Philanthropenos and discover that no matter how successful he was in his campaigns, he still met a tragic end of being betrayed and blinded. When reading the book however, you will get to see Alexios in a different angle as you will definitely be invested in his character as well as in the other characters in the story, which then makes the climax a shocking one especially when finding out who the traitor was that would stop Alexios’ uprising against the emperor. When Alexios and his army arrive in Nicaea on their way to Constantinople in chapter 22, it is here when Alexios’ rebellion is suddenly crushed not by forces sent by the emperor but by his own men, and the traitor here happens to be the Cretan mercenary captain Konstas who has his men surround Alexios with their weapons, and true enough when reading this part, I was shocked. However, when looking back at the rest of the story, you can already tell that Konstas may possibly turn traitor as ever since Osman had been introduced in chapter 5 Konstas had already expressed his disliking of Alexios allying with Osman and towards the end Konstas also does not approve of Alexios rising up against his uncle while everyone else does, as true enough Konstas where the story begins was not recruited by Alexios to his army but a mercenary from Venetian held Crete despite being a Byzantine Greek hired by the emperor to be under Alexios’ command, and Konstas on the other hand also had some noble blood as his family was once from the Byzantine nobility of Crete before the Venetians took over in 1204 during the 4th Crusade, and having this noble Greek blood then made Konstas have a strong disgust towards the Turks.
It is then Konstas who orders that Alexios be blinded after Konstas’ men defeat Alexios in a small skirmish at the governor’s palace in Nicaea, and here Alexios is blinded by Philippos the young boy in Konstas’ army who however happens to only partially blind Alexios by burning his eyes with a burnt knife coated in pig fat as Philippos true enough admired Alexios. The part of Alexios’ blinding however would later turn out to be confusing as when reading what he has been saying, it still seems like he was still able to see even if he has been blinded. When asking the author about the part of Alexios’ blinding if he was actually blinded or just “fake blinded”, he says that there is not really much information about how Alexios was blinded but what is known is that those who were close to the emperor like Alexios were just lightly blinded which was how Alexios was blinded here, thus the author made Alexios’ blinding be just a partial blinding due to the fact that in real history, Alexios 30 years later when being called out of retirement to once again deal with the Turkish raiders in the Meander Valley and later against the Latins in Lesbos had gotten his eyesight back. True enough, the incompetent emperor Andronikos II too would end up being overthrown by his grandson Andronikos III Palaiologos in 1328, and Alexios back back in military service would serve the new emperor who would turn out to be a much stronger one than his grandfather. The last chapter then also mentions for the first and only time in the entire story where Alexios is not present and this is when Konstas returns to Alexios’ men outside Nicaea making up a lie that Alexios was ambushed and killed by Osman’s Turks as a way to turn Alexios’ Greek soldiers against Osman and his Turks basically for Konstas to have his revenge against Osman while Osman was in fact present with them. Konstas’ mistake is however realized by his men when Michael the advisor questions Alexios’ death as Alexios’ body was not returned, then Philippos later comes in telling the whole truth about Alexios’ blinding which angers Konstas who is then suddenly killed by Philippos right when Konstas tries to escape by his horse, and following Konstas’ death all the survivors go their own ways with Michael shortly afterwards dying, Philippos never to be heard from again, and Osman returning to ruling his tribe now knowing the ways of Byzantines which would give him an advantage years later when he declares war on Byzantium as with his ally Alexios gone, he no longer had any loyalty to Byzantium.
Alexios following his blinding faces the wrath of the emperor who is disappointed with how Alexios disobeyed orders when he was believed to be loyal but Alexios in return warns the emperor that because he was blinded and removed from command, Byzantine rule over Asia Minor would sooner or later be lost and therefore being the emperor Andronikos II’s fault, though rather than being executed Alexios is given the merciful option by Andronikos II to be returned back to his house in Thessaloniki where the whole story began. This kind of scenario here of a general being Alexios having popular support and usurping the throne from an incompetent emperor therefore shows that Byzantium even as late as the last years of the 13th century still retains some of its republican traditions from the Roman Republic, the predecessor of Byzantium’s predecessor which was the Roman Empire, meaning that the spirit of Rome still did in fact live on as Byzantium true enough did not have such a law wherein an emperor had divine rights.
Suggestions and Conclusion
Overall, I would say that “The Usurper” by Emanuele Rizzardi is surprisingly a well-made historical novel that is actually quite engaging and does a great job especially in getting into the mind of a long dead person which is Alexios Philanthropenos, however there are still some things I would want to change in the narrative if I were to rewrite it.
Basically, the one thing that I would really change if I were to rewrite it would be to give more of a role to the emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos rather than just portraying him as the man who sends Alexios on a mission and at the end just out of nowhere turns out to be the secret villain. Andronikos II is after all the person on the cover of the book making it quite ironic that his part in this story is actually quite minimal, therefore I would suggest that in order to make the story have more angles to it, rather than just showing the side of Alexios along his thoughts and feelings about the situation his empire is in, it is also fair to show how his counterpart the emperor also feels about the situation in Asia Minor as well showing how incompetent the emperor is in ruling by surrounding himself with intellectuals and constructing impressive churches for only him to see which would further establish the emperor’s character and his corrupt court that the story keeps mentioning of. At the same time, I have also noticed that there are no scenes in the entire novel set in the imperial capital Constantinople itself, thus if I were to rewrite it, I would include scenes taking place in Constantinople describing the imperial palace and the Hagia Sophia simultaneously with Alexios on his campaigns against the Turks in Asia Minor. I would also suggest that it would be better if there were scenes in Constantinople as a way to show some contrast between the cosmopolitan capital and the war-torn countryside in Asia Minor, while also to show how much Byzantium had drastically changed with Constantinople once being a thriving metropolis shrinking down to a shadow of its former self due to the damage inflicted on it when it was sacked by the 4th Crusade in 1204 and during the 57 years of Latin occupation that followed it. The other thing I would add if I were to rewrite the story would be to add more details about Alexios’ life such as inserting a few flashback scenes here and there that take you back to Alexios’ childhood to further establish his character as the story as the story only goes as far as just mentioning Alexios’ father the general Michael Tarchaneiotes dying from malaria thus failing to achieve his objective of conquering the city of Tralles in Asia Minor which Alexios manages to succeed in doing thus finishing off what his late father failed to do, therefore if I were to rewrite it I would also want to discuss some more about Alexios’ father Michael as a way to also further establish the character of Alexios and his life when growing up. Lastly, I would also want to add more visuals to the book such as a section at the center with plates depicting maps, costumes, soldiers, and weapons of this period in Byzantine history in order to make it much more engaging, but at least the book does in fact start off with a detailed map of Byzantine Greece and Asia Minor at the story’s setting as a way to guide you through the places mentioned in the book. Other than that, this is more or less all the suggestions I have for the novel and when it comes to omitting things, I would say that the novel did not really have anything that I would find unnecessary that I would think should be omitted.
And now I have come to the end of this article reviewing “The Usurper”, and to sum it all up I would say that the entire novel itself was actually a good one, however I strongly suggest that it is something to be read by readers who are more informed about the history of Byzantium, otherwise for those who are not familiar with Byzantine history it may just seem like a usual medieval era war-adventure-drama. What really makes “The Usurper” unique I would say is that it uses a Byzantine era setting for this said genre which is something not very common, therefore making it a unique innovation, and not only that since this book also does a great job in getting into the mind of a long dead Byzantine general thus finally giving justice to this unknown Byzantine hero that deserves more praise which is Alexios Philanthropenos who could have in fact saved Byzantine Asia Minor from the Turkish raids if only he were not betrayed and blinded. Now if Alexios did manage to succeed in his rebellion and did take the throne from his uncle Andronikos II, then perhaps history itself would be different as possibly with Alexios as Emperor Alexios VI then Byzantine Asia Minor would be much more defended unlike how it was under Andronikos II, and also due to Alexios’ alliance with Osman and his tribe- at least only in this story- then possibly the Byzantines and Osman’s Turks would never be in conflict with each other, thus they would even be much stronger if united especially against a more powerful enemy such as the Mongols. Of course, all this I’m saying about what could happen if Alexios did take throne is all speculation but even though Alexios did not achieve his objective to revive the old glory of Byzantium, the corrupt and incompetent rule of Andronikos II did eventually come to an end when his grandson overthrew him in 1328, and the reign of the new emperor Andronikos III (1328-1341) was in fact a better time for the Byzantines in their last years, although it would be the last time Byzantium would be a strong power as after his sudden death in 1341 it would be forever downhill for the Byzantines until the fall of their empire in 1453. On the other hand, I would also say that “The Usurper” does have some potential to be either a movie or a series, although when reading I could not really visualize on how it could be a movie or series and who to cast for the roles, thus I did not do any fan casting for the story’s characters in this article, but if it were to soon enough become a movie or series then it would be really great.
Before finishing off, I would like to say it once again that I truly thought of the book as a very interesting and engaging one especially for someone like me who is a Byzantine history enthusiast, and when already translated into English I would definitely want to read Emanuele Rizzardi’s 3rd novel Lo Stendardo di Giove as it is true enough set in one of my favorite historical settings which is that of the late Roman Empire and early Byzantine era. Now I would like to thank the author Emanuele Rizzardi for answering a few questions I have asked him about the novel itself which was very helpful for this article while I would like to congratulate him too for a job well-done in showing an unknown side of Byzantine history, and once more I highly recommend this book especially to those who are very interested in Byzantine history and want to know more about lesser-known periods like this. Up next for this site, my long-running Byzantine Alternate History series will finally reach its final chapter set in the 15th century which is perhaps going to feature the most epic story so far in my 12-part series, so stay tuned for what comes next on my site and thank you all for reading this!
DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 13th and 14th Centuries AD. This story will begin with real events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.
Welcome to the 11th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger, the second to the last in this 12-part series! Last time in chapter X, we went over the major turning point of the disastrous 4th Crusade in 1204 which began the end for the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire followed by the 57-year period of the Byzantine Empire temporarily disappearing and turning into the Empire of Nicaea with Constantinople falling under the rule of the Latin Empire, the possible what if of the powerful 2nd Bulgarian Empire taking over Constantinople from the Latins before the Byzantines do, as well as Byzantium as the Empire of Nicaea eventually recovering Constantinople before they actually did in real history, which was in 1261. Again, as these chapters in this alternate history series are not continuous with each other in plot, this chapter will begin with what actually happened in real history, therefore the events from the previous chapter including the 2nd Bulgarian Empire taking over Constantinople in 1235 from the Latins, the Byzantines of Nicaea eventually taking it back in 1248, and the Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty still continuing and ruling from Constantinople rather than being overthrown by the Palaiologos Dynasty would not happen, instead we will start this chapter off with the Palaiologos Dynasty succeeding in taking over the empire and Michael VIII Palaiologos becoming emperor after taking back Constantinople by surprise from the Latins in 1261, afterwards taking over the throne by deposing and blinding the last Laskaris-Vatatzes Emperor of Nicaea, the young John IV.
After recovering Constantinople from the Latins and restoring the Byzantine Empire, Michael VIII vowed to put the empire back together and once again make it a major power, but at the end he only did what he could as the damage done by the army of the 4th Crusade back in 1204 when sacking and capturing Constantinople was beyond repair. The Byzantine Empire back on the map after 1261 now may have been restored as a functioning state but from here on, it would no longer be a major power of the medieval world like it was in the 12th century as discussed in chapter IX of this series before everything turned around in 1204, instead the post-1261 Byzantium despite still being called an “empire” would just be more or less a regional power in the Balkans together with their two neighbors to the north, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire and Serbian Kingdom, therefore making Byzantium one of the 3 kingdoms of the Balkans wherein all 3 will be in constant interaction with each other in the next century to come, the 14th century. Michael VIII would then be a rather controversial ruler as despite his iron fist rule, using dirty tactics to keep himself in power, and betraying his people by submitting his empire and its faith to the Catholic Church, he was still successful in keeping his empire together, restoring lands that they had lost to the Latins and other Byzantine Greek breakaway states like Epirus, and most of all using the smartest weapon of diplomacy by making alliances with powers near and far from them even it may have seemed unpopular. Though his reign was one of constant stress, Michael VIII still kept his restored empire strong but at the end, he also indirectly caused the gradual collapse of his empire as for one his policy of wanting to submit his empire’s faith to the pope caused great division among his people and more significantly, all the funds he spent on fighting wars in the west left Asia Minor, once the heartland of the Byzantine Empire neglected and undefended, which would therefore result in the rise of new Turkish powers in Asia Minor slowly taking over Byzantine land. Now back in chapter VIII of this series set in the 11th century, the Turks being the massive Seljuk Empire had been introduced as Byzantium’s new traditional enemy and although in the following 2 centuries that they had settled in and occupied Asia Minor itself becoming the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, they had turned out to be not so much a threat to the Byzantines, however in the 13th century the new powerful empire of the Mongols from the far east suddenly became a major threat and therefore had invaded Seljuk Asia Minor resulting in the dissolution of the Seljuk state there forcing many Turks to flee further west due to Mongol pressure in the east. With the power of the Seljuk Sultanate weakening due to the Mongol invasions, the Turks of Asia Minor seeing that their sultan could no longer protect them decided to break away and establish their own small states known as Beyliks in different parts of Asia Minor once under the Seljuks and the Byzantines before them. Following his death in 1282, Michael VIII was succeeded by his son Andronikos II Palaiologos who may have not been a worthy emperor but at least he turned to the worsening situation in Asia Minor which his father had indirectly caused and neglected, and though it seemed that most of these Turkish states or Beyliks in Asia Minor did not seem too much to be a threat, as most just wanted to rule their own small corner in Asia Minor, one of them which was located in Northwest Asia Minor right next to the Byzantine border ruled by the mysterious yet ambitious warlord Osman had the objective to permanently stay in Asia Minor, unite the other Beyliks, and establish an empire, and this exactly happened in 1299 at the turn of the century, and this Beylik of Osman would from this point on become the Ottoman Empire ruled for several centuries to come by the descendants of Osman.
At the beginning of the 14th century, the state of Osman that would later become the Ottoman Empire had already began invading the last remains of Byzantine territory in Asia Minor at the worst time possible as here, the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II had just disbanded the army and fleet as a way to save on funds, instead relying on foreign mercenaries rather than investing on a standing army. When disbanding the army at the worst time possible, Andronikos II responded to the new threat of Osman’s Turks in Asia Minor by hiring a strong but untrustworthy army of Catalan mercenaries which at the end resulted in an even more devastating disaster for the Byzantines when these mercenaries turned on them when being not content with their pay, thus creating further damage by pillaging the Byzantine countryside of Thrace. The economic crisis and starvation in Byzantium caused by Andronikos II’s weak rule and decision making would later lead to Andronikos II himself being overthrown in 1328 by his grandson after a 7-year civil war, and now the grandson Andronikos III Palaiologos as the new emperor would once again vow to turn all the setbacks his grandfather caused and again restore what was left of Byzantium to its old glory. With a strong and energetic emperor again in power which was Andonikos III, the Byzantines would undergo another revival period, except this time only to become a dominant power in Greece even taking back the rebel breakaway Despotate of Epirus but at the end, Andronikos III still failed to stop the Ottomans from taking over all of Byzantine Asia Minor. At the same as Andronikos III was doing his best to revive the power of Byzantium, both Serbia and Bulgaria to the north were also expanding in power and Serbia here in particular was ruled by a king equally ambitious and energetic as Andronikos III which was Stefan IV Uros Dusan who had a vision to turn the Serbian Kingdom into an empire the way Byzantium was. The Byzantines again would unfortunately face another great tragedy with the sudden death of Andronikos III in 1341 at a relatively young age and the worst part here was that he did not name an heir, therefore leading to another civil war to erupt in Byzantium, this time between the late emperor’s wife Anna of Savoy backing their young son John V Palaiologos and Andronikos III’s closest friend and general John Kantakouzenos who believed that he was promised the throne. The civil war which involved Serbia, Bulgaria, and even the Ottomans in Asia Minor now ruled by Osman’s son Orhan was then the breaking point for Byzantium which resulted in Byzantium weakened once more with its end already inevitable, but this civil war too benefited the Serbians as by taking advantage of the civil war, Dusan succeeded in taking a large percent of Byzantine territory including Thessaly and Epirus allowing him to call himself a “Byzantine emperor” despite the Byzantine Empire still being around, while at the same time this civil war also benefited the Ottomans in Asia Minor allowing them for the first time to cross into Europe as a result of assisting the side of John Kantakouzenos.
The 1340s too would see Byzantium facing a double disaster, as not only were they damaged by a deadly civil war, but in 1347 the plague of Black Death that would also spread to the rest of Europe and the known world had also arrived in the decaying Byzantium to further devastate it, while Serbia to the north under Dusan was not much affected by it which allowed them to further grow their empire. Now, one major possibility at this time is of Dusan now being the first Serbian emperor taking over Byzantium to save it from falling apart considering that Byzantium was already weakened by Black Death and the civil war, and true enough Dusan did in fact have ambitions to take over Byzantium, but at the end he never did due to his unexpected death in 1355 and lack of a navy to transport his troops. In real history, the death of the Serbian emperor Dusan in 1355 also marked the end for the short-lived Serbian Empire and not too long after, the once powerful Serbian Empire of Dusan that controlled most of the Balkans dissolved into various divided states ruled by different Serbian generals and nobles, thus the weakening and decentralization of Serbia would eventually result in their defeat by the Ottomans in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo. Now, it seems like a very unlikely what if scenario in history for Dusan to take over the Byzantine Empire and replace its Greek identity with a Serbian one, but Dusan if actually did manage to take over the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople itself with the help of a Venetian fleet, could this actually result in saving Byzantium from decaying thus reversing the Ottoman expansion into the Balkans?
Note: Since this story is set in the 13th and 14th centuries, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.
Now the 14th century where the Byzantine Empire already reaches 1000 years of existence but also the 2nd to the last century of its existence wherein the main part of this chapter is set in is often overlooked and skipped in most history books as well as videos, and podcasts featuring the history of Byzantium being seen as an insignificant part of Byzantine history. At this point, the empire has already been so severely reduced that there is not much to discuss about anymore, that mainstream history media in fact when getting to the late Byzantine Empire only discusses the temporary fall of Byzantium to the 4th Crusade in 1204 and its restoration in 1261, afterwards skipping more than 150 years of history and important characters already going to where the empire falls to the Ottomans in 1453. True enough, I don’t really find the 14th century history of Byzantium that interesting or fascinating, although it does have some eventful moments as in fact most of the happening in the 14th century is no longer in Byzantium which had already been so reduced in size and power but more in the Balkans and even more so in the rest of Europe as the 14th century true enough saw a lot of happening in the rest of Europe including the Hundred-Years’-War between England and France and a lot more as we now enter the late Middle Ages. In Byzantium, most of the excitement no longer has to do much with the empire itself but with what is going on around them such as the rise of the Serbian and Ottoman Empires wherein the now weakened Byzantium is caught in the middle of it. When it comes to the story of the Byzantines in the 14th century as we go deep into the late Byzantine era, most it is disappointing and if not even depressing with all their civil wars, defeats, social and economic problems, religious schism, blinding, court intrigue, and the plague of Black Death, and though a lot of these stories of civil wars and court intrigues puts a lot of color into the history of Byzantium, here in the 14th century it just happens too much that it all becomes too tiring, which is what I mentioned before in the article I made on ranking the 12 centuries in Byzantine history from best to worst, and this is why I put the 14th century this chapter will be set in as my second to the least favorite. On the other hand, the 14th century too had some interesting moments and interesting characters as well which will have a major part in this story, such as the last strong and visionary Byzantine emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341), his wife the power hungry empress Anna of Savoy, the ambitious general and later Byzantine emperor John Kantakouzenos, the Serbian king turned emperor Stefan IV Dusan, the equally powerful tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire Ivan Alexander, and the rulers of the new Ottoman Emirate which later on would become the Ottoman Empire. This chapter too will be the first time in this series that the Ottoman Turks would first be part of the story, and though the Turks being the Seljuks had already been a major part in this series ever since chapter VIII when discussing the crucial Battle of Manzikert in 1071 which began the Turkish expansion into Byzantine Asia Minor, it is only here when the Turks that will be the ones to bring the end of the Byzantine Empire which here are the Ottomans will first appear, as true enough the Ottomans which ended Byzantium in 1453 by besieging Constantinople only became an existing power just 150 years prior to it. Aside from the Ottomans, the Serbians too will have a major part in this story as the what if here is that if the Serbians took over Byzantium when it was at its weakest, then possibly the bigger threat being the Ottomans could have been stopped considering that Serbia had a more powerful army and under the reign of Dusan the first Serbian emperor (1346-1355), Serbia basically controlled almost the entire Balkans, except for Bulgaria which was their ally who will also have a major part in the story. In addition, the well-known plague of Black Death which struck Byzantium and the Balkans in 1347 before reaching the rest of Europe will also play a major part in this chapter as this also escalated the fall of Byzantium, and with Black Death having a part here, this is the second time this series and the history of Byzantium faced a major pandemic, with the first one being the Plague of Justinian in 542 which was a big part of chapter III of this series, and like Black Death here was also a bubonic plague.
At the same time as well, this chapter will also feature a part in Byzantine history which I had made a major Lego film on last year for my Youtube channel No Budget Filmswhich was the Sicilian Vespers in 1282 as well as a short Lego film featuring the civil war between Andronikos II and Andronikos III from 1321 to 1328, and currently for my channel as well, I am producing and narrating an audio epic series entitled The Last Roman Dynasty referring to the Palaiologos Dynasty which takes place where this chapter is set in, beginning with the restoration of Byzantium in 1261 and ending with its fall in 1453, and as of now I have already made 6 episodes wherein currently I have reached already the end of the 14th century. Now all the 6 episodes of this series I made so far set in the era of this chapter will be linked below.
Links toThe Last Roman Dynasty Audio Epic series, from No Budget Films:
Though this chapter focuses on 14th century Byzantium, it will start off right when the Byzantine Empire is restored in 1261 after 57 years of Constantinople occupied by the Latins of the 4th Crusade as a way to set the stage for what is to come in the 14th century, most particularly the decline and twilight of the Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologos Dynasty as well as the empire’s new identity as a culturally Greek kingdom which was established in the 57 years Byzantium was in exile as the Empire of Nicaea.
This chapter will start off with the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282) who in the previous chapter was a major character, but for this one we will be looking at his reign in real history seeing the last time Byzantium would be a strong and active power but his reign also sets the stage for what is to come in the 14th century as with his attention being focused on the west too much, it allowed Byzantine rule in Asia Minor which was once their heartland to collapse thus allowing the new independent Turkish Beyliks to rise, while Michael VIII in his reign had also done the controversial act of attempting to submit his empire’s faith to the pope which received great opposition from his proud Orthodox people, and though this act of union never really succeeded, it still set a new standard for the emperors succeeding him as many other rulers which were Michael VIII’s descendants too had considered submitting Byzantium to the Western Catholic Church to end the age old great schism between them and to also seek military support from the more powerful western Catholic powers, as the power of Byzantium had already faded away. Now, in this chapter the ironic thing but now the reality for Byzantium would be that they would be the ones asking for support from the west unlike how it was not too long ago wherein it was the other way around with Byzantium as the dominant power that other powers around them bowed down to. The great shift of circumstances for the Byzantine Empire from being a major power to becoming a weakened one gradually declining was the sack of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204 thus making it seem like a miracle that the Byzantine Empire still returned after 57 years even if it just returned as a shadow of its former self, as the Byzantium after 1261 would no longer be like it was in the previous centuries with a powerful professional army, advanced technology and extravagant court life, and territory covering the entire Asia Minor and the Balkans, instead it was reduced to basically a small Greek kingdom with an army mostly made of mercenaries, although on the positive side, the late Byzantine era after 1261 saw a period of growth in arts and culture which was known as the “Palaiologan Renaissance” named after the ruling dynasty and it was here when Greek culture flourished in the remains of the empire. As Byzantium downsizes in this chapter’s setting, the world of this chapter will also be downsized being now mostly limited to the Byzantines and their neighbors being the Serbians, Bulgarians, and Ottomans and occasionally the Italian maritime republics of Venice and Genoa too as they both played a part in the decline of Byzantium due to the Byzantines asking for either of them for an alliance countless times which resulted in either Venice or Genoa gaining more as in return for their support especially in providing a navy and troops, Byzantium had to cede what was left of their Aegean islands to either of them. What would then really define the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century would be weak and ineffective leadership as seen in the over 40 year reign of Andronikos II (1282-1328) although at least there was still some hope with his successor Andronikos III (1328-1341) whose reign would be one of Byzantine history’s last bright spots, but following his sudden death the same kind of instability would return to Byzantium with a devastating civil war, but apart from all the weak leadership, civil wars, and Black Death that would further weaken Byzantium, another major factor that weakened Byzantium was the age old cancer of religious schism and here in the 14th century it would be again on the question of submitting the Byzantine Orthodox Church to the pope for Church unity which may seem like a good and practical solution to solve Byzantium’s problems by getting the support of the now more powerful west though it was strongly opposed by the Byzantine people as back in 1204 they have seen the horrors of the Catholic westerners when they sacked Constantinople, therefore making the Orthodox Byzantine people strongly object Church unity with the people that wronged them. This story’s climax would then take place in the 1341-1347 Byzantine civil war which would not only be a succession war but one that totally shows how Byzantine society had already become so divided especially over social, political, and religious issues, but even worse was that it was fought at such a bad time as the Ottomans from Asia Minor were already a major threat to the Byzantines. This civil war at the end would then only further harm the existence of Byzantium allowing them to be an easy target for the now expanding Ottomans to the point that nothing could be done to stop the Ottomans which in fact would in real history end the Byzantine Empire in 1453.
For this story however, I would consider that it could be the newly formed Serbian Empire of Stefan IV Dusan that could for better or for worse save Byzantium by expelling the Ottomans the moment they arrived in Europe even if it would mean that the remains of Byzantium would be absorbed into the Serbian Empire, thus this chapter’s climax set in 1352 would be another bizarre one just like in the previous chapter wherein the Bulgarians took over Constantinople. This chapter would then follow the same kind of what if like in the previous one wherein a foreign power would conquer Byzantium, which in the last one was Bulgaria under their tsar Ivan Asen II and for this one it would be Serbia under Stefan IV Dusan, although this time the Serbians despite being a foreign power would have a greater purpose to conquer Byzantium and this would not be to end its existence but to revive the power of Byzantium by joining it with Serbia as one empire, as after all Stefan IV Dusan in 1346 had not only called himself a “Serbian emperor” or “tsar” but “Emperor of the Serbs and Romans” with the part on the Romans referring to the Byzantines, and as an emperor Dusan patterned himself as a Byzantine ruler making him be Serbia’s version of the most influential Byzantine emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) as Dusan like Justinian I had also made a strong bureaucratic system and a codification of laws for Serbia. Now, at first it may be hard to imagine or unheard of for Serbia in the 14th century to take over the Byzantine Empire, but at the end the outcome would turn to be very surprising. Before beginning, I would also like to thank the Youtube channel Eastern Roman History for providing some good amount of information for this very obscure part of Byzantine history, while I would also like to thank the artists (Wlayko111, TheGreyStallion, Doqida, Androklos, Borivoje Mikic, Ediacar, FaisalHashemi, and JustinianustheGreat) whose works will be featured here in order to guide you viewers through the 14th century.
Andronikos III Palaiologos- Byzantine emperor (1328-1341)
Anna of Savoy- Byzantine empress, wife of Andronikos III
Stefan Uros IV Dusan- King and later Emperor of Serbia (1331-1355)
John VI Kantakouzenos- Usurping Byzantine emperor
John V Palaiologos- Byzantine emperor, son and successor of Andronikos III
Orhan- Sultan of the Ottoman Turks (1324-1362)
Ivan Alexander- Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1331-1371)
Umur Bey- Bey of the Turkish Beylik of Aydin
Alexios Apokaukos-Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire
Matthew Kantakouzenos- Byzantine general and son of John VI
Suleiman Pasha- Turkish general and son of Sultan Orhan
Stefan Uros V- Emperor of Serbia, son and successor of Dusan
Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Serbians (light blue), Ottomans and other Turks (dark orange), Bulgarians (green)
Story characters set1- Stefan IV Dusan, John VI Kantakouzenos, John V Palaiologos, Sultan Orhan, Tsar Ivan Alexander
Story characters set2- Umur Bey, Alexios Apokaukos, Matthew Kantakouzenos, Suleiman Pasha, Stefan Uros V
Prologue-The Restoration of Byzantium and Reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282)
On July 25, 1261 the 57-year rule of the Latin Empire that began in 1204 when the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople and brought the Byzantine Empire to its knees had ended when an army of only 800 Byzantines from the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea in Asia Minor took Constantinople back from the Latins by surprise in only one night. The Latin Empire of Constantinople however was already doomed to extinction as in the previous years, the Byzantines of Nicaea under their strong military emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) had already surrounded the Latins to Constantinople by recapturing most of Northern Greece and Thrace making it seem like Constantinople could have already been recaptured.
