Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- A Retelling of the Bizarre Byzantine Renaissance and the Macedonian (Amorian) Dynasty

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 9th and 10th centuries AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VI- 9th Century

Look, I’m giving you these rules, so that you will not leave the best advices and the public interest in the light of past experiments and filtered information.” -Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, De Administrando Imperio

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Welcome to the 7th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Now before I begin this very lengthy article that will span more than a hundred years, I just have to say that I can’t believe I now reached this far in my series basically being more than halfway through the 1,100-year history of Byzantium, thus a milestone indeed! Last time, in chapter VI of this 12-part series, I discussed a possible and highly popular what if scenario of the Byzantine empress Irene of Athens actually marrying the rising star of the time, the Frankish emperor Charlemagne in 802 which could have happened but never did. The previous story too talked about one large united Frankish-Roman Empire as a result of this said marriage that would be a European superpower like the Roman Empire of old and would be powerful enough to turn the tide against the Byzantine Empire’s two mortal enemies and greatest threats being the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in the east and the Bulgarian Empire in the north. Though this marriage would been necessary only in reversing all of the Byzantine economic and military setbacks in the short-term but in the long-term this union of both Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and Carolingian Frankish Empires would only be rather confusing as both halves of the empire (eastern and western) were of different cultures and religions to put it short, and the succession system would be even more complicated. Now since the alternate history scenarios featured per chapter in this series do not continue with each other, the said fictional marriage from the last chapter and the union of the two empires would not continue here, and again as each story in this series is a stand-alone, this chapter would again begin discussing real historical events which will have a twist as it progresses. True enough, this marriage between Irene and Charlemagne was not that necessary in order to reverse all of Byzantium’s setbacks as about a century after this marriage was supposed to happen, Byzantium was long done with its dystopian-like Dark Ages period that the past 3 chapters were set in, and was now in its second golden age- the first one being in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565)- and now here out of Dark Ages, the Byzantine Empire as the 9th century ends became a cultural and military power in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean and together with the Frankish and Bulgarian Empires, one of the 3 major powers of early medieval Europe as a whole. For almost 3 centuries, the Byzantine Empire plunged into a dark age where the empire rapidly lost a great amount of territory and was under attack by enemies on all sides forcing them to fight for centuries on the defensive whether against the Arab powers from the east or the Bulgars from the north, but in the second half of the 9th century, things would all of a sudden change for the Byzantines. The turn of the tide for the Byzantines in the latter 9th century however did not come out of the blue, rather it mostly happened because of the luck of having good geography as in the east, the powerful Abbasid Caliphate being too large to govern started dissolving with its authority becoming decentralized into smaller states or Emirates and, in the west, the same thing too happened to the powerful Carolingian Frankish Empire of Charlemagne as part of Frankish tradition was to divide the empire among a ruler’s successors, thus these situations would give an advantage for Byzantium in the middle to rise again. The 9th century would see the Byzantine Empire slowly rise again into a dominant world power while the 10th century which would be this story’s main focus would see the Byzantine Empire literally in its second golden age of cultural and military power that other powers would grow to respect and fear it, but despite the great power and influence the Byzantines would gain here, they were still far from being an undefeatable force, as they would still face some military defeats to the Arabs and Bulgars while their imperial authority would still be challenged by the western world again in a “Cold War” like situation. Now since this series features one chapter per century, this one would primarily be set in the 10th century with Byzantium again reaching its peak of power and influence but between the previous chapter and this one, there will be a massive time jump as the last chapter was set in the very early part of the 9th century. Despite the massive time jump here of over 100 years, there will still be a lot mentioned about the 9th century in this story’s background as the 9th century had a very crucial role in Byzantine history especially in shaping the second golden age in the 10th century as the 9th century saw the Dark Ages of the Byzantine Empire end, as well as the pointless issue of Iconoclasm or the breaking of icons, the dissolution of the Abbasid Caliphate in the east which allowed the Byzantines to turn the tide of war to the offensive against them, the spread of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium to the Balkans wherein the Bulgars would finally become Christian, and the rise of the most colorful dynasty in Byzantine history, the Macedonian Dynasty which was founded by Basil I the Macedonian in 867 in a rather violent away, and again Basil I was another of the Byzantine emperors who came from humble origins who would go from a peasant, to a stable boy and wrestler, to a bodyguard, and finally become the sole emperor founding a dynasty that would last for over 200 years till the mid 11th century, but the big question is if this Macedonian Dynasty really existed as Basil I’s son and successor was Leo VI who continued the dynasty through his descendants was believed to not be his son but the son of the last emperor of the Amorian Dynasty Michael III who Basil killed, and this story now will exactly do that in discussing the possibility of the Macedonian Dynasty not really existing but in fact still being the Amorian Dynasty of the 9th century. This dynasty whether you would stick to it being the Macedonian or go with the possibility of it being the Amorian Dynasty continued would feature colorful rulers whether they were from the bloodline of Basil I or were powerful generals from the wealthy landed aristocracy that married into it, and these colorful characters of this powerful dynasty from the 9th to 10th centuries in chronological order would include its founder being a wrestler of low birth who became emperor, a serious scholar, a vengeful drunk, an unlikely admiral with a great ability in ruling, an intellectual snob obsessed with court rituals, a fun-loving party-boy, a highly skilled but ruthless general without much political and diplomatic skills, and an overall perfect mix of a soldier and diplomat emperor. The 10th century then would be forever remembered for these characters but also because it was very action-packed and featured a lot of the political struggles and extravagance Byzantium would be remembered for and henceforth the word “byzantine” meaning complicated. At the same time, I also have to admit that the 10th century under the Macedonian Dynasty is my favorite period in Byzantine history and was the particular period that got me so into Byzantine history. This period too is one of the most popular- next of course to Justinian I’s reign in the 6th century- in the history of Byzantium that recently, a graphic novel Theophano: Byzantine Tale, which I also made an article about before, was set in this era with the lead character being Empress Theophano who shares the story’s title name, and Theophano too was one of the major players of the 10th century Byzantine golden age who comes in the middle and latter part of the century being as the novel suggested a woman of low birth who married into the imperial family first to the fun-loving party-boy emperor mentioned above which was Romanos II (r. 959-963) who was from the direct bloodline of the Macedonian (Amorian) Dynasty and afterwards following his death she would be married to the highly skilled but ruthless general mentioned above which was Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) who after marrying Theophano would become emperor. Basically, no matter how small Theophano’s part in the bigger picture would look like, she did indeed play a major role in continuing the Macedonian Dynasty by giving birth to two sons who would be emperors later on being Basil II (r. 976-1025) and Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), and it was Theophano who also served as a link between all the influential people of this era, while at the same time being an ambitious woman which was something quite unheard of then, she also gets some bad reputation as a seductress and murderer that the poisoning and death of her father-in-law Constantine VII in 959 and of her husband Romanos II in 963 and also for plotting the successful assassination of her second husband Nikephoros II in 969. The big twist for this story then would be in its latter half, where if Theophano who in real history only came into the imperial family by chance never got the chance to do so, how different would the history of Byzantium in the 10th century be if Theophano simply did not come into the picture and just lived a simple life away from the politics of the imperial family?     

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Note: Since this story is set in the 9th and 10th centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.  

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

For this story, I am back again to basically writing it alone except that the major inspiration for this story’s alternate history plot is from the recent Byzantine era graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale (Instagram: @byzantine_tales) by Spyros Theocharis (Instagram: @spyrosem) which I read very early this year and highly enjoyed that I even made an article reviewing the novel which included a fan casting for the Byzantine era characters for a potential film and a historical analysis of it made before I even began doing this Byzantine Alternate History series.

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Theophano: A Byzantine Tale graphic novel

Now don’t get me wrong here as I did indeed totally enjoy the graphic novel and its plot and because I enjoyed it and it has intrigued me a lot, I ended up involving its plot into my fan fiction series except without its lead character Theophano for the sake of experimenting which I usually do in this series, and for me this was also what I thought would be the best alternate history topic to feature for the 10th century. For those who do not know about this novel and want to know more about the real history of 10th century Byzantium, you can check their website linked here and order a copy of it, but for those who already know the story and want to see a different side of it without its lead character, this story here being chapter VII of my Byzantine Alternate History series will be exactly that. As I mentioned earlier, the Macedonian Dynasty era or Byzantine Renaissance from 867 to the end of the 10th century is my favorite era in all of Byzantine history as it was also the first era in Byzantine history that I read about 2 years ago which then suddenly got me so passionate about Byzantium, and although I already knew about Byzantium before by learning about Justinian I’s era in school, it was this particular period of Byzantium’s second golden age which I discovered by myself that got me so into Byzantine history, therefore this story that I am writing here will be an extra special one for me. The Theophano graphic novel too was a very great story basically because it was set in my favorite timeline in Byzantine history featuring some of Byzantium’s most colorful historical figures and intrigues coming to life, though despite Theophano taken out the picture thus altering the course of the said graphic novel’s plot, the well-made illustrations for the novel by Chrysa Sakel (Instagram: @chrysasakel) would still appear here as a visual guide to 10th century Byzantium and so would be the valuable primary visual source of this era the Madrid Skylitzes in which these illustrations would frequently appear here as well as its counterpart the Russian Primary Chronicle, and so would the artworks from various artists I know online that create Byzantine fan art including Ediacar, Amelianvs, Spatharokandidatos, Akitku, HistoryGold777, Ancientcitylullaby, and Justinianusthegreat. Now back to this story’s style, it will be very much like chapter III of this series which focused on Justinian I’s reign in terms of storytelling as like chapter III, this one will go with the flow of real history meaning that there would not be so much side stories, or more personal touches, or entirely fictional or highly embellished scenarios as the other chapters did, rather this chapter would be straight to the point sticking to historical events going in the same flow as they did in reality for the sake of conveniency as this chapter will cover more than a hundred years of story, but along the way, there will be a number of changes to the narrative and the most significant one first being the Macedonian Dynasty actually being the Amorian Dynasty continued and in latter half of this story when the character of Theophano herself is removed from the plot. In real history, Theophano came into the imperial family by chance when Romanos II as the imperial heir to his father Constantine VII chose her to be his wife, though it is still speculated whether Theophano (originally Anastaso) was simply a commoner from Greece and a daughter of an innkeeper who was rumored for her exceptional beauty that imperial heir Romanos chose her to be his wife or that she came from a minor noble family, but the graphic novel goes with the first theory, and when married she gets herself involved in the toxic schemes of the imperial court. This story however will have a different take on Theophano by making it seem like she did not exist at all and so the big plot here would be that Romanos II simply never heard about her, therefore he would never marry but the rest of the story will simply follow the events of real history which means Romanos II like in reality would die in 963 very young after only 4 years in power and would be succeeded by the Nikephoros II Phokas as emperor except here he would not marry Theophano as she wouldn’t even be around and like in real history would still be assassinated in 969 by his general John Tzimiskes wherein this story would end. At first, it may seem like Theophano did not really have any significant role but later on she would as her son Basil II would become the sole emperor of Byzantium following the death of John I Tzimiskes in 976 and as emperor, Basil II would begin with a rough start but at the end would achieve the impossible of conquering the entire Bulgarian Empire thus becoming one of Byzantium’s greatest conquering emperors known as “Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer” making the Byzantine Empire be once again at its greatest extent of territory, but this would only be achieved in the next century. Since this story’s main plotline is only limited to the 10th century while it was only in the early 11th century in real history when Byzantium reached its peak of power and influence covering a vast amount of territory again after the conquest of the entire Balkans, this story will squeeze in the full Byzantine conquest of the Bulgarian Empire into the 10th century before it ends as a way to give this chapter a dramatic conclusion, and therefore this means that Basil II was not really necessary for the conquest of Bulgaria as any other competent soldier emperor could have done it too, therefore, I would also say Theophano’s part was not really of any significance considering her being Basil II’s mother. On the other hand, there was a lot of research put into this story and rewriting the course of Byzantine history and I would have to thank the Youtube channels that feature Byzantine history in detail which are as usual Kings and Generals, Eastern Roman History, and Thersites the Historian, and of course my ultimate source the highly comprehensive History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson, and at the same time my Lego films from my channel No Budget Films set in this era will be featured here as well.  

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (purple) at its medieval apogee, beginning of the 11th century

Watch this video below to learn more about the Byzantine emperors from the Macedonian Dynasty (from Hellenic History Series).


 

Before beginning the main part of the story itself, there is still some more I have to say about why the 10th century under the Macedonian Dynasty is my favorite period in the history of Byzantium and this is not only because it is fascinating with colorful characters and it was the first part of Byzantine history that I fully read about which got me into it, but it is rather also because it was the century of the Byzantine Empire. Now what I meant about the 10th century being “the century” of Byzantium is that it was the century Byzantium would be remembered for or basically its golden age the same way the Renaissance in the 15th century was for Italy, the 16th century for Spain, the era of Napoleon in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for France, and the Victorian Era and Industrial Revolution in the 19th century for England which means for Byzantium it was its most eventful era not necessarily meaning everything went their way but rather so much had happened with so many colorful characters and events, therefore making this era known as the “Byzantine Renaissance”, though on the other hand this era too happens to be quite insider being mostly only known to Byzantine history enthusiasts. For Byzantium, the 6th century under Justinian I the Great could also be considered Byzantium’s great moment but then it did not last that long and it was also only under one emperor, and on the other hand, Byzantium was still a Roman superpower unlike here in this chapter set in the 10th century, the eventful era for the empire was not under just one emperor but a whole dynasty of colorful rulers and here too Byzantium was growing into its height of power and influence as a culturally and linguistically Greek empire in the Middle Ages but of course still the Roman Empire (Basileia ton Rhomaion in Greek)in name. This chapter will exactly show how Byzantium was the cultural and military power of the 10th century as the extensive military conquests would feature heavily here wherein the powerful Byzantine army did not just fight to defend their borders anymore but gain the upper hand to launch attacks deep into Arab territory in the Middle East where the Byzantines had not ventured to in the past 3 centuries therefore regaining a large amount of lands they lost in the past, while at the same time Constantinople as the imperial capital was the “desire of the world” with advanced technology and imperial extravagance in art and architecture while the empire itself had a very organized ruling system despite all the civil wars, ambitious aristocratic generals, court intrigues, scheming eunuchs, and corruption behind it, though all of this combined whether good or bad would still make Byzantium what it really is. Of course, what also made the 10th century a very interesting time were the colorful yet checkered rulers of Byzantium including the usurping and not so well-educated admiral Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944), the highly cultured intellectual Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 945-959), the tough and ruthless military emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), and the more or less perfect soldier-diplomat emperor John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976) who all had a part in shaping the golden age of the Byzantine Empire, thus all these characters will be featured heavily here. Now the word “Renaissance” means a “rebirth of something” and for Byzantium the 10th century would see its rebirth or rather revival as a superpower after almost 3 centuries of being in the dark having to fight for its survival, and to set the stage for the main storyline of the 10th century, this chapter will go back to Byzantium in the 9th century under the Amorian Dynasty (820-867) where the dystopian-like Byzantine Dark Ages ended and its Renaissance began. The Amorian era would be discussed in this story’s background to discuss how the Byzantine Renaissance began with the turning of the tide of war against the Arabs to the offensive as well as to give a background to the bloody politics of the Byzantine court. It was also in the time of the Amorian Dynasty particularly in the reign of its last emperor Michael III (842-867) when the unlikely founder of the Macedonian Dynasty Basil I rose to power and it was he who killed Michael III and began the Macedonian Dynasty but as mention earlier, when looking into the matter carefully, it seems like the Macedonian Dynasty never really happened except for Basil I’s reign (867-886) as his son and successor Leo VI (r. 886-912) is said to have been the illegitimate son of Michael III the Amorian, and true enough even historians sometimes agree to this meaning that the well-known Macedonian Dynasty that ruled for almost 2 centuries until 1056 was actually not the Macedonian Dynasty but the Amorian Dynasty continued. For the sake conveniency however, historians still refer to Leo VI as Basil I’s son and part of the Macedonian Dynasty and so are his descendants, but this story for the sake of creating a plot twist will go with the speculation of Leo VI being actually Michael III’s son and not Basil I’s so the Dynasty here despite being known as the Macedonian Dynasty is actually the Amorian Dynasty continued, therefore this story will refer to Leo VI not as Basil I’s son as well as not a Macedonian but an Amorian and so would his descendants. In this chapter, the story of Byzantium will get even more exciting yet crazy as it will cover a lot of interesting events including a long war against the Bulgarian Empire under its tsar Simeon (r. 893-897), the continued war against the Arabs except this time with the Byzantines finally gaining the upper hand, religious debates and controversies still continuing, the spread of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium to the Balkans, endless court politics and rivalries with the eunuchs involved, ambitious generals setting their eyes on the throne, and the tensions with Western Europe again brewing in the same old “Cold War” situation as before and here despite Charlemagne from the previous chapter gone, there will be a new Frankish ruler like him to challenge the authority of Byzantium which would be the first Holy Roman emperor Otto I the Great (r. 962-973). On the other hand, this chapter will also cover Byzantium’s northern neighbor the Bulgarian Empire a lot, as well as new people from the north coming in to the picture either to help or harm the Byzantines and these will include the nomadic Magyars and Pechenegs, as well as the Rus or Norsemen that would establish the Kievan Rus’ State in what would be medieval Russia. Now since this chapter will cover a long amount of time spanning more than a hundred years, it would be told in a fast-paced action-packed documentary style which at some points would be something like a mockumentary in tone as this chapter would somewhat be a parody to the Theophano graphic novel, therefore would have in some parts a sarcastic tone as we skim through the years and events.

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Guide to the Thematic System of the Byzantine army (from Wikipedia); this article contains a lot of terms of Byzantine army units
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Genealogy of the Macedonian (Amorian) Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire (867-1056), without Theophano and her descendants (crossed out in red) in this story’s case

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VI- What if Charlemagne and Irene Married and United their Empires?

A Review/ Analysis/ and Fan-Casting for Theophano: A Byzantine Tale

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III: Justinian I the Great Saves his Empire from the Plague and Joins his Campaigns

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

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

All Sieges of Constantinople

Ethnic Origins of the Byzantine Emperors


The Major Players of this Story’s Byzantine Renaissance Epic:

Emperor Leo VI “the Wise”- Byzantine emperor (886-912); image found in the main story itself

Zoe Karbonopsina- Byzantine empress and empress-regent, wife of Leo VI; image found in the main story itself

Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos– Byzantine emperor (913-959), son of Leo VI and Zoe; image found below

Alexander- Byzantine emperor (912-913), half-brother of Leo VI

Nikolaos Mystikos- Patriarch of Constantinople (901-907/ 912-925)

Simeon the Great- Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire (893-927)

Romanos I Lekapenos- Byzantine admiral turned emperor (920-944), father-in-law of Constantine VII

John Kourkouas- Byzantine general, supreme commander of the eastern forces under Romanos I

Helena Lekapene- Byzantine empress, Daughter of Romanos I, wife of Constantine VII

Bardas Phokas the Elder- Byzantine general of the powerful Phokas clan

Romanos II- Byzantine emperor (959-963), son of Constantine VII and Helena

Joseph Bringas- Palace eunuch and advisor of Romanos II

Basil Lekapenos- Palace eunuch and advisor, son of Romanos I

Nikephoros II Phokas- Byzantine general and emperor (963-969), son of Bardas Phokas the Elder, “Pale Death of the Saracens”

Leo Phokas the Younger- Byzantine general, younger brother of Nikephoros II, son of Bardas Phokas the Elder

John I Tzimiskes- Byzantine general and emperor (969-976), nephew of Nikephoros and Leo

Sayf al-Dawla- Arab Emir of Aleppo (945-967)

Polyeuctus- Patriarch of Constantinople (956-970)

Otto I the Great- King of East Frankia and Holy Roman Emperor (936-973)

Zoe Porphyrogenita- Daughter of Constantine VII and Helena, Byzantine empress and wife of Nikephoros II and John I in this story

Sviatoslav I “the Brave”- Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (945-972)

Bardas Skleros- Byzantine general, and eventual emperor in this story

Bardas Phokas the Younger- Byzantine general, son of Leo Phokas the Younger

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

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Bulgarians (dark orange), Arabs (green), Franks (gold), Rus (dark red)


Part I.

Prologue- The Amorian Dynasty and the Rise of Basil the Macedonian, the wrestler turned emperor (811-886)        

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At some time in 811 was born the future emperor Basil the Macedonian to peasant parents in the Byzantine Theme of Macedonia near the city of Adrianople, though its name can be misleading as this Theme was not in Macedonia itself but in Thrace. Though Basil was born a peasant and known as the Macedonian, he was in fact not a Macedonian but in his father’s side an Armenian descended from the Arsacid Dynasty that ruled Armenia (12-428AD) as well as a descendant of the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), if you would believe the fabrication made about Basil’s lineage during his reign later on, but in this story’s case his noble lineage would be true. In his mother’s side, Basil was either of Slavic or Greek descent which would still remain unclear but the known fact is that Basil’s father from Byzantine Armenia before Basil was born was resettled into the Theme of Macedonia which was part of the imperial policy to balance ethnic groups across the empire and integrating them with others to prevent a strong sense of unity that could lead to ethnic rebellions. Basil’s early life is not known but it is said, which would be true in this story was that his mother once had a dream wherein a saint told her that her son Basil would one day become emperor no matter how impossible that seemed as they were from a very simple family, but Basil took this prophecy very seriously believing it was his destiny. Some sources though put Basil’s birth around the 830s but also in the Theme of Macedonia hence his nickname “the Macedonian” while other sources say as a child, he was taken into the Bulgarian Empire up north as captive returning to Byzantine Macedonia in the 830s, but this story would simply stick to nothing eventful happening in Basil’s early life except for the prophecy of him becoming emperor. Now let us have a recap of the events in the 9th century which the previous chapter mentioned as well and here let’s begin with 811, the year of Basil I’s birth which was also the same year the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I the Logothete who overthrew Empress Irene in 802 died in the Battle of Pliska against the Bulgarian forces of the Bulgarian ruler or khan Krum leading to a severe defeat for the Byzantine forces whereas the dead emperor’s skull was turned into Krum’s drinking cup. Nikephoros I though had a son named Staurakios who fought in this battle and survived but badly injured from it that in only 2 months he abdicated as becoming paralyzed, he could not rule properly therefore he retired as a monk dying the next year and had passed the throne to his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe (r. 811-813) who as emperor had no military experience that in 813, he lost against the Bulgar forces of Krum when his forces deserted him.