The rest of the details on how Constantinople was taken back by the Byzantines of Nicaea had already been discussed in the previous chapter of this series, but to put it short Constantinople was recaptured in only one night wherein the outnumbered and overwhelmed remaining Latin forces as well as the last Latin emperor Baldwin II Courtenay fled Constantinople by sea using Venetian ships before the Byzantine troops burned down the Venetian warehouses as a way to make the escape of the Latins more difficult. Now the exiled Byzantine state of the Empire of Nicaea in which its capital was the ancient and rich city of Nicaea along a lake less than a day away from Constantinople at this point was ruled by the child emperor John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes who succeeded his father Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes (r. 1254-1258), the son of John III Vatatzesin 1258 following Theodore II’s sudden death, although since John IV was only a boy, the one actually running the empire was his co-emperor, the ambitious general Michael Palaiologos who schemed his way into power being actually the arch-rival of John IV’s father, and it was Michael who really masterminded the entire reconquest of Constantinople.
3 weeks after the Byzantines took back Constantinople, the 38-year-old Michael Palaiologos himself went to it being the first time he ever saw the Byzantine capital and here the Byzantine Empire that disappeared for 57 years came back into existence as he was crowned as Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos at the Hagia Sophia which had been left in ruin and turned into a Catholic church by the Crusaders after 1204, but with the Byzantines regaining the city, the Hagia Sophia once again became an Orthodox church. Immediately after being crowned, Michael VIII saw for himself the damage the Latins had done to Constantinople which they never even bothered to repair even when holding Constantinople for 57 years, therefore in 1261 Michael VIII still saw buildings in ruins and rubble in the ground that had been there since 1204, homeless people everywhere as a result of their homes destroyed by the Crusader attack of 1204, and the worst part was that the population of the city dropped to only 35,000 compared to how it was before 1204 when it had about 100,000 as many fled the city to Nicaea, Bulgaria, and the other Byzantine breakaway states after the Latins took over in 1204.
Michael VIII then began his rule doing all he could to restore all the damage the 4th Crusade had inflicted on Constantinople and so he quickly ordered the restoration of the city’s ruined buildings while he also had a large number of churches, hospitals, markets, baths, and learning centers rebuilt although most of the artistic restoration was done under the care of Michael’s artistic wife Empress Theodora, but what Michael repaired himself was the sea wall along the Golden Horn destroyed by the Crusaders’ attack if you remember from the previous chapter, while he also made it an objective to repopulate Constantinople by having the people of Nicaea and other parts of the empire in Asia Minor relocate back to Constantinople. Though Michael VIII had already taken back Constantinople, there was still one immediate threat to him and his rule which was the boy emperor John IV who was still reigning in Nicaea and so at the end of 1261, Michael VIII decided to get rid of John IV by sending one of his agents to Nicaea and blind his young co-emperor.
The 11-year-old John IV was then blinded and sent to one of Michael’s family’s castles along the Marmara coast of Asia Minor to be imprisoned for life making him forever unfit to rule, thus Michael VIII was the sole ruler of the empire and after all the blinding of the young emperor John IV was to secure the succession of Michael VIII’s infant son Andronikos Palaiologos to prevent challengers to his rule since Andronikos had already been crowned as his father’s co-emperor, as Michael did indeed want to establish his own dynasty. In 1262, the next thing Michael VIII needed to do to get the Byzantine Empire back on the map was to have its restoration be recognized by the other kingdoms of Europe including the pope, however Michael VIII’s Byzantine reconquest and restoration was not immediately recognized by many rulers of Europe, although the most powerful ruler of Europe at this time which was the King of France Louis IX did in fact recognize Michael VIII’s restored Byzantium which then gave it as much legitimacy as it needed.
In the meantime, the other two major Byzantine successor states formed after 1204 which included the Empire of Trebizond in the far eastern corner of Asia Minor along the Black Sea and the Despotate of Epirus in Western Greece too did not recognize the restoration of Byzantium, and when Michael VIII sent word to both of them to unite with the restored Byzantium, both refused to do so as Trebizond was happy with their maritime empire in the Black Sea while the ruler or Despot of Epirus Michael II Angelos who was a bitter enemy of Michael VIII still did not give up his claim on Constantinople.
At the same time too, Michael VIII before the reconquest of Constantinople had sealed a permanent alliance with the Italian maritime Republic of Genoa and in return for Genoa’s support in providing the restored Byzantium with a navy, Michael VIII formally gave the Galata Quarter of Constantinople to Genoa, although this alliance with Genoa would also come at a great price as the Byzantines would now have to pay 87% of their revenue made from customs from ships passing the Bosporus strait where their capital is to Genoa, therefore making Byzantium no longer as rich as they were before. Meanwhile, despite Constantinople being taken back by the Byzantines and the Latin Empire fading away, the other Latin states formed by the leaders of the 4th Crusade after 1204 in what was once Byzantine Greece were still around which included the Duchy of Athens, the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean, and the Principality of Achaea in the Peloponnese Peninsula of Southern Greece, while Crete and many other islands were still under the rule of the Republic of Venice.
In 1263, Michael VIII sent an army of 15,000 Byzantines as well as 5,000 Seljuk Turkish mercenaries to the Peloponnese to conquer the entire Principality of Achaea back for Byzantium as back in 1259, Michael VIII’s forces had already defeated the forces of the Latin Prince of Achaea William II Villehardouin who had been imprisoned but soon after escaped and returned to the Peloponnese also known as the Morea. The Byzantine expedition to recapture the Morea from the Latins began in failure as the Byzantines forces and their allies were ambushed by the Latins of Achaea while the Seljuk mercenaries after not receiving their pay defected to the Latins causing further defeat for the Byzantines.
At the end, the Byzantines only succeeded in taking back the southeast corner of the Morea (Peloponnese) which was the region of Laconia where the Ancient Greek city of Sparta was, though here the Byzantines would establish a new city around the castle of Prince William II found on the slopes of the mountain beside Ancient Sparta, and this new city would be Mystras, later an important learning and cultural center in the late Byzantine era. At the same time too as the Peloponnese campaign in 1263, the Genoese fleet being Michael VIII’s ally was defeated by a much smaller Venetian fleet in the Aegean and facing this kind of humiliation of being defeated by a smaller fleet in a surprise attack, Michael VIII decided to end his alliance with Genoa despite just beginning it 2 years ago, as he felt Genoa was weak therefore Michael turned to Venice instead as an ally believing them to be stronger, despite Venice being the one that brought the army of the 4th Crusade to attack Constantinople in 1204.
With more challenges to face ahead of him, Michael VIII decided to make alliances with some of the most unlikely powers of the time and this included the new Mamluk Sultanate that was founded by Turkic slaves that overthrew the Ayyubid Sultanate back in 1250, thus taking over Egypt and Syria and later on taking over the Levant’s last Crusader state of Acre too, while the other power Michael VIII signed an alliance with was no other than the biggest threat to the world which were the Mongols. Now, what made Michael VIII consider making an alliance with the Mongols was that in 1265 the Mongols from the Golden Horde (the Mongol state in Russia) led by their general Nogai Khan went as far as to Byzantine Thrace to raid it wherein Michael himself led the army to confront them but failed to stop them, as after his officers fled out of terror, Michael barely escaped with his life back to Constantinople and so to settle the threat of the deadly Mongol warlord Nogai Khan, Michael had to marry off his illegitimate daughter Euphrosyne to Nogai while to further conclude peace with the Mongols, Michael also married off his other illegitimate daughter Maria who was Euphrosyne’s sister to the Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate of Persia Abaqa Khan.
The biggest challenger to Michael VIII’s rule however came from the west and this came into the picture in 1266 being Charles of Anjou of the Capetian Dynasty of France, the youngest brother of King Louis IX of France, and in 1266 the ambitious Charles envisioning a Mediterranean empire and having the support of the pope invaded Southern Italy defeated and even killed the German ruler of Southern Italy and Sicily Manfred Hohenstaufen at the Battle of Benevento, and when taking over Southern Italy, Charles made his ambitions to take over Byzantium itself clear and from here on, Charles would be Michael VIII’s biggest problem. In 1267, Charles of Anjou made an alliance with all of Michael VIII’s enemies which were the former Latin Emperor of Constantinople Baldwin II, the Prince of Achaea William II, the Despot of Epirus Michael II, and the pope Clement IV to take back Constantinople and restore the Latin Empire as a much more powerful state compared to what it was before which is why it died out so easily.
In 1268, Michael VIII would experience some relief when his major enemy Despot Michael II of Epirus died which weakened Epirus as he divided his lands among his sons Nikephoros I Angelos who inherited Epirus and John Angelos who inherited Thessaly, but Michael VIII too would face another challenge in 1268 as here Charles of Anjou managed to take over all of Sicily which he made as his base in order to launch a naval invasion of Byzantium. Charles however could not really carry out his ambition to invade Byzantium as his older and more powerful brother King Louis IX of France was keeping an eye on him, and wanting to maintain friendly relations with Byzantium, Louis IX would not allow his younger brother to do what he wanted most, instead Louis asked for troops from Charles for his Crusade against the Muslims in Tunisia which deprived Charles of troops for invading Byzantium. Unfortunately, in 1270 Louis IX died of a plague in Tunisia when leading the 8th Crusade there- therefore becoming St. Louis after his death- and from here on there would be nothing to stop Charles anymore from invading Byzantium.
Meanwhile in Asia Minor, due to Mongol raids from the east over the past years, the Seljuk Sultanate there that had been around since the late 11th century began to disintegrate and with the central power of the Seljuk state crumbling away, their Turkish subjects fled further west into Asia Minor wherein they would begin establishing their own feudal states there known as Beyliks ruled by different warlords or Beys to further protect their people seeing that the Seljuk sultan could no longer protect them from external threats such as the Mongols. These Turkish Beyliks that broke away from the Seljuk Empire would then soon enough easily settle in Asia Minor taking over a number of Byzantine cities meeting little resistance from the Byzantine forces as Michael VIII reassigned most of the armies in Asia Minor to Greece to fight against the remaining Latin states there as well as against Epirus. Now seeing that Charles of Anjou as the King of Sicily was more and more posing a threat to the restored Byzantium, Michael VIII decided to turn to the most unpopular but practical solution to stop Charles from invading, which was submitting the Byzantine Orthodox Church to the pope, thus reuniting both Churches that had been at a permanently split since the Great Schism of 1054- if you remember from chapter VIII of this series- and apparently in 1272 a council was being held in Lyon, France with talks to reunite both Eastern and Western Churches.
In 1274, Byzantine envoys travelled to Lyon presenting to the pope Gregory X a letter of consent from Michael VIII to submit the Byzantine church to the pope and after reading all letters, the Byzantine Orthodox and Latin Catholic Churches were once again united. Michael VIII then came to think that submitting to the pope was nothing more but a practical solution as with Charles being Catholic and Michael and his empire becoming Catholic as well, there would be no reason for Charles to attack Byzantium anymore, and to fully legitimize his empire’s conversion to Catholicism, Michael had the Hagia Sophia which back in 1261 he turned back to an Orthodox church be returned to a Catholic church again as it was under the Latins. The Byzantine people however strongly opposed Michael VIII’s Church union as they were proud of their Orthodox faith not wanting to submit to the faith of the Latins that had wronged them before by sacking Constantinople, thus when hearing that Michael VIII submitted to the pope, the people of Constantinople and the rest of the empire rioted. Michael VIII, once seen as the hero of the Byzantine people for taking back Constantinople from the Latins now drastically lost all his popularity becoming his people’s worst enemy as they believed he had betrayed them, as after all he took back Constantinople from the Latins but then at the end only chose to bow down to his enemy, the Latins by submitting to their religion.
Now to make it look like he really accepted the pope’s authority, Michael VIII had to respond to opposition against rule, especially opposition against his policy of Church unity with such brutality thus Michael VIII viciously persecuted all those that spoke either against him, the pope, the newly appointed pro-Catholic Patriarch of Constantinople John XI, or generally against the Church union which then gave Michael the reputation of a tyrant emperor as he ended up jailing thousands of those who opposed him and the union, while imperial officials as well as monks were punished by all kinds of methods from exile to blinding if they opposed this policy, and by the point the prisons became too filled up as more and more kept opposing the Church union, Michael had to go as far as issuing a death penalty for those who simply just read or possessed documents directed against him. Due to Michael’s harsh treatment to opposition against him and his unionist policies, many Byzantine Greeks in Asia Minor including nobles who still preferred to be ruled by the former Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty anyway rather than Michael VIII defected to the newly formed Turkish Beyliks. Those who opposed Michael VIII in Greece fled to the rebel Byzantine states of Epirus and Thessaly as their respective rulers the brothers Nikephoros I and John Angelos saw themselves as defenders of Orthodoxy in direct opposition to Michael VIII, even if both brothers still swore loyalty to Charles of Anjou, while at the same time Michael’s older sister Irene who he grew up very close to had also turned against him as being proudly Orthodox, she was disgusted with her brother’s submission to Catholicism.
In the meantime, the last Latin emperor Baldwin II died in Italy in 1273 while back in Byzantium, Michael VIII renewed his alliance with Genoa as Venice chose to ally with Charles of Anjou instead, and while Michael was trying to consolidate the Catholic faith in his empire, he was also still busy in securing Byzantine rule over Greece by campaigning against the Latin Duchy of Athens and the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean. Sometime in 1275 the Duchy of Athens allied with John Angelos’ Thessaly defeated the Byzantines in battle, but later that year after a brave Byzantine counter-attack led by Michael VIII’s younger brother John Palaiologos, the Byzantines won a decisive victory over the remaining Latins at the naval Battle of Demetrias which secured Byzantine dominance over the Aegean once more, though John would retire from military service after this.
In 1277 on the other hand, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire to the north of Byzantium after being devastated by Mongol raids from the north fell into civil war when Bulgarian peasants feeling that their ruler or tsar Konstantin Tih who ruled for 20 years was useless in protecting them from the Mongol raids rose up against him in favor of a charismatic peasant leader named Ivaylo– nicknamed “the cabbage”- who later managed to defeat the Bulgarian imperial forces and kill the tsar in battle, thus making the peasant Ivaylo become the new Bulgarian tsar.
Using the chaos in Bulgaria to his advantage, Michael VIII reconquered some of Southern Bulgaria for Byzantium while also backing a Bulgarian claimant which was his son-in-law Ivan Asen III, the grandson of last chapter’s great and powerful Bulgarian tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241), although the plan to put Ivan Asen III in the Bulgarian throne shortly after failed but Michael VIII being an ally of Nogai Khan of the Golden Horde who was Bulgaria’s northern neighbor further weakened Bulgaria by asking Nogai who was now Michael’s son-in-law to invade Bulgaria from the north, and as a result of this the incompetent peasant emperor Ivaylo lost his throne in 1279 to the Bulgaria noble or boyar George Terter I.
Ivaylo then had no choice but to flee to Nogai Khan in Russia to submit to him, however Nogai when receiving Ivaylo in 1280 killed Ivaylo claiming he did in the name of his father-in-law Michael VIII. In the meantime, the King of Sicily Charles of Anjou still did not take Michael VIII’s submission to the pope seriously and so in 1280, Charles sent an army to invade Byzantine Albania which succeeded in capturing the fortress of Berat, but in 1281 a Byzantine army led by the general Michael Tarchaneiotes drove off Charles’ French army and recovered Berat even capturing Charles’ French general Hugh Sully who was taken to Constantinople as a prisoner. In 1281 as well, a new pope was elected which was Martin IV, a Frenchman who was blindly loyal to Charles and so he saw Michael’s Church union policy as fake thus making him authorize Charles’ invasion of Byzantium while excommunicating Michael as well.
In 1282, now having limited resources to stop Charles’ invasion of Byzantium, Michael VIII had to again turn to what he was best at doing which was diplomacy and so he turned to an alliance with a distant kingdom which was Aragon in Spain, as Michael knew that its king Peter III was like him also an enemy of Charles of Anjou. Michael VIII here however could not really send a Byzantine army to stop Charles’ invasion as by 1282, the Serbian Kingdom to the north just got a new king which was Stefan Uros II Milutin of the Nemanjic Dynasty who also strongly opposed Michael’s Church union policy and when coming into power, Milutin saw himself as the opposition leader against Michael VIII in the Balkans as well as the defender of Orthodoxy.
Now, the Byzantine army here in 1282 was no longer as powerful as it was back in the 12th century, therefore it did not have enough power to do an actual invasion of Sicily to prevent Charles’ invasion, so instead Michael VIII had to turn to Peter III of Aragon to invade Sicily and when taking the island swear allegiance to Byzantium. At the same time too, Michael VIII knew that the locals in Sicily were unhappy being under French rule as Charles brutally taxed them while his soldiers mistreated the local Sicilians that some Sicilians turned to brutally murdering French people in Sicily whether they were soldiers or civilians, and using the discontent of the Sicilian people to his advantage, Michael VIII sent money to pay off the local lords of Sicily to lead their people in rebellion against their French overlords.
On Easter Sunday of 1282, the people of the city of Palermo in Sicily suddenly broke out in riot declaring their intention to overthrow their French overlords in which this event would be known as the “Sicilian Vespers”, and soon enough this riot escalated into violence when the locals killed off the French garrison of Palermo and as the year progressed, this local rebellion turned into a full-scale war which did in fact succeed in driving the French away from Sicily when Peter III of Aragon and his forces arrived. By the end of 1282, the Spanish Aragonese took over Sicily and promised to rule over the local population better than the French did, while Charles though still having Southern Italy was no longer a threat to the Byzantines and 3 years later in 1285, he died and thus the returning threat from the west to restore the Latin Empire had vanished.
Back in December of 1282, Michael VIII Palaiologos too had died in a farm in Thrace at the age of 59, and though being an energetic, ambitious, and capable ruler while also an “evil genius” that put the Byzantine Empire back together as a functioning state, he also had the negative legacy of neglecting Asia Minor as by the time of his death, most of Byzantine territory there had slipped away to the rule of the Turkish Beyliks, and worse for him was that he died hated by his own people and following his death, the Orthodox Church which was again back in power refused to give Michael VIII a proper burial despite him being the man who took back Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, as they saw him as a traitor and heretic for submitting to the pope. Michael VIII after his death was then succeeded by his eldest son Andronikos II Palaiologos who then buried his father in secret at the dead of night outside Constantinople.
The Reign of Andronikos II Palaiologos and Decline of Byzantium (1282-1320)
Though Michael VIII Palaiologos had a strong rule which put the Byzantine Empire back together again, he died leaving his son Andronikos II to inherit so many external problems, although on the positive side Constantinople was repopulated by a lot going from 35,000 to 70,000 by the time of Michael’s death. Rather than mourning for the death of Michael VIII, the proud Orthodox Byzantine people cheered that their traitor heretic emperor had died, cheering at the coronation of their new emperor Andronikos II as well, as Andronikos unlike his father was strongly Orthodox and was only forced to support his father’s unionist policy when his father was still alive, however unlike his father who was a strong yet ruthless military and diplomatic genius emperor, Andronikos II was a weak and soft intellectual and artist very much like his mother.
Andronikos II then began his reign by cancelling his father’s infamous Church union with the pope and restoring the Hagia Sophia to an Orthodox church once again, which then stopped the Orthodox Byzantine breakaway states of Epirus and Thessaly from being a threat, although Andronikos II now had to face the external problems created during his father’s reign despite the Western threat of Charles of Anjou now out of the way after Byzantium’s ally the Aragonese took over Sicily. First of all, the biggest threat to Andronikos II came from the north which was Stefan Uros II Milutin of Serbia who was still intent in invading Byzantine territory in the Balkans, and despite his enemy Michael VIII already dead that in 1282 Milutin did in fact capture the city of Skopje from Byzantium making it Serbia’s new capital, but the bigger threat to Andronikos II was still the expanding Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor which were left unchecked as his father pulled out troops from there to fight wars in Greece and the Balkans.
Another problem Andronikos II inherited was an empty treasury as his father spent it all on his wars and in bribing the local lords of Sicily to rise up against Charles of Anjou, and so to fill up the treasury once again, Andronikos II had no choice but to raise taxes, reduce tax exemptions, devalue the currency which was the standard gold coin the Hyperpyron created by Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), and worse of all dismantle the Byzantine fleet of only 80 ships to sell of their parts to raise funds. In addition, Andronikos II seeing that it was too expensive to maintain a professional army had no choice but to disband it and instead rely on hiring foreign mercenaries to fight his wars as well as relying on either Venice or Genoa for a fleet.
Just like his father who used diplomacy to solve some problems especially if it had to do with foreign powers, Andronikos II in 1284 following the death of his first wife married the 10-year-old Italian Yolande of Montferrat as a way to put an end to the claim of the small Northern Italian state of Montferrat over Thessaloniki as if you remember from the previous chapter, it was the Lord of Montferrat that took over Thessaloniki after Byzantium was divided in 1204 before Thessaloniki fell under Epirus and then to the Byzantines of Nicaea, and this marriage true enough put an end to Montferrat’s claim. In 1290, Andronikos II released John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes, the boy emperor Michael VIII had blinded back in 1261 from 29 years of castle arrest who then came out from arrest already as a middle-aged man, although Andronikos II still apologized to John IV for his father blinding him, although being already blind John had no more claim to throne but John was still allowed to retire peacefully in Constantinople where he would die many years later in 1305 at the age of 55. With the threat of the Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor increasing now that the Turks were increasingly capturing Byzantine cities in the Meander Valley including Philadelphia, Andronikos II sent his young nephew the general Alexios Philanthropenos to lead the campaign and recover what was lost in Asia Minor to the Turks in 1293 while also appointing Alexios as the commander or Doux of Asia. Alexios despite having limited men in his campaign turned out to successfully take care of the threat of the Turks in Asia Minor by scoring a number of victories against them in the Meander Valley between 1294 and 1295, even recovering cities the Byzantines had recently just lost, while taking a large number of Turkish prisoners as slaves too, that Turkish prisoners in fact became much cheaper to buy than sheep. Alexios’ victories however made him highly popular among the troubled people of Asia Minor that in 1295 they chose to recognize him as emperor rather than the reigning Andronikos II who they felt was too distant and oblivious to their sufferings, thus Alexios in order to save the empire especially Asia Minor from falling apart usurped power and seeing this as treason, Andronikos II had his nephew Alexios blinded, while Alexios accepted this fate anyway to prove he was still loyal to his emperor.
The blinding of Alexios however turned out to be a terrible decision as without Alexios around anymore to command his troops in Asia Minor, there would be no more strong general left to stop the growing power of Turks and true enough with Alexios gone, the threat of the Turks returned; now if you are interested about the general Alexios Philanthropenos who could have saved Byzantium at this time from the threat of the Turks in Asia Minor, you can read the book The Usurper by Emanuele Rizzardi which I am currently reading now and is exactly about Alexios Philanthropenos and his campaigns in Asia Minor. Aside from the threat of the Turks in Asia Minor returning following the blinding of Alexios Philanthropenos, Andronikos II was again threatened in the north by Serbia, as it this point Serbia’s economic power had grown rapidly under King Milutin thanks to his development of silver mining in Serbia which therefore brought in more funds to raise a much larger army for Serbia that would be no match against the Byzantines. Seeing there was no solution to stop Serbia’s expansion except for diplomacy, Andronikos II in 1298 was forced to marry off his 5-year-old daughter with Yolande Simonis to the 45-year-old Serbian king Milutin, as well as to cede a large portion of Byzantine Macedonia such as the city of Ohrid to Serbia, which was then a success as Serbia would no longer pose a threat to Byzantium, and with this marriage Milutin and Andronikos II even became allies.
The much larger threat to Andronikos II’s Byzantium however was from the east, and this was the rising Turkish Beylik of the rather mysterious Turkish warlord Osman, son of Ertugrul who unlike the other Turkish Beyliks were not that ambitious only wanting their small corners to rule as their own in Asia Minor, was highly ambitious as for Osman and his people there was no more going back to the east due to the pressure of the Mongols which forced them to migrate west, therefore they decided that they were to stay in Asia Minor to conquer the remaining Byzantine lands seeing the Byzantines as their weakest enemy. According to legend, Osman had a dream seeing his descendants rule the world and to make this a reality, Osman in 1299 made his intention to expand west and conquer Byzantine lands by declaring Jihad which then gave his people a purpose to fight the Byzantines and expand and to unite the other Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor as well under him in the name of Islam.
Right before the turn of the 14th century, the Turkish bey Osman solidified his rule establishing what would be known as the Ottoman Empire named after him and in 1300, Osman already began attacking the last of the Byzantine territories in Northwest Asia Minor, soon enough laying siege to the city of Nicomedia which was very close to Constantinople.
In response to the first wave of Osman’s attacks, Andronikos II sent his son and co-emperor Michael IX Palaiologos who was at this point already a skilled general to counter-attack Osman’s Turks, but Michael IX’s army of only 2,000 with most being Alan mercenaries suffered a crushing defeat to Osman’s 5,000 army mostly consisting of cavalry at the Battle of Bapheus in 1302 located between the cities of Nicaea and Nicomedia, and though neither of the cities fell, Osman’s Turks still seized a large amount of territory in that area. With a large and powerful professional army of Cataphract cavalry soldiers and the elite Varangian Guards no longer around anymore, Andronikos II here in 1302 had to turn to hiring a large army of foreign mercenaries, and here he decided to revive the alliance his father made with Aragon 20 years earlier before his death, thus Andronikos II hired from the Kingdom of Aragon and army of 6,500 Catalan mercenaries known as Almogavars (originating from Southern France and Northern Spain) which were light infantry soldiers, and since they not only proved successful in fighting the French and driving them away from Sicily 20 years ago in the War of the Sicilian Vespers, they in the past decades were successful in fighting the Moors in Spain that by the end of the 13th century, the Christian kingdoms of Spain such as Castile and Aragon had already contained the Moors to their last holdout in Southern Spain which was Granada.
Since the primary enemy of the Byzantines here being the Turks were Muslims, Andronikos II believed the Catalans having experience fighting Muslims in Spain and succeeding could achieve the same results when battling the Turks in Asia Minor. Later on, in 1302 the 6,500 army of Catalan mercenaries known as the Grand Catalan Company arrived in Constantinople led by the sketchy Italian general Roger de Flor, a former pirate and Templar knight and already when arriving, the company’s general Roger demanded a lot from Andronikos II while the mercenaries turned out to be drunk troublemakers by starting a fight with the Genoese merchants in the Genoese held Galata Quarter.
To avoid further trouble from the Catalans and to make them carry out their job, Andronikos II had them quickly ferried across the Bosporus into Asia Minor to battle the Turks, and in 1303 the Catalans under the command of Roger de Flor true enough scored a number of victories against Osman’s Ottoman Turks and later on against the other Turkish Beyliks in the south, however his victories made Roger arrogant that he even thought of establishing his own independent state in Asia Minor as he already went as far as to treat the Byzantine locals there as his subjects. In the meantime, after a short period of a succession crisis in the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, a new tsar came to the Bulgarian throne in 1300 which was Theodore Svetoslav, the son of Tsar George Terter I and in 1303 as well, Theodore began launching an invasion of Byzantine Thrace, thus the co-emperor Michael IX was sent north with the main Byzantine army to stop the Bulgarian raids while his father Andronikos II recalled Roger de Flor to Constantinople to prove his loyalty, but back in Constantinople Roger demanded for more pay to continue his fight as well as to be promoted to the rank of Caesar and Andronikos complied to it.
Meanwhile, Michael IX succeeded in repelling the Bulgarians in Thrace but at the Battle of Skafida in 1304, the Byzantines lost to the Bulgarians after crowding up on a bridge and with the combined weight of the Byzantine cavalry, the bridge collapsed drowning many of them, although Michael IX still escaped alive but his father had to sell of his jewelry to pay tribute to Theodore Svetoslav of Bulgaria in order to conclude a truce. Michael IX however began envying Roger de Flor for winning victories in Asia Minor while Michael was losing battles and so together with his father, they conspired to get rid of the troublemaker Roger, and in 1305 by Michael IX’s orders, Roger was assassinated at a feast in Adrianople by Michael’s Alan mercenaries.
The assassination of Roger de Flor however only severed the alliance between Byzantium and the Catalans leading to a Byzantine-Catalan War, and so the Catalans with their Turkish prisoners from Asia Minor that they made into their allies decided to turn on the Byzantines avenging the death of their general Roger de Flor who they saw as an inspiring figure, thus the Catalans savagely turned to pillaging the Byzantine countryside of Thrace and later Macedonia to the point of burning it into a desert. In response to the betrayal of the Catalans that now endlessly pillaged Thrace, the co-emperor Michael IX in 1305 led a large army to counter-attack the now rogue Catalans but at the Battle of Apros in Thrace, the Catalans charged at Michael’s army with such fury that Michael’s Alan mercenaries fled in fear leading to a Catalan victory and Michael IX almost killed.
The Catalans now defeating Michael IX’s forces had nothing stopping them anymore and so they continued their pillaging that even the monasteries of Mt. Athos in Macedonia, a very sacred site for the Byzantines were pillaged and burned by the Catalans, and soon enough even Thessaloniki was besieged by the Catalans although unsuccessfully due to its strong walls. The attack of Catalans then would be the worst tragedy the Byzantines would face since the Sack of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204 and again this one would be a tragedy caused by a Latin army, but the worst part was that with the betrayal of the Catalans, the Turks of Asia Minor which were thought to have been defeated by the Catalans became a threat again. Having no more troops to stop the Turks in Asia Minor, Andronikos II turned to allying with the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia to attack them from the east, but at the end this alliance still resulted in nothing, thus all of Byzantine Asia Minor was already doomed to fall to the Turks.
Meanwhile in 1306, Andronikos II’s son Theodore with his second wife Yolande was sent to his mother’s homeland of Montferrat in the region of Piedmont to be its ruler as Theodore’s uncle which was Yolande’s brother died without an heir, and being the closest male relative Theodore traveled to Montferrat to rule it, thus from here on a member of the Palaiologos Dynasty would rule a small feudal state in Italy, although Theodore and his descendants would give up their Byzantine Greek heritage and rule as Italian feudal lords. Back in Greece, the Catalans by 1308 stopped their mindless pillaging when travelling south to the still surviving Latin Duchy of Athens when they were hired by the French Duke of Athens to fight against the breakaway Byzantine Despotate of Epirus, but when again not receiving their pay the Catalans betrayed and killed the duke and in 1311 the Catalan mercenaries themselves took over the Duchy of Athens now adding it as well as the region of Attica surrounding Athens as part of the Kingdom of Aragon which here included mainland Aragon in Spain, Southern Italy, Sicily, and now Athens.
Also, in 1308 the Seljuk Sultanate in Asia Minor finally dissolved after being around for more than 200 years since the late 11th century as their last sultan died without an heir, and with the Seljuk bloodline dying out, Osman inherited the title of Sultan, though not the remaining lands of the Seljuks in Central Asia Minor. In 1314, Michael IX led one more brave charge against the remaining Catalans and their Turkish allies in Thrace but once again, his Alan mercenaries deserted him, and now being tired of defeats Michael IX chose to retire for good from military service to live in Thessaloniki, while at the same time his stepmother who was Andronikos II’s wife Yolande was constantly scheming to get Michael IX away by constantly pressuring Andronikos make one of his sons with her as his successor, but fortunately for Andronikos and his son Michael, Yolande had died in 1317.
Over in Serbia, its king Milutin who was still alive in 1314 was at a conflict with his son Stefan Decanski, although with Milutin put down his son’s rebellion sending Decanski to Andronikos II’s court in Constantinople to be blinded, however Decanski was never actually blinded and in Constantinople his 6-year-old son Stefan Dusan who would be Serbia’s future king would learn Byzantine administration here which he would turn out to admire. In 1320, Stefan Decanski together with his son Dusan were allowed by Milutin to return to Serbia after Decanski wrote multiple letters over the past 6 years to persuade his father to pardon him. In the meantime, most of the major Byzantine cities of Western Asia Minor fell to the Turkish Beyliks such as Smyrna which fell to the Beylik of Aydin in 1310, while in 1309 the Byzantine held Island of Rhodes had fallen to the Crusader Knights of St. John now becoming the Knights of Rhodes after being driven away from the Levant by the Mamluks. In Constantinople, the emperor Andronikos II decided he could not do anything to save his empire anymore and so he just basically used funds to instead build lavish churches and monasteries only for the imperial family and while due to the pillaging of the Catalans, his people were starving and prices grew higher and higher with the shortage of food cause by it that no one could afford anything anymore.
The 1321-1328 Civil War and the Reign of Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328-1341)
As the Byzantine Empire was falling apart with the last remains of Asia Minor slipping away to various Turkish Beyliks including Osman’s and its treasury almost bankrupt, the old Andronikos II continued to rule incompetently allowing his officials to be corrupt.
In these hard times for the empire, one particular imperial official which was Andronikos II’s friend and imperial advisor or MesazonTheodore Metochites who was also a patron of the arts in fact even tortured people to pay up their taxes which he used to renovate the 6th century Church of Chora near Constantinople’s walls only to be used as his personal church and monastery, although it still holds some of the finest Byzantine style frescos of the Palaiologan Renaissance, which took place in this period as a kind of artistic Renaissance in Byzantium where humans mostly being religious figures depicted in frescos appeared to have more life and movement while architectural backgrounds too were introduced to frescos and mosaics, as prior to this Byzantine paintings basically just had a plain background making the subjects seem like they were floating in space, and here the frescos of Chora show one of the finest examples of this era’s art. Now, while it all seemed like there was no more hope for Byzantium as the empire and its people were suffering and only the nobility was prospering as seen with all their art and construction projects of churches and monasteries, only a miracle could save Byzantium from corruption and decay in the form of a strong leader who would usurp power and overthrow the incompetent Andronikos II and his corrupt court. This hero who would save Byzantium however would be a very unlikely one and this was another Andronikos Palaiologos, who was in fact Andronikos II’s grandson and son of the co-emperor Michael IX, and even more ironically the grandson Andronikos who was born in 1297 shared the same birthday as his grandfather the emperor who was born back in 1259, which was March 25. However, it is only fate that would turn the young Andronikos into this hero that would save the empire from falling apart as here in 1320, the young Andronikos was the stereotypical rich, popular, and arrogant young man addicted to partying, drinking, gambling, and women but in only one night, everything would change for the young “bad-boy” Andronikos. In this one night, Andronikos after losing a bet when gambling returned home with his younger brother Manuel forgetting to pay up his debts to the man he lost to, which was the father of one of Andronikos’ lovers, and so when walking back home, this man who Andronikos lost to suddenly had his guards placed above the roofs of Constantinople ordering them to kill Andronikos by firing arrows at him. Andronikos however immediately noticed the thugs were after him and so he ran quickly and turned into a street where they could no longer spot him, however his brother Manuel missed the turn and the thugs mistaking him for Andronikos shot Manuel with their arrows killing him. The young Andronikos however was devastated about his brother’s death that was not meant to happen, but when their father the retired co-emperor Michael IX who was in Thessaloniki got news of his son Manuel’s death, he suffered a heart attack and died as by this point, all the defeats he faced in battle made his mental health slowly deteriorate to the point that another misfortune could cause his death.
The emperor Andronikos II on the other hand was enraged when hearing of his grandson Manuel’s death, and not knowing the entire circumstances behind Manuel’s death, Andronikos II immediately blamed his eldest grandson Andronikos who he believed was a good for nothing drunk for ordering his brother’s death, thus Andonikos II quickly decided to disinherit his grandson Andronikos and remove him from the line of succession, instead replacing him with Andronikos II’s son Theodore who here was already the Lord of Montferrat in Italy. The young Andronikos however did not respond well to being disinherited by his grandfather, and so in Easter of 1321 the grandson Andronikos fled Constantinople to Adrianople with his best friend the young aristocrat John Kantakouzenos to raise an army declaring civil war against his grandfather, thus this is where everything turned around for young Andronikos. Here in Adrianople, a large number of the empire’s young men volunteered to join his cause as Andronikos promised that if he takes over the empire from his grandfather, he will reorganize the empire and bring forth a brighter future for Byzantium, thus what may have first seemed to be a selfish act which was that of Andronikos wanting to take the throne for himself after being disowned by his grandfather became a radical movement to save the empire from destroying itself through corruption and neglect very much present in the current administration of Andronikos II.
The army of the grandson Andronikos then immediately marched to Constantinople to overthrow his grandfather and at their arrival outside the Walls of Constantinople, Andronikos II was overwhelmed with its size and determination to overthrow him, and instead of fighting them back or surrendering, Andronikos II did the cowardly thing of not putting up a fight and agreeing to simply just make his grandson his co-emperor and split the empire between both of them with the grandfather ruling Constantinople and the last territories in Asia Minor and the grandson ruling Byzantine Thrace and Macedonia. The agreement between grandfather and grandson however did not last as in the following year 1322, Andronikos II’s corrupt advisors convinced him to resume the civil war with his grandson, however the moment the grandson Andronikos seized the suburbs of Constantinople, his grandfather once again asked for a truce, thus the conflict was once again at a halt.
Meanwhile, as the weakened and impoverished Byzantium was at a civil war, over in the Kingdom of Serbia their king Stefan Uros II Milutin died in 1321 after ruling for almost 40 years and in the following 1322 he was eventually succeeded by his son Stefan Decanski becoming King Stefan Uros III, who had already reconciled with father after both were in conflict with each other in the previous decade. In the 2nd Bulgarian Empire on the other hand, their tsar Theodore Svetoslav died in 1322 and was succeeded by his young son George Terter II but just a year later in 1323 George II died childless, thus he was succeeded as the Bulgarian tsar by his distant cousin Michael Shishman who when becoming tsar became known as Michael Asen III to emphasize his relation to the Asen Dynasty that founded the 2nd Bulgarian Empire back in 1185. By around 1324 as the exact year remains unclear, Osman the founder of the Ottoman Dynasty and now its sultan now ruling over much of Northwest Asia Minor died at an old age and was succeeded by his son Orhan who like his father was also an ambitious warrior that wanted to expand their lands.
Back in Byzantium, Andronikos II in 1325 formally crowned his grandson Andronikos as his co-emperor the same way Andronikos II crowned his son and young Andronikos’ father the late Michael IX many years ago, and due to the civil war, Byzantium ran out of peasants to work the field with many being recruited to the army of either the grandfather or grandson, and it is for this reason why the Byzantines no longer had a professional army by this point resorting to them hiring mercenaries, as many of the rich landowners of the countryside refused to let the peasants be recruited in the army as no one would be left anymore to farm the land.
In 1326, the grandson Andronikos was married to the young Italian noblewoman Anna of Savoy, the daughter of Amadeus V who was the Count of Savoy, a small state in Northern Italy which just like Montferrat was also in the region of Piedmont. Eventually, mistrust between the grandfather and grandson Andronikos would erupt again when both turned to different allies as the grandfather Andronikos II turned to his traditional ally which was Serbia here under the rule of Stefan III Decanski while the grandson Andronikos instead preferred an alliance with Bulgaria, and so in 1327 the civil war resumed to a more intense level as this time it involved the armies of both Balkan powers Serbia and Bulgaria fighting each other in Byzantine Macedonia backing either side of the civil war. The side of the grandson supported by Bulgaria soon enough was on the winning side and in early 1328 the city of Thessaloniki surrendered to and declared their support for the grandson, thus the victorious grandson and his best friend and now general John Kantakouzenos marched west to take over Constantinople itself. In May of 1328, the grandson Andronikos and John with only a small army bribed the guards at Constantinople’s walls and when successfully doing so, they stormed into the imperial Blachernae Palace where they forced the 69-year-old Andronikos II surrender.
Seeing his end was inevitable, the old and tired Andronikos II surrendered and abdicated, and thus he was put in chains and arrested, afterwards being forced to retire to where he really belonged to as a religious intellectual, which was a monastery in Constantinople wherein he would spend the rest of his days. The incompetent 46-year reign of Andronikos II thus ended with the undeserving emperor sent to monastery arrest while his friend the corrupt Theodore Metochites too was forced into monastery arrest ironically in the same Monastery of Chora which he had built, and here in 1328 began what would be a new age of revival for Byzantium under the grandson Andronikos becoming emperor or Basileus Andronikos III Palaiologos.
Becoming the sole ruler of the Byzantine Empire in 1328 at the age of 31, Andronikos III gave up his excessive lifestyle as a young man to become a strong and energetic emperor the way his great-grandfather Michael VIII was for the good of the empire in order to put it all back together again. As Andronikos III became emperor, he appointed his closest friend John Kantakouzenos who helped him win the civil war as the empire’s grand general or Megas Domestikos and just shortly after the beginning of his reign, Andronikos III and John put their funds into restoring the Byzantine fleet which Andronikos II decades ago had disbanded and sold for parts.
In the meantime, the previous civil war between Andronikos II and Andronikos III again exposed the last remains of Byzantine Asia Minor to Ottoman raids led by their sultan Orhan, thus the important Byzantine city of Prusa fell to the Ottomans in 1326 becoming the new capital of the Ottoman Turks renamed Bursa, then following it both cities of Nicaea and Nicomedia being the last important Byzantine cities there were besieged by Orhan. To relieve both Nicaea and Nicomedia from being under siege by the Ottomans, Andronikos III and John in 1329 led their troops into Asia Minor to expel Orhan’s Ottoman Turks, thus both forces met at the Battle of Pelekanon, which started off successful for the Byzantines until Andronikos III himself was wounded forcing him and John to flee the battle. At the end of the day, the Byzantine forces suffered a crushing defeat to the Ottomans as most of the Byzantine troops panicked thinking their emperor had been killed, although despite losing Andronikos escaped to safety and when recovering from his wounds, he asked his closest friend John to be his co-emperor if ever Andronikos would die any time soon from his wound, John however refused the offer believing it to be too much for him.
Although facing a major defeat to the Ottomans in battle, Andronikos III managed to score a few successes later on in 1329 by recovering the Aegean island of Chios from the Latins who since 1204 were still holding on to it after a short naval battle. Seeing that the Serbian kingdom under Stefan III Decanski was a growing threat, Andronikos III continued his alliance with the Bulgarian tsar Michael III planning a joint invasion of Serbia, which however only resulted in a major defeat for the Bulgarians against the Serbian forces at the Battle of Velbazhd in today’s Bulgaria where the Bulgarian tsar Michael III was in fact killed, and here the young Serbian prince Stefan Dusan, son of Stefan III proved his ability and fearlessness in battle. Due to the defeat of the Bulgarians to the Serbians, Andronikos III in 1330 turned against his ally Bulgaria by invading Bulgarian territory in Thrace seeing that Bulgaria was after all vulnerable after suffering a major defeat in battle. On the other hand, Andronikos III had the luck of being emperor in the year 1330, which was the 1000th year anniversary of the founding of Constantinople and therefore the Byzantine Empire itself by Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) in 330, thus making Andronikos III the only millennial Byzantine emperor in Byzantine history, however due to the lack of funds Byzantium had at this point combined with the wars they were fighting, there were no spectacular celebrations held in Constantinople in 1330, its 1000th year.
Over in Bulgaria meanwhile, with their tsar Michael III killed in battle his son Ivan Stefan succeeded him but only stayed in power for a year as due to his failure in stopping the Byzantine invasion in the south, Ivan Stefan lost a lot of his popularity and support, thus in 1331 Ivan Stefan was overthrown by his cousin the Bulgarian Despot of Lovech Ivan Alexander who then took over as the new Bulgarian tsar forcing Ivan Stefan to eventually flee to Italy, and Bulgaria’s new ruler Ivan Alexander would later turn out to be another one of Bulgaria’s greatest tsars. In Serbia on the other hand, despite their king Stefan III Decanski contributing to their victory over the Bulgarians at the Battle of Velbazhd, most of the nobility were discontented with his policies, thus they plotted to overthrow him in favor of his son Stefan Dusan who they saw as a more popular figure and so in 1331 after Dusan was proclaimed King of Serbia, his father was overthrown and later that year the deposed Stefan Decanski who fled was eventually captured by the army who switched their support to his son, thus Decaski was imprisoned and afterwards strangled to death by his son’s orders, and now Stefan IV Dusan at 23 became the King of Serbia. It also happened that in 1331, the Ottoman sultan Orhan finally managed to capture Nicaea from the Byzantines at least sparing its people by ordering them to evacuate, but from here on the city of Nicaea would never again be under Byzantine hands, while in the north now that Bulgaria once again had a strong ruler being Ivan Alexander, the gains Andronikos III made in Thrace were taken back by Bulgaria. In the following year 1332, Andronikos III decided to invade Bulgaria in retaliation for the Bulgarians invading Andronikos III’s newly gained lands in Thrace, and while preparing for his campaign against Bulgaria, Andronikos’s wife Anna of Savoy gave birth to their son in the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace, and this son was named John after Andronikos’ closest friend and general John Kantakouzenos who was with him in this campaign too. It also happened in 1332 that the former emperor and Andronikos III’s grandfather Andronikos II finally died as a monk after 4 years of monastery arrest in Constantinople at the age of 72.
Confident of victory, Andronikos III led his troops against the Bulgarians in 1332 but here he was defeated by the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander at the Battle of Rusokastro as Andronikos’s forces of only 3,000 were outnumbered by Ivan Alexander’s army of 11,000. Due to his defeat to the Bulgarians, Andronikos III had to formally cede what Ivan Alexander captured in Thrace to Bulgaria while Andronikos too had to marry off his young daughter Maria to Ivan Alexander’s young son Michael, and in 1332 as well both Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria and Stefan IV Dusan of Serbia sealed an alliance together after Dusan married Ivan Alexander’s sister Helena, which would then make the Serbian kingdom and 2nd Bulgarian Empire have a lasting and unbroken alliance. Andronikos III after losing Nicaea did not want Nicomedia to its north to suffer the same fate of falling to the Ottomans, and so Andronikos agreed to pay tribute to their sultan Orhan, though Andronikos too had accepted an invitation to join a military alliance that consisted of the Papacy, France, Venice, and the Kinghts of Rhodes to combat the Turkish pirates in the Aegean as these powers too in fact recognized the rule of Andronikos III as he proved to be a competent ruler, and here Andronikos was to provide a large percent of ships to assist these other powers.
Another highlight of Andronikos III’s reign was that later in 1332, the famous North African explorer Ibn Battuta travelled Constantinople as part of one of his many adventures that would take him to the distant parts of Africa and far east Asia, and although no Byzantine sources ever mentioned the meeting of Ibn Battuta and the emperor, Ibn Battuta in his memoirs mentions meeting Andronikos III in Constantinople. In 1333, Stephen Gabrielopoulos the ruler of Thessaly which had been its own state since 1268 after breaking away from the breakaway rebel state of the Despotate of Epirus had died without an heir, and with a succession crisis breaking out in Thessaly, Andronikos III taking advantage of the situation sent an army to invade Thessaly before the Despotate of Epirus could beat him, and at the end Andronikos III’s army achieved a great success when putting the entire region of Thessaly back under Byzantine imperial control, and by having Thessaly which had a large population and fertile land, the Byzantine revenue would grow again. In 1334, a traitor in the Byzantine army named Syrgiannes deserted to the Serbians and in Serbia he convinced their king Dusan to invade Byzantine Thessaly, however Andronikos III immediately got word of this and immediately marched to confront Dusan, but before facing off the Serbians in battle, Andronikos III had one of his commanders named Sphrantzes infiltrate the Serbian camp and kill Syrgiannes.
With the traitor Syrgiannes assassinated, Andronikos III and Dusan concluded a peace treaty, as Dusan here did not yet have any intention to invade Byzantium, but to formally conclude peace Andronikos III had to give up the city of Kastoria in Byzantine Macedonia to the Serbian kingdom. After settling peace with Serbia, Andronikos III managed to reclaim the last Latin held city of Asia Minor which was Phocaea as well as the island of Lesbos from the Latins, and a lot of this success was due to Andronikos making an additional alliance with Umur Bey, the Turkish Bey of Aydin who at this point was building for his state a powerful navy. The Ottomans however still ended up breaking their truce with Andronikos III who offered to pay them annual tribute and in 1337, their sultan Orhan deciding that he no longer wanted to accept tribute laid siege to Nicomedia again and successfully captured it, thus here marks the complete end of Byzantine rule in Asia Minor, which had been Byzantium’s heartland for about 7 centuries now.
Realizing that nothing much could be done anymore to restore Byzantine rule over Asia Minor, Andronikos III instead turned to focusing on Greece considering making it the new Byzantine heartland as he previously had already expanded Byzantine territory south by putting Thessaly back into Byzantine hands, and so in 1337 Andronikos III would do what he would be most remembered for, which was the conquest of the Despotate of Epirus itself. Lucky enough for the main Byzantine Empire, the Despotate of Epirus that had been an independent Byzantine state since Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204 had fallen into disorder as here in 1337 as well, the Italian descended Despot of Epirus John II Orsini was poisoned by his wife which made the wife the regent for their son the new Despot of Epirus Nikephoros II Orsini, and with this chaos Albanian tribesmen to their north raided and began occupying the territory of Epirus in Western Greece.
Taking advantage of the situation in Epirus rather than recovering Nicomedia from the Ottomans, Andronikos III together with John Kantakouzenos led their armies consisting of their Turkish allies from the Beylik of Aydin marching them west to invade Epirus itself in 1337, and after expelling the raiding Albanian tribesmen with such brutality and capturing Epirus’ capital Arta, the entire Despotate of Epirus was practically back again under Byzantine hands for the meantime as when Andronikos and John left leaving their troops behind to secure Epirus, the people of Epirus rebelled against being under Byzantine occupation. With the Epirote locals rebelling, Andronikos III and John in 1338 rushed back to Epirus to put the rebellion down and to do this, they deposed the young Despot of Epirus Nikephoros II sending him to Constantinople despite his mother attempting to negotiate to still keep him in power as a Byzantine vassal, while the people of Epirus too chose to submit to Andronikos III or else be brutally massacred by them like how the Albanian tribesmen were the previous year. Andronikos III however refused these terms as if Nikephoros II were still a vassal, Epirus would still not be completely under direct Byzantine control, thus Nikephoros II was sent to Constantinople as a hostage while in his place a Byzantine governor was instead appointed to be in charge of Epirus, therefore ending the existence of the Despotate of Epirus which now was fully annexed back to the Byzantine Empire. With all the wars and conquests taken care off, Andronikos III now turned to settling political issues in his empire as well as in strengthening their ties to the other powers of Europe and so in 1339, Andronikos III considered a Church Council to discuss terms about Church unity with the Catholic Church like his great-grandfather Michael VIII did, however this said council never came to happen.
Andronikos III however was more concerned in military conquests than politics while John was the one more concerned with reforming the government and now with both the entire provinces of Thessaly and Epirus under direct Byzantine rule again, Andronikos began laying his out plans for future campaigns to reconquer the rest of Greece including the Duchy of Athens that fell under the Catalans and the still surviving Latin Principality of Achaea in the Peloponnese in order to connect the far-flung Byzantine territory of the Morea by land to the main empire itself. With Andronikos III’s military campaigns finished off for now, he would also do one of the greatest reforms of the 14th century as the empire was now at peace, and this would be a complete reform of Byzantium’s justice system that had decayed into corruption becoming bribe based during Andronikos II’s 46-year reign, although most of this judicial reform was carried out by John Kantakouzenos.
Andronikos III and John basically carried out this new reform on the justice system by replacing the disorganized old system of many judges with 4 “Universal Justices” with 2 being Church officials and 2 being government officials based in Constantinople as to make things fair, there had to be an equal number of judges to settle two different kinds of issues as people would have issues either concerning religious or political matters. To make the Universal Justices more approachable not only in Constantinople but in other parts of the empire, Andronikos III appointed an additional 4 Universal Justices in Thessaloniki and another 4 in the Morea. The Universal Justices however had turned out to not all be completely free of corruption as soon enough, a total of 3 of these Universal Justices were found guilty of corruption and accepting bribes, and to solve this issue Andronikos III simply fired these 3 corrupt justices and replaced them with new ones that were not corrupt. Though Byzantium was once again a strong and stable state thanks to the energetic rule of Andronikos III as well as his reforms, the age-old cancer of religious schism that weakened the Byzantine state still remained unsolved as in the latter part of Andronikos III’s reign, a new religious teaching which later became a controversy broke out, and this new teaching was known as Hesychasm and the one to first introduce it during Andronikos III’s reign was Gregory Palamas, a Byzantine monk from Mt. Athos whose new teaching was a kind of mystical practice that only required chanting a single sentence multiple times as a way to meditate, zone out, and get closer to God. Many of Byzantium’s aristocrats true enough supported this new meditation teaching, however this teaching was opposed by the Italian theologian Barlaam of Calabria, and to settle this controversy Andronikos III in 1341 held a council at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople but at the end, when he could not rule whether Gregory or Barlaam’s side was right, the issue remained unresolved.
The Climax Part I- The Civil War of 1341-1347
With the capable and ambitious Andronikos III Palaiologos running the empire, it may have seemed that everything was once again going well for the Byzantines especially now that they once again had the rich provinces of Thessaly and Epirus, which once again brought revenue to the empire. However, this short-lived age of prosperity and stability the Byzantine Empire was having unfortunately did not last long, as here in June of 1341 just 4 days after Andronikos held the Church council in the Hagia Sophia to discuss the new Hesychast controversy which still remained unresolved, he caught a fever and suddenly died at the relatively young age of 44 after a reign of 13 years. Despite ruling strongly and energetically, Andronikos III did in fact suffer from chronic malaria, and little did he know that this would cause his untimely death, and no matter how effectively he ran the empire, he made one fatal mistake which was that he never named his successor believing he would still continue to rule for much longer. Andronikos III luckily enough had a son John who following Andronikos’ death became Emperor John V Palaiologos, however John was only 9-years-old and was never even proclaimed by his father as co-emperor, therefore making his succession a disputed one as the grand general John Kantakouzenos too had a claim to the throne as Andronikos at one point considered making him his co-emperor.
However, by custom an underaged ruler was to immediately succeed his father and rule under the regency of his mother if his mother were still alive, and this was exactly the case here as Andronikos III’s wife Empress Anna of Savoy was still alive and following the death of her husband she immediately assumed control of the empire as her son’s regent. John Kantakouzenos who despite not wanting to accept the role of co-emperor before now accepted it as he believed he was the more competent one to run the empire and carry out the good work of Andronikos III which he failed to finish due to his sudden death. Shortly after Andronikos III’s death, John rushed to the Byzantine Senate in Constantinople asking them to approve his claim as regent for Andronikos III’s young son John V saying that he had every right to do it being the late emperor’s most trusted general, and before the senate was about to rule that John was to be the empire’s regent the Patriarch of Constantinople John XIV Kalekas stormed in showing a letter of proof that the late emperor named him the patriarch as the guardian of Andronikos III’s son in case Andronikos died, however the letter the patriarch showed was forged. The senate however at the end still ruled that John Kantakouzenos was to be the empire’s regent though not co-emperor but little did he know that there was already a faction that rose up to oppose him as regent of the empire and this faction was led by the empress Anna of Savoy, the patriarch John XIV, and the wealthy and influential politician Alexios Apokaukos who was previously a secretary of Andronikos III and at this point possibly the richest man in the empire now with the tile of Megas Doux. Now it already seemed that in just something like a second after Andronikos III died, everything began to already fall apart for Byzantium as with a strong ruler dead, Byzantium’s neighbors took advantage of the situation by raiding into Byzantine territory, thus here King Stefan IV Dusan of Serbia in 1341 launched raids into Byzantine Macedonia, Tsar Ivan Alexander continued raiding into Byzantine Thrace, and Turkish pirates from the Beylik of Sarukhan in Western Asia Minor went as far as to raiding the Aegean coast of Thrace. When hearing that the empire’s borders were in danger, John Kantakouzenos left Constantinople to expel them and in so little time he managed to drive away the Bulgarian and Serbian armies as well as the Turkish pirate fleet, but the moment he left Constantinople the empress Anna with support from the ordinary people of Constantinople as well as the patriarch and Alexios Apokaukos declared Kantakouzenos a public enemy while officially crowning the young John V as emperor, thus beginning another tragedy of a civil war for Byzantium right when everything seemed to be so going well for them.
Now, the one to actually blame for bringing the empire down when it all seemed like everything was going well was Alexios Apokaukos and basically only for the petty reason that he hated John Kantakouzenos for being part of the old landed aristocracy as Alexios despite being rich was born a commoner, therefore he believed that aristocrats like John had no reason to be wealthy except by blood. Now that John Kantakouzenos was declared a public enemy by the empress, his relatives as well as the wealthy aristocrats that supported him were forced to leave Constantinople otherwise be imprisoned and have all their property confiscated by the empress. When Kantakouzenos arrived in the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace, his relatives and supporters were already there awaiting him after they were forced out of Constantinople and to save his reputation, they proclaimed him co-emperor against the regency of the empress and Alexios Apokaukos. Now unlike the civil war of 1321-1328 between Andronikos III and his grandfather Andronikos II which was a smaller conflict that was basically a revolution to overthrow an old and corrupt regime, this one beginning in 1341 was to be a much a larger and more devastating conflict that had deeper issues involved including those regarding society and religion.