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Emperor Leo V the Armenian, Byzantine emperor (r. 813-820)

Not wanting a bloody end, Michael I abdicated and again retired to become a monk and would live up to 844 while the throne was passed to Leo V the Armenian (r. 813-82) the same general that deserted him, who as emperor brought back the old policy of Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons which was thought to have ended back in 787 if you remember from the previous chapter, though Leo V was not entirely serious about it but rather only used returning the policy for political reasons to please his soldiers that supported him as they were still hardcore Iconoclasts. Under Leo V though, the Bulgarian threat to Byzantium disappeared when Khan Krum died in 814, however Leo V did not rule long enough and establish a dynasty as in Christmas of 820 an unlikely coup happened when his friend and trusted general Michael the Amorian turned on him and killed him during the Christmas Mass, thus Michael II the Amorian was proclaimed emperor.

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Michael II the Amorian, Byzantine emperor (r. 820-829)

Michael II to justify usurping the throne tried to pretend like he had nothing to do with Leo V’s murder and as emperor he was an able ruler except he lacked education and class, but so did he lack legitimacy that his other general friend together with Leo V which was Thomas the Slav in 821 rose up against him starting a full scale civil war that was as damaging to Byzantium the same way a foreign war would be and this civil war lasted for 2 years until Thomas was defeated and had surrendered in 823 but despite winning a victory, it was a very costly one for Michael II as he ended up burning a big portion of the Byzantine fleet which Thomas controlled and losing a major part of the fleet opened up some regions of the empire to foreign invasion. In 824, the entire island of Crete fell to Arab pirates from Spain who were exiled from the Umayyad Arab Muslim state that controlled most of Spain known as Al-Andalus or rather the Emirate of Cordoba as this group rebelled against the authorities there but failed thus turning to piracy in the Mediterranean, and without a Byzantine fleet to stop them Crete fell to these pirates thus creating the Emirate of Crete which would be a major thorn for the Byzantines’ commercial activities in the Mediterranean from here on as Crete was a very strategic area in the Mediterranean. However, not only Crete had fallen as in 827 Byzantine control of Sicily would begin to slip out when the army of a new Arab power in North Africa known as the Aghlabids first invaded Sicily and here would start the Arab conquest of Byzantine Sicily. Michael II who founded the Amorian Dynasty then died in 829 and would be succeeded by his 24-year-old son Theophilos who unlike his father was very educated and cultured and despite being a Byzantine, he greatly admired the arts, sciences, and general culture of the Islamic Arab world, most especially that of the Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad as Theophilos’ idol was the sophisticated and powerful Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809) who had been mentioned significantly in the previous chapter.

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Emperor Theophilos, Byzantine emperor (r. 829-842), son of Michael II

Though Theophilos greatly admired the Abbasid Caliphate in cultural aspects, he was also threatened by them therefore he was committed to fight them in battle which he spent most of his reign doing and had ended either winning some victories but losing great defeats as well such as in 838 wherein Theophilos led the army himself but ended up losing leading to the Abbasid forces penetrating deep into Byzantine Asia Minor and sacking the city of Amorion, the capital of the Anatolic Theme, the empire’s most powerful Theme or military province, but surprisingly this would be Byzantium’s last major defeat to the Arab caliphate. Back in Constantinople, Theophilos was a great patron of the arts and sciences doing just as his idol Harun al-Rashid did with his capital Baghdad by using public funds to construct several luxurious palaces and learning centers, and his patronage of art science would kick-start the Byzantine cultural Renaissance, but at the same time he was also a supporter of Iconoclasm like his father Michael II and Leo V before him though not an extreme one as Theophilos only did it to please his powerful Iconoclast allies in the army, and little would he know that he would be the last Iconoclast emperor whereas his wife the empress Theodora was a strong Iconophile or supporter of religious icons and their veneration.

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Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Theophilos, empress-regent 842-855

Meanwhile, the threat of the Arabs was still at large as in 841 the Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tasim launched a massive naval expedition intended to attack Constantinople but it failed as Al-Mu’tasim died in early 842 and so did Theophilos from dysentery and here he would be succeeded by his son Michael III who was only 2-year-old therefore ruling at first under the regency of his mother Empress Theodora, the powerful eunuch Theoktistos, and his uncles Bardas and Petronas who were his mother’s brothers. The first act of Michael III as emperor, although carried out by his mother was finally ending the issue of Iconoclasm wherein a Church Council in Constantinople was held in 843 which then declared Iconoclasm a heresy while the Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople John VII Grammatikos was removed from office by force and replaced by the Iconophile Methodios I who would also serve as the young emperor’s regent. This kind of regency council would only be the first one mentioned in this story as it is about to become a standard in Byzantine politics and so would be eunuchs running the government, but another standard that would be set following the end of Iconoclasm was a rebirth in the arts as after all those years of icons being destroyed making art look plain, the art scene of the Byzantine Empire especially in religious paintings found in churches would be ever more impressive than before as a way to make up for all those years these images were being destroyed for no useful reason.

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Byzantine forces defeated by the Bulgars at the Battle of Pliska in 811
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Khan Krum of Bulgaria uses Emperor Nikephoros I’s skull as his drinking cup
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Assassination of Emperor Leo V, Christmas of 820
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Rebellion of Thomas the Slav and civil war 821-823, from the Madrid Skylitzes
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Invasion of Byzantine Crete by the exiled Arabs from Spain, 824
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Invasion of Sicily by the Aghlabid Arabs of North Africa, 827
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The court of Emperor Theophilos, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine army under Theophilos defeated by the Abbasid Arabs at the Battle of Anzen, 838
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End of Iconoclasm and the Restoration of Icons under Empress Theodora and her son the young emperor Michael III, 843

    

With the issue of Iconoclasm done for good and the power of the Abbasid Caliphate in the east suddenly no longer a threat following the decentralization of their state, as well as the with the same kind of dissolution of the powerful Frankish Empire in the west to smaller kingdoms, it seemed like all was well for the Byzantines to kick-start their Renaissance or golden age thus ending the dystopian like Byzantine Dark Ages. Though Iconoclasm had finally come to an end, it was not really the end as soon enough new religious debates and controversies would emerge with one being now the issue over whether the Church should be run by highly spiritual officials or secular ones and another one being the rise of a heretical Christian sect known as the Paulicians in Asia Minor, which although had been around in Eastern Asia Minor and Armenia since the 7th century. As a heretical sect of Christianity, the Paulicians rejected some books of the Old and New Testament and preached against private property and at first, they seemed to be harmless until they had grown to become a political movement in the 9th century.

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Massacre of the Paulicians under Empress Theodora

Theodora as the empress-regent and a strongly Orthodox Christian was heavy on persecuting the heretical Paulicians by force that in less than 2 years into her reign as her son’s regent, about 100,000 Paulicians were brutally put to death under her when they refused to acknowledge their errors and convert to Orthodoxy. The surviving Paulicians fled east to Armenia and to the Arabs and later their leader Karbeas would establish the independent Principality of Tephrike (today’s Divrigi, Turkey) in Eastern Asia Minor with the help of Umar al-Aqta, the Arab Emir of Melitene which was one of the semi-independent states or emirates formed in the border between Byzantium and Abbasid Caliphate as a result of the Abbasids’ decentralization in recent years, and now this new Paulician state would pose a threat to Byzantium. At the same time as the Principality of Tephrike rose, the eunuch Theoktistos who was basically in charge of the empire here made the first attempt to recapture Crete from the Arab pirates there which although failed and in 847, the Patriarch of Constantinople Methodios I died and here the eunuch Ignatios, son of the former emperor Michael I Rangabe thus a grandson of Emperor Nikephoros I who was his mother’s father became the new patriarch, although Ignatios was a highly spiritual person who was against the Church being involved in secular matters, thus here begins the ongoing debate over Church leaders being spiritual or secular which would play a big role in this story.

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Mosaic of Ignatios, Patriarch of Constantinople (847-858/ 867-877)

Now under Theodora and the eunuch Theoktistos, the empire seemed to operating well especially since it suddenly acquired a lot of wealth some time back in Theophilos’ reign when a large source of gold was discovered in the empire’s Armeniac Theme in Asia Minor and it so happened too during the regency of Theoktistos that the Byzantine fleet went as far as sailing to Egypt- which the Byzantines had not done in over 2 centuries- and attacking the Arab held port of Damietta there in 853 to punish the Arabs for their naval raids on the empire. By 855, Michael III had now come of age being 15 and he distrusted both his mother and Theoktistos relying a lot more on his uncles Bardas and Petronas, and a lot of Michael’s issues with his mother and eunuch regent had to do with the usual case of being forced to marry someone he did not like rather than his beloved mistress Eudokia Ingerina.

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Emperor Michael III of Byzantium (r. 842-867), son of Theophilos and Theodora

Michael III however supported by his uncle Bardas succeeded here and Theoktistos was then arrested and executed while the empress Theodora was banished to a monastery for life, which here would be the first of many incidents like these. From 855 onwards Bardas was the effective ruler of the empire as Michael III was still young and at the same time not really a responsible ruler as he prioritized entertainment, partying, horse riding, and drinking with friends over the empire and it was around this time in 857 when the young Michael III would meet the future emperor Basil the Macedonian who had apparently come to Constantinople some time back. A lot of the information about Basil the Macedonian coming into Constantinople and making a name for himself remains to be of legend but would be true in this story’s case as an alternate history story, which means that here Michael III would first meet Basil in the palace’s horse stables with Basil nothing more but a stable boy.

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Basil the Macedonian, peasant turned stable boy, turned wrestler, turned bodyguard of Michael III

Here in 857, the massive 46-year-old Basil would out of the blue impress the emperor when being able to tame a horse nobody could tame but him as he had an ability to communicate with horses and again sometime later Basil would prove his strength as a wrestler when the emperor himself saw Basil wrestling against and defeating the undefeatable Bulgarian champion in a wrestling match with ease, and because of his great strength and unusual abilities, Basil would soon grow to become a favorite of Michael III who would immediately make Basil his bodyguard or personal protector and chamberlain known as the Parakoimomenos in Greek, which although was a position assigned for eunuchs. On the other hand, the emperor’s uncle Bardas would do quite a pretty good job in actually managing the empire and it was under him that the Renaissance of learning and culture would rise as he invested heavily on constructing learning centers, palaces, and richly decorated churches, though he was also a strongly secular person who in 858 forced the reigning patriarch Ignatios to resign wherein Bardas would replace him with his friend the scholar Photios who was a secular person with no religious background as Bardas saw that a politician was needed to be in charge of the Church of Constantinople.

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St. Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople (858-867/ 877-886)

After becoming a priest in only a week, Photios quickly became patriarch though his appointment would cause a lot of tensions and again with the Patriarch of Rome or the pope in the west Nicholas I who had also just been elected as pope in 858 and apparently had backed Ignatios, thus here begins the Photian Schism which dealt with the issue of whether the emperor was to appoint or fire the Patriarch of Constantinople or if it was the job of the pope to do it, thus again making it another heated situation in the rivalry between the Orthodox Church in east and Catholic Church in the west where again it had to do with the pope wanting to assert his supremacy over the Church of Constantinople and the other Churches which included Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria whereas all the heads of these Churches were in fact intended to be equal. Now it would seem that a lot of the reasons for the Byzantine Renaissance to kick-start was due to Bardas’ administration and investments to grow Byzantine culture and literacy but the rising Byzantine Renaissance was also due to military victories and as Bardas was basically responsible for the cultural revival, his brother Petronas was responsible for the military resurgence as in 856 in his campaign against the Paulicians of Tephrike, he happened to go as far east even crossing the Euphrates River in Eastern Asia Minor striking deep into Arab territory being the first to do so in more than 200 years, thus returning to Constantinople with many Arab prisoners of war.

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Tephrike, stronghold of the Paulicians (today’s Divrigi, Eastern Turkey)

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Basil the Macedonian (far left) defeats the Bulgarian wrestler in a wrestling match, Madrid Skylitzes

           

Though things seemed to be going in favor for the Byzantines when it came to expelling Arab raiders from their eastern frontiers more so with the power of the Abbasid Caliphate in decline thus creating smaller Arab emirates and small Georgian and Armenian Christian principalities along the border of Byzantium and the Caliphate, there happened to be a new unknown enemy that would attack Constantinople directly for the first time in 860 while Michael III himself was away in the east battling the Arabs.

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The Kievan Rus’ (Varangians) sail down to Constantinople from Russia, 860

Here in 860, this unknown enemy that attacked Constantinople or at least its suburbs with their longships was the newly forming state of the Kievan Rus’ or basically the predecessor state of Russia and these back people back then were basically Norsemen from the eastern part of Scandinavia (modern day Sweden) better known as Varangians rather than Vikings as Vikings refer more to the Scandinavians from the west (Norway and Denmark) that would come to attack Western Europe while the Varangians from Sweden led by a chief named Rurik would be the ones to sail into Russia and Eastern Europe. As you may all know that the 9th century over here was the era of the Vikings and this included the Varangians who like the Vikings in the west seeing their native land was too cold and overpopulated to farm in, they searched out for land to colonize, and here the Varangians sailed across the Baltic Sea into the rivers of Russia where they would establish trading colonies like Novgorod and Kiev and integrate with the local Slavic population there before establishing their own state there and then sailing out into the Black Sea to Constantinople. The Varangian warriors here better known as the Rus however did not really intend to besiege Constantinople but just lay waste to its suburbs and loot treasure in typical Viking fashion and after they carried out their raid, they simply left the area when Michael III came back.

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Fresco of the Rus’ attack on Constantinople, 860

The Byzantine people however would never forget the fear caused by these warriors as their large sizes, messy hair and beards, and drunken behavior greatly intimidated them though Patriarch Photios claims that the Rus departed because of divine intervention. When doing an investigation on the Rus’ attack, it turned out that it was indirectly caused by the Byzantines as back in Theophilos’ reign, he helped the still remaining Khazar Khanate in Southern Russia and a long-time Byzantine ally construct the Fortress of Sarkel along the Don River which later blocked the Rus’ fleet from coming out to the Black Sea to trade and in revenge for the Byzantines for helping build this fort, they chose to attack Constantinople just to teach Byzantium a lesson. With this attack by the Rus, Photios decided that it was time to make a firm stance in converting the people up north to Christianity as a way to create allies rather than enemies, although Photios was actually doing this as part of the ongoing competition with the Church of Rome, and just like in the 20th century Cold War between the USA and Soviet Union where both were at race to beat each other into blasting off to space, here the Byzantine Empire and Papacy had their own Cold War in a race with each other on which of them would be first to convert the still Pagan Slavs and the still Pagan Bulgarian Empire up north, and apparently the Byzantines won it being first to convert the Slavs as Photios sent two missionaries deep into Central and Eastern Europe.

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

These two Byzantine missionaries Photios sent were the Greek brothers Constantine (renamed Cyril) and Methodius who had known the Slavic language therefore making it easier to spread Orthodox Christianity by preaching it in their native Slavic languages and these brothers would end up spreading Orthodoxy to what is now Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Russia and despite the political agenda of Photios in converting the people of these distant lands just to beat the Church of Rome in doing so, these brothers would be forever remembered as saints and their greatest legacy was in leading to the creation of the Cyrillic Alphabet named after the younger brother St. Cyril which would be the alphabet of many Slavic countries up to this day including Russia, though this would be more of a different story altogether. Back in the empire, Michael III would happen to be too trusting of the people that worked with him like his uncle Bardas who in 859 was promoted to the rank of Kouropalates or Head of the Palace and even Caesar in 862, though in 863 Michael himself led a military campaign together with his other uncle Petronas against an invading army of Abbasid Arabs and forces of their satellite Emirate of Melitene allied with the Paulician forces of Tephrike under Karbeas and here at the Battle of Lalakaon in Paphlagonia (Northern Asia Minor), the Byzantine forces led by Petronas won a decisive victory over the Abbasids and their allies while the Paulicians’ leader Karbeas too was killed here. This victory thus happened to be the turning point wherein the tide of war against the Arabs truly switched to the offensive for the Byzantines and this would be the reality for the Byzantines from here on yet in the following year (864) something else went in favor for the Byzantines and this was with their northern neighbor, the Bulgarian Empire as their ruler Boris I finally chose to convert to Orthodox Christianity thus making Bulgaria fall under the Church of Constantinople and true enough under the Byzantine sphere of influence.

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Boris I, aka. Boris-Michael, 1st Christian ruler of the Bulgarian Empire (852-889)

The reason for Boris I to accept Orthodox Christianity was most certainly because he was pressured to do so according to the History of Byzantium Podcast, and I would agree with it too as Bulgaria here was surrounded by two powerful Christian Empires pressuring them to convert which were the Orthodox Byzantines in the south and the Catholic Carolingian Franks in the west and between both, Boris chose Byzantine Orthodox basically because Constantinople was closer to him and when being baptized as a Christian in the Bulgarians capita of Pliska, he changed his name to Boris-Michael using the name of his godfather, the Byzantine emperor Michael III who although was not at his baptism. As for Michael III, despite so much successes happening in his reign, he really had nothing to do with it but no matter how irresponsible he was as a ruler who did not really give a care about anything, he had competent people behind him such as his uncles Bardas and Petronas as well as Patriarch Photios while Michael was busy partying with his friends that one time according again to the History of Byzantium Podcast, he participated in the chariot race in the Hippodrome himself and once played around with his friends dressing up in stolen clerical outfits dancing around in the streets of Constantinople as if he was mocking the clergy. Michael had also grown closer to his bodyguard Basil as the years passed which also helped Basil rise up the ranks that soon enough Michael as an act to keep his longtime mistress Eudokia Ingerina closer to him as he was still married to his wife he did not love, he had Basil divorce his first wife Maria despite them already having a son named Constantine, thus having Basil marry Eudokia as Michael wanted to still keep her closer to him, and Basil was in fact the closest person to him.

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Eudokia Ingerina, mistress of Michael III, wife of Basil the Macedonian

Unfortunately, the people in the government that Michael put all his trust to would not going to last long enough as in 865 his uncle Petronas had died and in 866 when Bardas was preparing for another the second attempt to retake Crete from the Arab pirates, Basil would show his true ambitions and here he falsely accused Bardas of plotting against Michael to take the throne from him and Michael as usual easily fell for this lie and had Basil execute Bardas which Basil successfully did, thus Basil replaced Bardas as Caesar and then even as co-emperor, though this the expedition to retake Crete never happened. In 866 as well, Eudokia would give birth to her first son named Leo and his birth was celebrated with races in the Hippodrome but it was unclear on who his father actually was whether it was her husband Basil or her lover Michael III, but this story would go with Michael III the Amorian as Leo’s father as Michael was closer to Eudokia more than Basil was and being unable to have children with his first wife, he thought that he could use Eudokia to continue his dynasty by having sons with her. Basil on the other hand was still ever more eager to rise up to power as already getting a taste of it, he could not stop and this meant him wanting to be able to achieve the most powerful position of the empire, which was that of emperor. One night in 867 as Michael III with Basil and Eudokia were at a dinner in a palace in the Galata District of Constantinople found across the harbor of the Golden Horn, with Michael as usual drinking to get wasted, hence his nickname “Michael the Drunkard”, Basil used Michael’s drunkenness to his advantage and so he went to Michael’s bedroom and broke the locks of the door and escaped to the Imperial Palace in the main part of the city. Michael being so wasted was carried to his bed but some hours later as the door’s lock was broken by Basil, assassins sent by Basil rushed into the room and stabbed Michael to death. Now because of this, it can be said that Michael III’s personality of being too trusting of others too much led to his downfall especially when putting trust in someone like Basil who happened to be a murderer with his own imperial ambitions. Following his assassination, Michael was quickly buried in a small church across the Bosporus wherein only his mother Theodora and sisters were allowed to attend his funeral, though later this year (867), Theodora too would die.         

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Kievan Rus’ (Varangian) longships in the Russian river systems
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Byzantine forces under Petronas and Michael III defeat the Arabs and Paulicians at the Battle of Lalakaon, 863
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Execution of Bardas Caesar, 866
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Michael III (right, in blue) makes Basil the Macedonian (left, in red) his co-emperor, Madrid Skylitzes
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Map of the Byzantine Empire (purple) in 867 at the rise of Basil I the Macedonian

   

Here in 867 following the assassination of Michael III, Basil I the Macedonian at age 56 after just 10 years of knowing the previous emperor was now the sole emperor of the Byzantine Empire. The situation happened to be quite embarrassing here as a simple peasant turned horse tamer and wrestler who not only had no formal education but in fact was an illiterate person became the sole ruler of the empire but despite being illiterate and uneducated, he was very intelligent and this was how he was able to find the right moment to usurp power and kill off Michael III, though everyone really just saw Basil as a man of great size, height, and physical strength and nothing more.

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

In order to justify killing Michael III, Basil told everyone he was just doing this to save the empire as Michael III true enough was an irresponsible drunk who could not trusted as if he continued ruling alone with his uncles Bardas and Petronas gone, then all the hard work that was previously done to improve the empire would easily be wasted away. However, Basil was not the first to take the throne this way as just 47 years earlier in 820 Michael III’s grandfather Michael II did just that by killing off Leo V in the Christmas Mass, therefore Basil I’s murder of Michael III seemed justifiable and nothing new to the people of Constantinople and the army, but also Basil’s usurping of power would also be justifiable as he was getting rid of the corrupt Amorian Dynasty which is what Basil’s biography written by his grandson, who will appear later would say about him. On the other hand, Basil also wanted to show that he did not really kill off the Amorian Dynasty by telling everyone basically that his son with Eudokia which was Leo was actually Michael III’s which in this story would be true making Leo an Amorian. Now just after becoming the sole emperor or Basileus of the empire, Basil I despite knowing very little about Church politics would show his hidden ability in politics when suddenly firing Photios from his position as patriarch and replacing him with the former now 70-year-old patriarch Ignatios who back in 858 was fired by Bardas and by firing Photios, Basil was actually doing this as an act be in good terms with the new pope in Rome Hadrian II who was just elected in 867 too and with Photios who was at odds with the Papacy removed, the pope in Rome and Byzantium would be in good terms again, and now with Photios ends the Photian Schism. Now when it came to ruling, Basil I wanted to show his subjects he was a devout Christian unlike his predecessor Michael III who was the opposite being quite disrespectful to his faith and debauched in lifestyle which shocked his subjects, but also to show that he was a just usurper rather than a bloody killer, Basil acted as a strong protector of the poor and lower classes from corrupt eunuchs and tax officials considering that he came from it, though a lot of Basil’s reputation as this was mostly exaggerated in his biography by his grandson.

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

On the other hand, Basil was also trying to make an image of himself as the new Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), the greatest Byzantine emperor so far and to imitate Justinian I he carried out the ambitious project of recodifying Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis itself or Code of Laws for the empire, and although Basil was illiterate all he could do was commission the recodification of Justinian’s laws and its translation into Greek and this new edition of Justinian’s code of laws would be known as the Basilika, though not named after him as its title actually means “Royal Laws” in Greek, and this would be the code of laws the Byzantines would use till the end of their empire. Like Justinian I, Basil also carried out ambitious construction projects although a lot of others before including the Magnaura school which taught astronomy, geometry, and philosophy was already established by Bardas previously so basically what Basil would do was to build a church that would rival Justinian’s 6th century Hagia Sophia cathedral in grandeur and this church built by Basil I was the Nea Ekklesia in the Imperial Palace Complex which although was not as large as the Hagia Sophia near it but had the innovation of having 4 domes surrounding a higher inner dome, thus the first Byzantine church in this new style and inside it would have some of the finest frescos and mosaics in a new style that emerged in this era following the end of the Iconoclast period. Like Justinian I as well, Basil I also came from humble origins except Justinian was highly educated while Basil still remained illiterate even deep into his reign that he would only use a mark rather than his signature in signing documents. Just like emperor Justinian I again, Basil I would also have some interest in restoring Byzantine rule to the west in which no emperor prior to him did since Constans II (r. 641-668) 200 years earlier- the lead character of chapter IV of this series. Basil I would show his interest in wanting to restore the Byzantine west in 870 when he allied himself with the current Carolingian Frankish emperor Louis II, the grandson of the Frankish Empire’s founder Charlemagne (r. 768-814) in fighting off Arab attacks in Southern Italy which happened to be successful as in 870 the Byzantine fleet in the Adriatic Sea was able to defeat an Arab fleet and afterwards annex the Dalmatian Coast (in today’s Croatia) as part of the Byzantine Empire in order to protect it thus making Dalmatia a Theme while the city of Bari in Southern Italy which previously fell to the Arabs in 871 fell under Louis II though after his death in 875 the Byzantines would take back Bari, and meanwhile the successful general who would be responsible for these victories in Italy was the Cappadocian Greek noble Nikephoros Phokas the Elder, though it would be his grandson mentioned later who would be the more famous person with the same name. At the same time as Basil II busied himself fighting wars in the west, the Paulicians of Tephrike in Eastern Asia Minor again came back into the picture and this time a bigger threat under a strong leader named Chrysocheir who succeeded Karbeas as the Paulician’s leader, and in 872 Basil himself personally led the army determined to crush the Paulician heretics in battle once and for all. When confronting the Paulicians in Eastern Asia Minor at the Battle of Bathys Ryax, Basil himself almost lost his life if not for one of his soldiers being the Armenian peasant Theophylact Lekapenos saving his life here, but at the end of the day the Byzantine forces still won the battle and Chrysocheir himself was killed while the entire Principality of Tephrike would be annexed into the empire, though the city itself would only be fully conquered and destroyed in 878. Back in Constantinople, Theophylact would be promoted to be a member of the emperor’s elite guard or Tagmata but he would have no so such ambitions, although his son who later appear would. Now with the Paulicians fully removed as a political power, the remaining Paulician believers would be forced to settle in other parts of the empire to prevent them from starting another rebellion and many Paulicians would end up fleeing north into the Balkan heartlands.

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Church of Nea Ekklesia in Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex, built under Basil I
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Basil I’s Byzantine army defeat the Paulician forces at the Battle of Bathys Ryax, 872

On the other hand, it seemed like Byzantine missionary activities were successful in Christianizing the Balkans that Photios being a politician needed to be restored as patriarch and so when the 80-year-old Patriarch Ignatios died in 877, Basil reappointed Photios as patriarch who at the same time would also be the teacher of Basil’s sons. The rest of the events however would turn out disappointed and even sad for Basil in the next years as first in 878 Syracuse which was the main city of Byzantine Sicily would fall to the Arabs and in 879 Basil’s son and co-emperor Constantine with his first wife Maria suddenly dropped dead therefore he had to make his youngest son with Eudokia Ingerina which was Alexander co-emperor and Alexander certainly was Basil’s son with Eudokia as he was born in 870 long after Michael III died which is why Basil favored Alexander more than Leo who was actually Michael III’s son, but on the other hand Basil saw Constantine’s death as divine punishment for killing Michael III.

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Emperor Basil I on his horse

In 880, there would at least be some success for the Byzantines as Nikephoros Phokas the Elder was able to recapture much of Southern Italy from the Arabs but in 882, Basil would be depressed again as his wife Eudokia had died and by being more depressed, Basil would become even more paranoid as the years would go by especially with Leo who he never believed was his son anyway that Basil would in some occasions physically beat Leo basically for no clear reason except that Leo was nothing like Basil who being very manly enjoyed hunting and sports while Leo was a serious scholar who enjoyed books and true enough Leo too did not see Basil as his real father and obviously- in this story’s case- Leo looked nothing like Basil who was large in size with a rough face but rather Leo looked more like Michael III being thinner and shorter with a finer face. At one point, Basil even suspected Leo of trying to kill him to avenge his father Michael III’s death when Leo was discovered holding a knife even if he had no harmful intention with it, though Basil being paranoid had Leo put in prison for this though it caused public rioting as Leo was actually loved by the public.

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Emperor Basil I in the Imperial Palace

Basil however thought of blinding Leo but was persuaded to not do it by Patriarch Photios while one story which would be true here says that a parrot sang to Basil telling him to spare Leo but Basil not listening killed the parrot by breaking its neck, although feeling guilty for killing the parrot, he still released Leo from prison here in 886 after a 3-year sentence and restored him as co-emperor. Now in the summer of 886 after getting some relief, the now 75-year-old Basil spent some leisure time going hunting in the woods in the Asian side of Bosporus but when hunting he ended up losing his hunting party getting stranded in the woods alone when a stag all of a sudden grabbed Basil’s belt with its antlers thus pulling him off his horse and dragging him for 16 miles through the woods as the story goes. Some hours later, the injured Basil was found by a man who cut him loose but still paranoid, Basil had the man killed for holding a knife in front of him and 9 days later, Basil would die on August 29 of 886 in his hunting lodge from the injury caused by the stag after a 19-year reign. Here, he died at least going such a long way from peasant to emperor who left behind many extravagant palaces and churches in Constantinople and more importantly a full treasury, but little did he know that he was the first and last of his Macedonian Dynasty.

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Basil I and Leo holding out a knife, Madrid Skylitzes
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Basil I and the parrot, Madrid Skylitzes
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Coin of Basil I (left) with his son Constantine and wife Eudokia (right)

Watch this to learn more about Basil I’s life and reign (Jabzy).


Leo VI the Wise, A Serious Scholar but a not so Successful Ruler (886-912)         

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After Basil I’s death, Leo VI known as “the Wise” came to the throne before turning 20 and despite him not actually being Basil’s biological son, he still became emperor as he was Basil’s legal son and the eldest surviving one. Basil I’s death caused by a hunting accident on the other sounded very suspicious and it may have seemed Leo was involved in it as at Basil’s deathbed, one of Leo’s closest advisors was present which was Stylianos Zaoutzes and it could have been him that poisoned Basil, but this cannot be entirely proven.

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Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) in his study

As for Leo, another reason for him to hate Basil aside from knowing that he killed his actual father which was Michael III, was that Basil forced him to marry a woman he did not like which was a pious and boring woman named Theophano Martinakia– and no, she is not the same Theophano that will be removed from this story- while Leo himself was already had a beloved mistress which was Stylianos’ daughter Zoe Zaoutzaina and when still alive, Basil banished Zoe in order for Leo to marry Theophano who he had no feelings for, again history repeats itself as Leo’s actual father Michael III had the same situation when forced to marry someone he did not love while actually had a lover which was Leo’s late mother that married Basil. Just right after becoming emperor, there is one historical evidence that shows Michael III was actually Leo’s father and this was when Leo in act of getting back at Basil ordered that Michael III’s body buried across the Bosporus in Asian side be reburied at the Church of the Holy Apostles, the imperial mausoleum with a funeral ceremony fit for an emperor. Leo though was not the sole emperor as his younger brothers Stephen who was also rumored to be Michael III’s son and Alexander who was actually his half-brother being without question Basil’s son were his co-emperors, although Leo at the end of 886 removed Stephen from his position as co-emperor and appointed him as Patriarch of Constantinople despite his young age, thus this would be the first of many inexperienced young family members being appointed as patriarch.

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Leo VI and his first wife Theophano Martinakia

With Stephen appointed as patriarch, the old Photios on the other hand was fired from his position as patriarch as Leo distrusted him despite Photios being the one that actually educated Leo but Leo turned on Photios for supporting Basil and the decision for Leo to marry Theophano who he hated, though Leo also wanted to be in good terms with the Papacy that distrusted Photios, though Photios would still live on until 893. Being the emperor, Leo was a dutiful ruler that attended every event that needed him whether it was chariot races or Church services and as a serious scholar he devoted a lot of his time as well as money and energy into intellectual matters and passing new laws. In 892 Leo completed the Book of Royal Laws or Basilika which Basil commissioned to update Justinian I’s law code, and although Leo hated Basil he still saw it was his duty to update Byzantine law, and being a learned scholar unlike Basil before him who was illiterate, Leo personally recodified the law by putting a few of his insights into it, but the biggest revision of the Basilika was that it had finally translated the laws made by Justinian I which were in Latin into Greek so that everyone could understand it as here Greek was already the official and majority language of the empire while Latin was only used for specific court purposes. Leo too had made a reform which was to centralize the power of the emperor and limit the power of the Byzantine Senate which was at this point very much useless, as due to the rise of the Thematic System and the powerful landed military magnates in the countryside, the senate became nothing more than a club of old and rich aristocrats advising the emperor, although Leo could not fully get rid of the senate as it was an ancient institution dating back to even before the Roman Empire was established. Leo had also been vocal about loose women and adultery in his laws but true enough he was a hypocrite as he himself had a mistress while he was already married, although Leo’s marriage to Theophano never worked out, not even very little and being tired of her marriage to a husband that did not care, Theophano in 893 decided to leave the palace and become a nun while Leo went back to his mistress Zoe.

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Simeon the Great, Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire (r. 893-927), son of Boris I, art by HistoryGold777

It also happened in 893 that Bulgarian Empire up north had a new ruler being Simeon better known as “Simeon the Great” who had been educated in Constantinople by Photios being Leo’s classmate too and was the son of the same Boris I who previously converted Bulgaria to Christianity back in 864, though here by 893 Boris was still alive except that since 889 he abdicated from power and retired to a monastery being succeeded by his eldest son Vladimir who attempted to restore Bulgaria to its old Pagan religion of Tengriism though failed greatly and in 893 was blinded by his father Boris coming out of the monastery but not wanting to return to power, Boris made his younger son Simeon who been back in Bulgaria since 888 as Bulgaria’s new ruler. Things at first seemed to be going well between Leo VI’s Byzantium and Simeon’s Bulgaria until Leo’s highest minister Stylianos Zaoutzes who was his lover Zoe’s father as previously mentioned schemed to have the Bulgarian merchants kicked out of Constantinople and moved to the empire’s second city of Thessaloniki where they would have to pay higher taxes to sell their goods which was part of Stylianos’ corrupt motives to make himself richer and Leo relying too much on Stylianos agreed to it in 894 which on the other hand backfired at him as the Bulgarians felt insulted, thus Simeon declared war on Byzantium. Simeon in 894 led his armies from Bulgaria into Byzantine Thrace in the south where the Byzantine forces were defeated but in response Leo not wanting to give him recalled Nikephoros Phokas the Elder, the empire’s most talented general from Italy to Thrace where he would crush the Bulgarians in battle but most of the success for the Byzantines here in 895 was mostly due to an alliance Leo made with a new steppe people that migrated from Russia to the north of the Danube known as the Magyars.

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Magyar warrior, late 9th century

The Magyar leader Arpad accepted the bribe money offered to him by Leo and attacked the Bulgarian Empire from the north successfully making Simeon abandon his invasion of Byzantium in the south as he had to deal with the Magyars north of Danube although shortly after Simeon was able to defeat the Magyars by allying himself with another group of nomadic horse people north of the Danube known as the Pechenegs, which were a much more difficult and ruthlessly warlike people. With the Magyars defeated in 895 by the Bulgarians, they were forced to flee further west until they came across the Pannonian plain which was once Roman territory wherein they finally settled down forming what would be Hungary whereas Arpad became its first ruler while for the Byzantines in 896, after losing their Magyar allies, they were severely defeated by the Bulgarians with the strength of their cavalry at the Battle of Boulgarophygon in Thrace, which at the end forced Leo to agree to paying a heavy annual tribute to Simeon to avoid war.           

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Leo VI reburies his father Michael III in the Church of the Holy Apostles in 886, Madrid Skylitzes
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Bulgarian cavalry defeat the Byzantine army at the Battle of Boulgarophygon in 896, Madrid Skylitzes
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Magyar people, end of the 9th century

In the meantime, in 897 Leo VI’s first wife Theophano who he never loved died in the monastery she retired to which for Leo gave him such joy and following Theophano’s death he immediately married his longtime mistress Zoe and proclaimed her the empress or Augusta and they would have two children together although both were daughters. Unfortunately, Leo’s happy marriage to Zoe would not last as just 2 years later (899) Zoe had died from illness and so did her father Stylianos but in the following year (900), as the 10th century opened, the Byzantine army scored a major success when defeating the army of the Arab Emirate of Tarsus in Cilicia- another breakaway emirate of the Abbasids- and even capturing the Emir of Tarsus but in 902 however, another great tragedy would happen for the Byzantines when Taormina, the last Byzantine city in Sicily fell to the Arab forces in a siege, thus all of Sicily would fall under the newly formed Arab Emirate of Sicily. While all the wars against the Arabs were happening, Leo in 900 chose to marry for the 3rd time despite 3rd marriages being considered illegal in Orthodoxy but Leo did it anyway just because he desperately needed a son to succeed him and his 3rd wife Eudokia Baiana was chosen by him in a bride show he organized, which here would be the last one recorded in Byzantine history and fortunately the 3rd wife Eudokia was able to give birth to a son in 901 thus Leo thought this would be his final marriage except that after giving birth, Eudokia dropped dead and so did their newborn son a few days later, now Leo would be greatly heartbroken.

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Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium (r. 886-912), art by Spatharokandidatos

Leo would suffer another misfortune again in 904 when he was almost killed in an assassination attempt carried out by a wrestler and when investigating it, it so happened that his younger and co-emperor half-brother Alexander was involved in it, therefore Alexander was removed from his position as co-emperor which would make him start holding a lifelong grudge on Leo as you will see but worse than this was that also in 904, Byzantium’s second city of Thessaloniki was besieged and brutally sacked by Arab pirates led by the notorious Leo of Tripoli, a Byzantine Greek taken as a captive to Tripoli (in today’s Lebanon) as a child wherein he was raised to become a fearsome pirate. Thessaloniki however was just raided but had not fallen to the pirates, but it was so severely damaged that Leo VI decided to avenge its sacking by doing the same to Tarsus in the southern coast of Asia Minor where this pirate fleet came from. The Byzantine raid on Tarsus in 906 was a successful one with many Arab prisoners taken except that the general sent to lead the mission Andronikos Doukas out of nowhere abandoned the mission as being from the distinguished aristocratic Doukas clan that had been in the Byzantine Senate since Emperor Constantine the Great established it in 330, he did not want his aristocratic pride hurt by taking orders from the fleet’s admiral Himerios who was lower than him in status, therefore Andronikos fled to the Abbasid’s capital to Baghdad itself where he would die in 910.

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Mosaic of Empress Zoe Karbonopsina, 4th wife of Leo VI

As for Leo after losing 3 wives, by 904 he took in a new mistress which was Himerios’ niece Zoe Karbonopsina, a woman with dark curly hair who was most famous for her distinct black eyes, hence her nickname Karbonopsina meaning “black eyes” in Greek and apparently in 905 they had a son which Leo named Constantine better known as Constantine Porphyrogennetos as he was born in the purple room of the imperial palace, the place only imperial family members had access to in order to give birth to imperial heirs to secure their legitimacy, thus imperial children born here had the title of Porphyrogennetos if they were males or Porphyrogenita for females, literally meaning “purple born” in Greek, and though many would use this title, only Constantine who will rule later on and play a major role in this story would be the only Byzantine emperor to use this title officially. Leo and Zoe were already planning to marry long before Constantine was born, but of course this not only being a 3rd but a 4th marriage was totally outrageous to the Orthodox Church that the current Patriarch of Constantinople here Nikolaos Mystikos, an imperial secretary and Leo’s former classmate who had been patriarch since 901 following Leo’s brother Stephen’s death totally objected to it, so instead Leo and Zoe were secretly married at the dead of night by a priest loyal to Leo but when Patriarch Nikolaos heard of it, Leo was banned from entering the Hagia Sophia despite being the emperor. Nikolaos however still reluctantly baptized Constantine in 906 but at the same time, Leo decided to return his half-brother Alexander as co-emperor for safety measures in case something happened to Constantine and in 907, Leo was able to get away with his illegal marriage to Zoe by firing the patriarch Nikolaos under suspicion of him siding with the rebel Andronikos Doukas, thus replacing him with the deeply spiritual monk Euthymios, who was Leo’s teacher in theology and spirituality when he was still young. On the other hand, Leo’s other motive in appointing Euthymios as patriarch was to again be in good terms with the pope Sergius III in Rome as Nikolaos being an outspoken politician was not trusted by the pope whereas a more spiritual leader like Euthymios was more favorable to the pope, again making this another situation in the Church rivalry between Constantinople and Rome, but at the same time the pope also needed Leo’s Byzantine military assistance in defending Southern Italy from the Arabs which is why Sergius III accepted Leo’s 4th marriage too. In 907 as well, Leo just like his actual father Michael III in 860 faced the same situation of the same Kievan Rus’ fleet of longships attacking Constantinople, except now the Rus were an official organized state in Eastern Europe but just like in 860 here, the Rus did not attack Constantinople itself, rather they just raided the riches in the churches and monasteries in the suburbs in typical Viking fashion and retreated back north to the Black Sea after receiving some bribe money from Leo.

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Handheld Greek Fire

Leo on the other hand after suffering so many military defeats despite not ever personally joining his armies himself in military campaigns learned from his mistakes and in 908 wrote and published a military manual himself based on reports by generals in which he carefully studied and came up with new tactics basing them on where his armies had failed and this new military manual is better known as the Taktika, though on the other hand Leo had some success in commissioning the invention of a portable version of the empire’s secret superweapon of Greek Fire which was to be hand held during sieges. In 910, Leo’s admiral Himerios would end up succeeding in attacking the Arab pirate fleet in the Mediterranean that he even went as far as attacking an Arab port in Syria and with this success Leo in 911 sent Himerios with 177 ships on another attempt to retake the island of Crete from the Arab Emirate of pirates there but before being able to finish off his siege of the emirate’s capital Chandax, he received word from the capital that the emperor fell ill and was close to death making him abandon the siege and rush back, thus another failed attempt to recapture Crete. On the return trip to Constantinople in 912, Himerios’ navy in the Aegean was surrounded and annihilated again by the same pirate Leo of Tripoli, although Himerios narrowly escaped, and when the news of the defeat of Himerios to the Arab pirates reached Leo VI in Constantinople the same day he died which was May 11 of 912. Leo VI the Wise died at only 45 due to a fatal illness that could not be cured, possibly cancer while his son Constantine was only 7 but at least Leo left behind a great cultural impact for Byzantium especially in the military manual and code laws he made which would play a vital role in Byzantine politics and warfare from here onwards, but otherwise if Leo had not published these books, he would just be remembered as a mediocre emperor that tried so hard to win battles but failed.