In this conflict, Byzantium was split between the old landed aristocracy where John Kantakouzenos came from and their faction that backed John stood for more conservative and traditional Byzantine values which included Gregory Palamas’ Hesychast teaching which they saw as a sacred and mystical tradition, while the other faction in this conflict which backed the regency of the empress, patriarch, and Alexios consisted of the common people of the empire as well as merchants who stood for more progressive values and commerce including maintaining diplomatic ties with the Italian republics of Venice and Genoa, as well as Church Unity believing this new Hesychast teaching as heretical making them move more and more away from achieving Church unity. At the same time, the conservative and even racist aristocracy that backed John Kantakouzenos also distrusted the empress for being a Western Latin as she was Italian and in fact still Catholic as she never really converted to Orthodoxy when marrying Andronikos III, while they had also distrusted her son John V as emperor as not only was he a child but a half-Italian who was educated to have more Western European than Byzantine values, and ironically here at this point the world went the other way around with west seeming to be more progressive and Byzantium the one to be seen as more backwards. However, this conflict would begin with things going in favor for the faction of the empress as majority of the population being commoners backed the empress and regency and so did a lot of provincial governors while only Thessaloniki where most of the aristocrats lived as well as an independent Serbian magnate in Thrace named Hrelja backed Kantakouzenos. In early 1342, John Kantakouzenos together with his ally Hrelja marched to Thessaloniki to reinforce it with troops and defend it against the army of the regency but when arriving it was too late as an anti-aristocratic faction known as the zealots kicked out the aristocrats and took over the city in the name of the regency and the young emperor John V. As John and Hrelja were about to lay siege to Thessaloniki, the fleet of the regency sent by Alexios Apokaukos arrived forcing both of them to lift the siege and flee north, but John was still intent to continue the war despite lacking armies and so he decided to go to Serbia itself to seal a military alliance with their king Dusan, however on the way to Serbia Hrelja deserted John as Hrelja never really wanted to help John’s cause but instead to only gain some lands for himself with John’s help.
John Kantakouzenos in 1342 eventually arrived in Serbia to meet their king Dusan himself and at first Dusan was reluctant to help as here he was too busy growing the power of Serbia but when finding out that he could gain lands in Northern Greece by helping John, Dusan agreed and so together with John they launched an invasion of Byzantine Greece. John Kantakouzenos here would then end up betraying the memory of his late friend Andronikos III as here John desperately agreed to hand over to Serbia all the lands they conquered in Greece despite John and Andronikos III previously working so hard to put them back to Byzantine rule. Now with their alliance sealed, John assisted by an army of Serbian knights took over parts of Western Greece from the regency’s forces, but it was Dusan who was more successful here as he was able to capture all of Byzantine West Macedonia and parts of Albania. Worried about John Kantakouzenos’ progress, the empress wrote to Dusan to turn on John and send him to her in chains but Dusan refused believing that by being allied with John, he could gain a lot. Soon enough, both provinces of Epirus and Thessaly accepted the authority of John, although John’s base Didymoteicho soon enough was blockaded by the regency’s army which made John’s wife Irene who was there turn to asking for assistance from the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander and in return, Ivan Alexander sent an army to drive away the regency’s forces, and though the Bulgarians succeeded in doing so but not in capturing Didymoteicho which was after all part of their tsar’s plan. Rather than capturing Didymoteicho, the Bulgarian army instead turned to pillaging the farms around it despite their tsar not ordering them to do so.
When hearing that the surrounding area of his base city Didymoteicho was under attack by the Bulgarians that turned against them, John Kantakouzenos who was still in Macedonia revived his old alliance with the Turkish Bey of Aydin Umur Bey who now had built for his Beylik a powerful fleet.
In early 1343, Umur Bey after being asked for assistance by John gathered his fleet and sailed from Southwest Asia Minor up to Thrace, where they sailed up the Evros River, arrived outside Didymoteicho and expelled the pillaging Bulgarians, and after doing their part the Turks of Umur Bey returned to their Beylik in Asia Minor. John Kantakouzenos in 1343 however began to fall out with his ally Stefan IV Dusan as when they both were laying siege to the city of Berroia in Macedonia held by the regency’s forces, John after his and Dusan’s forces succeeded demanded the garrison there to surrender the city to him and not to Dusan, which made Dusan furious especially since he was in this war to gain cities in Byzantine Macedonia. Feeling insulted and betrayed by John, Dusan here abandoned his alliance with John at once making John his mortal enemy and instead Dusan declared his support for the empress and regency as he believed they were easier to manipulate.
Despite losing his alliance with Dusan, John still continued his attempt to besiege Thessaloniki and take it from the pro-regency zealots and lucky enough for him, his Turkish ally Umur Bey and his fleet came to his aid here and as John besieged Thessaloniki by land, the Turks with their fleet attacked from the sea. However, right when they laid siege to Thessaloniki, the regency’s fleet led by Alexios Apokaukos once again arrived coming to the rescue of Thessaloniki, but this time the massive size of Umur Bey’s fleet managed to scare Alexios forcing him to retreat from Thessaloniki, though at the end John still failed to capture Thessaloniki. John Kantakouzenos and Umur Bey then abandoned Thessaloniki and marched east into Thrace where a number of towns and cities switched to John’s faction, though in Macedonia Dusan was still left to freely capture towns and cities and so by this point, all of Byzantine Macedonia except for Thessaloniki fell under the rule of Dusan’s Serbia.
As John and his Turkish allied army led by Umur Bey progressed through Thrace, the Turks burned and looted the countryside as a way to weaken Constantinople’s economy as its grain supply came from Thrace, and this pillaging was part of the plan to ruin the position of the empress in Constantinople. The empress Anna of Savoy meanwhile was now in dangerous position as the pillaging of Thrace caused starvation in Constantinople and with so much funds spent for the war, the empress now had no choice but to pawn the empire’s crown jewels to the Republic of Venice to raise funds, and desperately wanting military assistance from the west, Anna did exactly what her great-grandfather-in-law Michael VIII Palaiologos did many years ago which was to consider submitting the Byzantine Church to the pope. Anna still being Catholic at heart then wrote to the pope that she will submit herself, her son the young emperor John V, the patriarch John XIV, and Alexios Apokaukos to the pope’s authority and to enforce this Church unity she also agreed to do what Michael VIII did back then which was to persecute all those who opposed the Church unity, especially those who practiced the Hesychast teaching which the pope and the Western Church totally saw as heretical and nonsense.
In 1344, the empress Anna then concluded an additional alliance with Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria as Ivan Alexander too just like Dusan never really cared about which side he supported as long as it benefited him, and although Ivan Alexander was given the city of Philippopolis by the Byzantines in exchange to help the empress’ side, Ivan Alexander was not of so much help. At the same time, the independent Bulgarian bandit leader Momchil in the Rhodope Mountains of Thrace who previously supported John Kantakouzenos’ faction defected to the empress’ faction and in early 1345, John Kantakouzenos together with Umur Bey leading their respective forces clashed with Momchil and his forces in the Rhodope Mountains defeating Momchil’s forces and even killing Momchil himself. John however grew tired of all the battles and so after this victory, he attempted to negotiate with the empress to stop the war by sending Franciscan monks to Constantinople to deliver his proposal to the empress, but when arriving in Constantinople the monks were arrogantly stopped by Alexios Apokaukos who now here was busy building a new prison to house all those who opposed the regency most of which being John’s relatives and supporters. The turning point in the civil war then came here in 1345 as when Alexios here was inspecting the prison he just built wherein he now locked up a number of political prisoners, he was suddenly lynched to death by these prisoners who claimed they did it in the name of John Kantakouzenos, thus with the death of Alexios the side of the regency fell apart now that there was no more strong man to lead them.
The death of Alexios then gave John Kantakouzenos the opportunity to march to Constantinople and take over it but before he was able to do so, his ally Umur Bey got word that the pope launched a Crusade against his Beylik to punish him for attacking Christian ships in the Aegean. As part of this Crusade against Umur’s Beylik of Aydin, the Hospitaller Knights and the fleet of the Republic of Venice attacked Umur’s territory forcing Umur in 1345 to rush back to defend his territory, leaving John alone once again. Desperate for an ally once more, John had no more choice but to turn to the most despised man by the Byzantines which was the Ottoman sultan Orhan who had for the longest time remained silent but had now possibly became the most powerful Turkish ruler of Asia Minor after he captured the last remains of Byzantine territory there.
The one who had been benefitting most in this pointless civil war the Byzantines had was neither the empress Anna of Savoy and the Palaiologos faction nor John Kantakouzenos and his faction but the Serbian king Stefan IV Dusan who after his alliance with John was severed became John’s most bitter enemy and when agreeing to help the empress’ side did not really help them but instead only did to his own benefit.
In 1345, Dusan managed to capture the last Byzantine held city in Macedonia which was Serres which stubbornly resisted Dusan’s siege, but with Serres falling into Serbian hands, all of Byzantine Macedonia was annexed to the Serbian Kingdom except for Thessaloniki which was left as a lone Byzantine city surrounded in a “Serbian sea”. With the city of Serres as well as all of Byzantine Macedonia falling to Dusan’s control, Dusan began to no longer call himself “king” but “Emperor of the Serbs, Romans (Greeks), and Albanians”, although in the Orthodox world which included Serbia, a ruler could not call himself emperor unless he was crowned by a patriarch, and so Dusan here having enough power to do so, he elevated the Serbian Archbishopric into the status of a Patriarchate making the Serbian archbishop into the first Patriarch of Serbia. The special day for Dusan then came in April of 1346 and this was when the unusually tall and strong King Stefan IV Uros Dusan Nemanjic who at 38 had long dark brown hair and large brown eyes was formally crowned by his newly appointed Patriarch of Serbia Joanikije as the first Emperor of Serbia with the Kingdom of Serbia was transformed into the Serbian Empire, and now Dusan would no longer rule as king but as “tsar” (emperor).
Dusan’s status as emperor was then recognized by the Archbishop of Ohrid, the Patriarch of Bulgaria, and his brother-in-law and ally Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria, and as Serbia’s first emperor Dusan gave his son Stefan Uros V the title of “King of Serbia” giving him rule over the original Serbian provinces known as “royal lands” before they expanded, while the newly conquered territories of Serbia in Macedonia and Albania were now known as “imperial lands” which were under Dusan’s direct control. Immediately after becoming emperor, Dusan already acted the way a Byzantine emperor did as not only did he wear the purple robes reserved for Byzantine emperors, but he also granted titles to his relatives and close generals, and most of these titles that he was granting were in fact those used in the Byzantium such as Despotes and Sebastokrator. At this point, it seemed that Serbia has gone such a long way as less than 200 years ago, when the Serbian state was founded by Dusan’s ancestor Stefan Nemanja (r. 1166-1196) the first Grand Prince of Serbia- who if you recall had a major role in chapter IX of this series- was just a relatively small principality in the Balkans. Back in Byzantium, John Kantakouzenos who now got military support from the Ottoman sultan Orhan who provided him with troops was now at the winning side of the civil war, and just a month after Dusan’s coronation as emperor, John having enough confidence had himself crowned as the senior emperor of Byzantium John VI Kantakouzenos in Adrianople.
To fully seal his alliance with Orhan, John VI then married off his daughter Theodora who was only 14 to Sultan Orhan who was already in his 60s at a lavish ceremony in the port town of Selymbria outside Constantinople, thus here Orhan himself would cross over to Europe making this the first time an Ottoman ruler would so, although Theodora would end up just being one of Orhan’s wives in his Harem in the Ottoman capital Bursa in Asia Minor. Meanwhile in Constantinople, a part of the Hagia Sophia’s ceiling collapsed which the empress Anna of Savoy and her son John V saw as a bad sign believing that there was no more chance they could win against John VI in the civil war, and true enough shortly after his coronation and the marriage of his daughter Theodora to Orhan, John VI and his forces including Ottoman allied troops provided by Orhan arrived outside Constantinople’s walls, but rather than storming into the city they would camp outside it for months as John VI still being proudly Byzantine did not want the Ottomans to storm into their capital and pillage it.
As the months passed, the population of Constantinople began to starve due to being blockaded but the empress still confident of her position had not conceded yet that she in fact tried to assassinate John VI twice in which both attempts failed. In early 1347, the empress’ faction now lost all support as the patriarch John XIV who was their loyal ally was deposed by the Kantakouzenos supporters and in the night of the same day the patriarch was deposed, John VI’s supporters tired of being blockaded opened the gates of Constantinople letting their emperor John VI and his forces except for their Ottoman allies to storm into Constantinople surrounding the Blachernae Palace where the empress and her son the young emperor John V were. In this story’s case to add some more detail to the scenario, as the 41-year-old empress Anna was at her bath still refusing to surrender, John VI’s forces had already stormed the Blachernae Palace demanding her to surrender at once, and here the now 14-year-old John V rushed to his mother who was still at her bath convincing her to surrender peacefully as nothing could be done anymore. The empress then immediately got out of her bath even if she was still soaking and after just covering herself up with a towel, she rushed out, but at least she had enough time to put on her nightgown before John VI would confront her and her son. The empress Anna of Savoy, her son John V, and the usurper John VI Kantakouzenos then confronted each other at the imperial Blachernae Palace’s main hall at the dead of night with the empress and her son in their sleeping outfits and John VI formally dressed in purple imperial robes, although surprisingly they all came to a peaceful agreement wherein it was agreed that John VI from here on would rule as Byzantium’s senior emperor for the next 10 years, and following this both John V Palaiologos and John VI Kantakouzenos would rule as equals, while the empress mother was to remain unharmed in Cosntantinople but still forced to stay out of politics.
To unite both Palaiologos and Kantakouzenos families however, John VI had to marry off his younger daughter Helena to John V who was just a year older than her unlike Helena’s sister Theodora who had to marry a much older man. With everything settled down, John VI was then formally crowned as senior emperor by the new patriarch, though not at the Hagia Sophia but at the church of the imperial palace, and now it looks like Byzantine history had totally repeated itself wherein a usurping general becomes senior emperor and the rightful emperor is demoted while also the demoted emperor was forced to marry the usurper’s daughter to legitimize the usurper’ claim, as if you remember from chapter VII of this series set in the 10th century the exact same thing happened, as back then in 920 the usurping general Romanos I Lekepenos who like John VI here demoted the rightful emperor which was John V who back then in 920 was Constantine VII of the Macedonian Dynasty, and John VI like Romanos I back then sidelined the rightful emperor’s mother and legitimized his claim by marrying off his daughter to the rightful emperor, and ironically both the daughter of Romanos I back then and of John VI here was named Helena.
Though both John VI and John V stayed in power, things were not yet fully resolved as mistrust still continued with both factions where the supporters of John V and his mother still believed John VI would one day completely remove John V from power and possibly even blind him while those who supported the Kantakouzenos faction wanted John V finished off for good not wanting John VI to share power with anyone. The one here who resented the young John V most was John VI’s son Matthew Kantakouzenos who resented his new brother-in-law John V believing that his father preferred John V more as John VI allowed John V to be his co-emperor rather than giving the position to Matthew, instead Matthew was only given some land in Thrace to rule. Though John VI was already the senior emperor, it did not mean much as first of all the crown placed on his head was no longer the original pure gold one as it had been pawned by the empress to Venice, instead he was crowned with a cheaper gold crown, and in his coronation dinner, the food was no longer served in expensive gold and silver plates but in ceramic ones as the empress had to sell these gold and silver plates off too in order to continue the civil war even if her side lost at the end.
The Climax Part II- Black Death and Dusan’s Conquest of Byzantium (1347-1355)
The moment John VI Kantakouzenos became senior emperor of Byzantium, everything would turn around for them as here in 1347, Byzantium now already weakened from the civil war was to face a double disaster, the first being the civil war of course but what was to follow it was even worse. This new disaster that would further bring Byzantium to its knees was the plague of Black Death or also known as the “Bubonic Plague” which was said to have originated in the steppes of Central Asia as a result of climate change that had dried up the grasslands there forcing rodents there to flee bringing the pests with them, and apparently this plague had already spread across India and China in the early 1340s, though in 1347 this plague would first arrive in Europe through Genoese ships coming from their trading port of Theodosia (also known as Kaffa) in the Crimea, in which the people there had already been infected as previously the Mongol army of the Golden Horde besieged it by catapulting bodies of those who had died from this plague. Now one of the first ports these Genoese ships carrying the plague rats was Constantinople and here in 1347, just shortly after John VI became senior emperor, people began falling ill and dying. Among the many in Constantinople who died from the plague of Black Death was the emperor John VI’s youngest son Andronikos who was only a young child as children were in fact the most vulnerable to the plague given the high child mortality rate back then. Though nothing much is recorded about the Black Death hitting Byzantium, Byzantine historians of this time such as Nikephoros Gregoras (1295-1360) and John VI himself who would write about it later on describing the symptoms of the plague which included swelling occurring all over peoples’ bodies as a result of the flea bites, followed by fever, vomiting of blood, hallucinations, and death occurring 2-7 days after contracting the plague.
Of course, this was not the first time the Byzantines faced this kind of pandemic being a Bubonic Plague as 800 years earlier, this exact same plague happened which was the Plague of Justinian in 542 if you recall from chapter III of this series wherein the emperor Justinian I the Great himself was a victim of the plague but survived it, and just like 800 years ago, the plague of Black Death in 1347 killed thousands each day at the end killing off 2/3 of Constantinople population regardless of age, gender, or social class. The plague too had hit the other parts of what remained of the empire such as the cities of Thessaloniki and Adrianople despite not so much being recorded about the plague such as the death toll in those parts, although the region of the Morea in Southern Greece was not as much affected due to its remoteness.
The Byzantines however despite the state of ruin their empire was in had a tradition of advanced medical practice as they had operational hospitals such as the Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople and experienced doctors, although this was still not enough to stop the high death toll, while most people without modern science existing still did not know what was the cause of this plague, and monks and nuns were the ones who were most at risk in getting the plague and dying as they were the ones taking care of the patients.
The one that would be hit worse by the plague however would be the kingdoms of Western Europe, although since this story mainly focuses on Byzantium and the world around them, I would not go too much in detail discussing about how the plague spread across the rest of Europe and how people reacted to it, but to put it short the rest of Europe was hit much worse that thousands kept dying each day to the point that there were no longer enough coffins and even spaces to bury the dead that those who died from the plague had to be dumped in rivers which even made things worse by contaminating the rivers which people drank from.
People in the west even at this point still being more superstitious than the Byzantines came up with all kinds of absurd cures including whipping themselves and burning Jews alive who they suspected of starting the plague. The plague would go on for the next 4 years across Europe going as far as to Scotland, Scandinavia, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, while North Africa and the Middle East were badly hit as well, although at the end the most affected were the port cities as they were part of the main shipping routes, and by 1351 the Black Death killed off 75-80% of the population of France and Spain combined, 40% of Egypt’s, and 20% of England and Germany’s. The biggest change caused by Black Death was the dissolution of the centuries old feudal system in Europe as with countless peasants dying, peasants became of such high value that they would no longer be forced to farm the lands of their feudal lords but would instead be travelling across Europe to places where they were in demand especially in parts where almost the entire peasant population was wiped out. The ones less affected by the Plague of Black Death on the other hand were the Ottomans in Asia Minor and Dusan’s Serbian Empire, although Ivan Alexander’s Bulgaria too was affected by the plague. With the plague wiping out most of the Byzantine soldiers in Thessaly and Epirus, Dusan in 1348 considering that the plague hardly affected his empire used the situation in Byzantium to his advantage and marched south conquering both Thessaly and Epirus in one swift campaign, and after taking these provinces Dusan appointed his brother Simeon Uros as the governor of Epirus, his general Preljub as the governor of Thessaly, and his other general Vojin as the governor of Macedonia which Dusan conquered prior to becoming emperor.
With both Thessaly and Epirus under the Serbian Empire, Stefan IV Dusan was now the undisputed most powerful man of the Balkans with an empire stretching north to south from the Danube River to the Gulf of Corinth in Greece, and west to east from the Adriatic and Ionian Seas to the Aegean Sea and as emperor, he led Serbia into a golden age making it equivalent to what Byzantium was in imperial power and culture, and Dusan to promote his power and influence in 1349 began a codification of laws for Serbia known as Dusan’s Code, just as Byzantium’s most influential emperor Justinian I the Great 800 years earlier did making the Corpus Juris Civilis, and quite coincidentally Serbia’s capital of Skopje where Dusan resided was very close to the now ruined town Justinian I was born in 482 as the peasant Flavius Petrus Sabbatius.
Now that Dusan had conquered both Thessaly and Epirus which was followed by his conquest of the Chalcidice Peninsula from the Byzantines, Dusan began to plan out his ultimate goal of conquering Constantinople which was historically true, but the only problem here was that Serbia did not have a fleet large and strong enough do so, therefore Dusan would have to make an alliance with the Republic of Venice to provide him a fleet. In the meantime, John VI Kantakouzenos in 1348 was deeply saddened at the death of his old ally and friend Umur Bey who had been killed in battle against the Venetian fleet and Knights of Rhodes in their Crusade against him, but the even worse part for John VI was that his empire was in serious financial straits as a result of first the civil war and then Black Death which by killing off more than half of Constantinople’s population and a lot of the empire’s as a whole, the imperial revenue had dried out now that there were less people to pay taxes, and the worst part here was Genoa as considering that Byzantium chose to ally with them to recover Constantinople from the Latins back in 1261, Genoa ended up benefitting more as 87% of revenue made from ships passing through the Bosporus were to go to Genoa instead of Byzantium. Needing more revenue for Byzantium in order for it to survive especially since they only earned 13% from customs, John VI in 1349 decided to regain full control of the customs by discontinuing in paying Genoa 87% of it, but at the end this only provoked a small war between Byzantium and Genoa. Being provoked by John VI wanting to cancel their agreement, the Genoese in Constantinople set fire to the ships Andronikos III had previously restored thus again depriving the Byzantines of fleet, but in retaliation Byzantine soldiers in Constantinople set fire to the Genoese held Galata Quarter burning their warehouses as well. At the end, a peace agreement was again settled between Byzantium and Genoa wherein the Genoese agreed to never cause harm to the Byzantines again as long as the Byzantines leave them alone forever in Galata.
In 1350, as Dusan marched northwest to campaign against the Bosnian Principality which he intended to conquer and annex to Serbia, John VI taking advantage of the absence of Serbian troops in Macedonia who left to join Dusan’s campaign marched to Macedonia to take it back for Byzantium, and true enough John VI was able to take back the cities of Berroia and Vodena from the Serbians. Following his successes, John VI proceeded to Thessaloniki and at this point the anti-aristocratic zealots that held it since 1342 lost influence and control of the city, therefore welcoming John VI in with open arms accepting him as their emperor, while John VI as well had his loyalist Patriarch of Constantinople Kallistos excommunicate Dusan out of revenge. Dusan after finishing his campaign against Bosnia which did not result in much success anyway returned to Macedonia taking back the lands John VI had just reconquered for the Byzantines, again leaving Thessaloniki surrounded by a sea of Serbian territory.
Though it never came to happen in real history, in this story’s case the Republic of Venice in 1351 would finally decide in agreeing to provide Dusan with a fleet as here Venice and Genoa were at war with each other again, and with Genoa and Byzantium allies again, Venice now had a reason to attack Constantinople while Dusan here only exploited this conflict to his advantage. In real history, the Venetians although being in good terms with Dusan’s Serbia did not agree to an alliance to take Constantinople as Venice did not want to be obliged to Serbia, but here Venice would not only want to join Dusan’s cause as they were at war with Genoa, but they had been inspired by Dusan’s war against the Bosnians and against John VI’s Byzantium, thus in 1351 Dusan and Venice would formally conclude an alliance in which Venice would take over the Galata Quarter from Genoa if Dusan took over Constantinople.
It also happened in 1351 that John VI returned the favor to the nobility that supported him in the civil war by holding a Church Council in Constantinople wherein John VI himself approved and fully legalized the mystical Hesychast teaching that was once considered heresy, therefore finally declaring it Orthodox which made him more popular with Byzantium’s conservative aristocracy, though his son-in-law and junior co-emperor John V despite not showing his feeling strongly opposed it due to his progressive upbringing. In 1351 as well, the empress Anna of Savoy who had remained out of politics since 1347 decided to leave Constantinople for good to set herself up in Thessaloniki wherein she would still feel like an actual empress as there she would control the mints, while her son the co-emperor John V had already reached adulthood which made him no longer need his mother as his regent. In the meantime, John VI I 1349 had appointed his other son Manuel Kantakouzenos as the first Despot of the Morea therefore setting himself up in the city Mystras along the mountains slopes above Ancient Sparta which here would grow into a thriving cultural and educational center as mentioned earlier, though in Thrace John VI’s other son Matthew would have to share rule over it with is brother-in-law the co-emperor John V, which made mistrust between them grow even more, therefore leading to the civil war between the Kantakouzenos and Palaiologos factions to resume in 1352. At this point, John VI would completely turn against his son-in-law he was supposed to by backing his son Matthew against John V.
John VI then would turn to the Ottoman sultan Orhan for military support, and Orhan still continuing his alliance to John VI as he was still married to John VI’s daughter Theodora would support John VI by sending an army of 10,000 Turks led by his son from a previous marriage the Turkish general Suleiman Pasha. In real history, Dusan also took part in this civil war by backing John V thus Dusan would send an army of 4,000 Serbian cavalrymen to assist John V while Venice allied with both young John V and Dusan would also send a few soldiers to assist John V’s side. In this story’s case however, Dusan would completely exploit the situation of Byzantium by literally launching an invasion of Constantinople himself being transported by the fleet provided by Venice while his forces and Byzantine ally John V would battle John VI’s forces and Ottoman forces that had been ferried across the Dardanelles into Europe at a land battle outside the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace which was John V’s birthplace.
The real history Battle of Didymoteicho in 1352 between John V’s forces with Serbian and Venetian allies against Matthew Kantakouzenos’ forces with Ottoman allies too would happen as well, and here the young John V himself with long and dark wavy hair dressed in golden imperial armor would personally lead his forces including his Serbian and Venetian allies outside the city he was born in 20 years earlier. In the meantime- but in this story’s case only- the same would happen as in 1204 where a large Venetian fleet would arrive outside Constantinople’s walls, except unlike in the 4th Crusade of 1204 where the Venetian fleet carried an army of Latins, the Venetians here would carry an army of Serbians including knights dressed in the full plate armor of this era and their emperor Dusan himself all armored up too. Dusan and his army here unlike the 4th Crusade back then would not really have any intention to sack Constantinople but rather to instead revive Byzantium and save it from decaying, and what Dusan really came to Constantinople with an army for was to capture their emperor John VI who Dusan saw as a traitor for turning against him many years ago in the civil war. The Venetians knowing Constantinople’s weak point being the Galata Quarter and the sea walls would immediately attack the walls of the Galata Quarter like they did when the 4th Crusade first arrived in 1203, and here unsurprisingly considering how weak and outnumbered the Byzantine forces were with most killed off by the plague and civil war, the people of the Galata Quarter would easily give up and let Dusan and his Serbians with their Venetian allies in as well.
Back outside Didymoteicho in Thrace, the forces of John V and Matthew with their respective allies would clash in an intense and brutal battle in the rain with the Ottoman light infantry throwing their short spears and firing their crossbows at heavily armed and armored Serbian knights only for the knights to kick the Ottoman soldiers to the muddy ground brutally beating up to death while the few Venetian soldiers on the other hand would also fire crossbows on the Ottoman’s and Matthew’s few Byzantine forces. At the end however, the Serbian cavalry and Venetians despite their strength would still lose as they did in real history due to their smaller numbers compared to the Ottomans here who had an army of 10,000, though in this story’s case the side of Matthew and his Ottoman allies would end up being on the winning side when an Ottoman archer would shoot John V himself at the back with an arrow, while another Ottoman soldier would further injure John V by cutting his hand with a sword causing John V’s Serbian and Venetian allies to flee the battle in panic.
Though Matthew’s side would appear to be winning here, Matthew in this story’s case would be killed in this battle when a Serbian knight would run a lance through his chest, impaling and killing him, though in real history with Matthew winning it he still remained alive, while John V not being injured would flee to the Aegean island of Tenedos where he would plot to take over the throne for himself with the help of Venice, though here John V when injured would be dragged away by a Serbian soldier. Back in Constantinople, Dusan’s army would meet little resistance from the defending Byzantine troops while the people especially the commoners tired of the aristocracy and John VI’s failure to keep the empire alive and his conservative ways that was only bring them backwards would welcome Dusan with open arms accepting him as their emperor as these people wanted a stronger ruler that would lead their empire again to prosperity the way Andronikos III did before.