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Emperor Leo VI and his 4 wives, art by Powee Celdran
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Byzantine Taormina, Sicily falls to the Arabs in 902, Madrid Skylitzes
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Sack of Thessaloniki in 904 by Leo of Tripoli, Madrid Skylitzes
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Baptism of Leo VI’s son Constantine in 906, Madrid Skylitzes
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Euthymios appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople in 907, Madrid Skylitzes
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Kievan Rus’ 907 attack of Constantinople, from the Primary Chronicle
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Mosaic of Emperor Leo VI (kneeling down) in the Hagia Sophia’s door recreated

The Chaotic Regency and Romanos I Lekapenos (912-944)    

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On May 11 of 912 as Leo VI was on his deathbed, his half-brother and co-emperor Alexander was present and before dying Leo told him some prophecy saying “13 months and the devil’s time” although Alexander had no idea what it meant but true enough, he succeeded Leo as senior emperor as he was already co-emperor first since 879 long before young Constantine was. Now Alexander definitely had no parentage issues as Basil I was certainly his father with Alexander was born in 870, 3 years after Michael III’s death and a possible reason why Alexander hated Leo was surely because he was Basil’s legitimate son while Leo was not, thus the Macedonian Dynasty here would only consist of Basil I and Alexander whereas Leo VI and his successors who will appear afterwards were in fact from Michael III’s bloodline, the Amorians.

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Coin of Emperor Alexander

Alexander as Basil’s son resembled Basil in appearance a lot being tall and large in size with light colored hair and a beard which was opposite to Leo’s appearance and just like his father, Alexander was greatly passionate about hunting and sports though like Michael III, Alexander was a lazy drunk. This story now will go with the usual historical portrayal of Alexander as a lazy, debauched, childish, and incompetent ruler who’s only purpose to rule was to get revenge on his older half-brother for no good reason except that Alexander was co-emperor for 33 years never getting the chance to be a senior emperor and also because he was angry at Leo for removing him from his rank of co-emperor for just 2 years (904-906). Becoming emperor at 41 but already in bad health with bad teeth due to heavy drinking, Alexander thinking he would rule for long was the first emperor in the history of Byzantium to use the title of Autokrator or “self-ruling ruler” celebrating his end of 33 years only as co-emperor forgetting he actually had a co-emperor which was his 7-year-old nephew Constantine who Leo made co-emperor before his death, although Alexander here in 912 decided to castrate young Constantine to remove him from the succession but his advisors told Alexander to not do it as he had remained unmarried his entire life having not a single child and so young Constantine was instead locked up in a nunnery with his mother Zoe Karbonopsina who Alexander hated too for being Leo’s wife. Just a few months after coming into power, Alexander already showed how uninterested he was in ruling the empire and only ruling to damage Leo’s legacy which was seen when he fired all the competent ministers that were loyal to Leo such as the admiral Himerios and Patriarch Euthymios as well as discontinuing all of Leo’s policies just to get back at him. Now when it came to firing Patriarch Euthymios, Alexander restored the previous patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos who opposed Leo’s 4th marriage and Nikolaos too was driven with revenge for being removed from his position that in the trial organized to depose Euthymios, Nikolaos hired a giant wrestler to beat up Euthymios in public while the trial was happening, and at the end Euthymios was sent into exile as Nikolaos returned to his position.

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Nikolaos Mystikos, Patriarch of Constantinople (901-907/ 912-925)

Another rumor about Alexander in his reign was that some nights he would perform Pagan sacrifices in the Hippodrome as if he was asking the old gods for fertility as apparently, he was unable to produce children. As an incompetent ruler, Alexander did not pay attention to the frontiers that the main forces of the Abbasid Caliphate from Baghdad itself attacked Asia Minor and when Bulgarian ambassadors from Simeon came to Constantinople to collect the annual tribue Leo promised, Alexander in his usual drunken rage shouted at the Bulgarian ambassadors kicking them out of his presence and refusing to pay tribute, again as act of discontinuing Leo’s policies out of revenge. Over in Bulgaria when their ruler Simeon heard of Alexander refusing to pay tribute, Simeon feeling so insulted resumed war with Byzantium knowing he could easily defeat them considering Alexander’s incompetence. In June of 913 while Simeon was making preparations to attack Byzantium, Alexander was enjoying himself in the Polo field or Tzykanisterion of the Imperial Palace playing a game of polo or Tzykanion after some drinks of expensive Greek wine from Lesbos, but Alexander after playing a game of polo fell off his horse when suffering a heart attack and hours later, he had died. Apparently the 13-month prophecy Leo had told Alexander was true as after ruling alone for only 13 months, Alexander had died, thus here would die the last ruler of the Macedonian bloodline of Basil whereas the rule of the Amorians would continue with Leo’s son Constantine VII, and it was fortunate enough for the empire that Alexander died right here as if he ruled longer, the empire may have suffered more with his incompetence.          

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Mosaic of Emperor Alexander (r. 912-913) in the Hagia Sophia
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Patriarch Euthymios removed from office by Alexander in 912, Madrid Skylitzes
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Tzykanion, Byzantine polo (art by Amelianvs)

Right after Alexander’s death in June of 913, young Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos was crowned as the sole ruler empire as willed by Alexander, except being only 8-years-old meant that a regency council had to now rule for him led by Patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos while Constantine’s mother Zoe Karbonopsina was to stay out of it, again as willed by Alexander. The patriarch however hated the empress and did not see Constantine as a legitimate emperor as Nikolaos still did not approve of Leo and Zoe’s marriage and in this story’s case, he also did not see Constantine as legitimate because his father Leo was not a legitimate son of an emperor but an illegitimate son of a murdered emperor, therefore his successors were illegitimate so only a few days after the council was set up, Nikolaos banished empress Zoe back to the nunnery she was in. Patriarch Nikolaos and most of the Byzantine Senate too could not accept Constantine VII as their ruler and so they supported a rebel general who was putting his claim on the throne refusing to accept a child as his ruler, and this general was Constantine Doukas, son of the same general Andronikos Doukas that fled to Baghdad and died there 3 years earlier. Just a few days after Constantine VII was crowned emperor, Constantine Doukas and his army who had a lot of support arrived outside the walls of Constantinople ready to storm the city but just as he arrived, the city garrison loyal to young emperor charged at the rebel forces in open battle. Constantine Doukas seeing his side was about lose tried to escape but, in the process, he slipped off his horse and fell to the ground wherein the city garrison soldiers killed him by hacking him with their swords, thus his rebellion failed, though he was not the last of the Doukas clan as they will be featured heavily in the next chapter of this series. Patriarch Nikolaos in an act of protecting himself denied that he had any part in the conspiracy of Constantine Doukas that he even had anyone knew involved in the conspiracy executed and their bodies impaled on spikes outside Constantinople’s walls that he would gain such a brutal reputation for it.

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Tsar Simeon the Great of Bulgaria

Just 2 months after the failed plot of Constantine Doukas, it was Simeon and his Bulgarian army’s turn to arrive outside the Theodosian land walls of Constantinople but seeing the strength of the walls, he instead decided to attack and burn the farms outside it that Patriarch Nikolaos had to come out to negotiate peace with Simeon and here Nikolaos agreed to resume paying the annual tribute of Leo VI but also for young Constantine VII to marry one of Simeon’s daughters, although Simeon saw this as an opportunity to take over Constantine VII’s regency and rule both Byzantium and Bulgaria himself. The senate meanwhile disapproved of the patriarch’s deal with Simeon as none of them wanted a Bulgarian foreigner who they still saw as a barbarian- despite adopting Byzantine customs and religion- ruling the empire and so Simeon packed off and left as he got his tribute anyway but most of the senate was also displeased with Nikolaos’ brutality that in 914, they returned Empress Zoe back to the regency council getting her out of the nunnery although Nikolaos still stayed as patriarch when being threatened by Zoe to recognize her authority. In 915 when the Byzantines won a major victory over the invading Arabs in Southern Italy, Empress Zoe’s popularity grew but at the same time she also disapproved of her son Constantine marrying Simeon’s daughter as this deal was made by Patriarch Nikolaos who she hated and also because in her Byzantine arrogance Simeon was nothing more but a filthy barbarian. Simeon hearing of the empress turning down his offer in 915 resumed war with Byzantium that Simeon’s Bulgarian forces even briefly took the city of Adrianople until Zoe’s forces quickly took it back forcing Simeon to flee, thus Zoe again became more popular. Simeon on the other hand still continued his raids by going as far south as Byzantine Thessaly and Epirus in Greece between 915 and 916 then by 917 he returned to Thrace whereas Zoe was prepared to crush his forces by amassing a massive army led by the best generals of the empire which included John Bogas, the commanding general or Strategos of the Theme of Cherson, which was the remote Byzantine colony in the Crimea north of the Black Sea, the Cappadocian brothers Leo Phokas the Elder and Bardas Phokas the Elder who were the sons of the late and great general Nikephoros Phokas the Elder who had died back in 900, and Himerios’ replacement as the grand Droungarios or admiral the Armenian Romanos Lekapenos, son of the same Armenian peasant soldier Theophylact Lekapenos who saved Basil I back in 872. Now you may ask why all the empire’s top commanders were either Armenians or Cappadocians, and this is because by being raised in these parts being in the empire’s frontiers, these people had grown up to be tough soldiers.

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Pecheneg warrior, 10th century

Now the plan here was that the army led by the Phokas brothers would march north from Constantinople while Romanos with his fleet was to ferry both John Bogas and his troops from Cherson as well the Byzantines’ new Pecheneg allies from across the Danube to Thrace but John Bogas and Romanos would end up arguing, as again as usual Bogas being of high birth refused to take orders from Romanos who was of lower status and Romanos would only agree to ferry Bogas and his troops if Bogas were to bow down to his authority, though Bogas refused and the Pecheneg mercenaries as usual being difficult to handle were tired of waiting and not yet receiving their pay gave up and abandoned the Byzantines. Meanwhile, only the Phokas brothers and their army were left to confront Simeon’s Bulgar forces but while camping out near the port of Anchialos in Thrace along the Black Sea, Simeon and his forces caught them by surprise and charged right their camp and what resulted was a total massacre as barely any Byzantine soldiers survived it while many panicked and retreated as well believing Leo Phokas to be dead when seeing his horse gallop away without him, though it was unclear on what happened to Bardas here.

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Bulgarians defeat the Byzantines at the Battle of Anchialos, 917

Back in Constantinople, Zoe being so enraged blamed all the failures on the admiral Romanos Lekapenos who she even threatened to blind but Romanos’ powerful friends prevented her from doing so. Leo Phokas and his brother Bardas meanwhile survived the attack and fled to the Black Sea port of Mesembria where they took a ship back to Constantinople where Leo would meet up with Zoe who however saw no fault in Leo even if he was responsible for the massacre of his men as he was taking bath while Simeon charged at them. Instead of punishing Leo, Zoe even gave him an additional two armies to command and strike back at Simeon again but when facing Simeon’s forces again outside Constantinople, Leo was severely defeated but to protect his reputation and save her own as it had been damaged due to this defeat, Zoe decided to marry him and make him young Constantine’s regent but Constantine’s teacher Theodore disagreed to it believing this would remove Constantine from the succession, therefore Theodore wrote to Romanos to take over the regency and protect Constantine.

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Leo Phokas the Elder, Byzantine general

Zoe on the other hand asked the regency council to meet again only to find out that they all lost faith in her because of the defeat to the Bulgars at Anchialos and outside Constantinople that Patriarch Nikolaos had to return to running the regency from here on. Romanos however had turned out to have his own imperial ambitions which is why he was at odds with Leo Phokas and in 919, Romanos suddenly docked his fleet outside the Boukoleon Palace along the sea walls of Constantinople wherein he declared he was going to take over the regency while Zoe was asked to resign from it and retire and here the 14-year-old Constantine VII was married to Romanos’ young daughter Helena Lekapene to secure Romanos’ claim to the throne. Leo Phokas on the other hand who was across the Bosporus put his claim on the throne as well in rebellion against Romanos claiming that he was to save Constantine VII but before he was able to cross the Bosporus to Constantinople, Romanos sent him a letter denouncing Leo’s actions which made Leo’s men desert and as Leo tried to flee south into Asia Minor, Romanos’ men caught him and blinded him wherein he was paraded in Constantinople’s streets though his fate afterwards is unknown. In 920 then, Romanos made a deal with Patriarch Nikolaos to keep Constantine VII in power as long as Zoe was to be banished for good in which she did by retiring to the same nunnery she was kept in before for good this time. Later in 920, young Constantine VII was forced to crown his father-in-law Romanos as his co-emperor and just a few months later, Romanos I Lekapenos assumed the full duty of the empire’s senior emperor although Constantine VII was still kept in power but only in name whereas Romanos was to effectively run the empire claiming he was doing it for young Constantine’s protection.         

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The land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Land Walls), art by Powee Celdran
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Coronation of young Constantine VII in 913, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine army at the night before the disastrous Battle of Anchialos in 917, Madrid Skylitzes
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Capture and blinding of Leo Phokas the Elder by Romanos Lekapenos in 919, Madrid Skylitzes

When Romanos I Lekapenos took over the imperial administration in 920 not only as a regent or protector but as emperor, it was suspected that he would one day murder young Constantine VII except that he didn’t, rather he had more subtle ways of sidelining Constantine VII and making himself the supreme authority and this was by removing Constantine’s imperial authority even as he aged, thus it turned out the poorly educated admiral of low birth was actually an intelligent and cunning ruler. For the next years, Constantine VII would live in the shadows though still in the imperial palace keeping his title as emperor, except basically he was a political prisoner of his father-in-law Romanos I who had to keep watching his back being never really permitted him leave without Romanos’ approval, but Constantine would in fact enjoy his time by not having to perform his duties as emperor but instead doing what he grew up to love most, which were scholarly interests such as reading, writing, as well as painting and sculpting, basically Constantine was his father the scholarly Leo VI’s son.

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Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos of Byzantium (r. 920-944)

For Romanos, to make it seem like Constantine would be powerless, Romanos made his eldest son Christopher his co-emperor in 921 who was intended to be his actual successor and in 924 Romanos I made his 2 younger sons Stephen and Constantine co-emperors too, thus Constantine VII the rightful emperor became the least powerful of the 5 emperors with his name placed at the bottom of the coins issued by the 5 rulers. The threat of Simeon of Bulgaria however was still at large and not to mention at this time, the Bulgarian Empire here under Simeon was no longer the primitive warrior state of Bulgaria 2 centuries earlier that posed a threat to Byzantium, but a highly civilized major Orthodox Christian cultural and military power in its golden age the same way Byzantium was, and in terms of size, Bulgaria was the largest empire in Eastern Europe spanning from the west to east from the Black Sea to the Ionian Sea and north to south from the Carpathian Mountains in Central Europe to Central Greece, and its ruler Simeon was no longer like the Bulgarian khans of old but a full emperor in authority known as tsar in their language, literally meaning “Caesar” being the first Bulgarian ruler to call himself that. Simeon in 924 made another attempt to besiege Constantinople both by land and sea except this time getting himself allied forces from the Arab powers in the Middle East, Sicily, and North Africa which Simeon believed was enough to fully take over Constantinople. The Arabs however were intercepted first by Romanos before they could reach Simeon and Romanos won them over by even agreeing to pay tribute to them and when finding out his Arab allies never made it, Simeon was upset. Simeon however still made it to Constantinople but when arriving, Romanos chose to resolve the issue with diplomacy and here Patriarch Nikolaos who was still alive arranged for both rulers to meet up at a dock along Constantinople’s Golden Horn harbor. When seeing Simeon up close, Romanos I did not see a Bulgarian ruler in the traditional Bulgarian fur cloaks and fur hats but an emperor dressed in the same silks as the Byzantines did, although when they met face to face, there apparently was no violent tension brewing between them, rather it ended peacefully with Romanos agreeing to resume paying tribute to Bulgaria, also handing over to Simeon 100 silk robes as a gift. Afterwards, Simeon would never return as a physical threat except that in 925 he had the audacity to call himself not only tsar but “Basileus of both Bulgars and Romans”, literally emperor of both empires, though Romanos did not take it as an insult and instead he even joked about it saying that if he can, he would call himself “Caliph of Baghdad” without the Abbasid caliph’s approval. Simeon again not physically threatening Byzantium in 926 declared the Bulgarian Church independent from Constantinople, therefore creating a separate Patriarchate of Bulgaria though no matter how powerful Simeon was as tsar, his rule was still challenged first by his western neighbors being the Serbs (from present day Serbia) who Simeon defeated in 926, but the bigger threat to Simeon was his other more powerful western neighbor which was the Kingdom of Croatia ruled by its new king Tomislav who happened to be an ally of the Byzantines.

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Tomislav, King of Croatia (r. 925-928)

Though seemingly undefeatable, Simeon’s forces lost a severe defeat to the Croatian forces of Tomislav in 926 in what is now Bosnia, thus Bulgaria was forced to pay a heavy humiliating tribute to Croatia and in 927, the very much humiliated Simeon died from a heart attack in his palace in the new Bulgarian capital of Preslav and would be succeeded by his son Peter I as tsar who would happen to be a much weaker and less warlike ruler compared to his father. Peter I when becoming Bulgaria’s new tsar was also still young and wanting to rule in peace, he personally went to Constantinople to negotiate with Romanos I which was successful and as part of the deal, Peter married Romanos’ young granddaughter Maria, daughter of his eldest son Christopher with the new Patriarch of Constantinople Stephen II– who had succeeded Nikolaos after his death back in 925- marrying them and following this, a long 42-year period would last between Byzantium and Bulgaria, allowing the Byzantines to continue fighting their other deadly enemy, the Arabs.          

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Coin of Romanos I with his and his sons Christopher, Stephen, Constantine, and son-in-law Constantine VII’s (at the very bottom) names
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Court of Tsar Simeon in Bulgaria
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Map of the Bulgarian Empire (yellow) under Tsar Simeon, Byzantine Empire (pink)

As the effective emperor, despite the rightful Constantine VII still having the title, Romanos I Lekapenos may have completely seemed to everyone as a tough military man being quite uncultured, uneducated, and rough around the edges which is what his rather intellectually and artistically snobbish son-in-law Constantine VII would say about him seeing him every day in the palace, although Constantine as I would say never felt respected by his father-in-law as Romanos felt his son-in-law was not tough enough being a an artist and scholar and not a soldier and politician the way Romanos was. However, despite Romanos’ tough exterior, he was also someone with a big heart as when a brutal winter struck Constantinople from 927-928, Romanos I spent a lot of the imperial treasury in building porticos for Constantinople’s streets so that homeless would not die of the cold and also to make sure the people had enough food to last the winter. Following this winter when seeing how much damage it inflicted on the people, especially the small farmers, Romanos I decided to pass a law that was to forbid the wealthy and powerful landed aristocracy or the Dynatoi to buy land from these farmers thus taking it away from them but also for these farmers to not sell their land to their richer neighbors, though this was also part of an act to limit the landed aristocracy’s power as they produced the most troublemaking generals like the Phokas clan. In 931 on the other hand, Romanos I would suffer a great loss when his co-emperor son and intended heir Christopher died from an illness which Romanos mourned deeply most especially because there would be no one competent enough to succeed him when he dies as his other sons Stephen and Constantine despite them being co-emperors were rather good for nothing, therefore the only capable one was the rightful emperor Constantine VII, which was something Romanos could not accept.

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Theophylact Lekapenos, Patriarch of Constantinople (933-956) playing Tzykanion, art by Byzantine Tales

In 933, Romanos I as usual as the master of nepotism successfully schemed to make his 16-year-old son Theophylact, named after Romanos’ father be appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople which had happened to be a total embarrassment as for one Theophylact was a child who had no knowledge in theology, spirituality, and Church politics and second, his major concern was horses and playing Byzantine Polo that in one Easter he forgot to perform his duty as patriarch in celebrating the Eucharist as he had to be in the stables to watch his favorite horse give birth. Now when it came to military matters, this was where Romanos I was most successful at, although he did not personally lead the armies himself, rather the job was left to his close friend the general John Kourkouas who was from a lesser known aristocratic family, which Romanos preferred more thus making him the commander in chief or Domestikos ton Scholon of the eastern armies who back in 923 finally defeated the notorious pirate Leo of Tripoli in the Aegean Sea in which Leo would afterwards disappear from the historical record and in 932, John went as far as Lake Van in the border of Byzantium and Armenia capturing the trading town of Manzikert, thus giving the empire control of trade routes into Armenia and Central Asia. John Kourkouas however would score his greatest victory in 934 when finally achieving the Byzantine dream of capturing the city of Melitene (today’s Malatya, Turkey) in Eastern Asia Minor which then had been the seat of the breakaway Arab Emirate of Melitene that was a vassal of the Abbasids in Baghdad, though what would be very significant about this capture of Melitene was that it was the first time the Byzantine conquered an entire Arab Emirate and absorb it to their empire. Following the conquest of Melitene, the Byzantines immediately resettled Greeks and Armenians in the area into it before the Arabs could take it back but the capture of Melitene also sent great shockwaves to the Muslim world that the Emirates of Mosul and Aleppo both ruled by members of the Hamdanid clan would counter-attack and challenge John Kourkouas although by 940, the Arab Hamdanid general Sayf al-Dawla better known as the “Sword of Islam” and John would be recalled to their capitals but in 941, John returned to campaigning in the east although he had to immediately rush back, for he heard Constantinople was under attack again. Now in 941, Constantinople was for the 3rd time attacked by the army and fleet of the Kievan Rus’ coming from today’s Ukraine sailing down the Black Sea with their fleet of longships, except this time the Rus’ force was much larger and deadlier with 1,000 ships and 40,000 men with their Grand Prince Igor himself leading them.