Most of the people, now being fed up with John VI would carry him out of the palace and drag him with force to the Galata Quarter to confront the angry Dusan himself. In Thrace, the Ottomans led by Suleiman Pasha after winning their victory would like in real history mindlessly pillage Thrace, although in real history their pillaging came to an end when John VI gave them a small fortress in Thrace to settle in, though here this would not be the case as John VI was already deposed by Dusan therefore allowing the Ottoman Turks to nonstop their mindless pillaging. John VI being badly beaten up by his people would then see Dusan again after about 10 years, and here the very angry Dusan would then blind the 60-year-old John VI at the spot for betraying him, afterwards sending John VI to Serbia to be imprisoned for life. Dusan would then go full circle here once again set foot in Constantinople, the city he spent some of his childhood years in as an exile which he grew to admire, thus he would take over the Blachernae Palace as the Byzantine-Serbian emperor although still keeping John VI’s staff and soldiers at the city who had defected to Dusan as well, thus Dusan would now allow his ally John V who had been wounded in battle to be brought to Serbia to live as a hostage as Dusan intended his son Uros V to succeed him as Byzantine emperor as well.
In this story’s case, the Serbian emperor Stefan IV Dusan would take over the Byzantine throne in 1352 after blinding the unpopular John VI, and following this Dusan would depose the Patriarch of Constantinople Kallistos who had excommunicated him back in 1350, replacing him as Patriarch of Constantinople with the Serbian patriarch Joanikije, while the Venetians who helped Dusan take Constantinople were given the entire Galata Quarter as well as the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Tenedos. Now Dusan’s territory would consist of not only all of Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Thessaly, and Epirus but all of Thrace itself including Constantinople, while Thessaloniki too would eventually surrender to him, however the Morea in Southern Greece which remained disconnected by land from the main empire here under its despot John VI’s son Manuel would resist against Dusan refusing to be under Serbian rule, therefore the Despotate of the Morea would be its own independent state, although Dusan would start making attempts to capture the Morea.
With the Ottoman Turks here continuing their pillaging of Thrace, Dusan in 1352 as well would first march out of Constantinople with his knights to expel the Turks led by Suleiman Pasha, and with his large army and their strength, the Turks would flee in fear at the site of the massive sized Dusan and his troops to the coast using any boat they could find to retreat home to Asia Minor. Now what would be a major change in history here if Dusan took over the Byzantine Empire would be that the Ottoman Turks which only crossed into Europe because of assisting John VI’s side in the 1352 civil war would be driven away from Europe long before they could settle in it, as in real history without Dusan taking over Byzantine Thrace, the reigning emperor John VI allowed the Turks to stay in Thrace as part of his alliance with their sultan Orhan. In real history, John V after his defeat would escape to Tenedos where in 1353, he would plot to take back the throne from his father-in-law John VI which would never happen, and John VI when hearing about this now angrier than ever being fed up with his son-in-law he was supposed to protect decided to remove John V from the succession and instead replacing him with his son Matthew even crowning Matthew as co-emperor. In this story however none of this would happen, as John VI had already been blinded and imprisoned in Serbia, Matthew killed in battle by the Serbians, and the injured John V being brought to the Serbian capital Skopje as a hostage, and here John V in Skopje would get close to Dusan’s son Uros V.
Now in March of 1354, a great earthquake struck the Gallipoli Peninsula in Thrace to the point of destroying the city of Gallipoli forcing its Byzantine Greek population to flee, and in real history with the Ottomans under Suleiman Pasha already in Thrace, they would take advantage of the people fleeing Gallipoli as well as the city being in ruins, and settle in it themselves even relocating Turks from Asia Minor there, however in this story with Dusan already expelling the few Turks from Thrace, the Turks informally settling in the ruined city of Gallipoli would not happen and instead Dusan would have Gallipoli rebuilt and repopulated with Serbs. In real history, John VI when finding out that the Ottomans had settled in Gallipoli, he tried to convince them to leave even agreeing to bribe Orhan by paying him to vacate his people from it, but Orhan was true enough intent to keep it as it would begin his long-awaited dream of expanding Ottoman territory into Europe, and would refuse surrendering Gallipoli back to the Byzantines with the excuse that he did not take Gallipoli by force but it was given to him by God through the earthquake. The loss of Gallipoli to the Ottomans then triggered riots in Constantinople as the people were now in fear especially since the Ottomans were already at their backyard, therefore the people including John VI’s own loyalists would riot against him demanding John V to return to power.
In this story however, Constantinople under Dusan would be at peace in 1354 as the entire Thrace with the Ottomans gone was already secured, allowing Dusan to go back and forth from Constantinople to Serbia, while here Dusan would be able to complete his code of laws and construct a number of churches and monasteries in Serbia while he in this story being in charge of Constantinople would also renovate the ruined churches and monasteries there, and at the end the results would still look the same as after all, the Serbians based most of their architecture and art styles on that of the Byzantines. Dusan being emperor was also best known for constructing monasteries in Serbia, while he even founded monasteries as far as Jerusalem and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt which he settled it with Serbian monks, while his brother-in-law and ally Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria did the same in Bulgaria as well despite Bulgaria being pressured by Hungary in the north and facing an economic crisis caused by Black Death. Back in real history, John V later in 1354 was able to reclaim Constantinople from his father-in-law by coming across an unlikely ally which was the Genoese pirate Francesco Gattilusio who arrived at John V’s base of Tenedos earlier that year and being fluent in Italian due to his Italian mother, John V easily sealed a deal with the pirate Francesco and with only a small army consisting of Francesco’s pirate crew, they arrived at the dead of night outside Constantinople’s walls in December of 1354.
Francesco here came up with a trick to let them in telling the guards they needed to enter to get spare parts claiming one of their ships broke down, thus the moment they were let into the city, Francesco’s pirates gained control of the walls while the people woke up at the dead of night rioting in favor of John V while John VI at the palace the next day having no more support left was forced to abdicate in favor of his son-in-law. By the time the year 1355 began, John V at 22 was the sole ruler of the empire while his father-in-law John VI retired to become a monk in the Morea where his son Manuel was as its governor, although Matthew Kantakouzenos still did not give up his claim and so the conflict between him and John V still continued for the next 2 years, while for his support the pirate Francesco would be given the island of Lesbos by John V to rule as its vassal lord paying tribute to John V, being given John V’s sister Maria in marriage as well.
In this story then John V’s return to power in December of 1354 would not happen while Lesbos too would not fall under the Genoese pirate Francesco who in no way would come to the picture here with John V being in Serbia the whole time, instead the Byzantine Empire now united with Serbia would again be a major Balkan power with its economy growing again, although once again this age of peace and prosperity would not last long enough as in December of 1355, the emperor Dusan like in real history would suddenly die at the relatively young age of 47 wherein here he would not be able to achieve his conquest of the Morea from Manuel Kantakouzenos. Just like in real history he would be succeeded by his son Uros V who being young and unprepared would not have the strength of his father to keep his large empire intact, which means that in this story’s case with Dusan’s sudden death in 1355, Constantinople and Thrace would become its own independent Byzantine state again with John V returning from Serbia to be Byzantine emperor once more, although no matter how reduced Byzantine territory would become here, one major obstacle for them would have already been taken care of which were the Ottoman Turks as in real history with John V coming back to power, the Ottomans had already crossed into Thrace beginning their expansion, but here thanks to Dusan expelling them back to Asia Minor, John V back in power would no longer have to face the inevitable expansion of the Ottomans into Europe therefore he would continue to rule out the rest of his years in peace.
The Epilogue (in real history)
The rest of the events following 1355 would now just be told in a fast-tracked way, so basically the Serbian emperor Stefan Uros IV Dusan suddenly died in 1355 without completing his objective of capturing Constantinople and reviving the Byzantine Empire to its old glory and replacing it as a Serbian power. Rather than Dusan taking over, John V returned to power in December of 1354 while his father-in-law the senior emperor John VI Kantakouzenos was forced to abdicate and become a monk residing in the Morea in Southern Greece where his son Manuel was its despot, though despite already being an old man here, John VI would continue to live being a monk until his death in 1383 at the age of 91, and as a monk he would write an autobiography of his life as emperor as well as a history of the time he lived in, which gives us up to this day an account of events that happened in 14th century Byzantium including the 1341-1347 Civil War and Black Death through John VI’s eyes.
As for John V, the rest of his story after his return to power by 1355 was mostly a disappointing one as the Byzantium he came to rule was impoverished and already at a total breaking point while outbreaks of Black Death kept coming back every now and then, not to mention that their territory here only consisted of Constantinople, Thrace, Thessaloniki, a small number of islands in the Aegean, and the Morea, therefore an attempt to revive Byzantium to its old glory the way John V’s father Andronikos III did before was no longer possible. On the other hand, with the Ottomans having already settled in Gallipoli since 1354 due to the earthquake, their expansion in the Balkans had already begun and neither Byzantium which was now in economic ruin nor the Serbian Empire now under Dusan’s son Uros V who was a weak ruler unable to hold together the large empire his father left behind for him could stop the gradual advance of the Ottomans that began to slowly conquer the cities in the Balkans. On the other hand, John V who had taken back the throne was able to deal with the challenger to his authority which was his brother-in-law Matthew Kantakouzenos by using his alliance with Serbia as in 1356 a Serbian army led by the late Dusan’s trusted general and Governor of Macedonia Vojin defeated Matthew in battle capturing him as well while John V in 1357 paid Matthew’s ransom for him to be released from the Serbians as Matthew was supposed to face trial in Byzantium. Matthew however at the end did not face real punishment as all he had to do was renounce his claim to the throne, and when he finally did, he was sent to the Morea to retire along with his retired father the former emperor John VI and his brother Manuel who was its despot. Though with the conflict of Matthew settled, the Ottomans were left to freely conquer the Balkans that by 1363, the city of Adrianople itself which was the closest major city to Constantinople fell under Ottoman rule which in 1365 in fact even became the Ottomans’ new capital being renamed as “Edirne”. In the meantime, the Ottoman sultan Orhan had died in 1362 at the age of 80 and since his eldest son Suleiman Pasha who previously led the first wave of Ottoman expansion into Europe had died from a hunting accident in 1357, Orhan would be succeeded by his younger son and Suleiman’s younger brother Murad I who just like his father was another ambitious ruler, and it was Murad I who in 1365 moved the Ottoman capital from Bursa in Asia Minor to Edirne in Thrace.
It was actually in fact under Murad I when the Ottoman Sultanate was established when the capital was moved to Edirne (Adrianople) as here the Ottomans formally adopted the bureaucratic and military systems of the Byzantines, while it was also under Murad I when the famous Janissary units of the Ottoman army were introduced, which were soldiers recruited from the Christian lands in the Balkans they had conquered including Greece and Serbia who being recruited as boys and from early age trained to be fierce and loyal soldiers that were forbidden to marry as their duty was only to their sultan and empire. Now John V himself with his limited troops and resources could not stop the advance of the Ottomans into the Balkans, but luckily John V through his Italian mother Anna of Savoy had connections with Western Europe, and although Anna died in 1365 in Thessaloniki, her relatives from Savoy in Italy came to Byzantium’s aid in 1366 in a Crusade against the Ottomans wherein John V’s new brother-in-law and loyal ally the Lord of Lesbos and former pirate Francesco Gattilusio assisted the Savoy army in driving the Ottomans away from Gallipoli, but at the end the attempt was not all successful as the Ottomans had already expanded north and were already targeting the Serbian and Bulgarian Empires. Though being mostly unsuccessful in keeping Byzantium a strong state, John V was not overall a weak leader although he lacked some toughness therefore making diplomacy his only tool to keep his empire alive and this would exactly be the case here in 1366 as well, as when in need for military assistance from the more powerful kingdoms of Europe, John V himself traveled to the Kingdom of Hungary to ask from its king Louis I the Great for an army to help him drive away the Ottomans in the Balkans.
John V however when arriving in the Hungarian capital Buda did something rather embarrassing which was not getting off his horse while the Hungarian king Louis I approached John by foot, therefore Louis thinking John was arrogant only agreed to help John’s Byzantium if John was to convert his empire to Catholicism, which John saw as something too much to do. Eventually, John V realized that it was about time anyway to convert his empire to Catholicism as due to being brought up by his mother with Western values, John thought that it was only right to submit to Latin Catholicism believing Byzantine Orthodoxy and its beliefs were already becoming outdated.
In 1369, after eventually being invited to Rome by the pope Urban V himself, John V set sail from Constantinople to Rome where he would formally convert to Catholicism, however at the end it was only John V that converted as his people still being proudly Orthodox and even those who were pro-Western still refused to convert as Orthodoxy was already deeply set in their identity, therefore this would be another failed attempt in getting support from the more powerful west. John V by 1371 once again returned to Constantinople empty handed, and even worse when returning home, he was held in Venice as a debtor not being allowed to leave unless he paid up, and without having much money to pay, the Venetians only allowed John to leave if he surrendered the Aegean island of Tenedos to them, and when finally doing so John was allowed to leave even taking back the crown jewels that his mother pawned to them more than 20 years ago during the civil war. It also happened in 1371 that the short-lived Serbian Empire established by Dusan died out when its emperor Dusan’s son Uros V died without an heir, and due to this the once powerful Serbian Empire was divided into various states ruled by different powerful magnates, and in the 2nd Bulgarian Empire Ivan Alexander their last powerful tsar died as well in 1371 at the age of 70, and with Bulgaria already weakened at the time of his death it was divided between his 2 sons Ivan Shishman and Ivan Sratsimir, thus both Serbia and Bulgaria here would be more and more vulnerable to fall under the rule of the rapidly expanding Ottomans.
The Ottomans too would gain further success in 1371 when expanding west and winning a major victory over the now divided and disorganized Serbians at the Battle of the Maritsa where the Ottomans with only 800 men would crush an army of 50,000 Serbians by surprise while the Serbian troops were asleep by the Maritsa River which then turned red with their blood. This battle then marked the end of an independent Serbia, and with this Ottoman victory John V ruling what was left of Byzantium more and more feared for his survival, thus in 1372 John V was left with no choice but to do the most humiliating thing submitting Byzantium as a vassal of Murad I’s Ottoman Empire to ensure its survival.
Basically, all John V needed to do here was to pay annual tribute to Murad I at Edirne, have his Byzantine troops take part in the Ottoman conquests, and provide Murad I with young Byzantine men who were to serve as Ottoman Janissaries, and to sum it up, just do whatever Murad told him to do. The Byzantine people on the other hand were fine with John V submitting them as an Ottoman vassal as long as their empire stayed alive, but the one who opposed the idea of Byzantium being a vassal the most was John V’s eldest son and co-emperor Andronikos who being unable to accept the humiliation of his empire being an Ottoman vassal and his father being bullied by the Ottoman sultan rebelled against his father’s rule in 1373 claiming that his father was weak and if Andronikos took over the throne, he would rule strongly, while at the same time Murad’s son Savci Bey joined forces with Andronikos with both rebelling against their respective fathers. Later in 1373, both rebellions of Andronikos and Savci Bey were crushed by their fathers while Murad I brutally blinded his son leading to his death, thus Murad also asked John V who was his loyal vassal to do the same to his son. John V however only faked Andronikos’ blinding by pouring hot vinegar into his eyes as a way to show Murad that he actually did it, though as punishment John V locked up his son Andronikos as well as Andronikos’ wife Keratsa who was the daughter of the late Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander and their young son in prison, while John V also stripped Andronikos of his title as co-emperor and instead appointed his younger son Manuel as his new co-emperor.
At the same time, Venice and Genoa again went to war with each other using the conflict between John V and his son Andronikos as their proxy war and 3 years later in 1376 Genoa won the war, thus the Genoese in Constantinople’s Galata Quarter broke Andronikos, his wife, and son out of prison. Andronikos then became Emperor Andronikos IV Palaiologos and now taking the throne, he overthrew and locked his father up in prison together with Andronikos’ two brothers Manuel and Theodore, thus here John V would lose the throne for the second time in his life, although as emperor Andronikos IV would turn out to only be a puppet of the Genoese and in return for Genoa helping him, he handed them over the island of Tenedos while he also gave Gallipoli back to the Ottomans, thus giving more losses for Byzantium. 3 years later in 1379, Murad I using spies would suddenly break John V and his two sons out of prison and with the support of Murad I’s forces, John V later in 1379 would take the throne back again, although Andronikos IV at first would not surrender as he would hold himself in the Galata Quarter ruling it as his own, though in 1381 he would eventually surrender peacefully to his father, thus Andronikos IV would be allowed to continue ruling some land in Thrace.
As John V was back in power, he would end up dividing what was left of Byzantium among his 3 sons with him taking Constantinople, the eldest son Andronikos IV in charge of what was left of Thrace, Manuel in charge of Thessaloniki, and Theodore as the new Despot of the Morea, although Andronikos IV now living in Selymbria near Constantinople would still not yet give up his rebellion but before once again launching an attempt to take the throne from his father, he suddenly died in 1385 giving a lot of relief to his traumatized father. Although with John V back in power once again paying tribute to the Ottomans, Murad I beginning 1383 would still lay siege to Thessaloniki basically because Murad saw its governor who was John V’s son Manuel as a dangerous threat, and in 1387 after 4 years of being under siege, Thessaloniki would surrender to the Ottomans while Manuel would flee to Lesbos attempting to take it back.
With Thessaloniki now falling to the Ottomans, the Ottomans would now continue focusing their campaign against the now divided Serbia but in 1387 as well, the most powerful of the post-imperial princes of the divided Serbian states which was Lazar Hrebeljanovic, who was once an official in Emperor Dusan’s court would win a surprising victory against Murad I’s large Ottoman army, thus preventing the Ottomans from capturing the Serbian city of Nis. Feeling confident of his victory, Prince Lazar would make an attempt to restore the Serbian Empire of Dusan by reuniting the divided Serbian states and raising a large army to once and for all expel the Ottomans from the Balkans.
Prince Lazar’s attempt to reunite Serbia and drive the Ottomans away however would turn out to be unsuccessful as when Lazar’s large Serbian army would confront Murad I’s even larger Ottoman army at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Serbians despite their strength would still be defeated by the Ottomans, although in the course of this battle Sultan Murad I himself would be assassinated by the Serbian knight Milos Obilic who broke into Murad’s tent killing him with a knife, though Milos would afterwards immediately be killed by Murad’s soldiers. With Ottomans victorious despite their sultan assassinated, Prince Lazar would be executed by the Ottomans and all the divided Serbian states would be forced to be vassals of the Ottomans in order to still keep their rulers, and here Bayezid I the son of Murad I would succeed his father as the new Ottoman sultan, and now Bayezid was someone not content with having Byzantium as a vassal, therefore he would have the ultimate goal of conquering Constantinople.
Back in Byzantium, John V’s tragic story was not yet over as in 1390 he was overthrown for the 3rd time and this time by his grandson John VII Palaiologos the son of Andronikos IV claiming that he was continuing his late father’s rebellion, although despite having support of the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, John VII would lose the throne 5 months later when his grandfather would take it back assisted by his son Manuel and the Knights of Rhodes forcing John VII to flee back to his base Selymbria. John V back in power again would continue being the new sultan Bayezid I’s vassal agreeing to also send Manuel to Bayezid I’s court as a hostage, and when John V had the Golden Gate of Constantinople’s walls repaired, Bayezid I was enraged as John did it without consulting him, thus Bayezid threatened to blind Manuel if John did not tear down the gate he just repaired. Fearing Manuel would be blinded, John V had the gate he just repaired torn down, though John would not be able to get over the humiliation of doing this and so in one night in February of 1391, John V was said to have committed suicide by poisoning himself as in the next morning he was found dead at the age of 58. John V would then be succeeded by his son Manuel becoming Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos who would surprisingly turn out to be a competent ruler, although his story would be saved for another time, however before the 14th century would end the entire 2nd Bulgarian itself would fall under Ottoman rule, and just half a century later, it would be Constantinople’s time to fall to the Ottomans.
For this story, the biggest difference would be that the Ottomans would have already been expelled from Thrace and forced to move back to Asia Minor by Dusan, although following Dusan’s death which in this story would like in real history also happen in 1355, the geography of the Balkans would remain the same as it was in real history except for the Ottomans settling in Gallipoli and already taking parts of Thrace.
Following Dusan’s death in this story’s case, Uros V would succeed his father Dusan as Emperor of Serbia and just like in real history, he would not be as strong as his father in ruling his empire which is why he would in this story just like in real history be remembered as “Uros the Weak”, while in this story’s case with John V Palaiologos being sent as a hostage to Serbia by Dusan, John V would befriend Uros V who was just 4 years younger than John, and due to Uros V’s weaker style of ruling, he would simply allow John V to return to Constantinople allowing Byzantium to be independent again. John V would then return to Constantinople and return to ruling as the sole Byzantine emperor in 1356, and thanks to Dusan’s rule as Byzantine emperor in Constantinople despite only lasting for 3 years, most of the city’s decay would be mostly repaired by Dusan who had more funds than the Byzantines here, therefore Constantinople would once again slowly grow into a thriving capital, unlike in real history wherein Constantinople by the latter part of the 14th century fell more and more into decay all while Black Death kept coming back and forth. The outbreaks of Black Death returning would however still happen in this story’s case after John V’s return to power and Byzantium’s separation from Serbia after just 3 years of being under Serbian rule. Although again the biggest difference here compared to real history aside from Byzantium and its capital being economically restored in his 3-year occupation of Byzantium would be that the Ottomans would no longer threaten John V and Byzantium, thus despite coming back to rule a very much reduced and bankrupt Byzantium John V would no longer have to face the expansion of the Ottomans into the Balkans, thus giving a lot of relief to Byzantium which in fact would allow their empire to survive for even much longer.
With the Ottomans in this story being forced back into Asia Minor, they would not achieve their conquests in Balkans like they did in real history, therefore Adrianople would not become their capital and no young men from the Balkans recruited as Janissaries for the Ottoman army; instead, the Ottomans would be forced to expand their empire east and south, thus what could happen is that they would instead go east and conquer the breakaway Byzantine Empire of Trebizond and possibly later the Kingdom of Georgia. Like in real history, Orhan in this story’s case would also die of old age in 1362 and for the sake of changing history, here he would not be succeeded by Murad I but by his older son Suleiman Pasha who would not die from a hunting accident in 1357, and under the new Ottoman sultan Suleiman they would begin their expansion east giving up their ambitions to expand into the Balkans and capture Constantinople. On the other hand, the former emperor John VI Kantakouzenos who had been blinded and imprisoned by Dusan after taking over Constantinople in 1352 would die not too long after being imprisoned in Serbia possibly by 1355 as well due to being blinded and slowly tortured to death in prison, therefore with John Kantakouzenos dying in prison he would not do as he did in real history when retiring as a monk by writing a history of his time and reign as emperor, meaning that we would also not get any insights to the this era of Byzantine history in John VI’s point of view as here he wouldn’t write his memoirs. Another major change here in this story is that John V when back in power would not have to face his brother-in-law Matthew Kantakouzenos challenging him as Matthew here had already died in battle back in 1352, therefore the continued civil war against Matthew which ended in 1357 here would not happen while Matthew’s brother the Despot of the Morea Manuel who refused to be under Dusan’s combined Byzantine-Serbian Empire would renounce his rebellion and accept his brother-in-law John V as his emperor thus returning the Morea in Southern Greece to direct Byzantine control while also Gallipoli which Dusan here just settled with Serbs would still remain a Serbian colony in Byzantine lands. Now with the Ottomans no longer expanding into Thrace like in real history due to realizing that their attempt had failed when being driven away by Dusan here, John V who here would not have the Ottomans at his backyard would no longer have to desperately ask for military assistance from the more powerful kingdoms of Western Europe, although John V would still focus on keeping diplomatic ties with King Louis I of Hungary as well as with Serbia, Bulgaria, Venice, Genoa, Aragon, France, the Papacy, and his cousins ruling the state of Savoy in Italy in case John V would need military assistance from them in the rare occasion of the Ottoman threat returning or if another power would try to invade what is left of Byzantium, and not to mention he would eventually recover the crown jewels that was pawned to Venice.
Like in real history however, John V here in this story would also follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather Michael VIII Palaiologos considering Church unity and would also do as he did in real history in agreeing to submit to the pope’s authority, though it would also have a negative impact on the proudly Orthodox Byzantine people who would rather die than accepting Catholicism as their religion still seeing the pain and damage inflicted on them caused by the Catholic Crusaders back in 1204 as a not so distant memory. Now in this story, John V would not do the humiliating thing of submitting Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal due to the Ottoman threat no longer growing in the Balkans, therefore John V would not have to be bullied and ordered around by an Ottoman sultan thus leading to no conflict with his son Andronikos who basically rose up against his father for the plain fact that he agreed to be an Ottoman vassal. Without the conflict between John V and his son Andronikos in 1373, as well as Andronikos’ brief take-over of the throne from 1376-1379, Byzantium would instead enjoy a period of relative peace in the 1370s and 1380s despite their economy and imperial prestige no longer a strong one like before, and without the conflict with Andronikos as well, John V later in 1390 would also not lose the throne to his grandson and Andronikos’ son John VII. In Serbia meanwhile, its emperor Uros V would like in real history also die in 1371 without an heir, thus Serbia would be divided into several states ruled by powerful magnates as well, although with the Ottomans no longer expanding into Thrace, the Serbians would not suffer a humiliating defeat to them at the Battle of the Maritsa, therefore giving the Serbians an opportunity to reunite.
In this story, Prince Lazar would do the same in attempting to reunite Serbia into an empire once again like it was under Dusan, and this time he would in fact be successful as without the pressure of the Ottoman expansion, Lazar could focus on Serbia’s reunification and again without the Ottoman threat, the catastrophic Battle of Kosovo in 1389 here would not happen, thus allowing Lazar to live to see his dream of reuniting Serbia into a strong empire once again come true with Lazar himself becoming the new Serbian emperor. Now what would happen here is that Serbia would again become the undisputed power of the Balkans surpassing that of their neighbors Byzantium and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, while Byzantium on the other hand again without the Ottomans pressuring them or forcing them to pay tribute would still hold on to Thessaloniki unlike in real history which fell to the Ottomans in 1387, thus Byzantium would continue to live on, that they would in fact manage to recapture territories in Greece and even in Northwest Asia Minor that they have lost over the past decades. The last years of the 14th century for Byzantium under John V Palaiologos in this story though would still be quite disappointing mainly because they would no longer become a strong power anymore not even at the level they were for a very short time under John V’s father Andronikos III, but it would still not be as disappointing as it was in real history wherein Byzantium did in fact have to face the humiliation of being an Ottoman vassal to ensure its survival. John V here would at least rule out the rest of his years peacefully without losing the throne to his son and later to his grandson and without being an Ottoman vassal, instead the only major challenges John V would face would be a lack of finances, the plague of Black Death returning every now and then, and some PTSD from being injured and almost killed in battle against Matthew Kantakouzenos and his Ottoman allies back in 1352. In this story too, John V would not die too soon from a possible suicide caused by humiliation in 1391, so instead he would in fact live on until the early 15th century dying a natural death leaving behind a stabilized despite highly reduced empire, though to be realistic here his son Andronikos would also die suddenly in 1385 like in real history, therefore John V would like in real history also be succeeded by his other son Manuel II Palaiologos. The big question now would be if Byzantium being already so reduced in size would still continue to live in for a century or more, as well as if the Ottomans would return west once again, or if Serbia would eventually capture the remains of Byzantium again, though all of this would be a different story altogether.
And now we’ve come to the end of this chapter set in the 14th century, and to sum it all up the 14th century was indeed a very disappointing and even depressing time for the Byzantines with disaster and instability already becoming a normal part of life. The 14th century shows how far Byzantium has gone from being a rich world power, with an all-powerful emperor, advanced battle tactics, extravagant court life, and a bustling metropolis as its capital to a shadow of its former self with conflicts over the smallest issues, a disorganized army mostly made up mercenaries, a weak economy, divided society, defeat after defeat in battle, and emperors no longer as the master of the known world but reduced to beggars constantly asking for support from the now more powerful kingdoms of Western Europe. However, all empires do have their time to rise and become powerful and to decline and lose their dominance, and this was the case here as the 14th century was really the time for Byzantium to decline in its power and prestige allowing the kingdoms of Western Europe which were once disunited and weak to become the new powers. The 14th century too was time of many uncertainties which included of course the well-known plague of Black Death that not only affected Byzantium but the rest of Europe and the most the known world, as well as the sudden rise of a new power being the Ottomans from a small Turkish feudal state in Asia Minor to a dominant power in the Balkans able to cripple Byzantium, and wipe the Serbian and Bulgarian Empires off the map. On the other hand, the 14th century also shows that it was a miracle that Byzantium not only came back to the picture back in 1261 when it was thought to have been lost forever when the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople back in 1204, but that Byzantium made it to 1,000 years of existence here, and more so that Byzantium survived the turbulent 14th century as well as the beginning of the Ottoman expansion into Thrace making it into the 15th century. Of course with all the disasters and tragedies the remains of the once powerful Byzantine Empire went through in the 14th century, it would already look like its end would be inevitable, however there could still be some solutions that could save the dying Byzantium and perhaps keep it alive for much longer and others would think that maybe the right reforms, wise spending, or diplomacy could save Byzantium here, I would say it would be quite an unpopular choice which would be foreign intervention and a takeover by a very similar power like Serbia taking over Byzantium that could save it, and it is for this reason why I chose the what if of Dusan’s Serbian Empire to take over Byzantium in order to save it. Another possible what if story in the 14th century that could result in saving the ruined Byzantium from its decay would be if Andronikos III Palaiologos lived much longer rather than dying in 1341 in which his death resulted in a very much devastating civil war at the worst time possible, however I would think that if Andronikos III lived much longer, maybe things would eventually not be so bright for Byzantium anymore as no matter how much success he brought, Andronikos III may not be able be powerful enough to maintain it for long due to the rise of Serbia and the Ottomans. Andronikos III’s reign too is generally praised for being one of the last bright spots in Byzantine history only because it ended so abruptly with his sudden death.
It is then for this reason why I chose the alternate history topic for this chapter to be something to do with a more powerful foreign power taking over Byzantium not to conquer and destroy it but to restore it and save it from decay, and in this case, it was Stefan IV Dusan’s Serbian Empire. Dusan true enough did have the intention to capture Constantinople and possibly replace the dying Byzantine Empire as a Serbian power, however in real history this never came to happen due to Dusan’s alliance with Venice never coming into full force and his sudden death in 1355, therefore we would not really know if his intention was to conquer Byzantium to save it or wipe it off the map. Though Dusan’s true intention may remain unknown, I would rather think he would have the intention to conquer Byzantium to restore it and save it from decay as true enough Dusan did admire Byzantine culture and politics by making reforms as well as a code of laws for Serbia based on how things were done in Byzantium before it fell apart, while he also invested a lot in the arts by building churches and monasteries in Serbia with impressive frescos all based on the art and architecture of Byzantium, therefore this could mean that Dusan really wanted to revive Byzantium’s imperial power as well as arts and culture scene. If Dusan’s intentions to revive Byzantium would prove to be true, however it will still be disappointing as his death came to soon which means that even though he took over the Byzantine Empire, his death would lead Byzantium to be independent again, but despite Dusan’s quick rule over Byzantium there would be one major change that would totally alter the course of history which is that the Ottoman threat would no longer be existent, therefore both Byzantium and Serbia as well as Bulgaria would continue to survive.
Now, if Dusan were to take over Byzantium and would manage to expel the Ottomans from Thrace before their expansion into the Balkans could begin, this would totally change everything by making the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans never happen as in reality the Ottomans did eventually and not too long after they became the master of the Balkans and in 1453 captured Constantinople ending the Byzantine Empire. Of course, these events such as Dusan’s conquest of Constantinople never came to happen therefore being all speculation, though even if Dusan never lived to see his dream of capturing Constantinople, he would at least leave behind the great legacy of elevating Serbia to the dominant power of the region from what was not too long ago just a small kingdom in the Balkans, thus he would be remembered as “Dusan the Mighty” that in the 19th century Dusan’s legacy would be a battle cry in the national awakening of Serbia that would happen by then as it was under Dusan when Serbia was at a time of glory with an empire that would cover most of the Balkans. Although at the same time, Dusan’s possible conquest of the dying Byzantine Empire would just remain one of the many what ifs of a foreign power taking over Byzantium, but surprisingly it would be a very interesting what if, and it for this reason why I chose to make this the main topic of this chapter, as after all Dusan remains to be one of medieval history’s most underrated great rulers. Now back to the Byzantine story of the 14th century, despite all their defeats and troubles they went through including all the devastating civil wars and Black Death, they at least managed to survive it and, in a way, still recover but even though they did, the 14th century was really the beginning of Byzantium’s end. The major characters in this chapter then from Michael VIII Palaiologos, to Andronikos II, Andronikos III, John Kantakouzenos, Anna of Savoy, John V, the first Ottoman sultans Osman and Orhan, and the Serbian emperor Dusan would be the people to introduce Byzantium’s final act, which will be the story for the next chapter and the finale of this series. After all, since this chapter was in a more unknown and hardly talked about time in Byzantine history, it was more or less just a teaser for the next one which would be the grand finale as this chapter had introduced the Palaiologos Dynasty which would be Byzantium’s last ruling dynasty as well as the Ottoman Turks that had gone from a small group of people at the Byzantium’s border in Asia Minor to become the most imminent threat to Byzantium’s existence by the end of the 14th century, as in the next chapter both the Palaiologos Dynasty and the Ottomans will return for the final act of the history of Byzantium. This series’ next and final chapter will no longer cover a what if of a foreign power taking over Byzantium like the previous one where it was Bulgaria and here Serbia, but instead the well-known event in world history of the Fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire itself to the Ottomans on May 29 of 1453 where the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, the grandson of John V makes a heroic last stand defending the city as the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II lays siege to it for 2 months with a massive army and the newest weapon of the era being cannons. The what if for the next chapter would be if Constantine XI would at first surrender Constantinople to Mehmed II but in the meantime would plan a counter-attack to recover Constantinople from the Ottomans that would come in the form of a massive Crusade with armies from across Europe culminating in an epic battle between the Ottomans and the many different armies and rulers of Europe now aware of the ever-expanding Ottomans. Well, this is all for chapter XI, the second to last chapter of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler, see you all next time for our grand finale… thank you for your time!
DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 13th Century AD. This story will begin with real events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.
“It was Constantinople’s darkest hour- even perhaps, than that, two and a half centuries later, which was to see the city’s final fall to the Ottoman sultan.” -John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Decline and Fall, on the 4th Crusade’s 1204 Sack of Constantinople
Welcome to the 10th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time in chapter IX of this 12-part series, I went over the events of the 12th century to identify what led to bringing the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire to its knees and what could be done to avoid such a fate which would take place in 1204 wherein the Byzantine capital Constantinople would be sacked by the army of the 4th Crusade thus leading to the fracturing and temporary loss of the Byzantine Empire in an instant. The previous chapter ended with the 12th century ending and 13th century beginning with all things in favor of the Byzantines with their alliance with Republic of Venice resuming and all threats to the empire systematically eliminated, therefore no catastrophic sacking of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204. However, since the chapters of this alternate history series are not continuous with each other in plot, this chapter will begin with the events of real history taking place, therefore the events of the 12th century still led Byzantium to a downward spiral that will culminate in 1204 when Constantinople itself gets attacked and captured by the army of the 4th Crusade assisted by the Republic of Venice. Before beginning the chapter, I just have to say that now being at chapter X, I have realized that I have now gone a very long way as this chapter is going to be the first part in the last leg of this 12-part series wherein we now move on to the late Byzantine era. Now, the 13th century would already begin terribly for Byzantium due to the corruption and ineptness of its ruling dynasty, the Angeloi Dynasty that rose to power in 1185 when the nobleman Isaac II Angelos overthrew the previous Komnenos Dynasty and established his own and in his reign, the empire drastically fell into a chaotic period particularly seen when the Bulgarians who have been under Byzantine rule for almost 200 years rebelled and declared independence creating the 2nd Bulgarian Empire that would be there to stay. Though Isaac II was aware that his empire was in great trouble wherein a lot of these problems were actually caused by his own corrupt policies, he never succeeded in restoring order to his empire as in 1195 he was overthrown and blinded by his jealous older brother Alexios III Angelos who as the new emperor proved to be even more of an incompetent disaster than his younger brother. In the meantime, as political instability was brewing in the Byzantine Empire, over in Western Europe a new Crusade was called for by the new pope Innocent III in 1198 who once more convinced the nobles of Europe to take up arms and again depart for the Holy Land and recapture the holy city of Jerusalem which in 1187 fell back to Muslim rule as the 3rd Crusade in the 1190s also failed to recapture Jerusalem. Things would however only get worse for the Byzantines when both the Republic of Venice and the deposed son of Isaac II which was Alexios IV Angelos got involved in the 4th Crusade as Venice here under its ruler or doge Enrico Dandolo being Byzantium’s mortal enemy at this time was the one to provide ships to transport the Crusaders to the Holy Land while the arrival of Alexios IV who sought for help from the new Crusade to put his father back in power as well as himself would cause the Crusade to divert to Constantinople. Though Alexios IV was successfully put in power as well as his father, it came at a great price as Alexios IV was to offer a large debt to the Crusaders which he promised but could never fulfil, thus what resulted from this was a great disaster so unimaginable. In 1204, with Alexios IV and his father killed in local Byzantine coup in Constantinople, the Crusaders and Venetians with a great desire for revenge and tired of waiting to be paid while camped outside Constantinople attacked it overwhelming the defending Byzantine forces and on April 12 of 1204, the Byzantine capital Constantinople itself fell to the army of the 4th Crusade followed by a brutal sacking, burning, and looting of the city that went on for days making this one of the greatest crimes committed against humanity.
At the end, the 4th Crusade never made it to their objective which was the Holy Land and instead took over Constantinople establishing their own Latin Empire in it, thus ending the Byzantine Empire at least temporarily. The leaders of the 4th Crusade including the Republic of Venice then carved up the fallen Byzantine Empire among them establishing their own Latin (Western European) states in what was Byzantine territory, in which all of these states including the Latin Empire of Constantinople collectively would be known as the Frankokratia or “Rule of the Franks” in Greek. The Byzantines however would manage to survive the fall of their capital in 1204 and due to the imperial family growing large as with the previous ruling Komnenos Dynasty intermarrying with a large number of the noble families of Byzantium, these noble families all related to each other would establish their own Byzantine Greek successor states in the remains of the old Empire. The 3 major Byzantine successor states established after 1204 included the small Empire of Trebizond in the far eastern corner of the Black Sea founded by the direct descendants of the Komnenos Dynasty, the Empire of Nicaea in Western Asia Minor not far from Constantinople founded by the Byzantine noble Theodore I Laskaris, and the Despotate of Epirus in Western Greece founded by the relatives of the previous Angelos Dynasty. Out of the 3 Byzantine successor states, it was the Empire of Nicaea that grew to be the most successful among them that in only a span of a few decades, they would become the most powerful state in the area, although with a great amount of difficulty as most of the 13th century would see the lands of Greece, Thrace, the Balkans, and Asia Minor turn into a total warzone with Empire of Nicaea, Latin Empire, Despotate of Epirus, Seljuks of Asia Minor, 2nd Bulgarian Empire, and occasionally the new Serbian Kingdom at a constant war with each other over who would be the most dominant power of the area. Long story short, the Empire of Nicaea under the strong leadership of its emperors Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1221) and his successor John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) turned out to be the most successful of these new states and true enough the legitimate successor of Byzantium, while the Latin Empire based in Constantinople did not last long as the Latin rulers that ruled it true enough never had any long-term vision to build an empire as they just captured Constantinople unexpectedly in 1204 only intending to loot it, thus the Latin Empire of Constantinople having weak rulers with a lack of vision and being neglected by Western Europe would only last for 57 years. It is then known in real history that even though the Byzantines lost Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204, the Byzantine Empire was only gone for 57 years as in 1261 the forces of the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea by surprise recaptured Constantinople from the Latins thus ending the 57-year Latin occupation of Constantinople and re-establishing the Byzantine Empire, although the new Byzantium would no longer be what it was before 1204 as the damage caused by the Crusaders’ invasion turned out to be beyond repair. Now, during this 57 year period between 1204 and 1261, the Byzantines being the Empire of Nicaea here could have actually taken back Constantinople before 1261 considering how powerful the Byzantine Empire of Nicaea turned out to be and how the Latin Empire at Constantinople turned out to be a failed state, and true enough there was one such event in 1235 wherein the forces Empire of Nicaea led by their emperor John III Vatatzes together with his ally then the 2nd Bulgarian Empire with their forces led by their ruler or tsar Ivan Asen II could have taken back Constantinople. However, the siege of Constantinople by both John III of Nicaea and Ivan II of Bulgaria failed as mistrust erupted between both rulers over the question on which of them would take Constantinople, while the walls of Constantinople still proved to be too impossible to breach, therefore the Latins continued to hold onto Constantinople until they eventually lost it back to the Byzantines in 1261. Now the big question here is that if the siege of 1235 was a success with the Bulgarians being the ones to take over Constantinople, how would things turn out to be and would the Bulgarians hold the Byzantine capital for long?
Note: Since this story is set in the 13th century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.
Now the 13th century was true enough a very tragic, chaotic, and bloody time in the history of the Byzantine Empire as it saw a very unique scenario of the empire disappearing for a full 57 years from 1204 to 1261 and its capital Constantinople occupied and desecrated by western invaders which were ironically the Crusaders who were supposed to be holy warriors, but the 13th century too saw the Byzantine Empire rise up from the ashes and be restored while it also featured some of the most colorful characters in Byzantine history. However, even though Byzantium was restored it would no longer be a significant power anymore despite having 2 more centuries left to live on, therefore the 13th century was really the beginning of the end for Byzantium. This chapter will therefore be a very unique one in this series as this will be the only where the main story which is Byzantium does not exist but rather the main story will be on the Empire of Nicaea which was the exiled Byzantine Empire from 1204 to 1261. On the other hand, the 13th century no matter how tragic it was for Byzantium was also a very interesting period as this was the time Byzantium being in exile as the Empire of Nicaea rediscovered its Ancient Greek roots thus beginning the birth of Byzantium’s Greek national identity, therefore this 57-year period gave the Byzantines the time to reinvent themselves as when their empire was restored in 1261, they became fully aware they were a Greek power compared to before 1204 when they saw themselves as more or less a multiethnic empire. The 13th century has fascinated me so much as well that in the recent special edition article I made in ranking the 12 centuries of the Byzantine Empire’s existence, I ranked it at #4 while at same time, most of my Byzantine era Lego films that I made for my Youtube channel No Budget Filmsare set in the 13th century covering the events of the 4th Crusade in 1204, the Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople in 1261, and the final Byzantine-Latin conflict and the Sicilian Vespers Rebellion in 1282, while recently I have also produced and narrated a 3-part audio epic series on the 57 years of the Byzantine Empire in exile for my channel as well, though I’ll save the mentions of my 13th century Lego films and audio epics for later wherein I’ll link all of them, though this article too will feature some of the 13th century’s characters in Lego from my previous films.
Now when writing this chapter for my 12-part Byzantine Alternate History fan fiction series, I have once again come across the century in the history of Byzantium that I have put a lot of attention to in my films, but this time I will be writing about the 13th century in a much different perspective as rather than just retelling history like I did in my channel, I am going to alter it this time by coming up with an entirely fictional scenario of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire taking over Constantinople in 1235, which in fact they almost did. As a matter of fact, the whole what if scenario of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire of Tsar Ivan Asen II taking over Constantinople in 1235 was one of the reasons that led me to create this entire 12-part Byzantine Alternate History series as well as the what if for chapter I of this series. Both of these what if scenarios were then what led me to create this series while the other ones covered in the past 8 chapters were just thought of along the way, therefore since I have thought about writing this what if scenario of Bulgaria taking over Constantinople for a very long time now even before conceptualizing this series, this chapter is going to be a very special one. Now the time jump from the previous chapter to this one will be quite a short one as in fact some of the same characters from the last one, mainly the Angelos emperors will return here, although the largest difference in this one is that the events will start off with what actually happened in real history, therefore this chapter will begin with the Angelos emperors beginning with its founder Isaac II as an incompetent emperor in which he was remembered as such, while the rulers of his dynasty that followed him which were his older brother and son were in fact even worse than he was. This chapter will then show that the Byzantine Empire drastically changed from how it was in the previous 12th century as mentioned previously when it saw itself as the dominant power in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean under the rule of 3 consecutive strong emperors from the Komnenos Dynasty which were Alexios I (r. 1081-1118), John II (r. 1118-1143), and Manuel I (r. 1143-1180) to becoming a shameful shadow of its former self that had to suffer the humiliation of falling to the 4th Crusade in 1204, and the bridge between this time of greatness to a humiliating fate in 1204 would be the less than 20-year rule of the incompetent Angelos Dynasty (1185-1204). The fateful event of the fall of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade in 1204 was hinted a number of times in the previous chapter but never did happen due to the plotline of the previous chapter being on how to avoid the fateful 4th Crusade from sacking Constantinople and also that the previous chapter was only limited to the 12th century, however in this chapter this fateful event of 1204 will come and go as well, as here for this chapter on the other hand, the main plotline will be on what happened after Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade n 1204. The climax for this story will then take place in the year 1235 when the exiled Byzantines as the Empire of Nicaea under Emperor John III Vatatzes allied with the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Asen II had gained the upper hand and therefore were able to turn the tide of war and finally attempt to recapture Constantinople from the dying Latin Empire established there in 1204 with a very action-packed siege with some trickery involved. The twist then will be that in 1235, the allied Byzantines of Nicaea and Bulgarians would capture Constantinople ending the rule of the Latin Empire earlier than it was in real history, except that with an act of betrayal Constantinople would instead fall under the rule of the Bulgarian Empire, although possibly not for long as in real history as well the Bulgarian Empire of Ivan Asen II too may have just seemed like a dominant power for a time as after Ivan’s death in 1241 the power of the Bulgarians declined, therefore allowing the exiled Byzantines in Nicaea to continue rising in power and influence. Eventually, the Byzantines also as the Empire of Nicaea under another emperor which was Michael VIII Palaiologos successfully recaptured Constantinople in 1261, and here begins the story of the restored Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologos Dynasty founded by Michael VIII which would rule the empire until its final end in 1453. This chapter however will no longer cover the latter part of the 13th century with the restored Byzantium under the Palaiologos Dynasty, but would instead only end in 1261, the same year Byzantium was restored in real history, although for an extra twist this story before getting to 1261 will actually have a secret ending that is true enough only fictional.
13th Century Lego films and Videos from my channel, No Budget Films:
To set the stage for the confusing 13th century this chapter is set in, we will begin discussing in detail the catastrophic 4th Crusade in 1204 and its aftermath. The confusing part then happens after 1204 with the remains of the Byzantine Empire divided into various Latin powers established by the leaders of the 4th Crusade and Greek ones established by the surviving Byzantine nobility, though the trickiest part is about which of the 3 Byzantine successor states after 1204 which were the Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond, and Despotate of Epirus was the legitimate successor of the former Byzantine Empire itself.
At the end however, it was really the Empire of Nicaea that proved to be the actual successor of the old Byzantine Empire as it turned out to be the largest and most successful of the 3 successor states, while it also was the one that from the very beginning was plainly existing in order to recover Constantinople one day, and true enough it was the one to recapture Constantinople and reestablish the Byzantine Empire in 1261 after eliminating all its obstacles. The Empire of Nicaea on the other was able to not only survive but grow thanks to the vision and persistence of its founder Emperor Theodore I Laskaris and his successor and son-in-law John III Vatatzes, and the second one John III would be the lead character of this story who happens to be one of Byzantium’s most underrated greatest emperors being a very rare example of a Byzantine ruler who was basically a Renaissance man, both strong military man as well as very popular and in fact even well-loved by his subjects as he brought in an age of economic growth and military superiority despite his empire being one in exile, and in his 32-year reign, the Empire of Nicaea became a thriving one even when it all seemed like everything was lost.
At the same time, John III was one ruler with a great legacy as he started the Greek cultural revival among the Byzantine people in exile thus giving them a new sense of purpose, which therefore makes him be remembered as the “Father of the Greeks”. Although John III in real history died in 1254 just 7 years before Constantinople was recovered from the Latins therefore never seeing Constantinople being Byzantine again, he at least paved the way for the ultimate reconquest of 1261 by annexing the territory of the Empire of Nicaea into Europe, recovering the city of Thessaloniki, surrounding the Latins to Constantinople, and establishing good relations with neighboring powers in order to expand his empire at peace. In the meantime, as John III was expanding the exiled Byzantine Empire in order to recapture Constantinople, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire to the north was exactly doing the same thing given that Constantinople had fallen to the 4th Crusade which then gave the opportunity for the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire as well as its neighbor the Serbian Kingdom to expand, and for Bulgaria even more considering they had an ambitious ruler which was Ivan Asen II who was in fact intent to capture Constantinople for the Bulgarians, wherein here in this story he would in fact even make it the Bulgarian Empire’s new capital. All while the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, and even the other Byzantine successor Despotate of Epirus was at a race with each other on whoever of them is first to capture Constantinople, the Latin Empire ruling from Constantinople was the one in trouble even if they have been around for a very short time, and as you will see whether the Byzantines and Bulgarians together took back Constantinople in 1235 or not, the Latin Empire either way at the end turned out to be a failed state that was barely able to sustain itself, and that if Constantinople’s powerful centuries old walls could have been breached, then the Latin Empire would have just faded away in an instant, and true enough the Latin Empire ended that way in 1261 when a small Byzantine force found a secret way into the walls and at the dead of night regained their old capital. Now with all these happenings in the 13th century, especially with the Bulgarians, exiled Byzantines, and Latins in conflict with each other you would see exactly the stereotypes of each other more and more evident with the Byzantines as wise and diplomatic but also scheming, the Bulgarians as unpredictable as savage, and the Latins as basically greedy and nothing much.
At the same time, a much larger threat far more powerful than any of these said powers was to arise from the far east of Asia, and this was the rapidly growing Mongol Empire, and true enough the 13th century too would be commonly remembered as the century of the Mongol Empire as it was here when the Mongols first came into the picture and expanded so vastly creating an empire that stretched from China all the way to Eastern Europe covering China, Russia, Persia, Central Asia, Asia Minor, and parts of the Balkans and due to the rapid expansion of the Mongols, the Seljuk Empire of Asia Minor that had been for almost 2 centuries a threat to the Byzantines ever since their conquest of Asia Minor after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 as mention in chapter VIII of this series would be devastated and brought to its knees by the Mongols and so would the 2nd Bulgarian Empire after Ivan Asen II’s death in 1241. The exiled Byzantines however would be the ones lucky as they were spared from the expansion of the Mongols and with their neighbors being the Seljuks in the east and the Bulgarians in the north devastated by the deadly attacks of the Mongols, the exiled Byzantines would grow and prosper, thus the Mongols can be the one to thank for allowing the Byzantines to rise up again from the ashes and once more take back their capital. Now the larger stories of the 13th century which is that of the rise of the Mongol Empire and of the kingdoms of Western Europe is whole different story altogether as this chapter’s story to be more straightforward is to be limited only to the story of the Byzantines and their road to recovery, although both the Mongols and the powers of Western Europe too will have a small part here. Before beginning, I would like to thank the Youtube channel Kings and Generalsfor providing detailed information on the 4th Crusade which they covered in one of their most recent videos, while I would also like to thank the artists (Ediacar, Spatharokandidatos, AlexiosI, Byzantinelegacy, HistoryGold777, Amelianvs, Giuseppe Rava, Kzvasilski, TimbukDrew, FaisalHashemi) whose works will be featured here in order to guide you viewers through the very complex 13th century.
John III Doukas Vatatzes- Byzantine emperor of Nicaea (1222-1254)
Ivan Asen II- Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1218-1241)
Theodore Komnenos Doukas- Despot of Epirus (1215-1230)
Jean de Brienne- Emperor of the Latin Empire in Constantinople
Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes- Son and successor of John III
Elena Asenina- Wife of Theodore II, daughter of Ivan Asen II
Baldwin II Courtenay- Emperor of the Latin Empire in Constantinople
Michael II Angelos- Despot of Epirus, successor of Theodore Komnenos Doukas
Andronikos Palaiologos- Grand General (Megas Domestikos) of the Empire of Nicaea
George Mouzalon- General of the Empire of Nicaea
Michael Palaiologos- General of the Empire of Nicaea, son of Andronikos
Alexios Strategopoulos- General of the Empire of Nicaea
Story characters set1- John III Doukas Vatatzes, Ivan Asen II, Theodore Komnenos Doukas, Jean de Brienne
Story characters set2- Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes, Elena Asenina, Baldwin II Courtenay, Michael II Angelos
Story characters set3- Andronikos Palaiologos, George Mouzalon, Michael Palaiologos, Alexios Strategopoulos
The Background- The 4th Crusade, 1204
In 1195, the incompetent ruling Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos who had been in power for almost 10 years set off on a military campaign to finally defeat the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire which had formed 10 years earlier when the Bulgarians once under the rule of the Byzantine Empire rose up against Byzantine authorities declaring themselves independent due to the corrupt tax policies imposed on them by the emperor Isaac II.
The Bulgarian subjects of the Byzantine Empire no longer wanting to pay taxes to the corrupt imperial court of Constantinople and wanting to be free of Byzantine imperial influence and returning to their old Bulgarian roots rebelled under two Bulgarian boyars or nobles Asen who became Ivan I and Theodor who became Peter II declared themselves as the new rulers or tsars of the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire also known as the “Vlach-Bulgarian Empire”, as the first Bulgarian was defeated and conquered by the Byzantines back in 1018 by the Byzantine emperor Basil II (r. 976-1025). For the next 10 years following the Bulgarians’ declaration of independence in 1185, the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos being at least aware that he caused this major problem of Bulgaria declaring independence due to his corrupt tax policies campaigned several times to crush the Bulgarian rebellion and return them once again under Byzantine imperial rule, but all attempts to do so failed. In 1195, Isaac II prepared one more campaign and this time it was to be a massive invasion of the new Bulgarian Empire to finally finish them off once and for all wherein he would be assisted by his ally the Kingdom of Hungary which would invade Bulgaria from the north, but at the end this campaign would never come to happen due to conspiracy.
As Isaac II had already marched out of Constantinople to prepare his troops for battle in Thrace, he left his camp to go on a short hunting trip with his son Alexios for relief but while Isaac and his son were away, Isaac’s older brother who was also named Alexios usurped power by bribing the soldiers to proclaim him emperor, and when Isaac and his son returned to the camp, they were stopped and arrested while Isaac was blinded with a burning metal rod by orders of his older brother, thus Isaac and his son were brought to Constantinople to be imprisoned while Isaac’s older brother who had him blinded and imprisoned became Emperor Alexios III Angelos. Now the reason for why Alexios III deposed and blinded his younger brother remains mostly unclear but it can certainly be said that Alexios III was jealous that his younger brother was the one to become emperor instead of Alexios who was the older one, although Isaac II did not become emperor back in 1185 by blood but by a popular uprising against the former tyrant emperor Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-1185) who Isaac II overthrew and the people lynched to death.
The bigger reason however to why Alexios III usurped power from his younger brother was a well-planned conspiracy by the Byzantine nobility who began to feel that Isaac II who they initially backed in 1185 was no longer their intended puppet emperor as at first they believed Isaac II was someone easy to manipulate in order to tolerate the corruption of the nobility but as the years passed, Isaac II had after all turned out to be someone not too easy to manipulate as he did in fact act on his own decisions even if they were not made well while he had turned out to be popular with the people too, therefore the nobility wanted someone much easier to manipulate and this was Isaac’s older brother Alexios who was basically an incompetent degenerate with no interest in ruling. With Isaac II blinded and imprisoned in 1195, Alexios III now ruled as emperor and even though he really wanted the position his brother had, he only wanted to have it basically because he was the older brother and nothing more, and as emperor his rule had turned out to be far more incompetent and corrupt than that of his younger brother Isaac II thus making Isaac II’s incompetent rule look like a great one compared to Alexios III’s. As emperor, the first thing Alexios III did was to cancel Isaac II’s military campaign to finally crush the Bulgarian Empire once and for all as Alexios here needed the campaign money in order to generously bribe the aristocrats and people of the capital to back him and compensate them for blinding his brother as Isaac II was true enough still popular with the masses and him being overthrown upset them. Alexios III when ruling had shown clearly no interest in it leaving his wife Euphrosyne Kamatera and the corrupt aristocrats that backed him to run the government while Alexios himself indulged in pleasure also making the sale of government positions legal as Isaac II before him at least only tolerated it but did not make it legal. Due to Alexios III having no interest in ruling his empire, the Seljuk Turks of Asia Minor again raided Byzantium’s eastern border capturing a large amount of land while Alexios III did not seem to care much about it and in the north due to the campaign of Isaac II being cancelled, the Bulgarian tsars Ivan Asen I and Theodor-Peter had their way and resumed their raids again this time taking large amounts of Byzantine lands in Thrace for their empire and again the emperor did not seem to care about his lands in Thrace being lost to the new Bulgarian power. In Bulgaria however, despite them gaining the upper hand against Byzantium their tsar Ivan Asen I was assassinated in 1196 being stabbed to death by a Bulgarian boyar leaving his brother Theodor-Peter to rule alone, although Ivan Asen I here had a son also named Ivan Asen who would be the future ruler of Bulgaria but was however still too young to rule.