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Igor, Grand Prince of Kiev (r. 914-945)

Having only 15 old ships in the capital, Romanos I patched them all up with the imperial secret superweapon of Greek Fire and charged them all out to attack the Rus’ longships with the eunuch admiral Theophanes in command of the 15 ships, and with the Rus thinking they could easily crush these 15 ships, they were proven wrong when all 15 of them blew out the powerful liquid fire which burned a number of the Rus’ ships and the Rus soldiers in fear of the sight of the fire jumped into the sea wherein many died from drowning due to the weight of their armor. After fleeing from the Greek Fire, the remaining Rus army escaped to the Asian shore of the Marmara where they committed great atrocities towards the Byzantine locals including crucifying them with nails hammered to their heads while as usual, the Rus nonstop pillaged the land. Soon enough hope would come for the Byzantines when their armies led by John Kourkouas and the same old Bardas Phokas the Elder, the younger brother of Leo Phokas who was blinded back in 919 rushed back to counter-attack the Rus, and at the end of the day the Byzantines were victorious as Theophanes with his navy also destroyed the rest of the fleet, thus the remaining Rus including their prince Igor returned home to Kiev. Now this major conflict between the Rus and Byzantines in 941 is where the graphic novel Theophano opened with the same admiral Theophanes defending Constantinople from the Rus, except here in this story the family of Theophano from Laconia in Greece would not come, thus the story returns to John Kourkouas who would resume his campaigns against the Arabs in the east where in 942 he would attack Aleppo in Syria, the seat of the Arab Emirate though would not be able to conquer it, but John would later on achieve what no Byzantine armies did for the past 3 centuries since all of Byzantine Syria and Mesopotamia was lost to the first wave of Arab invasions in the 630s during the reign of Heraclius (610-641), if you remember from chapter IV of this series. John here would go as far as capturing the important fortress of Dara, the same military fort both Byzantines and Sassanid Persians fought over countless times back in the old days almost 400 years earlier. Though while John Kourkouas seemed to be scoring a lot of victories in the east, Romanos I’s time as emperor was nearing its end, thus he was growing more depressed as the days went by.

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Map of the small states at the Caucasus border between Byzantium and the Abbasid Caliphate in the 10th century
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Byzantine forces under John Kourkouas capture Melitene from the Arabs in 934, Madrid Skylitzes
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Rus-Byzantine War of 941, Byzantine fleet uses Greek Fire against the Rus’ fleet, Madrid Skylitzes
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Rus-Byzantine War of 941, Byzantine fleet defeats the Rus’ fleet at the Sea of Marmara, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Rus outside Constantinople’s Walls, 941

Part II.

Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, and Intellectual Snob but Surprisingly Skilled Emperor (944-959)          

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For more than 20 years, the rightful emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos had been in the shadows although this whole time he had been busy with intellectual pursuits all while having a rather happy marriage to Romanos I’s daughter Helena who being her father’s only daughter when all his other children were sons did not have a lot in common with her father and brothers’ more manly interests, but rather like her husband, she also enjoyed the more sophisticated things.

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Emperor Constantine VII and Empress Helena Lekapene

Helena had turned to out to be the empire’s senior empress as well despite her only being the senior emperor’s daughter as this was due to the fact that her mother had already died a long time ago just 2 years after her father became emperor (922) and being the most powerful woman in the family as her father’s only daughter, she became the highest-ranking woman in the empire. Helena’s marriage to Constantine VII was indeed a very successful one that they were able to produce 6 children and unlike her father who had 5 sons and only one daughter, Helena with Constantine had 5 daughters and only one son named Romanos born in 938 as a Porphyrogennetos in the purple room too andnamed after his maternal grandfather the reigning emperor, and surprisingly Romanos was born with a twin sister named Zoe after her grandmother, Constantine VII’s mother Empress Zoe Karbonopsina who had died as a nun a long time ago. Now back to Romanos I, by the 940s he had grown increasingly depressed especially since his son and intended heir Christopher died despite it happening 10 years earlier and in his depression, Romanos I became most concerned with what we would all be worried about when reaching old age, which is about the afterlife and Romanos here was deeply bothered about it especially about the salvation of his soul and like Basil I mentioned earlier on as he was in his final years, Romanos I felt the same way in feeling he had been punished by God for what he did in the past which was taking over power from the rightful emperor. In 944 the Rus’ prince Igor I returned once again with his fleet except in the mouth of Danube River to the Black Sea this time threatening to have war with the Byzantines again, but Romanos this time was able to turn them away through diplomacy by sending them gifts. Back in the east, the general John Kourkouas continued his successful campaigns deep into Northern Mesopotamia, although he was still unable to capture the city of Edessa in 942 but instead the Arab authorities gave John a very important relic which had been in the city of Edessa’s possession since the 1st century AD and this was the Holy Mandylion which was a piece of cloth believed to have been used by Jesus Christ himself to wipe his face, therefore leaving an imprint of his features, and this was a relic of high value that the Byzantines always wanted to acquire.

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Image of Christ in the Mandylion

In 944, the Mandylion was sent over to Constantinople wherein a grand ceremony was held to enshrine it in the Hagia Sophia, though Romanos I was too ill and depressed to attend it so instead his sons and co-emperors Stephen and Constantine attended it and so did his son-in-law Constantine VII but when the ceremony happened, the brothers Stephen and Constantine could not see the face on the cloth but Constantine VII did, therefore he gained a vast amount of public support as everyone believed that by being able to see Christ’s face, he was destined to take back the throne. Romanos I later on true enough announced that his time was almost near as he was already 74, therefore he named his son-in-law Constantine VII his successor as senior emperor and not his sons Stephen and Constantine but when these two sons heard of this, they were greatly enraged and so in December of 944 to save their positions, both sons launched a coup against their father in which they broke into his bedroom while he was sleeping and here, both sons put him under arrest, dragged him to a boat, and sent him away to the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara to be a monk in a monastery there. For the next 2 or 3 weeks, both brothers Stephen and Constantine were basically in charge of the empire and now they turned to arrest their brother-in-law Constantine VII but failed as Constantine VII already had great public support and so being convinced by his wife Helena, Constantine VII in January of 945 struck back and arrested his brothers-in-law. The people of Constantinople meanwhile started hearing some rumors that Constantine VII had been killed by the brothers until Constantine VII himself came out to greet them saying he was all alive and well and that the brothers had been banished to no other than the monastery where they sent their father to. Both Stephen and Constantine Lekapenos ended up becoming monks too joining their father in monastery arrest and while Romanos I spent his last years thinking about his soul, his sons were still thinking of ways to return to power but at the end they never would, and Constantine VII now at 39 finally got his chance to rule alone after 32 years of being in the shadows despite keeping his title.

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Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of Byzantium (r. 913-959), sole emperor (945-959)

At 39, Constantine VII was tall but stocky with a long black beard and brown hair, though quite overweight as for the past 32 years he barely left the palace and instead remained in his study reading and writing as well as drawing and painting and in those years he had been kept away, he became most interested in court ceremonies and now as the sole emperor, he put a lot of attention into it as a way to make it seem like he was all-powerful to make up for all those years where he seemed powerless. Not surprisingly, Constantine VII held a strong grudge against his in-laws, the Lekapenos family especially towards his father-in-law Romanos I and his brothers-in-law seeing them as nothing more but uncultured and improper people or basically just trash despite being married to one, except that Helena as I said was nothing like her father and older brothers, although there were also some members of the Lekapenos family that Constantine VII still trusted as they were much like him in personality and interests and these were Helena’s younger brother the patriarch Theophylact Lekapenos who was still patriarch and Basil Lekapenos, the youngest though illegitimate son of Romanos I born 925 who now as an adult was castrated and turned into a eunuch by Constantine VII’s orders as a way to make Basil unquestionably loyal and unable to usurp power as he was to be Constantine VII’s personal chamberlain and bodyguard.

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Woodcarving of Christ crowning Emperor Constantine VII

As usual of emperors coming to power in this period in Byzantine history, Constantine VII began his sole rule by firing all those loyal to Romanos I including the highly successful general John Kourkouas who in 945 was dismissed from command as Constantine feared he would one day take the throne in the name of his friend Romanos I, and in return Constantine VII replaced all of Romanos I’s loyalists with people loyal to him such as the same old Bardas Phokas the Elder who in 945 replaced John Kourkouas as the supreme commander of the eastern armies and serving him would be his sons Nikephoros Phokas the Younger and Leo Phokas the Younger as well as their 30-year-old nephew John Kourkouas Tzimiskes, who was the son of their older sister and a grand-nephew of the same John Kourkouas who had been fired; and now this Nikephoros Phokas mentioned here who was named after his grandfather Nikephoros Phokas the Elder that was mentioned earlier, would be the more famous Nikephoros Phokas. The other loyal officials Constantine VII had appointed to run the government on the other hand were mostly eunuchs which included of course Basil Lekapenos but also other highly capable eunuch administrators like Joseph Bringas and Constantine Gongyles. Romanos I meanwhile had not died yet and in 947, his son Theophylact who was still patriarch here together with the eunuch admiral Theophanes who was still in command plotted to restore Romanos to the throne but the plot was quickly uncovered by Constantine VII who when hearing about it dismissed Theophanes from command for good, while Theophylact on the other hand was still kept as patriarch as he was entirely useless being nothing more but literally a clown who even performed theatrical acts when performing the liturgy which was very scandalous, and as mentioned earlier he was lacking in brains and cared more about horses than his religious duties. Romanos I on the other hand did not live long enough and in 948 he died as a monk in the monastery he was sent to.           

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The Mandylion brought to Constantinople in 944, Madrid Skylitzes
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Constantine VII (center) in ceremonial armor
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Map of the Byzantine Empire’s Themes (military districts) in Asia Minor, 10th century

Constantine VII as emperor could have been a really disastrous ruler as when the empire was still being pressured by Arab forces in the east as well as the seas by the Arab pirates of Crete and Cilicia while the administration at the same time was being dominated by corrupt eunuchs, Constantine VII had been preoccupied with his scholarly works which is how historians like John Skylitzes (10410-1101) portray him as, but at the same time this was not true of him as Constantine VII cared deeply about the administration, invested heavily on the army, dutifully read all documents given to him, and investigated all cases of injustices against the poor which is how historical records like Theophanes Continuatus portray him as, which is in fact the more reliable source.

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Constantine VII in his study, art by Spatharokandidatos

What is more true about Constantine VII was that he was simply the personification of this era, the Byzantine Renaissance as out of all the emperors of this time, he was the one who put the most attention into funding and promoting art, culture, and literacy as well as court ceremonies and true enough his own intellectual pursuits in writing books and compiling other works would totally show he was this era’s embodiment in cultural terms whereas Romanos I before him was somewhat the embodiment of this era’s military resurgence. Constantine VII now may have excelled in artistic and literary matters but in military matters he was not as you will see which makes him very much like his father Leo VI and just like his father, Constantine VII in 949 made another attempt to reconquer all of Crete from the Arab Emirate of pirates there, and here he planned a larger scale invasion even allying himself with Otto I, the King of the Frankish Empire’s successor Kingdom of East Frankia better known as Germany and the Emirate of Cordoba or Al-Andalus in Spain which were after all the mortal enemies of the Emirate of Crete as these pirates in Crete were after all exiles that tried to overthrow the ruling authority of Cordoba. The proposed military alliance with Otto I’s Germany and the Emirate of Cordoba never came to happen as both rulers had their own problems, so at the end it was only Constantine VII’s Byzantine forces under the eunuch Constantine Gongyles that were left alone to retake Crete and like Leo VI’s attempted reconquest of 911-912, this expedition in 949 was a disaster and failure not only because of Gongyles’ inexperience in military command that the Byzantine forces were massacred by the Arabs while they were sleeping but because the island of Crete had a rough terrain that made it difficult to conquer it, but either way the expedition was abandoned and Gongyles after barely escaping with his life retired from imperial service for good. Constantine VII on the other hand would not see this failed expedition of 949 to reconquer Crete as a great loss, rather he would still continue to do what he loved most which was writing books that by 950 he had already written and published 3 major literary works by himself and as a highly learned scholar, he was fluent in both Latin and Greek. Now before his reign as sole emperor in 945, Constantine VII already completed and published a biography on Basil I (Vita Basilii in Latin), which I have mentioned earlier and believing Basil I was his grandfather who he greatly idolized, Constantine VII portrays him as a heroic figure and defender of the poor from corrupt eunuch that demanded tax from them while Michael III who Basil killed was portrayed as the embodiment of all that is evil and corrupt, therefore Basil’s usurping of power was seen as necessary. Little did Constantine know on the other hand that Basil who he idolized so much was actually not his grandfather and that the evil Michael III he writes about was actually his grandfather and this was mainly because Constantine was too young to remember his father Leo being alive, but if Leo lived longer, Constantine would have known the whole truth- in this story’s case- that Michael was indeed his grandfather. However, much like his actual grandfather Michael III who he labelled as “the Drunkard”, Constantine VII was also a heavy drinker and heavy eater although he was still very respectful to others, took matters seriously, and was on time in attending court ceremonies unlike Michael III who was mostly neglectful.

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De Ceremoniis by Constantine VII

The other work Constantine VII wrote and published included a complete encyclopedia of the Byzantine court rituals and protocols which he was so obsessed known as De Ceremoniis in Latin which discusses in great detail the proper behavior for court ceremonies, coronations, baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc. and also about the proper attire to wear for such events and even about how to behave in church and in feasts, and this would be a very valuable source on Byzantine court rituals which would serve as a manual for all Byzantine emperors after him and for us today as our greatest source for information on Byzantine court life. Constantine’s other literary work De Thematibus meanwhile would be a very valuable guide to the geography and history of all of the Byzantine Empire’s provinces or Themes and this is believed to be the only work composed and compiled by Constantine himself as the rest were just commissioned by him, although for this story Constantine did in fact write all of these himself. The most important work of Constantine VII however is the De Administrando Imperio (DAI) which was literally a guide book to running the very complicated Byzantine Empire with all its politics while at the same time it was a diplomatic guide to all of Byzantium’s foreign neighbors such as the Arabs, Franks, Magyars, Serbs, Bulgarians, Pechenegs, and a lot more based on reports by imperial diplomats and in 952, this guide to the empire and beyond was published and presented to Constantine’s son and heir Romanos who was now co-emperor.

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Constantine VII’s De Administrando Imperio (DAI)

The DAI now was made to advise young Romanos and his successors after him on how to run the empire properly and part of the advice in this book was that Greek Fire was to be kept as a deep state secret as it had saved Byzantium countless times, and also that Byzantine imperial princes were discouraged from marrying any princesses from foreign powers unless they were from the Franks as this was part of Constantine VII maintaining friendly relations with the rising Frankish king Otto I. As part of Constantine VII’s foreign policy in impressing the Franks was that one time possibly in 949 when the bishop of Cremona in Italy Liutprand came to Constantinople being sent by Otto I, Constantine VII greatly impressed him with the grandeur of the imperial court as here Liutprand said he was greatly impressed seeing Constantine VII on his throne being lifted up by a mechanism that elevated the throne itself while the bronze lions that flanked the throne both roared like a real lion would and beside it, the golden birds in the artificial golden tree beside the throne sang.         

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Constantine VII on his throne with the mechanical lions and singing tree, art by Byzantine Tales

Back in the eastern frontier, things were doing well for the Byzantine armies under the supreme commander of the eastern forces Bardas Phokas the Elder but in 953 when battling the forces of the same Sayf al-Dawla who battled John Kourkouas earlier who now was the Emir of Aleppo since 945, Bardas who was now an old man was severely injured in battle while at the end of the day, Sayf’s Arab forces won and even retook the city of Germanikeia in Syria from the Byzantines. Following his injury and being too old to fight anyway being already in his 70s, Bardas retired from command in 955 and would be succeeded as the supreme commander or Domestikos of the eastern forces by his older son Nikephoros Phokas the Younger who was prior to that the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme, and Nikephoros now was a far more capable and ruthless general compared to his father who spent his entire life together with his younger brother Leo learning the art of war.

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General Nikephoros Phokas the Younger, art by Ancient City Lullaby

Nikephoros meanwhile was born in 912 in Cappadocia, the same year Leo VI died, and being part of the wealthy and powerful military clan of Phokas (plural: Phokades), he was destined to have a military career and Nikephoros would true enough be no exception to this as he trained all his life to be a soldier but what made him stand out was his purpose which was not only to fight for the empire or for territory and wealth but to defend the Orthodox Christian faith, and this is why throughout his entire military life, Nikephoros had an intense hatred towards Islam which makes him somewhat of a holy warrior or proto-Crusader as the actual Crusades would happen long after his time. All these years in military service made Nikephoros into a bloody killer especially towards Byzantium’s Muslim enemies that they would all fear his presence, but at the same time he was also a very disciplined holy man that lived life like an ascetic monk even being vegetarian in diet and before every battle would gather up his soldiers for prayer, therefore making him what would be a holy warrior, while brother Leo who was 3 years younger than him would very much just follow his older brother’s example except Leo was married.

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Sayf al-Dawla, Emir of Aleppo (945-967) and his court

As Nikephoros was the top commander in the east, he made his younger brother Leo and nephew John Tzimiskes his subordinate generals and while Nikephoros and Leo based themselves in the eastern border with the Arabs in Cilicia and Syria, John was assigned up north in the Armenian border defending it against the Arabs though in 956 when Sayf’s Arab forces struck John’s army, John being still young and not so experienced yet was defeated and therefore had to flee but later that year, Nikephoros and Leo struck back and won a victory over Sayf’s forces and in 957 Nikephoros would campaign deeper east into Syria and capture the city of Hadath while John on the other hand in 958 would manage actually to succeed not only in crushing Arab forces in battle but by actually recovering the city of Samosata in Mesopotamia from the Arabs while at the same time off the coast of Cilicia, an Arab fleet was destroyed by the Byzantines’ Greek Fire. It was also at around this time in real history when Theophano would come into the picture marrying Constantine VII’s son Romanos as was seen in the graphic novel, but in this story’s case it would not happen. In real history, Romanos as a child was married to Bertha, the daughter of the Frankish king of Italy Hugh (r. 926-947) although Bertha died soon after and so in around 957 with Romanos now grown up, he was free to choose his new wife and rather than choosing a powerful foreign princess or a daughter of a noble Byzantine family, he chose the young daughter of an innkeeper from the region of Laconia (the Peloponnese) in Southern Greece named Anastaso who despite being of low status was famous for her beauty and when hearing rumors about her, Romanos had her sent to Constantinople where she was renamed Theophano after marrying Romanos, although other sources say Theophano actually came from a noble family but of little importance, while her origins as an innkeeper’s daughter was just to malign her.

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Location of Laconia in Greece (red)

For this story however, let’s just say Romanos never heard of these rumors about this young woman in Greece, therefore Anastaso would not be become Theophano but rather would live a simple life as an innkeeper’s daughter in Laconia, never to be heard from again, therefore this would be the story’s greatest plot-twist. Other significant events that happened later on in the 950s with Byzantium under Constantine VII was that in 956 the mostly irresponsible patriarch Theophylact Lekapenos died from ironically falling off his horse as for his whole life he was dedicated to horses and following his sudden death at 39, he was replaced as Patriarch of Constantinople by Polyeuctus, a man who began out as a simple monk and when becoming patriarch he was the complete opposite of the fun-loving Theophylact as Polyeuctus was a serious scholar and man of strict morals except he was also very rude and arrogant as he would constantly challenge the emperor Constantine VII’s authority especially since he was the son of a controversial 4th marriage that Polyeuctus as strictly Orthodox never agreed to but also in knowledge of philosophy and religion knowing the emperor knew them well, while Constantine was not happy being challenged by the patriarch, except that he did not show it.

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Olga, Princess of the Kievan Rus’

In 957, the ruling princess of the Kieven Rus’ state Olga, wife of their former ruler Igor I who attacked Constantinople back in 941 but died in 945 came over to Constantinople though not to attack but to be baptized as a Christian by Patriarch Polyeuctus, thus would mark the beginning of the Christianization of the Rus’ state who like Bulgaria before also chose Orthodox Christianity. In Constantinople, Olga was seen as an exotic beauty with blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin and because of her beauty, the emperor Constantine even briefly fell in love with her but Olga prevented him from doing so by making Constantine her godfather at her baptism as a godfather and goddaughter could not be in a relationship and before returning north to Kiev, Olga as a Christian now took the name of Helena after the empress. Constantine VII on the other hand did not have much longer to live and in November of 959, right when was about to plan another campaign to reconquer Crete from the Arabs, he died in his bed at only 54 under mysterious circumstances that it was rumored that his daughter-in-law Theophano poisoned him thus giving her a bad reputation, however in this story with Theophano never coming into the picture, Constantine VII would still die here in 959 as it was surely most possible that he did not die from poisoning but rather from heart failure as Constantine was already unhealthy due to being overweight spending most of his life in his study and throne room barely moving while also eating and drinking very heavily and at only 54 he already looked like he was in his late 60s after living a life of stress especially back when Romanos I was his protector who any time could decide whether Constantine was to live or die. In real history, Constantine in 959 died at least having one grandson which was Basil, the son of Romanos and Theophano but here without Theophano around, Constantine would still die ruling the empire very competently leaving the empire with its cultural Renaissance and military might at a full swing.

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Emperor Constantine VII hosting a feast, art by Byzantine Tales
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Polyeuctus appointed as patriarch in 956, Madrid Skylitzes
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Princess Olga of Kiev in the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, 957

 

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Death of Constantine VII in 959, Madrid Skylitzes

The Climax Part I- Romanos II, the End of the Amorian Dynasty (959-963)          

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In 959, Romanos II at only 21 succeeded his father Constantine VII following his death and continuing the Amorian Dynasty despite not knowing the whole truth and still thinking he was from the line of Basil the Macedonian and not Michael III. Romanos II was very well trained by his father to succeed him as ever since 945 when Constantine VII became sole emperor, Romanos was already associated with his father on the throne as co-emperor and in addition, Constantine VII left behind to Romanos a complete manual in running the empire and its government which was the DAI.

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Emperor Romanos II of Byzantium (r. 959-963), son of Constantine VII, art by Byzantine Tales

The question now is if Romanos actually took his father’s advice in running the empire to heart or just wasted it away, and the answer is that he just wasted it away as he did indeed have capable advisors like the eunuch Joseph Bringas who put all his trust to in running the empire and more capable generals like Nikephoros and Leo Phokas as well as John Tzimiskes that he could put all his trust to, thus allowing Romanos to live the life of pleasure he so loved. Now Romanos being the pleasure-loving party-boy that partied all night and neglected his duties in running the empire but at the same time still having capable ministers running the government for him was exactly like his actual great-grandfather Michael III although unlike Michael III, Romanos would not get rid of his mother and sisters and lock them up in a convent. In real history however due to the influence of his wife Theophano, Romanos banished all of his 5 sisters from the palace including his mother Empress Helena and sent them all to a convent to become nuns as they were seen as threats, or if you go with the Theophano graphic novel, Romanos’ top advisor Joseph Bringas had accused Helena of poisoning her husband the late emperor therefore forcing her to commit suicide by having her poison herself when in fact Theophano poisoned Constantine VII being manipulated by Joseph, but in this story with Theophano not coming into the picture Romanos would not do anything to his mother and sisters and since he was unmarried he still needed an empress (Augusta) at side, therefore his mother would still keep her position as the Augusta until Romanos was to be married, and not to mention too Romanos inherited a lot from his mother especially his good looks and grace, though Romanos’ stocky figure was inherited from his father.

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Coin of Constantine VII and his son and co-emperor Romanos II

On the other hand, Romanos’ reasons for being hands off in the administration and neglecting mostly everything his father taught him in running the empire was not so much because he did not care and just wanted to party and sleep with other women but because he did in fact have some personal issues with his father and a lot of this had to do with how his father looked down on Romanos’ mother’s side, the Lekapenos family and his maternal grandfather Romanos I who Constantine VII saw as trash while Romanos was indeed close to his mother’s side especially to his late fun-loving uncle Patriarch Theophylact who did in fact influence Romanos’ pleasure-loving lifestyle, and as an act of rebelling against his father’s memory, Romanos chose to not take his advice and let Joseph the eunuch do everything as he was highly skilled at it despite being greedy and corrupt at the same time. Romanos having grown up practically raised by Joseph Bringas chose to have Joseph as his top advisor while his uncle Basil Lekapenos was put aside although he still maintained his position in the imperial court. Now Romanos II was not all neglectful and resentful towards his father as you may think as in 960 less than a year after becoming emperor, he decided to continue what his father failed to do before he died which was to recapture the entire island of Crete and so here, Romanos planned out a massive campaign to retake the island himself though with Joseph’s advice too, but Romanos having no military experience would not lead the campaign himself, instead he selected the empire’s rising star and most capable general Nikephoros Phokas to lead it, and true enough Nikephoros had been Byzantium’s most brilliant strategist general since Justinian I’s general Belisarius in the 6th century (who played a major part in chapter III). Romanos II then had to recall Nikephoros from the eastern front to Constantinople where the fleet of 1,000 warships or Dromons including 50,000 soldiers and 27,000 sailors would take off. Nikephoros then left behind his younger brother Leo and nephew John Tzimiskes to fight off the Arabs in the east as he was to face another Arab army which were the pirates of Crete and Nikephoros living his life to fight Arabs accepted the offer to lead the perilous Cretan expedition of 960 which would then last for about 8 months, although Nikephoros spending months on campaign already expected this.

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

The entire fleet then arrived outside the city of Chandax which was the island emirate’s capital and when seeing the strength of its land and sea walls, Nikephoros had his men carefully inspect it and here he immediately came up with his strategy which was to not lift the siege no matter how much time went by. For months, the Byzantine forces kept firing arrows and weights from their catapults into the city, though it never succeeded and at one point just out of fun and as an insult, Nikephoros had a live donkey catapulted high up into the air and into the city, though to mention, another tactic Nikephoros used here was to catapult in to the city heads of its people relatives from outside the walls that had been killed, as a way to bring feat to them. The siege lasted until the winter where Nikephoros ordered his men to not lift the siege but use the winter to starve off the population inside and it was also here when ships from Constantinople arrived to restock the supplies for the army, but it was only when March of 961 came when the Byzantines would totally gain the upper hand. The emir of Crete Abd al-Aziz meanwhile was tired of being blockaded for months that he even wrote to Romanos II to order his men to abandon the siege though it did not work as Nikephoros was already so close to taking it. The next trick Nikephoros did was to have his men dig beneath the walls to make it collapse and with explosives planted beneath the walls’ foundations, the walls collapsed allowing the Byzantine army to pour in. After months of endlessly waiting to take the city, the Byzantine army lost all their patience and once they broke the walls of Chandax, they carried out a merciless sack of the city massacring anyone they found while the survivors were taken as slaves, mosques were destroyed out of revenge, and a lot of loot hoarded by the pirates over the years were recovered. By March of 961, not only Chandax but all of the Island of Crete fell once again back under Byzantine hands after 137 years of Arab control and numerous attempts to recapture it, thus the threat of these Arab pirates in the Mediterranean was done with for good and trade allowed to continue uninterrupted once again, while at the same time the emir Abd al-Aziz was taken as a prisoner and brought to Constantinople where he was paraded at the triumphal procession for Nikephoros Phokas and his army. The triumph in Constantinople meanwhile was not entirely held for the victorious general Nikephoros Phokas but for Romanos II who masterminded the whole expedition as he did not want Nikephoros getting all the credit, and here Abd al-Aziz was forced to bow down to Romanos II but was still allowed to live and retire peacefully despite not converting to Christianity, though he would never to come back to the picture again.

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Byzantine Dromon (warship)
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Territories of the Arab pirate Emirate of Crete (red), before 961
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960-961 Byzantine Siege of Arab held Chandax, Madrid Skylitzes
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Nikephoros Phokas’ Byzantine forces storm Chandax in 961, Madrid Skylitzes
Watch this to learn more about the life and career of Nikephoros Phokas (History Time)

By achieving the impossible in finally taking over Crete from the Arab pirates, Nikephoros Phokas would be forever remembered as the terror of the Arabs or simply the “Pale Death of the Saracens” referring to his brutal massacre of the Arab Muslim population of Chandax, although Romanos II too would gain a lot of popularity for achieving the reconquest of Crete. Nikephoros however right after celebrating his triumph was immediately sent back to the eastern frontier to continue the war against the more serious Arab threat of the Emir of Aleppo Sayf al-Dawla who like Nikephoros was striking back at Arabs was his counterpart striking back against the Byzantines for their successes, although Romanos too saw that Nikephoros may pose a threat to his power if he was to stay in Constantinople longer as Nikephoros had grown even more popular than the emperor for his recent victory.

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Lego Nikephoros Phokas (right) and his brother Leo Phokas (left)

In the meantime over in the eastern frontier, Sayf al-Dawla continued making his annual raids into Byzantine Asia Minor even winning a few victories in minor battles, although Leo Phokas who was left in charge there had managed to set a trap for Sayf in the Taurus Mountains where Sayf was going to pass when returning to Syria and there as his army marched through, the Byzantine forces under Leo ambushed them which was successful leaving only Sayf with 300 of his cavalry soldiers alive, although Sayf barely escaped the ambush with his prized Arabian horse he was riding killed in it. Sayf then escaped using one of his dead soldier’s horse and had even scattered his gold coins to allow his escape as Leo’s soldiers were busy picking them up. Nikephoros later on in 961 was back in Cilicia to continue his campaigns, although here was not intending to fully invade it but to make raids as his tactic in order to weaken the state for a full Byzantine invasion later on, though it was also in 961 when Romanos II’s mother Empress Helena died like in real history from natural causes. In early 962, Nikephoros and his army was able to capture the border between Cilicia and Syria where Nikephoros had the land burned to create a dead zone as a way to make it more difficult for Sayf to invade, although Sayf still managed to cross over to Cilicia but this allowed John Tzimiskes to attack Sayf’s capital of Aleppo in Syria directly while Sayf was not there to guard it. Sayf when hearing that the Byzantine forces reached his capital returned to defend it but when returning he was chased by John Tzimiskes and his forces to the Euphrates River wherein Sayf crossed into Mesopotamia whereas Nikephoros and Leo with their forces all surrounded Aleppo itself. For several months the Byzantine forces had besieged Aleppo and with Sayf absent from his capital, public order there collapsed that by December of 962 the city garrison had to surrender to the Byzantines. Just as they did in Chandax a year earlier, the Byzantine forces did the same to Aleppo looting the city and carrying out a brutal massacre on its Muslim Arab population and when seeing Sayf’s magnificent library there, the Byzantines knew that Sayf was not just a warrior but a highly cultured intellectual, although the Byzantine soldiers acting on Nikephoros’ orders did not spare the library out of respect, instead they burned it to the ground as part of Nikephoros’ strong grudge against Islam. The Byzantines then would only stop their brutal pillaging of Aleppo when they grew tired of it and at the end, they were able to capture over 390,000 silver dinars, 2,000 camels, and 1,400 mules thus the forces under the 3 generals Nikephoros, Leo, and John would head back west, while for the Arab world, the sack of Aleppo would forever ruin their power and prestige. Meanwhile over in the Balkans, another Byzantine general would rise to prominence the way Nikephoros Phokas did and this was Marianos Argyros who had previously gained success in Southern Italy winning many victories against the Arabs and in 962 he had defeated a major invasion of the Magyars into Thrace making him instantly a favorite and part of Romanos’ inner circle which was also because Romanos under Joseph’s influence soon grew to mistrust Nikephoros seeing him as a direct threat. In March of 963, as Nikephoros and his generals were in Cappadocia, news reached them that Romanos II had died and everyone was shocked as the emperor was only 25, therefore they suspected his scheming eunuch advisor Joseph Bringas of poisoning him. Now in real history, it is rumored that it was his wife Theophano that poisoned him like she did to his father as she had gotten tired of Romanos, although in this story with Theophano not being around, we will go with the other possible theory of Romanos’ death which was caused by an accident in a hunting trip whereas Romanos being drunk fell off his horse and down a ditch inuring himself, and when lying down back in Constantinople being badly injured, I would say Joseph Bringas poisoned him to finish him off, although as a eunuch Joseph could not be emperor so it was up for him to put another puppet on the throne except he did not know who, as for one he was someone who totally hated Nikephoros Phokas seeing his popularity as a threat, so here I would go with Joseph selecting John Tzimiskes as his new puppet emperor who Joseph believed could be easily manipulated, and true enough this could be why Joseph sent a letter to John in real history asking him to turn on his uncle Nikephoros and bring him in chains to Constantinople.

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Byzantine imperial shield coronation of Nikephoros II Phokas, 963

In real history however, Theophano having 2 young sons with Romanos, Basil and Constantine who were both already co-emperors needed a protector for them as she distrusted Joseph, therefore she sent word to the popular Nikephoros Phokas to make himself emperor to protect her sons, although here again with Theophano not being in the picture and Romanos II remaining unmarried and without children at his death, Nikephoros Phokas would set his eyes on the throne anyway using his popularity as an opportunity. The same would happen here too with Joseph Bringas sending John Tzimiskes a letter asking him to turn on his uncle Nikephoros and arrest him but like in real history, instead of turning on his uncle John would end up having their troops proclaim his uncle Nikephoros as emperor raising him on a large round shield, thus here ends the rule of the Amorian Dynasty that had ruled since 820 and only briefly interrupted with the reign of Basil I (867-886) and his legitimate son Alexander (912-913), and here begins the rule of the Phokas clan over Byzantium.   

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Leo Phokas’ army defeats Sayf al-Dawla in 962, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine forces capture Aleppo in 962, Madrid Skylitzes
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Death of Romanos II in 963, Madrid Skylitzes

Watch this video below to see Nikephoros Phokas’ life in Lego (from my channel No Budget Films).


The Climax Part II- Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969), From Hero to Zero          

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Here in August of 963 begins the highly eventful and action-packed 6-year reign of Nikephoros II Phokas, but before he could be officially crowned as emperor by the patriarch Polyeuctus, he had to make his way into Constantinople as Joseph Bringas had already taken control of the city refusing him entry. As Nikephoros and his army were camped outside the Bosporus at night, he sent his brother Leo to cross it in a small boat dressed as a port worker which he did and when reaching the docks of the European side of Constantinople, he gathered a large number of boats which he had sailed across the Bosporus to ferry the rest of the army and Nikephoros right across it again. At the same night as Nikephoros’ and Leo’s armies were crossing the Bosporus, their very old father Bardas who was still alive was inside the Hagia Sophia seeking refuge although here the people inside all rallied under him against Joseph Bringas who they all came to hate due to his corruption, although Joseph already sent Marianos Argyros who was in charge of the city’s defense to arrest Bardas as Joseph planned to get rid of the entire Phokas clan except for John Tzimiskes who here was his intended candidate, although true enough John as a strong general was not willing to be a puppet. Bardas however would not end up being arrested as Marianos before reaching the Hagia Sophia was injured by a heavy object thrown right at his head by a woman from the balcony doing this in rebellion against Joseph, and hours later Marianos would die from his head injury. At the same time, the eunuch Basil Lekapenos who had been put aside throughout Romanos II’s reign struck back in rebellion against Joseph bribing the population of Constantinople to turn on the corrupt and fat Joseph. Nikephoros and Leo with the forces eventually crossed the Bosporus and made it into Constantinople wherein the city garrison surrendered to them as they commanded a larger army and when getting into the center of the city, Nikephoros himself confronted Joseph in a fistfight in which Nikephoros won and when losing the fight as well as all his power influence when everyone turned against him, Joseph Bringas was banished from Constantinople for good, thus returning to his native land of Paphlagonia in Northern Asia Minor never to return again.

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Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas of Byzantium (r. 963-969)

The next day, Nikephoros was officially crowned as emperor by Patriarch Polyeuctus, although Polyeuctus never really supported him anyway, except that after seeing power shift twice from Constantine VII to Romanos II, then to Nikephoros in only 4 years he got tired of all this changing of emperors, so he crowned Nikephoros anyway who now was the sole emperor as here in this story there is no Empress Theophano around and her 2 that Nikephoros would have to rule for as their guardian. In this case, Polyeuctus also agreed to crown Nikephoros despite him having no ties to the previous ruling Amorian Dynasty because Polyeuctus knew the dynasty was ruined anyway as Leo VI long ago was not a legitimate son and Constantine VII was the son of a controversial 4th marriage, though only for the sake of legitimacy for Nikephoros to not be seen as a usurper, Polyeuctus would ask him to marry one of Romanos II’s sisters as in fact all 5 were still alive, and in this story, unlike in real history where Nikephoros married Theophano to legitimize his claim, here he would choose Romanos’ twin sister Zoe as his wife, as again Theophano would not be around here. Just like how Nikephoros in real history married Theophano despite never staying close to her as he vowed to stay away from women after his first wife and son died a long time ago and also because he wanted to live life like an ascetic monk, Nikephoros would do the same here too by marrying Zoe for political reasons only although as part of his ascetic lifestyle, he would mostly stay away from her, but it would be worse here as Zoe had no children whereas in real history Theophano already did, and Zoe would actually not have any children as Nikephoros would never stay close to her.

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General John Tzimiskes, nephew of Nikephoros II Phokas, art by Byzantine Tales

As the new emperor, Nikephoros made his brother Leo the head of the palace or Kouropalates and his father Bardas a Caesar as an honorary title, while John Tzimiskes succeeded Nikephoros as the top commander of the eastern armies. Now for weakening Sayf al-Dawla’s threat in the east, recapturing Crete, and finishing off the corrupt Joseph Bringas, Nikephoros II was highly popular when coming into power but his much younger nephew John Tzimiskes was even more popular mostly because of his good looks and supernatural abilities in horse riding and archery despite his short stature which is why he is known by his nickname Tzimiskes which as I forgot to mention is the Greek translation for the Armenian word for “short” thus hinting he is of some Armenian origin, and John Tzimiskes too aside from having good looks also had charm unlike his uncle Nikephoros who at 51 here in 963 was unattractive in appearance and being a veteran soldier was very rough around the edges, negative in personality, and had also lacked charm making him unable to connect with the population but only with his soldiers. Nikephoros as emperor true enough ruled the same way as he commanded his troops and rather than caring about pleasing his people, the first thing he thought about when becoming emperor was resuming the war in the east against Sayf al-Dawla. By the end of 963, Nikephoros launched another campaign against the Arabs of Cilicia although this time he remained in Constantinople while his brother Leo and nephew John Tzimiskes led the army and here John was able to strike the city of Adana forcing the Arab forces there to flee to a nearby hill where they made a last stand but ultimately lost when John wiped them out there. Sayf meanwhile began raiding Byzantine Asia Minor once again but did not last long enough as here in 963 as well, he suffered a stroke thus making him unable to fight in person which made him have to make a truce with Nikephoros II.

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Athanasios of Trebizond, ascetic monk and friend of Nikephoros Phokas

In 964, Nikephoros II’s popularity would already start dropping when he began to issue laws that was to limit land donations to the Church from the aristocracy thus making him unpopular with the Church, while he also continued the reforms of Romanos I and Constantine VII in limiting the aristocracy (Dynatoi) from buying land from the peasants. As a devout Christian, Nikephoros believed that the Church should not really possess worldly wealth and property which he was very vocal about, though despite this, he still gave property in the peninsula of Mt. Athos in Northern Greece to his friend the monk Athanasios of Trebizond in which Nikephoros even helped him financially construct and establish the Great Lavra Monastery which would over the years grow into a large monastic community.   

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Nikephoros Phokas enters Constantinople in 963, Madrid Skylitzes
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Monastery of Great Lavra in Mt. Athos, founded by Athanasios of Trebizond with funding from Nikephoros II

         

Between 964 and 965, Nikephoros II himself headed out east to continue his campaigns against the remaining Arab emirates in Cilicia and Syria to finally conquer them.

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Nikephoros II Phokas, “Pale Death of the Saracens”, art by Spatharokandidatos

In 965, Nikephoros announced that the sharing of the island of Cyprus between the Byzantines and Arabs in which the Arabs having one half of the island paid rent to the Byzantines, which they have done ever since the reign of Constans II in the mid-7th century would end and this meant that Nikephoros launched a massive naval invasion to recapture the Arab half of Cyprus. The expedition to retake all of Cyprus led by the general Niketas Chalkoutzes was then successful making all of Cyprus Byzantine again all while Nikephoros together with Leo and John continued their Cilician campaign. For several months, both the emperor Nikephoros and John Tzimiskes were besieging the city of Mopsuestia in Cilicia while Leo was busy besieging Tarsus, which here was another haven for Arab pirates the way Crete was before 961. By July of 965, the city of Mopsuestia completely fell to the Byzantines after the soldiers of Nikephoros and John dug beneath its walls making them collapse and when taking Mopsuestia, the Byzantine soldiers being the same ones that captured Crete and Aleppo did the same as they did there by carrying out another brutal massacre on the Arab Muslim population of Mopsuestia and taking the survivors as slaves. Following the fall of Mopsuestia, Tarsus too fell to the Byzantines in August of 965 where Nikephoros chased the remaining Arab forces of Tarsus with his Cataphract cavalry and following this, all of Cilicia fell into Byzantine control thus becoming a Roman province again.

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Nikephoros II Phokas in imperial robes holding a Byzantine curved sword (Paramerion)

Back in Constantinople, a major triumph was celebrated for the complete reconquest of Cyprus and Cilicia and here Nikephoros II began a tradition which was to parade the sacred Christian relics he captured in his triumphal parade, a new practice that Byzantine emperors would do from here onwards. Though John Tzimiskes was the hero of the Cilician campaign, just shortly after returning to Constantinople he was fired from command by his uncle the emperor and forced to live under house arrest in a small estate in Asia Minor for some unclear reasons, but for this story’s case it would be because Nikephoros II here started getting paranoid and envying his nephew to the point of seeing him as a threat to his power as it was John who gained a lot of popularity for his victories in Cilicia, and it would be here when John would eventually form a conspiracy to overthrow his uncle Nikephoros. Now Nikephoros may have been successful in fighting wars in the eastern front but in the west it was not really case as by putting all his attention and best troops in the east, the west meaning Byzantine Southern Italy was poorly defended with weaker forces and in 965 too, the Byzantines forces after being forced out of Rometta, their last outpost in Sicily would suffer a heavy defeat to the Arab navy at the naval Battle of Straits wherein many Byzantine soldiers died drowning in the sea and the survivors enslaved by the Arabs.