Back in Byzantium, as the incompetent and wasteful Alexios III was ruling, in the Christmas of 1196 the Holy Roman emperor Henry VI who was both the King of Germany and just recently made the King of Sicily- after the fall of the Norman Kingdom there in 1194- threatened to invade the Byzantine Empire if Alexios III did not pay a tribute of 5,000 pounds which here was an act of Henry VI avenging the blinding of Isaac II as Henry happened to related to Isaac II in a far way with Henry’s brother the Duke of Swabia Philip being married to Isaac’s daughter Irene. Alexios III however despite his empire already in financial ruin due to all the wars with Bulgaria decided to pay this heavy tribute as he had no choice and so he had the tombs of the Byzantine emperors of the past at the Church of the Holy Apostles looted in order to find gold to pay this tribute while he also imposed a heavy tax on his people known as the Alamanikon or “German tax”. By 1197, Alexios III had raised enough funds to pay this tribute but luckily the Holy Roman emperor Henry VI died in 1197 before he could either collect the tribute or invade Byzantium, therefore there was no need to pay this tribute anymore so instead Alexios III used these funds to conclude peace again with the Seljuks in Asia Minor. Alexios III then again returned to indulging himself, appointing incompetent governors who were nothing but his favorites to administer the provinces, and allowing corrupt officials to sell of the sails and anchors of the deteriorating imperial fleet, and by being so uninterested, lazy, and even brainless as a ruler, the contemporary historian of this time Niketas Choniates (1155-1217) even mentions that Alexios III would sign any document given to him even if these documents were to agree to very stupid things such as sailing on land, plowing the sea, or even moving the mountains to the depths of the sea. In Bulgaria, their tsar Theodor-Peter in 1197 too suffered the same fate as his brother Ivan Asen I a year earlier as here Tsar Theodor-Peter was stabbed to death although under mysterious circumstances, and with both the brothers that ruled the new Bulgarian Empire dead, in 1197 they were succeeded by their younger brother Kaloyan who had turned out to be an ambitious ruler wanting to sever all Bulgaria’s ties with Byzantium and as a direct threat to the Byzantines, Kaloyan in 1198 entered into correspondence with the new pope Innocent III offering to acknowledge the supremacy of the pope and the Latin Church rather than the Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople, however Kaloyan was later only crowned as “King of Bulgaria” instead of “emperor” by a Papal Legate sent to the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo.
In 1198, the Italian Innocent III was elected as pope at only 37 which was quite young for a pope although his young age also made him a very energetic and ambitious ruler, and the moment he was elected as pope, he already began making plans to launch a new Crusade to take back the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslim Ayyubid Sultanate. Now if you remember from the previous chapter, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem which was one of the 4 Crusader states of Outremer (the Levant) in 1187 fell to the new Muslim power which was the Ayyubid Sultanate when the city of Jerusalem itself was captured by this new sultanate’s founder and first ruler Saladin. Following the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, the 3rd Crusade was launched in an attempt to recover Jerusalem, however this 3rd Crusade by 1192 only partially succeeded being only able to recapture the Mediterranean coast from Saladin instead of the city of Jerusalem itself and with the armies of the 3rd Crusade at least successfully recovering the coast of Palestine, the 3rd Crusade ended with its leaders the kings of England and France returning to Europe again resuming war with each other.
The new pope Innocent III however was someone who would not let the issue of not being able to recover Jerusalem pass and being the kind of pope who wanted to assert himself as the authority over the rulers of Europe, Innocent III immediately began laying plans for a massive 4th Crusade to finally take back Jerusalem now that Saladin since 1193 had died, therefore the pope sent word all across Europe encouraging nobles to take up arms and raise armies to depart for Outremer on a new Crusade. This new Crusade however would take a few years to fully come into action as the nobles called to lead it needed time to raise and prepare their armies while the more powerful kings of Europe turned out to be too busy to take part in a new Crusade as first of all the Holy Roman Empire fell into succession crisis following the death of Emperor Henry VI in 1197, the King of England Richard I the Lionheart who led the previous 3rd Crusade had died in 1199 when at war with the King of France Philippe II his former ally in the 3rd Crusade, and now that Richard I was dead Philippe II of France in 1200 went into a full-scale war with England now ruled by Richard I’s brother John.
The pope meanwhile already came up with his plan on how to get the Crusaders to Jerusalem which was by first invading Egypt and from there the Crusader army would march north, as hearing from the previous reports of Richard I of England, Egypt was the more vulnerable part of Saladin’s Empire while it was too dangerous to attack from the coast of Palestine being much more heavily guarded. The Crusaders however had no easy way of getting to Outremer unless they got there by sea as a march by land that would pass Byzantine lands would take almost an entire year or more, while the kingdoms they came from had no powerful navies, and so they had to turn to the largest naval power of the Mediterranean at that time which was the Republic of Venice. The Crusade planned by Innocent III then only came into full force with a leader in 1201 and this leader was the Marquis of Montferrat Boniface who may have just ruled a small and insignificant state in Northern Italy, though he was still a very rich and influential noble. Meanwhile, as Venice was expecting a large Crusader army of more than 30,000 men as the Crusaders promised they would send an army of 4,500 knights, 9,000 squires, and 20,000 infantrymen while agreeing to pay Venice a total of 85,000 silver marks, the Venetians halted all their trading operations for an entire year in order to construct the most powerful fleet in the world to transport the Crusaders, considering that the Venetians had a way to mass produce ships even centuries before the Industrial era. In 1202 however, a Crusader army of only 12,000 arrived in Venice which was a lot less than expected as a large number of the knights and soldiers who were French did not trust the Crusade’s assigned leader which was the Italian Boniface, and so a lot of these French Crusaders skipped Venice and sailed to Outremer on their own through other ports. The Venetians though were angered that an army of only 12,000 arrived as they stopped their trading operations to construct a large fleet to transport them and even worse for the Venetians, the Crusaders did not have the silver which they promised to pay Venice.
The ruler or Doge at this time was Enrico Dandolo, who had been ruling Venice for 10 years now and was already in his 90s and blind but still very energetic and physically strong, and if you remember from the previous chapter Dandolo was one of the thousands of Venetians living in Constantinople that were arrested in 1171 when the Byzantine emperor then Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) declared war on Venice, and Dandolo here was not only arrested but blinded by the Byzantine authorities which then made Dandolo have a lifelong desire to have revenge on the Byzantines. With the arrival of only 12,000, the doge Dandolo came up with a solution for the Crusaders to pay up the amount they owed to Venice to transport them in order to continue the Crusade, which was to have these Crusaders attack the port of Zara in Croatia right across the Adriatic from Venice which was once a Venetian port but had been lost to the Kingdom of Hungary 20 years earlier in which they would use the looted wealth taken from Zara to pay up the Venetians. Most of the Crusaders either willing to push through with the long-awaited Crusade or wanting to take some wealth for themselves agreed to attack Zara even if it was under a fellow Catholic Christian kingdom which was Hungary while some did not agree with attacking fellow Christians and so those who did not agree backed out from the Crusade, though the Crusader attack on Zara was still carried out anyway. The doge Dandolo then made up his mind agreeing to set sail and join the Crusade himself despite his old age as deep inside he was intending to divert the Crusade to Constantinople and attack it out of revenge, and with Dandolo’s very encouraging speech, the army of the 4th Crusade doubled with an addition of 20,000 Venetian citizens taking up arms joining the Crusade as marines and sailors.
The Venetians and Crusader armies from different parts of Western Europe in 1202 then set sail for Zara which fell to them instantly after the Hungarian authorities of the city surrendered to them allowing the Crusaders to loot the city as long as they left its people unharmed. The pope soon enough discovered that the Crusade he planned true enough did not go out as expected as it attacked a fellow Christian city which was Zara and so the pope sent envoys to Zara with a letter threatening to excommunicate all the leaders of the 4th Crusade and Dandolo if they dare attacked Zara, however it was too late as when the Papal envoys came Zara was already sacked. The leader of the 4th Crusade Boniface of Montferrat only arrived to meet up his men in late 1202 in Zara when it already fell back to the Venetians and along with Boniface was a young Byzantine envoy which was no other than the imprisoned prince Alexios Angelos, son of the deposed and imprisoned emperor Isaac II Angelos. Now Alexios Angelos in 1201 had been smuggled out of prison in Constantinople by Pisan merchants and when smuggled out, Alexios found his way to Germany where he sought refuge in the court of his brother-in-law Philip the Duke of Swabia and there Alexios was just waiting for the right opportunity to get some military support to put himself in the Byzantine throne as well as to return his blinded and deposed father back in power, and luckily for Alexios the right opportunity came just a year later with the 4th Crusade which was already headed east. When hearing of the Crusaders’ financial struggles in paying their debts to Venice to transport them, Alexios offered to pay them 200,000 silver marks, as well as to provide them with an army of 10,000 Byzantine troops to assist them in taking back Jerusalem, and most important of all to submit the Byzantine Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople to the pope’s authority all in order to help Alexios oust his uncle Alexios III from power and put he and his father back in the throne. The Crusader leaders here agreed to help young Alexios take the Byzantine throne as they could not refuse this offer as it was to pay them a lot too, but it was Dandolo who was more than ever willing to help young Alexios IV as it was to reward Venice very greatly, but it also provided Dandolo an opportunity to fulfill his dream in attacking Constantinople out of revenge before he dies of old age, while the pope when hearing that uniting the Byzantine Church with the Latin Church was part of the objective agreed to having the Crusade stop at Constantinople first, but little did the pope know that Dandolo and the other leaders were intending to sack Constantinople. In 1203, the new massive Venetian fleet with the Crusaders including Dandolo and Alexios departed Zara and set sail to Constantinople. Soon enough the Venetian fleet with the army of the 4th Crusade arrived at the Marmara Sea before the walls of Constantinople and as the people of Constantinople were shocked seeing a massive fleet headed their way, the Crusaders on these ships too were stunned at the impressive skyline of the Byzantine capital.
Over in Constantinople, the emperor Alexios III Angelos no matter how incompetent and inactive he was in ruling, he was aware that the Venetian fleet with a large army was approaching and in fear of losing the throne as he knew that his nephew escaped and was now headed to put himself in power, Alexios III prepared the city’s defenses and rallied his people, although he could not do anything more as the provinces did not send reinforcement troops to defend the capital and the fleet stationed at the capital made up of only 20 ships were out of function as just mentioned earlier, a corrupt official sold off their anchors and sails.
Alexios III at first attempted to make peace with the Crusaders but his terms were rejected and young Alexios was then brought into the harbor of Constantinople or the Golden Horn together with the Crusade’s leader Boniface in a boat, and rather than cheering at the arrival of the young prince Alexios, the people looked and mocked him while the Venetian fleet just attacked the sea walls of Constantinople anyway. The Crusaders formed 7 divisions to attack different parts of Constantinople’s walls led by each of the leaders with the 8th division being the Venetians and their fleet, and the first attack was on the Galata Quarter north of the Golden Horn harbor which was less defended than the main city itself but this area too was attacked first in order to gain access into the Golden Horn harbor. The Galata Quarter soon enough fell to the Crusaders and when taking over it, the Crusaders headed to the tower that controlled the chain blocking the Golden Horn harbor- which had been around since the 8th century built by Emperor Leo III (r. 717-742) to defend Constantinople from the large-scale Arab invasion of 717 if you remember from chapter V of this series- wherein they gained control of it and lowered the great chain allowing the Venetian fleet to storm into the Golden Horn.
The land walls on the west side of the city built back in the 5th century were however still too powerful for the Crusader army no matter how large they were to breach, although the shorter sea walls along the Golden Horn were much weaker which the Venetian marines aboard their ships exploited thus, they attacked these lower walls using siege ladders as well as the high masts of their ships in order to get through these walls. The Byzantine troops defending the walls however only numbered up to 15,000 with 5,000 of them being part of the elite Varangian Guard sworn to protect the emperor which was still an existing unit in the Byzantine army even up to this point in the 13th century, and even if the Byzantine troops were outnumbered, they at first were able to push back the invading Crusader and Venetian troops. The Venetians however gained the upper hand when Dandolo himself despite his old age jumped off his ship onto the beach along the Golden Horn’s sea walls in full armor carrying Venice’s flag which then encouraged his men to bravely fight and at the end, the Venetians were able to capture 25 of the sea wall’s towers. The Byzantines however once again tried to push back the invaders but failed when the Venetians lit a massive fire across the sea walls to prevent a counter-attack and as for the emperor Alexios III when seeing that the sea wall along the Golden Horn fell, he led a small force out of the land walls to charge at Crusaders besieging it but when Dandolo sent reinforcements to the Crusaders at the land walls, Alexios III fled in fear back into the city.
At night, Alexios III not surprisingly as the weak and cowardly emperor he was decided to abandon the city for good and flee in fear taking 1,000 pounds from the imperial treasury. The next day, as there was no more emperor as he fled the city, the people rushed into the imperial palace’s prison and there they freed Alexios III’s younger brother the former emperor Isaac II Angelos who had been locked up there for over 8 years, and when broken out from prison, the blind Isaac II who was still popular among the people was dressed in the purple imperial robes and proclaimed emperor in the same way he was back in 1185 as a young man when it was also the people of the capital that rallied under him. Isaac II however after being blinded and locked up in prison for 8 years had not only lost his sight but his sanity, physical strength, and ability to think and rule properly, therefore the Byzantine senate as well as the Crusader leaders camped outside the city only confirmed that Isaac II was to rule as co-emperor with his son Alexios, while Isaac II also received the 4th Crusade leaders well and confirmed his son’s promises to them.
Now that Alexios III fled the city and Isaac II was released from prison, Isaac II was crowned as emperor again together with his son now Emperor Alexios IV Angelos as co-emperors, and with Isaac being disabled from years of imprisonment, Alexios IV was to rule as the effective emperor while his father only as a puppet as Isaac was the one more popular among the people. Although the 1203 siege by the Crusader army was over, the Crusaders and Dandolo still did not leave Constantinople, therefore they set themselves up in the Galata Quarter only agreeing to leave Constantinople and set off for Outremer when Alexios IV would finally fulfill his promise of paying their debt of 200,000 silver marks and providing an army of 10,000 Byzantine troops to assist them. The problem now was that Alexios III when fleeing the city took most of treasury with him and Alexios IV himself did not have that amount of money he promised and so Alexios had to negotiate with the Crusaders to extend the period to pay his debts by another 6 months, although the Crusaders soon enough started growing so impatient being on standby for months that at one point a group of Crusaders attacked the Muslim quarter of the main city by shooting flaming arrows to it and due to the winds, a massive fire broke out it Constantinople all while Alexios IV happened to be away in Thrace hunting down his escaped uncle which at the end resulted in nothing.
When Alexios IV returned to the capital, a large fight broke out in the main city between the local Greek inhabitants and the Latin mostly Venetian merchants, and these Latin merchants wanting to escape the troubles fled to Galata to seek refuge with the Crusaders and Venetians which then even gave them more of a reason to resume their attack on Constantinople. Alexios IV now wanting to fully pay off his debts in order to get the Crusader away for good decided to have precious relics, church ornaments, and even religious icons melted down and turned into coins but doing such actions especially destroying icons would only make him grow more and more unpopular with the people seeing this as something equivalent to the most despised Iconoclast movement centuries ago mentioned in previous chapters of this series. At the end of 1203 and beginning of 1204, the people of Constantinople turned to rioting against Alexios IV for his stupidity in both melting down sacred icons and for agreeing to pay such a large amount of money to the Crusaders and as the weeks passed, the rioting further intensified. To deal with the angry mob, Alexios IV and his father Isaac II sent their relative the secretary Alexios Mourtzouphlos who was Alexios III’s son-in-law to negotiate with them but instead, Mourtzouphlos was proclaimed emperor by the senate, people, and Church at the square outside the Hagia Sophia cathedral and to fully to secure himself as emperor, Mourtzouphlos bribed the discontent Varangian Guards who were not paid by Alexios IV.
Now having the support of the Varangians, Mourtzouphlos marched with them into the imperial palace where they dragged young Alexios IV from his bedroom to the prison and in prison, Alexios IV at only 22 was strangled to death by the Varangian Guards at Mourtzouphlos’ orders. Shortly, after when the disabled Isaac II Angelos who was now more than ever traumatized from past events heard that his son was killed, he could not take it any longer, thus he died from a heart attack out of shock and sadness at 47. With both Alexios IV and his father Isaac II dead, Mourtzouphlos then became Emperor Alexios V and as emperor he wanted to prove that he would be far more competent and decisive than the past 3 Angelos emperors and so right when his reign in January of 1204 began, Alexios V immediately had the walls along the Golden Horn that the Crusaders and Venetians destroyed rebuilt fearing that the Crusaders still camped at Galata would launch another offensive to avenge Alexios IV thus confiscating the properties of the corrupt officials linked with the Angelos emperors to finance the repairs.
Alexios V also tried to counter-attack the Venetian ships with Byzantine fire ships which failed, and also decided to no longer honor the debts that the late Alexios IV was to pay the Crusaders and Venice which was not completed yet as Alexios IV was killed off. Alexios V too went off to the Crusaders’ camp to confront Dandolo himself to formally cancel Alexios IV’s debts and ask him in the Crusaders to leave for good, but when at the camp, Dandolo already set up a trap to ambush Alexios V although right before he was ambushed by the Crusader cavalry, Alexios V fled swiftly angering Dandolo. In March of 1204, Dandolo and the Crusader leaders at the Galata Quarter made the final decision to again attack Constantinople but this time to no longer install a puppet Byzantine emperor but to take the city for themselves and divide the remains of the Byzantine Empire among each other, then in April the Crusader again laid siege to the sea walls along the Golden Horn that had just been repaired.
From April 9 to 12 of 1204, the Crusaders and Venetians resumed their attack on the same sea walls along the Golden Horn they attacked the previous year, except this time the Byzantine forces were much weaker and demoralized while the elite Varangian Guard again went on strike due to lack of pay and because of all this, the defending Byzantines could no longer hold out against the Crusaders.
On April 12, the continuous attacks by the Crusaders created a small breach on the Golden Horn sea walls and right here at this point, Constantinople fell to the army of the 4th Crusade who then stormed into the city through this small breach. The emperor Alexios V however still tried to rally the remains of the army as well as citizens to repel the Crusaders that night but with no success as the Crusaders had already stormed into the city in the thousands and so Alexios V boarded a fishing boat and fled Constantinople the same way Alexios III did a year earlier. On the same night, another Byzantine noble which was Constantine Laskaris was crowned as emperor in the Hagia Sophia but to no success as when the Varangians who were still on strike refused to support him while the Crusaders had proceeded to looting the houses of the city, Constantine had no more chance to succeed and in the dawn of the next day he fled Constantinople to the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor which was less than a day away from the capital together with his brother Theodore Laskaris, who was a son-in-law of the previous emperor Alexios III. With no more resistance from the Byzantine army, Constantinople was left to be pillaged for 3 days straight by the Crusaders and with so much valuables the sacking went on day and night making this one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity. The Venetians and Crusaders however came up with a plan to divide the loot equally amongst each other with half of all the spoils going to Venice, although many of the Crusaders out of greed and excitement took as much plunder they wanted from the churches, mansions, and houses of Constantinople. The knights however refrained from harming the citizens as it was part of their chivalry code to not harm civilians, though the uneducated soldiers which were the majority did not follow such rules and so they massacred as many Byzantine civilians as they saw.
The same historian Niketas Choniates who was present here when the Crusaders stormed into Constantinople based on his experience when fleeing the city here wrote that the Crusaders savagely destroyed precious ornaments and icons, carted away important works of art, and worst of all looted the most holy site of the Hagia Sophia wherein they chopped up its altar dividing the pieces which contained previous gems among themselves and when doing so, the Crusaders allowed mules into the Hagia Sophia to cart out their loot which dropped their excrements all over the cathedral’s floor when carting the items out. Apart from all the looting and atrocities committed against the people of Constantinople, the Crusaders too seeing no great value in the Ancient Greek and Roman statues that were preserved in Constantinople melted them down to be made into coins, and eager to find more wealth to take home, the Crusaders broke into the Church of the Holy Apostles as well to rob the tombs of the past emperors which Alexios III back in 1197 had looted to pay the heavy tribute to the Holy Roman emperor, and even though most of the imperial tombs were already robbed by Alexios III, the Crusaders still looted them anyway including the tombs of the great emperors of the past Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) and Heraclius (r. 610-641) wherein they found Justinian I’s body still being intact despite being dead for already more than 6 centuries.
The brutal massacres and the looting only ended 3 days later on April 15 of 1204 but by this time the pillaging and fires made half of the city’s population homeless leading to a lot of inhabitants to abandon Constantinople for good either fleeing to Kaloyan’s Bulgarian Empire or to the new states being formed by Byzantine exiles from Constantinople. The Venetians on the other hand despite hating the Byzantines still had respect for its valuable treasures and so when stealing these treasures, they at least kept them intact, and such Byzantine treasures looted by the Venetians included the bronze statue of the 4 horses above the Hippodrome which the Venetians dismantled and reassembled back in Venice at St. Mark’s which was their main cathedral, while other precious objects taken to Venice included porphyry and marble columns from the 5th and 6th centuries, as well as the colossal statue of the 5th century emperor Leo I the Thracian (r. 457-474) who if you remember was the lead character of chapter II of this series, although the statue of Leo I never made it to Venice but was instead washed up in the beach of Barletta in Southern Italy wherein this statue still remains up to this day.
For the Crusaders on the other hand, they would never make it to their main objective anymore which was Jerusalem as when looting Constantinople, they felt content enough with what they took and so many returned to Europe with important relics they looted in which they enriched their cathedrals back home with them, thus a large percent of the looted relics ended up in the churches of Paris and all over France as well wherein most of these Crusaders came from. Now about the 4th Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople, the French knight Robert de Clari who was present here writes that Constantinople had an endless amount of wealth to loot while the modern-day English historian John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) says that the sacking of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204 was the city’s darkest hour even more than it would be a century and a half later when Constantinople would finally fall to the Ottomans. With the 3 days of looting and violence over, the leaders of the 4th Crusade then settled down, divided Constantinople among themselves, and met together to decide on which of them would take over Constantinople as the new emperor, and the first choice was no other than the Crusade’s leader Boniface of Montferrat who now married the late Isaac II Angelos’ wife Margaret of Hungary which then made Boniface have a legitimate claim to the empire as he was in a way related to the previous Angelos Dynasty. The Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo too was offered the position of emperor wherein he could possibly move Venice’s capital to Constantinople, however Dandolo declined the offer as he was too old but he suggested that one of the Crusade’s leader which was the Count of Flanders Baldwin IX should accept the position as the new emperor of Constantinople as he was much younger and more charismatic. Baldwin IX was then elected as Emperor Baldwin I and no longer as a Byzantine emperor but a “Latin emperor” as with Constantinople being taken over by the westerners known as the “Latins”, the territory they would rule around Constantinople would be the “Latin Empire”, although even if Dandolo declined the offer, the Latin Empire was more or less a puppet of the Republic of Venice which got the largest share of the lands once part of the Byzantine Empire divided among the Crusade’s leaders.
The Fragmentation of Byzantium (1204-1228)
With the army of the 4th Crusade in 1204 capturing Constantinople, not only were Constantinople and its buildings in ruins but the entire geography of the Byzantine Empire as well and with no more Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, the leaders of the 4th Crusade divided what was once the Byzantine Empire among themselves, and together all newly established Latin states in Byzantine territory would be known as the Frankokratia meaning “Rule of the Franks” in Greek, as the Byzantines here still mostly referred to the Latins of Western Europe as “Franks”.
The state that the Latins created as their successor state to the Byzantine Empire was the Latin Empire which was based in Constantinople with one of the 4th Crusade’s leaders Baldwin I as its emperor, although this newly formed Latin Empire could barely call itself an “empire” considering that the lands Baldwin I controlled only consisted of Constantinople, its surroundings in Thrace, the Marmara Sea and its islands, and only a small portion of Northwest Asia Minor along the Balkans, while the Latin authorities of Constantinople too could barely run their empire the way the Byzantines did. In the following year 1205, the other leaders of the 4th Crusade followed in establishing their own states in the remains of Byzantine Greece, basically doing what the Crusaders did a century earlier in Outremer when forming their own 4 separate states there if you remember from the previous chapter.
These new states formed in Byzantine territory were the Kingdom of Thessalonica established by the 4th Crusade’s real actual leader Boniface of Montferrat who became the first King of Thessalonica controlling the region of Macedonia with Thessaloniki as its capital, then in the Southern Greece which was the Peloponnese Peninsula a new Crusader state was founded there which was the Principality of Achaea by the Frenchmen William I de Champlitte and Geoffroi de Villehardouin who were also both leaders of their own divisions in the 4th Crusade who became the first princes of their newly established Crusader state of Achaea which would later on turn out to be the most successful of these Latin states, and in Central Greece another new Crusader state was established as well which was the Duchy of Athens by the Burgundian French knight Otto de la Roche who was again one of the 4th Crusade’s leaders. On the other hand, the Republic of Venice that transported the Crusaders to Constantinople was the one that got the largest share of territory when the old Byzantine Empire was divided as here Venice got the important islands of Corfu, Cephalonia, Negroponte (Euboea), Crete, Rhodes, Lemnos, as well as the port of Dyyrhachion in Albania, while most other islands in the Aegean fell under the rule of the noble Venetian Sanudo family who in 1207 established the Duchy of the Archipelago consisting of these islands they acquired for helping their Republic of Venice in the 4th Crusade. As for the Byzantines, there was no way for their civilization to die out and one of the reasons for this was that if you remember from the previous chapter, the previous ruling Komnenos family created such a large extended family by marrying off their relatives to the other noble families of Byzantium, and now at the beginning of the 13th century the extended imperial family was very large that almost all the powerful nobles of this time were all related to each other thus all having a claim to restore the empire. The nobles which were the Laskaris brothers Theodore and Constantine as well as large number of the population that escaped Constantinople the exact day the Crusaders stormed in set themselves up in the rich city of Nicaea along a lake which they intended to use as their base to regroup the scattered Byzantine forces around Asia Minor and eventually one day take back Constantinople from the Crusaders, however neither of the brothers despite forming their own exiled state in Nicaea could call themselves “emperor” due to their position being not fully secured as the Latins of Constantinople too had plans to take over Nicaea and the lands around it to establish another new Crusader state there which would be the Duchy of Nicaea that would be under the rule of one of the 4th Crusade’s top generals the Frenchman Louis I de Blois who in late 1204 together with the Latin emperor Baldwin I’s brother Henry of Flanders who was also one of the 4th Crusade’s leaders crossed the Marmara into Asia Minor and defeated a Byzantine army led by the Laskaris brothers.
The Laskaris brothers too were unsecure as also due to Constantinople being lost to the Crusaders, a number of Byzantine general stationed in Asia Minor and Greece controlling small holdings there seeing all was lost proclaimed themselves as emperors, such generals that did so included Leo Sgouros in the Peloponnese, as well as Theodore Mangaphas and Sabas Asidenos in Asia Minor. Meanwhile, even before Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade’s army in April of 1204, news that the large army of the 4th Crusade was camped outside Constantinople reached the far southeast corner of the Black Sea still under Byzantine rule which was Trebizond and here, fearing that Constantinople would be lost to the Crusaders which in fact did happen, Alexios and David Komnenos who were grandsons of the former Byzantine emperor Andronikos I Komnenos who was deposed and executed by his people in 1185 seized the city of Trebizond with military support from the Kingdom of Georgia to its northeast ruled by the powerful queen Tamar the Great.
Basically, right when Constantinople fell to the Crusaders in April of 1204, the Komnenos brothers Alexios and David now having Trebizond and its surroundings as theirs proclaimed themselves co-emperors establishing their own Byzantine Empire known as the “Empire of Trebizond” and as its rulers they referred to themselves as Megas Komnenos meaning “Grand Komnenos” to emphasize their legitimacy over all the other successor states formed by Byzantine nobles as these brothers were direct descendants of the Komnenos Dynasty and its founder Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118). Another Byzantine noble to put his claim on the throne and to restore the empire was Michael Angelos, the cousin of the former emperors Isaac II and Alexios III Angelos who in 1205 established his own state in Western Greece which was quite a large one along the Ionian Sea known as the “Despotate of Epirus” with the city of Arta as its capital.