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Otto I the Great, King of East Frankia (936-962), Holy Roman emperor (962-973)

At the same time too, the Frankish king of East Frankia (Germany) Otto I who maintained good relations with Constantine VII before was now hostile towards Byzantium as in 962 he had been crowned by the pope as the first Holy Roman Emperor, and unlike Charlemagne back in 800 who was surprised to be crowned as a “Roman emperor” by the pope, Otto who spent his whole reign unifying Germany and Italy into one empire the way Charlemagne almost 200 years ago did, was really intent in being crowned as a “Roman emperor” which he used to challenge the authority of the Byzantine Empire especially in their holdings in Italy, which Otto had wanted for himself. Nikephoros as usual of him in 966 continued fighting wars in the east and this time having his men go all the way east to Mesopotamia again to raid the Arab held cities of Amida, Dara, and Nisibis but little did Nikephoros who never really listened to his people know that his people were tired of war and were content with how large and strong empire was already as more wars meant more taxes to pay for the food supply and salary of the soldiers. Nikephoros though was very strict in his tax policies that he constantly increased taxes to fund his military campaigns as in this story, he did indeed have the ambition like Justinian I 4 centuries ago to conquer the entire Mediterranean and make it a “Roman lake” again, except Nikephoros was forgetting that Byzantium’s armies despite being powerful was not as powerful and great in number as it was in the 6th century.

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Tsar Peter I of Bulgaria (r. 927-969), son of Simeon

Nikephoros’ aggressive policy would again show between 966 and 967 when he would end the 42-year peace between Byzantium and the Bulgarian Empire up north which began in 925 between Romanos I and the Bulgarian tsar Simeon, and by 966 Simeon’s son Peter I was still ruling Bulgaria and by not being very aggressive, Peter did not really succeed in blocking off Magyar raids into the Byzantine Empire and because of this Nikephoros wrote him a letter telling him to be more aggressive in dealing with the Magyars from the north as they were spilling in to Byzantine territory but Peter refused saying he was fine with what he was doing. According the contemporary historian of this time Leo the Deacon, Nikephoros insulted the Bulgar ambassadors Peter sent to him reminding them of their origins as nomadic barbarians from the steppes in which the Bulgars were, and in this story, this would be true while Nikephoros as well refused to pay tribute to Bulgaria, which again would resume the traditional war between Byzantium and their northern neighbor after 42 years. At the same time, a new power had been rising in Eastern Europe which was that of the Kievan Rus’ and since 964, this state had been ruled by their Grand Prince Sviatoslav I, better known as “Sviatoslav the Brave”, the son of the Kievan Rus’ grand prince Igor and princess Olga who had been mentioned earlier, and Sviatoslav unlike his mother who was baptized an Orthodox Christian was a Pagan like his father, and also a ruthless warrior who had the ambition to expand the Kievan Rus’ state by force using both the fearlessness of his Scandinavian ancestors and speed of the nomadic steppe people like the Huns, Magyars, Pechenegs, and Avars that had settled in Eastern Europe for centuries.

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Sviatoslav I, Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (r. 945-972)

Sviatoslav thus expanded his empire by force that in such a quick amount time with the speed and ruthlessness of his army, most of Eastern Europe was conquered that in 965 the power of the Khazar Khanate in Southern Russia that had been there for about 4 centuries was destroyed when Sviatoslav destroyed their major trading city of Sarkel along the Don River which the Byzantine emperor Theophilos helped build if you remember, and the Khazar’s capital of Atil located where the Volga River comes out into the Caspian Sea. Sviatoslav too set his eyes on Byzantine Cherson in the Crimea intending to conquer it to gain access to the Black Sea and when Nikephoros heard of Sviatoslav’s ambition to conquer Byzantine territory, he sent Sviatoslav money bribing him to attack the Bulgarian Empire instead in which Sviatoslav accepted the offer and rode to Bulgaria with such terror and what resulted from his attack was the near complete destruction of the Bulgarian state that the eastern half of Bulgaria fell under his rule. Sviatoslav though did not only conquer Bulgarian lands, he even went as far as spilling into Byzantine Thrace bringing such terror there as well, which shows that Nikephoros II was not really a skilled diplomat.

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964-965 Byzantine reconquest of Cilicia, Madrid Skylitzes
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Cataphract cavalry of Nikephoros II
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Coronation of Otto I as the first Holy Roman emperor by Pope John XII in Rome, 962
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Sviatoslav and his Rus’ army defeat the Khazars, 965

Meanwhile, back in the east Sayf al-Dawla had died in 967 due to complications caused by the stroke he got some years ago and his death would begin plunging the Islamic world into chaos as for many years he was the most powerful warlord and political leader that led the Islamic world. The death of Sayf was then an advantage to the Byzantines as it would allow his lands to easily fall to Byzantine rule but in Constantinople, Nikephoros II was growing more unpopular as the days went by not only because of his harsh tax policy but because he was not as invincible as everyone thought he was which was seen with his military defeats in Sicily and his failure to stop Sviatoslav from raiding into Thrace and his growing unpopularity even made him a target of some people who shouted insults at him or even threw stones at him as he passed, which made the emperor even more paranoid that he began arresting anyone who publicly insulted him.

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Greek stamp of Nikephoros II

Another reason why Nikephoros’ unpopularity was growing was because his troops in the capital had seemed to be undisciplined that in one occasion in 967, a fight broke out between his sailors and Armenian mercenaries in which civilians too got hurt in the process, though to prove to everyone that his soldiers were in fact very disciplined, Nikephoros had his soldiers perform marching drills in the Hippodrome, although the people misinterpreted these drills and when one idiot in the crowd shouted “the emperor wants to kill us!” everyone panicked resulting in a stampede where a large number of people either died or were hurt when exiting the narrow doorway of the Hippodrome. Nikephoros on the other hand did not make any apology for what happened as he had nothing to do with this stampede incident and instead of apologizing, he had another wall built for the imperial palace as he planned to now further distance himself from the people after what happened in the Hippodrome, but this ruined his relations with the public even more that some were already growing suspicious thinking that the emperor not being around even more was now plotting against them inside the palace. Though he was not a very skilled diplomat, Nikephoros at least succeeded once in diplomacy which was here in 968 when he annexed the Principality of Taron along Byzantium’s eastern border in Armenia into the empire when their prince Ashot III died as here Nikephoros promised Ashot’s sons high commanding positions in the Byzantine army in exchange for their principality to fall under the empire’s protection, although Nikephoros’ diplomacy would fail again with Emperor Otto I in the west. In 968, Otto I sent the same Bishop Liutprand of Cremona back to Constantinople after almost 20 years, except this time Liutprand was not impressed the way he was before in 949 when meeting Constantine VII. Here Liutprand was to ask Nikephoros to recognize Otto’s claim as “Roman emperor” and to also cede all of Byzantine Southern Italy to Otto who’s dream was to unify all of Italy under his rule, though in real history Liutprand returned to Constantinople to for a marriage alliance between Otto I’s son Otto II and Anna, the daughter of Romanos II and Theophano, except again with Theophano not in the picture and her children never being born, Liutprand would instead go to Constantinople looking for the right Byzantine princess for the Frankish prince Otto II. Like in real history too, Nikephoros here would insult Liutprand and Otto by calling Otto only a “king” and not “emperor” while Liutprand would also insult Nikephoros by referring to him only as the “Emperor of the Greeks” and not “Roman emperor” but would also write an insulting description of Nikephoros as an ugly, short, fat, and disgusting monster with pitch black skin and a disfigured face, although not to mention Nikephoros was somewhat ugly in appearance but not extremely ugly the way Liutprand describes him. At the end, Liutprand returned to Italy empty handed with his silks confiscated and no bride for young Otto II after insulting the emperor and as he even said, when dining with the emperor, Liutprand was forced to sit at the end of the long table and instead of being served lavish dishes like the rest, he was served rotten fish. Another factor that would make Nikephoros even more distant from his people was his depression as in 968 his father Bardas Phokas the Elder would die at the very old age of 90, and here Nikephoros too would start contemplating his death and who should succeed him as emperor as again in this story’s case his wife Theophano would not be around and so would her sons the co-emperors Basil and Constantine, and since Nikephoros despite being married to Romanos II’s twin sister Zoe in this story, they would not have any children together due to Nikephoros’ ascetic lifestyle and vow to stay away from women, so here he would decide that it would be up to his younger brother Leo who had a son, Bardas Phokas the Younger to continue the imperial bloodline. To distract himself from his feeling of depression after losing his father, Nikephoros now put his attention in carrying out his other ultimate dream in his eastern campaigns, which was to finally recapture the important Roman city of Antioch in Syria from the Arabs which had been under Arab control since the 630s when the Byzantines lost it to them, and although by here it was nothing much but a depopulated provincial city, it still had great importance to the Byzantines historically. For months, Nikephoros had been using the new wall he built for the palace as a military training ground to prepare his troops for the ultimate conquest of Antioch. Later in 968, Nikephoros himself returned east again where he had a fortress built near Antioch to block the city off from supplies and reinforcements and when returning to Constantinople in early 969, he left behind his general Michael Bourtzes with only 1,500 men to be in charge of besieging Antioch, although Michael was given orders by the emperor to not capture the city until the emperor ordered him to do so. As the months went by, Michael grew impatient and so he disobeyed the emperor’s orders and after tricking an Arab traitor soldier in the walls, the Arab garrison surrendered allowing the Byzantine forces to pour into the city whereas a fire later broke out which then led to the complete capture of Antioch. When returning to Constantinople though, Michael was not rewarded by Nikephoros for his victory, instead he was fired from command for disobeying the emperor’s orders and setting fire to Antioch. Now Nikephoros was not only hated by the common people for taxing and neglecting them, or by the Church for also taxing them and for demanding to Polyeuctus that his fallen soldiers killed by Muslims should be made martyrs, or by his friends in the aristocracy for limiting their power and land, but now by his generals who were closest to him as he had fired them for the smallest reasons, first John Tzimiskes and now Michael Bourtzes. After being fired from command, Michael met up with John Tzimiskes and John’s closest ally which was John’s brother-in-law the general Bardas Skleros, the brother of his late wife Maria Skleraina, and together they all agreed to kill Nikephoros and make John the new emperor.

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Basil Lekapenos the eunuch, art by Ancient City Lullaby

In real history though, Theophano was said to have taken part in this conspiracy by revealing to John and his conspirators the way into the palace and where her husband the emperor slept as she and John had an affair, but in this story since Theophano is not in the picture, John who also would not have an affair with Nikephoros’ wife here Zoe would have to bribe the workers in the palace to reveal to him a secret passage, although here the eunuch Basil Lekapenos who had been powerful under Nikephoros would also betray the emperor and side with John, and he too would reveal to the conspirators the way into the palace. On the night of December 10-11 of 969 when Nikephoros was sleeping deep inside the palace, John Tzimiskes would sneak out of the estate he was banished to right across the Bosporus together with Michael Bourtzes and 2 other assassins and take a small boat across the Bosporus to the seaside Boukoleon Palace where they heard the emperor was sleeping in. In real history Theophano had a part in it by leaving the door of her husband the emperor unlocked to allow the assassins to kill him, but here with Theophano not around it would be harder for John and his assassins to do the job so instead as they reached the seaside palace by boat, they would have to bribe some of the palace workers to show them the way and as it would turn out, these palace workers were not really loyal to the emperor and had already been informed by Basil Lekapenos that John and his men would come in at any time. On this extremely cold night, Nikephoros said his usual evening prayer before sleeping as he always did while John and his men were lifted up into one of the palace’s windows by a basket manned by some of the palace workers who then showed them the way to the emperor’s bedroom but when entering, they saw no one sleeping on the bed but when looking left they would actually see the emperor sleeping on the floor on a fur blanket wearing rags.

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Assassination of Nikephoros II Phokas by John Tzimiskes on the night of December 10-11, 969, art by Spatharokandidatos

The moment they saw the emperor sleeping, no one hesitated and they all slashed him with their swords all at the same time, although Nikephoros would still wake up due to the pain and seeing his nephew John among the assassins, Nikephoros was heartbroken to see his nephew betray him but John did not hesitate, instead he berated his uncle about how heartless he was to fire him from command when he had done nothing wrong and as Nikephoros was slashed multiple times by the assassins, John gave his uncle the killing blow by stabbing him in the neck. The imperial guard or Tagmata from the other end of the seaside palace rushed to the scene as apparently the screams of Nikephoros as he was being slashed was very loud but when getting into the palace’s inner courtyard it was too late as above them, they saw John Tzimiskes in the balcony holding Nikephoros’ severed and bloodied head with blood dripping down to the lower floor and here John announced that the tyrant emperor was dead and that he was their new emperor. The Tagmata panicking here when seeing their emperor dead did not know what to do and so they all just acclaimed John as their emperor, although minutes later Leo Phokas rushed into the scene believing his brother to be dead therefore thinking it was his turn to be emperor but here, when getting into the courtyard the Tagmata already being loyal to John seized and arrested Leo throwing him out of the palace. In real history however, Theophano put on her purple imperial dress and brought her sons with her right at this moment when Nikephoros had been killed thinking she would now marry John, but in this case without Theophano around, the empress Zoe would rush into the scene in her sleeping dress and would be very shocked at what happened as she had no part in the plot and seeing all the blood and her husband dead despite never really being close to him, she would collapse. The next day, like in real history, Patriarch Polyeuctus would be in shock about Nikephoros’ assassination even if he never really liked Nikephoros but since this was an act of murder done by an uncrowned person which was John, it was totally unacceptable, but Polyeuctus being tired of all this changing of emperors and seeing no one else left to take the throne especially since Theophano is not here and so are her young sons, he would just agree to make John emperor anyway on the condition that he married Nikephoros’ widow Zoe, execute the assassins with him, and give Nikephoros II a proper burial at the Church of the Holy Apostles while Basil Lekapenos announced to everyone in the capital about what happened. Nikephoros II Phokas, the brilliant strategist and military hero of the 10th century who even had the legacy of writing and publishing a military manual but failed as a politician thus died the way he lived, which was a violent one, but at least he died in the simple life he lived by sleeping on the floor, though for his religious accomplishments and fighting for the Orthodox Christian faith, Nikephoros II would become a saint.

Watch this to learn more about Nikephoros II’s interaction with Liutprand of Cremona (Voices of the Past).

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Hippodrome of Constantinople, art by Ediacar
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Construction of the extra wall for Constantinople’s Imperial Palace under Nikephoros II, art by Byzantine Tales
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Michael Bourtzes captures Antioch in 969, Madrid Skylitzes
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Bukoleon Palace, site of Nikephoros II’s assassination in 969
Watch this to see the assassination of Nikephoros II in Lego (from my channel No Budget Films).

John I Tzimiskes, the Conclusion to this 10th Century Epic

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Nikephoros II Phokas here like in real history died violently at 57 similar to how Michael III 102 years where this story began died and now here, John I Tzimiskes rose to the throne at 44 on the condition that he was to execute the other 2 assassins with him except Bourtzes as if to look like John had no part in the plot to murder the emperor at all, and also to give a big percent of his money as a donation to small farmers and to construct a home lepers, though in this story Polyeuctus would have to make John marry the empress Zoe to continue the dynasty. In real history however, Polyeuctus agreed to crown John Tzimiskes only if he banished the empress Theophano to the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara for good as here the blame on Nikephoros’ death was all put on her, and John not wanting to share power anyway agreed to banish Theophano even if they had an affair, but here in this story without Theophano there would be no condition that John would have to banish anyone and with her sons not being around here as the already crowned co-emperors, John would not have to share power with anyone. In real history, John was indeed forced to marry another one of Romanos’ sister and the one the he did not choose but was chosen for him by Polyeuctus was Theodora who was someone unattractive but intelligent compared to Theophano, though here in this story since Zoe was not suspected in any way to be part of the murder of Nikephoros the way Theophano was in real history, Zoe would be spared but forced to marry John. On the other hand, Theophano in real history may have not seemed to have any part in the murder of her husband Nikephoros II but was only used a scapegoat by Polyeuctus as she was an ambitious woman in a time when ambitious women were looked down upon, therefore she was banished, though it was by the time John Tzimiskes became emperor following the exile of Theophano where the idea of Theophano being part of the plot was promoted according to present day historian Anthony Kaldellis.

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Emperor John I Tzimiskes of Byzantium (r. 969-976), art by Oznerol-1516

Now since the main plot of this story ends with the assassination of Nikephoros II, where the graphic novel Theophano had ended as well, we will basically just fast-track the next 5 years of Byzantium under John I Tzimiskes before we get to the ultimate conquest of Bulgaria. Now at the beginning of 970, just about a month after John I became emperor, Patriarch Polyeuctus had died after seeing a change of emperor 3 times in only 10 years and following his death, John appointed his friend the ascetic monk Basil Skamandrenos as the new patriarch who as John’s friend would totally recognize him as the legitimate emperor, although the biggest challenge for John when coming into power would be his uncle Leo Phokas who was still around and even after being arrested at the night of his brother Nikephoros’ assassination, Leo at some point in 970 would break free and rebel, attempting to seize the throne to avenge his dead brother but John would immediately put down Leo’s rebellion and banish Leo and his sons to the island of Lesbos in the Aegean for good while Leo’s son Bardas Phokas the Younger who was here stationed in Cappadocia would be arrested and imprisoned there. Now as emperor, John would start off finishing everything Nikephoros II could not but also clean up all the mess he created and by this, John at first like his uncle Nikephoros not being so interested in the state’s administration would leave behind the eunuch Basil Lekapenos in Constantinople to be in charge of the finances while John would immediately set off to campaign against Sviatoslav in Bulgaria and finish him off for good and afterwards conquer Bulgaria itself which had already been weakened by Sviatoslav’s Rus’ invasion, and to lead the troops in battle, John would appoint his brother-in-law Bardas Skleros as the new top commander of the Byzantine forces while Michael Bourtzes would be put back in charge in the east. For the campaign against Sviatoslav in Bulgaria, John I however only had 12,000 soldiers with him although they were all veteran elite forces including Cataphracts and the Tagmata, but Sviatoslav’s army was much larger in number as he allied himself with the Magyars and Pechenegs north of the Danube as well as with some Bulgarian Boyars (aristocrats). The campaign at first began with some difficulty for the Byzantines until they were able to trap Sviatoslav’s forces at a mountain pass where they would eventually lose to the Byzantine forces led by Bardas Skleros at the Battle of Arcadiopolis, thus the undefeatable Sviatoslav was defeated for the first time having to leave Thrace and fall back north to Bulgaria. Though making some progress against Sviatoslav, John I got word from Asia Minor that Bardas Phokas escaped prison and proclaimed himself emperor in the name of his uncle Nikephoros II using the troops there still loyal to Nikephoros II and when hearing of this, John briefly abandoned the Bulgarian campaign sending Bardas Skleros to Asia Minor to deal with Bardas Phokas.

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Bardas Phokas the Younger, Byzantine general, son of Leo Phokas the Younger, art by Akitku

At the end, Skleros was able to win by diplomacy by having men dressed up as beggars to convince Phokas’ men to turn on him and join John’s army wherein they will be rewarded, thus they defected to the imperial army while Phokas left with only 300 men fled to a castle where he eventually surrendered to Skleros knowing he would not win. Bardas Phokas was then exiled to the Aegean island of Chios while his father Leo in Lesbos was blinded, never to return again. With Bardas Phokas dealt with, John with Bardas Skleros later on in 971 resumed the Bulgarian campaign this time with 40,000 men marching north through the mountain passes while their fleet sailed up the Black Sea to attack Sviatoslav’s forces at the Danube. When reaching the Bulgarian capital of Preslav, John had burned it to the ground to force the Rus’ forces to surrender it to them and at the end, the Byzantines were able to seize Preslav wherein among the Rus’ hostages in the citadel, they found the Bulgarian tsar Boris II, who succeeded his father Peter I after his abdication and retirement to a monastery the previous year.

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John I Tzimiskes and Grand Prince Sviatoslav (on the boat) meet at the Danube, 971

John then allowed Boris II to be spared promising him too that the Byzantines were there to not conquer Bulgaria but liberate them from the Rus, although after liberating Preslav, John I renamed the city Ioannopolis after himself. John with his forces then headed up to the Danube where Sviatoslav was, and after defeating Sviatoslav’s forces in at the Battle of Dorostolon, Sviatoslav now being outnumbered with the Byzantine fleet blocking off the mouth of the Danube into the Black Sea to prevent his escape then finally surrendered to John I without a fight. Both John I and Sviatoslav then met in person along the Danube where Sviatoslav surrendering to John agreed to never attack Byzantine territory again in exchange for his people, the Rus to freely trade in Constantinople and before Sviatoslav departed by boat, he was given food and supplies by the Byzantines. John I however did not keep his word to Boris II who he took as a prisoner to Constantinople where John proclaimed that he had conquered Bulgaria while Sviatoslav on his way back to his capital of Kiev was betrayed by his Pecheneg allies who ambushed him here in 972 while he was crossing the Dnieper River back to his lands, and after he was killed, Sviatoslav’s skull was made into a drinking cup, like what happened to the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I back in 811. 