Although no matter how large his state was, Michael I Angelos could not call himself an emperor or Basileus but instead only as Despot which was basically a ruler with absolute power but not at the same level of power as an emperor, as Michael I here did not have much legitimacy to be called an emperor, although Epirus would still turn out to be the most unharmed of the 3 new Byzantine successor states in which the others were Nicaea and Trebizond as Epirus was protected by mountains on the east which was its border with the new Latin state of Thessalonica. In the meantime, the former Byzantine emperors Alexios III who fled Constantinople back in 1203 and Alexios V who fled right when the Crusaders stormed into the capital in 1204 were still alive and in fact both former emperors even met up with each other in Thrace later on in 1204 but both did not get along well as both had a claim to the Byzantine throne and so Alexios V was blinded by his father-in-law Alexios III. The blinded Alexios V was later captured by the Crusader army in Thrace and brought back to Constantinople to face trial for murdering Alexios IV who was the Crusaders’ ally but Alexios V still defended his action saying that Alexios IV was the one that committed treason against his empire by inviting the Crusaders, however Alexios V was still found guilty.
In December of 1204, Alexios V was executed in a rather unusual way by being brought to the top of the Column of Theodosius I in Constantinople where Alexios V was pushed off by a Crusader soldier, thus Alexios V was thrown off the column to his death when hitting the ground. Now in early 1205, the Latin Empire’s forces added new territories in Northwest Asia Minor to the Latin Empire after Theodore Laskaris’ forces were defeated again in battle by the forces of Henry of Flanders and Louis de Blois wherein Theodore’s brother Constantine was captured and possibly even killed in battle when his forces were defeated by the Latins, as Constantine after this disappears from the historical record. In the meantime, the Byzantine nobles and people of the cities of Didymoteicho and Adrianople in Thrace now under the rule of the Latin Empire were unhappy with their new overlords and so they asked for assistance from the 2nd Bulgarian Empire and its tsar Kaloyan to the north to help them drive away their Latin overlords despite Kaloyan being at odds with the Byzantines, but with the Latins taking over Constantinople Kaloyan now feared they would invade Bulgaria next.
Before Kaloyan and Bulgarian army could arrive to assist the people of Adrianople, the people of Adrianople revolted declaring their city free from Latin rule but the Latin emperor in Constantinople Baldwin I could not let it happen and so he marched out of Constantinople with his army together with his general Louis de Blois and the very old Enrico Dandolo to besiege and take back Adrianople. Right when the Latins laid siege to Adrianople, Kaloyan and his large Bulgarian army of 40,000 appeared and charged at the Latin Crusader army. What then followed was the Battle of Adrianople in 1205, ironically on more or less the same site the Battle of Adrianople in 378 between the Eastern Romans (Byzantines) and Goths was fought in if you remember from chapter I of this series wherein the Romans in real history suffered a heavy defeat to the Goths with their emperor Valens (r. 364-378) killed in it as well. Now in this Battle of Adrianople, the Bulgarians won a decisive victory almost annihilating the Latin army where their general Louis de Blois was also killed in battle too while the Latin emperor Baldwin I was taken as a prisoner by the Bulgarians. The very old Enrico Dandolo however escaped alive back to Constantinople but just 2 months later he died there at the very old age of 97.
As for Baldwin I, his fate is unknown but it is most likely that he died imprisoned in the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo as a tower that still stands there up to this day is known as “Baldwin’s Tower” where he was imprisoned, although the circumstances for his death later in 1205 are unclear but it is said that Baldwin had an affair with Kaloyan’s wife and out of revenge Kaloyan killed Baldwin in prison afterwards turning Baldwin’s skull into his drinking cup, a Bulgarian tradition done to rulers they defeated in battle, and if you remember from chapter VI of this series the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802-811) in 811 suffered this same fate of having his skull made into a drinking cup when defeated in battle by the Bulgarians. The crushing defeat the Latin Empire faced to the Bulgarians at Adrianople thus was the beginning of their end even if it just happened a year after the Latin Empire was established, thus this defeat would allow the Byzantines of Nicaea to now gain the upper hand.
With the Latin Empire’s forces defeated at Adrianople and their emperor Baldwin I taken as a prisoner by the Bulgarians, Baldwin I’s brother Henry of Flanders in Constantinople at first took over the Latin Empire as its regent but in the following year 1206 when getting news of Baldwin’s death in prison, Henry was crowned as the second Latin emperor.
Unlike Baldwin I who was plainly a warrior without much of a plan in running an empire showing little toleration to his Byzantine Greek subjects, his brother Henry was at least a much wiser ruler who was more tolerant to his Greek subjects being aware that his people the Latins were foreign occupiers in Byzantine lands. Now with the Latin Empire weakened after their defeat to the Bulgarians, the newly formed Byzantine successor state of Nicaea now was secure and so in 1205 after defeating the rebel generals in Asia Minor that established their own states there following the capture of Constantinople as well as relocating the Byzantine senate from Constantinople to Nicaea, Theodore I Laskaris was able to proclaim himself as emperor with the successor state based in Nicaea now becoming the “Empire of Nicaea”.
To solidify his rule, Theodore I allied himself with Kaloyan and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire against the Latin emperor Henry to counter the expansion of the Latin Empire, although Henry to defend his empire allied with the other successor Byzantine Empire of Trebizond ruled by Alexios I and David Megas Komnenos. With his victory over the Latins, Kaloyan now having his way in 1207 launched an attack on the new Crusader Kingdom of Thessalonica and on the way to besieging its capital Thessaloniki, his Bulgarian forces ambushed the King of Thessalonica Boniface of Montferrat who was in fact even killed in the ambush. Kaloyan and his forces then laid siege to Thessaloniki and with Boniface dead, his very young son Demetrios succeeded him as king but right when Demetrios succeeded his father, Kaloyan and his Bulgarian forces laid siege to Thessaloniki but before being able to finish the siege, Kaloyan outside the walls of Thessaloniki suddenly suffered a heart attack and dropped dead, although legend says Kaloyan suddenly dropped dead as the ghost of Thessaloniki patron saint St. Demetrios stabbed him to death. With Kaloyan dead, the Bulgarians abandoned their siege of Thessaloniki and without children, Kaloyan was succeeded as the Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire by his nephew Boril who was a much weaker ruler and when coming into power, Boril’s cousin Ivan Asen the same son of the former Bulgarian tsar and the empire’s founder Ivan Asen I who was assassinated back in 1196 now being grown up fled north to the land of the Russians possibly to the Kievan Rus’ Empire’s successor state the Principality of Kiev to seek support to seize the Bulgarian throne. In 1208, with the war between the Latin Empire and the Bulgarians still ongoing, Boril’s forces were defeated by the Latin emperor Henry allowing Henry to take over the Bulgarian city of Philippopolis while at the same time the Serbian Principality to the west of Bulgaria under its Grand Prince Stefan Nemanjic now the one growing, it took over some parts of Macedonia from the Bulgarians and the Kingdom of Thessalonica. As for the Empire of Nicaea in Asia Minor, more and more Byzantine Greek people fled to it from Latin occupied Constantinople and Thrace being unhappy under Latin rule and one of these Byzantine Greeks that ended up in Nicaea was the same historian Niketas Choniates who then became a historian at the court of Theodore I who live there till his death in 1217. In 1208 as well, the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople too moved to Nicaea and it was only here with the Patriarch of Constantinople now based in Nicaea that Theodore I Laskaris was formally crowned as emperor. Theodore I then renewed his alliance with Bulgaria by making an alliance with Boril as well as with the new Despot of Epirus Michael I Angelos while the Latin emperor Henry on the other hand now fearing Theodore I would expand his empire made an additional alliance with Nicaea’s neighbor in the east which was the still surviving Seljuk Sultanate of Rum under Sultan Kaykhusraw I as Henry too had previously allied himself with the new Empire of Trebizond. In the meantime, the former emperor Alexios III Angelos was still alive now as a renegade looking for opportunities to take back throne and between 1205 and 1211, he had been at the Latin court at Thessaloniki and with his cousin Michael I at Epirus, though in 1211 he fled to Asia Minor to seek refuge with the Seljuk sultan Kaykhusraw I who Alexios III made an alliance with against Theodore I who was Alexios’ son-in-law married to Alexios’ daughter Anna as Alexios III did not want to recognize Theodore’s claim to the throne.
Now allied with the former emperor Alexios III and the Latin emperor Henry, the Seljuk sultan Kaykhusraw marched his forces together with Latin mercenaries to the Empire of Nicaea’s territory in Asia Minor confronting Theodore I and his Byzantine army at the Battle of Antioch on the Meander River. Now in battle, the sultan and Theodore I confronted each other face-to-face wherein the sultan struck Theodore in the head with a heavy blow from his mace knocking Theodore off his horse onto the ground unconscious, but soon enough Theodore regained his consciousness and with his sword struck the sultan’s horse knocking the sultan to the ground.
With Sultan Kaykhusraw I down on the ground and Theodore recovering, Theodore’s troops rushed to the sultan and beheaded him, afterwards displaying the sultan’s head on a spear for everyone to see and at the sight of their sultan decapitated, the Seljuk army fled in fear and panic, thus the Byzantines of Nicaea won their first major victory. The Byzantines of Nicaea thus won a pyrrhic victory here as they came very close to being defeated with their emperor Theodore I almost killed and only at the end did the tide turn to the favor of the Byzantines when Theodore I was able to get back his consciousness, and now that the Seljuks were defeated, the new Seljuk sultan which was Kaykhusraw I’ son Kykaus I concluded a permanent peace with the Empire of Nicaea wherein their borders would remain unchanged. With their defeat here in 1211, the tide of the Seljuks’ advance into Asia Minor ever since they won their first major victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert back in 1071 if you remember from chapter VIII of this series would be reversed, as here would begin the decline of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in Asia Minor. As for the former emperor Alexios III who allied himself with the Seljuks, he too was captured and brought to his son-in-law Theodore I who in return did not harm his father-in-law but instead just removed him of all his imperial titles and sent him to a monastery in Nicaea to retire for good, and later in 1211 as well Alexios III Angelos died at 58 in the monastery he was banished to.
Winning a victory over the Seljuks and their Latin allies supplied by the Latin emperor Henry, Theodore I’s popularity rose to great levels that the Byzantine Greek people too across the Marmara in Thrace living under Latin rule also began to rebel against their Latin overlords. Emperor Henry however could not accept Theodore I and Nicaea’s victory and so in 1212, Henry with an army crossed into Asia Minor and attacked the Empire of Nicaea’s territories capturing a number of fortresses too, although Henry ended up seizing too many fortresses that he no longer had enough soldiers to station them in anymore, thus Henry turned to concluding peace with Theodore I. In 1214 then, both Theodore I of Nicaea and Henry of the Latin Empire agreed to a truce which was to also agree in formally ceding the region of Asia Minor along the south coast Marmara known as Troad to the Latin Empire.
Since Theodore I concluded peace with the Seljuks as well, he in 1214 too allied with them in a short campaign east against the Empire of Trebizond which resulted in the Nicaean forces and their Seljuk allies capturing the region of Paphlagonia from the Empire of Trebizond. Here in 1214, the Empire of Trebizond was now only ruled by Alexios I Megas Komnenos as back in 1212 his brother David had died, and now with Paphlagonia lost to the Nicaean Empire, Alexios I realized that with his empire now reduced by a lot gave up his ambitions to restore the Byzantine Empire and instead decided to just make his empire a regional power in the Black Sea which it would forever remain as such. Over in the Despotate of Epirus meanwhile, its ruler or despot Michael I Angelos ruled like a real despot in a cruel and tyrannical way to his subjects while he spent most his time being a violent war fanatic waging war against the Latins and Venetians in Greece, although in 1215 in Albania in the middle of his campaign to expel the Venetians from the port city of Dyrrhachion, Michael I was assassinated in his sleep by the order of his half-brother Theodore Angelos who immediately succeeded Michael as the Despot of Epirus becoming known as Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas, and now the new ruler of Epirus Theodore unlike his half-brother was a legitimate member of the Angelos Dynasty as his half-brother Michael was an illegitimate son of their father John Doukas Angelos who was the brother of the emperors Isaac II and Alexios III’s father the general Andronikos Angelos, who featured prominently in the last chapter.
The new Despot of Epirus Theodore feeling that he had every right to claim the Byzantine throne as a legitimate member of the Angelos Dynasty that once ruled it and a great-grandson of Alexios I Komnenos questioned Theodore I of Nicaea’s authority therefore not recognizing him as an emperor and the Empire of Nicaea as an empire, and so Despot Theodore after making an alliance with his northern neighbor the Grand Prince of Serbia Stefan Nemanjic who in 1217 became Serbia’s first king, and began making preparations to first capture Thessaloniki and then Constantinople from the Latins. The Latin emperor Henry when hearing of the Despot of Epirus beginning his campaign to march west decided to counter-attack and so in 1216 Henry left Constantinople to head west and crush the Epirote army before it reached Thessaloniki, though Henry died on the march in 1216 before reaching Epirus. With Henry’s death died the unfortunately last and only competent Latin emperor who could have at least made the Latin Empire of Constantinople an established power and as a ruler, Henry was tolerant but not weak and strong but not cruel, and with his death the Latin Empire would no longer have a ruler like that. Meanwhile back in Nicaea also in 1216, one young talented soldier in the service of Theodore I would rise to prominence as a general and this was John Doukas Vatatzes, a Byzantine Greek noble born in the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace back in 1192 who after 1204 was one of the many people that fled to the new Empire of Nicaea. Now due to his talent in battle and state administration, Theodore I who at this point still had no male heirs to succeed him considered making John Vatatzes his heir, and so Theodore married off his daughter Irene Laskarina to John.
Back to the Latin Empire, with Henry dead without any male heirs, the Latin barons at Constantinople decided to elect Henry’s brother-in-law Peter Courtenay, a French noble and grandson of the former King of France Louis VI (r. 1108-1137) as the new Latin emperor, however Peter here was all the way in France, and when getting word that he had to travel to Constantinople to be crowned, he left France first to Rome wherein he was crowned by the pope Honorius III– the successor of the 4th Crusade’s planner Innocent III who had died in 1216- as Latin emperor in 1217. Despite being crowned as Latin emperor, Peter never made to Constantinople as also in 1217 when arriving in the Despotate of Epirus in Greece, he was captured by Despot Theodore and imprisoned. With Peter imprisoned, the Latin barons sent word to Peter’s sons in France Philippe and Robert Courtenay to take the throne in Constantinople but both brothers refused the offer and so it was their mother Yolande of Flanders, the wife of Peter and sister of the late Latin emperors Baldwin I and Henry that came to Constantinople to rule as its regent empress before Peter could be released or her sons would arrive.
As the regent ruler of the Latin Empire, Yolande decided to conclude peace with Theodore I’s Empire of Nicaea and so Yolande married off her daughter Marie to Theodore I as Theodore’s first wife Anna had already died, while Yolande after she arrived in Constantinople too gave birth to her youngest child with Peter which was a son and soon to be ruler of the Latin Empire who was named Baldwin after his uncle the first Latin emperor. At the same time, Pope Honorius III continued his predecessor Innocent III’s plan in launching a 5th Crusade this time to finally recapture Jerusalem from the Ayyubid Empire as the 4th Crusade failed to do so when it sacked Constantinople and took over the Byzantine Empire, and so in 1217 as well the 5th Crusade was launched consisting of a large number of European powers including France and the Holy Roman Empire with the same King of France Philippe II from the 3rd Crusade joining again this time as an old man, and an allied force from the Seljuks of Asia Minor too.
Long story short though, the Crusaders here at least made it to Egypt which was the suggested route to invade Palestine to capture Jerusalem but the Crusade at the end only made it to Egypt as it failed before the Crusaders could capture the Ayyubid capital Cairo as the Ayyubid sultan Al-Kamil ordered the dam blocking the Nile broken which then flooded the Crusaders’ camp forcing the Crusaders to surrender and return home to Europe by 1221. Meanwhile in the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, its tsar Boril lost the throne in 1218 when his cousin Ivan Asen returning from the land of the Rus with military support captured the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo, thus Ivan Asen captured and blinded Boril, and thus Ivan became Tsar Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria. To consolidate his rule, Ivan Asen II did not allow the King of Hungary Andrew II who was passing Bulgaria returning to Hungary from the 5th Crusade to return home unless Andrew gave his daughter Maria in marriage to Ivan, and so Andrew agreed to this in order to return home. The supposed Latin emperor Peter Courtenay however never made it to Constantinople as in 1219 he died in prison in Epirus, possibly under the orders of Despot Theodore while Yolande also suddenly died in 1219 which was very fatal for the Latin Empire as Yolande and Peter’s only son in Constantinople Baldwin was only 2-years-old and their older son Philippe again refused though their other son Robert finally accepted the offer to be Latin emperor but it would take him some time to travel from France to Constantinople and in the meantime, the French knight Conon de Bethune who was a general of the former Latin emperor Henry was elected to rule as the regent of the empire for young Baldwin but within only a few months Conon had died.
Looking for a new regent, the Latin barons turned to the cardinal from Rome Giovanni Colonna who had previously joined Peter on the trip to Constantinople but was captured in Epirus, although Cardinal Colonna managed to get released from captivity and in 1220, he was made the regent ruler of the Latin Empire but unfortunately as only a religious leader he had no government and military experience, thus things would already go all downhill here for the Latin Empire. In the Empire of Nicaea, Theodore I Laskaris then died in 1221 at 46 at least leaving behind a much more stable and thriving empire than how he had founded it with a strong government system patterned exactly on the old Byzantine government system back in Constantinople before 1204, but the major problem here was that his succession plan was disputed as his intended successor John Vatatzes was only his son-in-law and so Theodore’s younger brothers Alexios and Isaac Laskaris challenged John’s claim to the throne of Nicaea which would lead to a short civil war.
At Theodore I’s death in 1221, the Empire of Nicaea went a long way from a fragile new state to a strong and functioning one that now had a true purpose which was to preserve Byzantine civilization that was thought to have been lost when the Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, and one day recapture Constantinople.
As for the Latin Empire in Constantinople meanwhile, in 1221 as well their official emperor Robert Courtenay, the son of Peter and Yolande finally arrived from France and was crowned, thus seeing his youngest brother Baldwin for the first time while the empire’s regent Cardinal Colonna stepped down and returned to Rome. The Latin Empire Robert came to rule however was in financial straits due to the loss of great amount of territory to the Despotate of Epirus and Bulgaria while their crushing defeat to the Bulgarians back in 1205 at Adrianople significantly reduced their army, and the young emperor Robert when coming into power did not do anything to solve his empire’s problems, instead he continued to waste away his empire’s treasury using the funds to host lavish parties almost every night where he would waste away getting drunk. Now in Nicaea, John III Doukas Vatatzes at 30 was now emperor in 1222, and quite coincidentally when coming to the throne his son with his wife Irene Laskarina was born and this son was named Theodore after the empire’s founder and his maternal grandfather Theodore I.
John III although was not yet secure in power as Theodore I’s younger brothers Alexios and Isaac were in clear opposition to him seeing John was a lowborn usurper as the Vatatzes family he came from was not an established noble family, and so Alexios and Isaac went to Latin held Constantinople itself to seek military assistance from their emperor Robert, and Robert not caring much about his empire and his limited army gave the Laskaris brothers troops anyway to help them beat John III in battle. The Nicaean forces led by John III himself and the brothers Alexios and Isaac Laskaris with their allied Latin Crusader army met at the Battle of Poimanenon in 1223, and in this battle taking place in an empty field with a single church, John III being a capable soldier won an easy victory over the Latin army and the Laskaris brothers, thus the brothers Alexios and Isaac who were captured were blinded under John III’s orders then sent in exile to a monastery where they would live out the rest of their days in. The defeat of the Latin army in 1223 by John III’s forces was another heavy blow to the Latin Empire as due to this defeat, the Latins lost all their territory in Asia Minor which John III annexed into the Empire of Nicaea which now by having this land gained control of the Marmara Sea, thus allowing the Byzantines of Nicaea to now cross back into Europe. With the Latin forces so severely reduced after this defeat to the Empire of Nicaea, the Latin Empire would then have no more troops to defend their neighboring Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica from the rapid advance of the Despot of Epirus Theodore Komnenos Doukas who in 1224 then laid siege to Thessaloniki.
At the end of 1224, the Latin garrison of Thessaloniki surrendered while its king Demetrios who was now grown up fled to Italy to the court of the new Holy Roman emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, and now occupying Thessaloniki and ending the existence of the Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica which was now annexed to the Despotate of Epirus, Despot Theodore proclaimed himself “Emperor of Thessalonica” only as a way to assert his authority as the legitimate successor of Byzantium in opposition to John III of Nicaea who’s imperial authority was not recognized by Theodore. Now that Despot Theodore was first to be on the winning side on the race to take back Constantinople from the Latins, John III of Nicaea could not let it happen and to stop Despot Theodore from marching further east, John III gathered a large army in 1225 and crossed into Thrace through the Dardanelles strait from Asia Minor, making this the first Byzantine crossing into Europe since 1204. Afterwards, John III and his forces were successfully able to capture the city of Adrianople from the Latins with ease making this the first Byzantine conquest in Europe since the fall of their empire 2 decades earlier, thus with Adrianople falling to Nicaea, the Latin Empire was now only limited to Constantinople and its surroundings.
The mostly Byzantine Greek people of Adrianople then cheered and welcomed John III with open arms not as a conqueror but as their liberator as finally the people of Adrianople were once again ruled by a fellow Byzantine Greek. Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria at this point concluded an alliance with Despot Theodore to counter John III’s advance into Europe and here Ivan married off his very young daughter Maria to Theodore’s brother Manuel, then in 1227 with Theodore of Epirus and now the Emperor of Thessalonica gaining the upper hand, he managed to capture Adrianople from John III ending its Nicaean Byzantine rule after only 2 years, thus the path to Constantinople was fully open to Theodore. Over in Constantinople in 1227 too, Emperor Robert fearing Despot Theodore would capture Constantinople anytime soon travelled to Rome to ask for military assistance from the new pope Gregory IX who during this year became pope too following the death of Honorius III, however the new pope failed to send troops to Robert as at the same time, a large army from Europe headed on a new Crusade to again take back Jerusalem which here was the 6th Crusade led by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II.
On the way back from Rome to Constantinople, the Latin emperor Robert died in early 1228 when stopping over in the Peloponnese which was here still held by the Principality of Achaea leaving his 11-year-old brother who here was left in Constantinople as the sole Latin emperor Baldwin II Courtenay. As for the 6th Crusade of Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, long story short, it was a success for the Crusaders as here through diplomacy Frederick II succeeded in doing what the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Crusades failed to do which was recapturing Jerusalem, and in 1229 with Jerusalem Christian again, the Kingdom of Jerusalem based in it that fell in 1187 was restored.
The Climax Part I- The emperor and the tsar besiege Constantinople (1229-1235)
As the Latin emperor Robert Courtenay died in 1228, his younger brother Baldwin II Courtenay who here succeeded him as Latin emperor was only 11 meaning he was still not yet at the legal age to rule alone, so the Latin barons of Constantinople again had to look for a regent.
Seeing the Latin Empire’s succession was in chaos and a regent was desperately needed, the 36-year-old Tsar Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria immediately grabbed the opportunity to claim for himself the regency of the Latin Empire, which was overall part of his plan to one day double-cross the young Latin emperor Baldwin II and take Constantinople for himself, therefore achieving the ultimate dream of the Bulgarians to put Constantinople under their empire. To claim for himself the regency of young Baldwin II and of the Latin Empire, Ivan offered his 5-year-old daughter Elena Asenina who was his daughter from his marriage to the Hungarian princess Maria to the 11-year-old Baldwin II, and so in 1229 Ivan sent his daughter Elena with an entourage of Bulgarian nobles to Constantinople to meet Baldwin II. The young Latin emperor Baldwin II then met the Bulgarian princess Elena who he was supposed to marry in Constantinople while Ivan II also proposed to the Latin barons of Constantinople that he will combine his forces with theirs on his upcoming campaigns. The Latin barons however soon enough declined Ivan II’s offer to be young Baldwin II’s regent as these Latin people from Western Europe did not trust a Bulgarian foreigner as these Latins saw the Bulgarians as a barbarian and inferior race, so the proposed marriage between young Baldwin II and Elena never pushed through and Elena returned to her father in Bulgaria. For the Latin barons of Constantinople, the person to be young Baldwin II’s regent had to be a fellow Latin (Western European), and not too long after they declined Ivan II’s offer they found a new candidate for the regency of the Latin Empire which was the 60-year-old Jean de Brienne, a French noble who was the former King of Jerusalem (1210-1225) when the kingdom was in exile based in Acre while also he happened to be one of the leaders of the 5th Crusade back then, however in 1229 when Jean de Brienne was elected as Latin emperor, he was still in Italy. In the meantime, Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas of Epirus felt that his ally Ivan Asen II betrayed him when Ivan tried to claim for himself regency of Constantinople behind Theodore’s back, and so in 1230 Despot Theodore suddenly but confidently led an army across the Maritsa River which was his state’s border with Bulgaria thus invading the Bulgarian Empire bringing his family along.
Ivan Asen II however quickly responded to Theodore’s invasion and personally led his Bulgarian army with an addition of 1,000 Cuman horse archer mercenaries against Theodore’s forces, and being a more successful military commander than Theodore, Ivan defeated Theodore’s Epirote forces here at the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230, and although Ivan allowed the defeated Epirote Byzantine forces to retreat safely, Despot Theodore was captured and brought before Ivan. According to the Jewish-Spanish rabi Jacob Arophe who was present here, Ivan ordered two Jews to blind Theodore as Ivan knew Theodore persecuted Jews in Epirus and to make it look like the Jews were to have their revenge, they were the ones to blind Theodore, however these Jews refused to do so and so Ivan had them thrown off a cliff, therefore Ivan blinded Theodore himself. After being blinded, Theodore was imprisoned in Bulgaria thus ending the power of the Despotate of Epirus for now, while Ivan Asen II due to his victory over Epirus rapidly expanded his empire south capturing most of Thessaly, Macedonia, and Thrace including the city of Adrianople from the Despotate of Epirus.
By the end of 1230, Ivan Asen II’s 2nd Bulgarian Empire having all of Bulgaria, most of Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, and parts of Epirus was now the dominant power of the Balkans, and the spectacular part was that it had only been 45 years since the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was founded when Ivan’s father Ivan Asen I and uncle Theodor-Peter in 1185 rebelled against Byzantine rule and founded the 2nd Bulgarian Empire which at their time was just a very small state in the mountains of Bulgaria, and now just 45 years later Bulgaria was on its way to its second golden age of power and influence being close to what Bulgaria was at the beginning of the 10th century under the reign of their greatest ruler so far which was Tsar Simeon the Great (r. 893-927) if you remember from chapter VII of this series. The Despotate of Epirus following the capture of Despot Theodore was now the one in ruins, although Thessaloniki was spared by Ivan Asen II who instead installed Theodore’s brother Manuel who was Ivan’s son-in-law as his puppet ruler of Thessaloniki who was only allowed to use the title of “despot” and not “emperor”. Manuel however basically just had control of Thessaloniki as the main state of Epirus in Western Greece itself fell under the rule of Theodore’s nephew Michael II Angelos, the son of the Despotate of Epirus’ founder Michael I who was assassinated back in 1215.
At the same time as the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was rapidly growing in power influence, the same too could be said about John III Vatatzes’ Empire of Nicaea which in the 1230s started enjoying a time of peace, economic growth, and a Byzantine cultural revival as John III invested heavily in culture and part of his mission as emperor was to revive the Ancient Greek identity and culture which included art and philosophy, while his capital Nicaea too became a center of learning. John III’s son Theodore too was given the best education ever being the imperial heir, and true enough Theodore grew up to be a philosophical genius, but other than Theodore a number of other soon-to-be important people were also brought up at this time educated together with Theodore and these were the soon-to-be scholar and primary historian of the 13th century George Akropolites, a commoner who was sent to Nicaea to be educated in order to be Theodore’s protector and general in the future which was George Mouzalon as well as his two brothers, and a young noble who already showed such ambition even at a young age which was Michael Palaiologos, the son of John III’s top general or Megas Domestikos Andronikos Palaiologos, and even though young Theodore and young Michael were 2nd cousins as both were great-grandsons of the former Byzantine emperor Alexios III Angelos, there was already a strong rivalry growing between the boys, mostly over who had more ambition to restore the empire wherein Michael clearly showed he had more. Meanwhile, John III in the 1230s and even before it succeeded in capturing the Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, and later Rhodes from the Venetians, thus the Empire of Nicaea grew to be a dominant power as well which by the 1230s covered almost all of Western Asia Minor having the coasts of the Black, Marmara, and Aegean Seas, as well as a small portion of Thrace.