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Coronation of John I Tzimiskes in 969 by Patriarch Polyeuctus, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine forces under Bardas Skleros defeat Sviatoslav’s Rus at the Battle of Arcadiopolis, 970
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Final defeat of Sviatoslav to John I Tzimiskes at the Battle of Dorostolon, 971

          

In 972, John I had declared he had conquered the Bulgarian Empire up north making it a Byzantine Theme while the Bulgarian tsar Boris II and his brother Roman were brought to Constantinople as captives and paraded at John I’s triumphal procession, although Boris II was allowed to live in Constantinople as the Bulgarian tsar in exile while Roman was castrated to make sure their bloodline died out. Although John I thought he had conquered all of Bulgaria, the northern and western portions of the Bulgarian Empire (today’s Western Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia) was not fully put under Byzantine rule, and here over the years a resistance would grow to restore to the Bulgarian Empire led by the aristocratic Cometopuli clan which was of Byzantine Greek and Armenian origins. After thinking he had conquered all of Bulgaria, John I returned to where Nikephoros II failed, which was in foreign policy with the Holy Roman emperor Otto I and so in 972, John I did what Nikephoros II failed, which was to give Otto a Byzantine bride and the person John chose for Otto I’s son Otto II like in real history was his young niece from the Skleros clan- his late wife’s family- also named Theophano who later on in 972 travelled all the way to Germany and married the young Otto II, thus settling peace between Byzantium and the new Holy Roman Empire of Germany and Italy.

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Theophano Sklerina, niece of John I and wife of the future Holy Roman emperor Otto II

The threat of Otto I to Byzantium’s imperial power would then be over in 973 when Otto I died while his son the new Holy Roman emperor Otto II would not be as much of a threat to Byzantium as his father was and in fact with his marriage to Theophano, the Holy Roman Empire would even adopt some Byzantine cultural practices including the use of the fork for eating, which the Franks at first laughed at. Now with the threat of Sviatoslav over, a third of Bulgaria captured, and the issue with the Holy Roman Empire settled, John I returned to finishing off his uncle’s eastern campaigns which was now easier for the Byzantines following the death of Sayf al-Dawla back in 967 which weakened these Islamic Arab states, although despite these states in the Middle East including the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad weakened, a new Islamic power had been arising which was that of the Fatimid Caliphate which were believers of Shia Islam, the other sect of Islam which believed their ruling caliph should be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, and in 969 the Fatimids had already conquered Egypt making it their base where they would start posing a threat to the Byzantines.

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Emperor John I Tzimiskes tapestry

John I later in 972 marched into Mesopotamia once again although not for long as he returned to Constantinople leaving his general Melias to be in charge while John continued his uncle’s reforms of limiting the power of the landed aristocracy and giving more power to the small farmers. In 975, John I returned to leading the army himself and this time deep into Syria which the Byzantines could now achieve after the reconquest of Antioch and in one swift campaign, John and his forces were able to do what the Byzantine forces did not in over 300 years which was in recapturing the Syrian cities of Emesa and Damscus which was the capital of the old Arab Umayyad Caliphate that died out in 750, and following this John I was able to reach as far south as Lebanon recapturing the cities of Baalbek, Tripoli, Sidon, Byblos, and Beirut, before reaching the Sea of Galilee recapturing Tiberias and Nazareth for the Byzantines, though his campaigns would end right here before being actually able to retake the ultimate prize of Jerusalem that had not been under Byzantine hands since it fell to the Arabs in 637. John I had then returned to Constantinople in January of 976 where he suddenly died in which most sources blamed the eunuch Basil Lekapenos for poisoning him, and in this story’s case it would be true as John had confiscated some of Basil’s ill-gotten lands and wealth and in revenge Basil poisoned him. Now in real history with John I dead in 976 at the age of 50, Romanos II and Theophano’s eldest son Basil II was already 18 here therefore being of legal age to rule alone in which he did although still under the influence of his grand-uncle Basil Lekapenos, while Theophano had returned to the palace sometime here. In this story’s case, since there is no Theophano and therefore no Basil II, and John I too despite being married to Romanos II’s twin sister Zoe would not have any children with her as he also chose to barely stay with his wife, so here before John I died, he wrote his will proclaiming that his brother-in-law Bardas Skleros was to succeed him as emperor as they had family ties, and following John’s death Bardas immediately came to power without any challenge.              

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Triumph of John I Tzimiskes in Constantinople following his 971 conquest of Bulgaria, Madrid Skylitzes
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Meme of John I failing to retake Jerusalem due to his sudden death in 976
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Map of the Holy Roman Empire (red) at Otto I’s death, 973
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Byzantine Empire (purple) at John I’s death, 976

In this story’s case with Bardas Skleros as the new Byzantine emperor, some things that did happen in real history whereas Basil II finally succeeded John I but a lot would be different too. What would be the same here in the reign of Bardas Skleros was that like in reality, the Bulgarian brothers Boris II and Roman, who happened to be great-grandsons of Romanos I Lekapenos- through his granddaughter Maria’s marriage to their father Tsar Peter I if you remember- would escape captivity in Constantinople in 977 and make their way into the still independent 2/3 of the Bulgarian Empire, although like in real history Boris II here would get killed by his own Bulgarian troops mistaking him for an enemy, though Roman like in reality would survive after proving his identity.

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Samuil of the Cometopuli, military leader of the Bulgarian resistance against Byzantium, Tsar of Bulgaria (997-1014) in real history

Although back in the Bulgarian Empire, Roman would not really rule himself as he had been turned into a eunuch and at the same time during their absence, the new ruling dynasty of the Cometopuli rose up in resistance to the Byzantine conquest, and though Roman would only be a figurehead ruler as he was from the dynasty of Krum that dated back to 803, the real power over Bulgaria was at the hands of Samuil, the youngest of the Cometopuli brothers and a military genius. Now in real history, it would take another 40 years for Byzantium under Basil II to fully annex the Bulgarian Empire into Byzantium as Basil II had to deal with civil wars and usurpers in Byzantium itself such as Bardas Skleros who in 976 after Basil II came to power declared himself emperor in opposition to the legitimate emperor Basil II but more so to the power behind Basil II which was Basil Lekapenos who was still powerful. In real history, Bardas Skleros rebelled after Basil Lekapenos fired him from his position as the supreme commander of the eastern forces while also releasing the rebel general Bardas Phokas from his imprisonment in Chios to strike against Skleros, although Skleros in real history had a stronger position as he was able to confirm an alliance with the small time Armenian, Georgian, and even Islamic rulers near Byzantium and true enough Skleros defeated Phokas’ forces that were loyal to the emperor Basil II in two battles, but in the third one Skleros was defeated in which his soldiers even believed him to be dead after he lost in personal combat to Phokas.

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Basil II, Byzantine emperor in real history, son of Romanos II and Theophano, art by Justinianus the Great

Skleros however had escaped to Baghdad to seek refuge there with the Abbasid Caliph where he would plot an invasion of Byzantium all while the emperor Basil II here had grown up and had shown that he did not want to be a weak ruler or puppet to his grand-uncle Basil Lekapenos anymore and so in 985 he accused Basil Lekapenos for conspiring with the rebels and then fired and banished him for good, and in 986 Basil II himself led the army against Bulgaria but was defeated at the Battle of Trajan’s Gate by Samuil’s forces due to Basil II’s inexperience. This defeat made Basil II have a lifetime grudge against Bulgaria making it his ultimate goal to conquer it for good, though this defeat made Bardas Phokas lose faith in the emperor and turn against him that in 987 he called Bardas Skleros back from Baghdad to join forces with him against Basil II.

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Vladimir I the Great, Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (r. 980-1015)

In real history, Basil II made an ultimate alliance with the new Prince of the Kievan Rus’ Vladimir I, the son of Sviatoslav in 988 which provided Byzantium military aid with over 6,000 Varangian (Rus and Scandinavian) warriors to join in the imperial service as the elite bodyguard force of the emperor, in exchange for Vladimir to convert to Christianity as also part of the deal to marry Basil II’s sister Anna who was such a great prize to marry for being a Byzantine princess as twice when offered a marriage, she refused it. With the help of these large sized and fierce Varangian warriors now in the imperial service as the legendary Varangian Guard, Basil II was able to defeat the rebellion of Bardas Phokas in 989 wherein Phokas here fell off his horse due to a seizure and died, thus ending his rebellion. Although the rebellion of Bardas Phokas the Younger ended, Bardas Skleros now an old man succeeded Phokas as the leader of the rebellion against Basil II, but eventually the cause of the rebellion had been weakened and in 991 Skleros surrendered to Basil II without a fight and died peacefully just days later.

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Varangian Guard soldier, introduced to Byzantium in 988 in real history

The full conquest of Bulgaria in reality however would only take place 2 decades after Basil II put down all opposition against him, as Basil had to conclude peace with the Islamic powers including the rising Fatimid Caliphate in order to launch a full-scale invasion of Bulgaria without distractions while over in Bulgaria, Roman died in 997 and without any heirs was succeeded by Samuil as the full tsar. The Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria in real history would then only be completed in 1014 when Basil II won a decisive victory of Samuil’s forces at the Battle of Kleidion and by 1018, all of the Bulgarian Empire was conquered, thus Byzantium having all of the Balkans would be at its greatest extent of territory in almost 400 years. Now in this story’s case on the other hand without Basil II ruling and beginning out badly due to his inexperience in military matters, Bardas Skleros having more military experience despite being not a very competent planner as the Byzantine historian Michael Psellos (1017-1078) said, he would act much quicker in subduing all opposition against him and the Bulgarian threat than Basil II did in real history. First of all, Bardas Skleros soon after coming into power in 976 would execute Basil Lekapenos on charges of poisoning John I Tzimiskes, although like in real history Bardas Phokas the Younger would actually be released from Chios by Basil Lekapenos before Lekapenos would be executed, and back in action Phokas would launch a massive rebellion against Skleros, although Skleros would do the same here as he did in real history by allying with the Armenians, Georgians, and Islamic powers against Phokas. For this story, I would just say that Skleros as the legitimate emperor chosen by John I to succeed him would eventually defeat Phokas the same way he did in real history after winning two battles, and as Skleros would have more support from the Byzantine senate and the aristocracy, Phokas in this story would be defeated in 979 wherein Skleros would kill him in single combat. Being a more capable military commander, Skleros unlike Basil II in real history would therefore not ask for a military alliance with the Kievan Rus’ prince Vladimir I in exchange for Vladimir to convert himself and his people to Orthodox Christianity, therefore there would be no Varangian Guard in the Byzantine army to assist Skleros in conquering Bulgaria, although for the next chapter of this series, the Varangians would play a big role- spoiler alert! Skleros in this story instead would lead the Bulgarian campaign himself beginning 980 and unlike Basil II in real history who would take 3 more decades to conquer Bulgaria, Skleros here would take around only 7 years as Bulgaria was already weak here unlike in real history where they were able to regain strength after defeating the Byzantines in 986. Here, Skleros would instead win a number of victories and would penetrate deep into the Bulgarian heartland which is now the Central Balkans and by 987 would capture the Bulgarian’s capital of Ohrid. In this story, Samuil himself leading his forces would be slain in battle by Skleros’ men in 987 while Roman not being actively leading the empire would end up captured and executed by Skleros, thus before 990 the Bulgarian state that had troubled Byzantium for over 300 years since 681 would be wiped off the map and all of the Balkans south of the Danube under Byzantine rule again after 4 centuries, thus Byzantium before the turn of the 11th century would become a superpower respected and feared by all around them. As for Bardas Skleros, his date of death is unknown but he would be the one to establish the new Skleros Dynasty and by having sons it would live on to ensure a powerful and highly influential Byzantium. Now, it is only in the long-term where you could see how the empress Theophano not being around would have an impact in Byzantine history and this was not only because her son Basil II would not be around as even without Basil II who did achieve the ultimate goal in eventually conquering Bulgaria and becoming known as “the Bulgar-Slayer”, the Byzantines would still conquer Bulgaria anyway, in fact even much earlier but more because of her daughter Anna’s marriage to the Kievan Rus’ prince Vladimir I.

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Anna Porphyrogenita, daughter of Romanos II and Theophano and wife of Vladimir I of Kiev, in real history

Now this marriage between Anna and Vladimir was a very crucial one as not only did it give military support to Byzantium but this began the mass conversion of the Kievan Rus’ state that would eventually be Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to Christianity, and Anna who being Theophano’s daughter was the one that made this happen, therefore this was Theophano’s major role in history. Although even without Vladimir’s marriage to Anna, the Rus’ may still convert to Orthodox Christianity as true enough Vladimir had been searching around for world religions and when given the choice between Islam, Judaism, Catholic Christianity, and Orthodox Christianity, he chose Orthodoxy as he heard from his ambassadors about the riches of Constantinople and the impressiveness of Orthodoxy’s main cathedral of the Hagia Sophia, therefore he chose Orthodoxy believing it was the religion of the powerful, which means even without marrying Anna, Vladimir may still convert his state to the religion of the Byzantines, therefore becoming a Byzantine ally. Not to mention, Theophano was also vital for being the mother of Constantine VIII, the brother and co-emperor of Basil II who would continue the dynasty through his children that would rule the empire until 1056 in real history. Either way, without or without Theophano around, Byzantium after conquering Bulgaria would again be a world power like it was under Justinian I in the 6th century both militarily and culturally, except not as powerful as it was under Justinian I as then it had the whole Mediterranean, but here by the end of the 10th century by having all of the Balkans, all of Asia Minor, and all the way south to the Levant as well as to Southern Italy in the west, the Byzantine Empire would be a major power respected and feared by all, and by conquering all of Bulgaria, other powers would dare not bother to mess with Byzantium or they would suffer the same fate as Bulgaria and be wiped off the map.   

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Armies of Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas clash with each other in 979, Madrid Skylitzes
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Bardas Phokas (left) as Byzantine emperor, Madrid Skylitzes
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Emperor Basil II and the Varangian Guards, in real history, art by Amelianvs
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Byzantines under Basil II defeat the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion, 1014 in real history
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The Byzantine Empire (red) at its apogee, at Basil II’s death in 1025, in real history

Watch this to learn more about Emperor Basil II (Kings and Generals).

Our story will now end here where the eventful action-packed roller coaster of the 10th century ends whereas in this story’s case Byzantium had gone a long way from an empire on the verge of extinction threatened on all sides to its apogee a medieval superpower respected and feared by all around it. In the last the last 3 chapters of this series set between the 7th and 9th centuries, Byzantium went through a rough time of constant invasions from the Arabs in the east or the Bulgarians in the north, political instability, and a lot more including the destruction of icons or Iconoclasm, thus giving the Byzantine Empire and its society a dystopian setting, and at the end, nothing may have seemed to work to reverse all the setbacks and misfortunes the Byzantines had been facing, but at the end, this whole Byzantine Dark Ages did not go on forever and little did the Byzantine people or their rulers know their empire would once again have a revival. Of course, the revival of the Byzantine Empire in cultural and military power known as the Byzantine Renaissance did not all happen in an instant, it in fact took some time, good leadership, the right reforms, diplomacy, some luck to achieve it, and even a bit of borrowed foreign influences such as the sophisticated intellectual culture the Byzantines borrowed from the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th century. It also did not just take some years, decades, or a century, it did in fact take 2 centuries for the Byzantines to consolidate their position as a military and cultural power, and this why the 9th century played significantly in this chapter when it was supposed to be exclusively for the 10th– as this series focuses on one century per chapter- as you cannot tell the story of the 10th century better known as the military and cultural revival century without telling about the origins of this revival which took place in the 9th century. On the other hand, this revival or renaissance of the Byzantine Empire which happened gradually over so many years was not something one person was responsible for doing but rather the work of many people and their efforts put together. For this Byzantine Renaissance to be possible we have to thank the people mentioned in this story like Emperor Theophilos in the 9th century for adopting Arab influences and using state money to promote Byzantine sophisticated culture, Empress Theodora for putting an end to Iconoclasm once and for all in 843 which thus brought a sense of unity to the empire’s identity, Patriarch Photios for using the spread of Orthodoxy to secure alliances with people beyond the empire, Emperor Basil I despite his humble origins and lack education for finally having the guts to expand the empire east, Leo VI and his son Constantine VII for showing that emperors were not only powerful as military leaders but as sophisticated and learned scholars that could prove Byzantium is also superior in culture, Romanos I Lekapenos for putting the empire’s new military might into action and making reforms that would benefit not just the aristocracy, Nikephoros II Phokas despite his failure in diplomacy and political skills for showing that Byzantium was no longer an empire that fought to defend itself but could fight to conquer lands far beyond their borders, and John I Tzimiskes for also showing that the Byzantine army was now an undefeatable war machine. Now the person removed from this story which was Empress Theophano, wife of Emperor Romanos II and Nikephoros II afterwards happens to be not very vital at all in the Byzantine Renaissance, but if you look closely she does have a role and this was to add to the complexity and scheming side of the Byzantium for her part in being involved in both her husbands and father-in-law’s deaths, whether it may or may not be real, but either way her part shows some more color and drama to complete the story of the Byzantine Renaissance, thus making Byzantium more “byzantine” meaning complex. After all, this story set in the 10th century just shows how “byzantine” Byzantium was, but on the other had with all this power struggles and schemes, this also still shows that the traditions of the ancient Roman Republic still live on even if Rome has been long gone and replaced as Byzantium. Anyway, even without Theophano, the period of the Byzantine Renaissance from the 9th to 10th centuries is still ever more colorful especially with all the murder plots, legitimacy issues, marriage scandals, scheming eunuchs, military rebellions, superior weapons and war tactics, diplomatic solutions, and the obscure but interesting Byzantine court ceremonies and practices all mentioned in this story. In addition, I also chose to label the dynasty ruling in the 10th century where Leo VI, Constantine VII, and Romanos II were part of as the Amorian Dynasty from 820 continued going with the historical speculation of Leo VI being Michael III’s son to add some more intriguing element to the colorful story of the Byzantine Renaissance, though in the end it still would not matter whether it was under the Amorian or Macedonian Dynasties when the Byzantine Renaissance happened, because all it would matter at the end was how great or colorful these Byzantine emperors were and not what dynasty they belonged to, and true enough the people that proved the strength of Byzantium in this time like Romanos I, Nikephoros II, and John I were not from the ruling dynasty but had only married into it. The process to achieve the complete Byzantine Renaissance at the end of the 10th century thus was rather a tricky one that involved a lot of blood and dishonesty, but the end result was very rewarding for Byzantium as after 3 centuries of being in the Dark fighting for its survival while also being insecure in their imperial position with the rise of a new empire in the west being that of the Franks, Byzantium would become the military power that had been able to strike back against the Arabs after 3 centuries of having to defend its borders against them, the power that dominated Eastern Europe culturally and spiritually by being the one that influenced most of the Eastern European powers like the Bulgarian Empire and the Kievan Rus by spreading Orthodox Christianity to them as well introducing to them an alphabet that would still be used up to this day, and lastly being the cultural superpower that was able to win over the rising Holy Roman Empire and rather than feeling threatened by the rise of them as Byzantium was in 800 with Charlemagne’s coronation, Byzantium by the end of the 10th century was able to even influence them in imperial court culture.

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Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 976-1025), to return in the next chapter of this series

Now in real history, it would be in 1018 when Emperor Basil II becoming known as “the Bulgar-Slayer” conquered the entire Bulgarian Empire when Byzantium would be at its greatest territorial extent again since 4 centuries earlier before the rise of the Arabs, and therefore a power respected and feared by all around them, but again as I mentioned earlier it did not really need Basil II to achieve this as any other competent military emperor in which this era had many of, in this story’s case being Bardas Skleros instead of Basil II would also achieve this. Anyway, this has been an extremely long chapter and I would say that it could have even been longer if I went into so much detail in describing each of the lead characters’ stories but since this story spanned a longer amount of time than the other chapters in this series did and so many interesting lead characters, it was only right for me to give each of these lead characters the equal amount of attention, therefore writing this story in something more a of a fast-tracked documentary in style which just goes with almost everything really being what they were in reality except for a few twists here and there, and only at the very end do things become really different without Emperor Basil II who is in fact Byzantium’s longest reigning emperor. In the next chapter of this Byzantine Alternate History series, this Byzantine Golden Age continues at the beginning of the 11th century and following the conquest of Bulgaria in 1018 by Basil II, the Byzantine Empire will for once enjoy a time of peace and stability, but not for long as again the “cold war” situation with the west becomes worse and in the east, a new and unexpected enemy will rise and replace the Arabs, and this is when we say goodbye to the Arabs as Byzantium’s traditional enemy and say hello to the Turks who will threaten Byzantium in the east and another new enemy being the Normans in the west, and in 1071 will be the beginning of Byzantium’s permanent decline when they suffer an ultimate defeat to the Turks of the new Seljuk Empire at the Battle of Manzikert, but the next chapter will explore an alternate history scenario of what if the Byzantines won this battle, and how different history would be because of this. Well, this is all for Chapter VII of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!   

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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

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

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

Byzantine History for Everyday People- Reactions to Quotes from Byzantium

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

The Sieges of Constantinople

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

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Related Videos to this era:

The 22-Year-Anarchy (Eastern Roman History)

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


The Leading Characters:

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

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

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

Constantine V Kopronymos- son and successor of Leo III

Anastasios- Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople

Niketas- Byzantine general, son of Artavasdos and Anna

Nikephoros- son of Artavasdos and Anna

Tzitzak- Khazar wife of Constantine V

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

Eutychius- The last Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna

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

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


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

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

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Flag of the Rashidun Caliphate, the 1st Islamic Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Justinian II’s Quinisext Council, 692

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

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Mutilation of Justinian II’s nose, 695

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arabic lamb dish, cooked by Konon for Justinian II

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

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Aqueduct of Valens, Constantinople

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

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

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

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Emperor Justinian II Rhinotmetos, 2nd reign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prince Masalama, general of the Umayyad forces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Umayyad forces at the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Leo III the Isaurian

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

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Leo III’s Ecloga

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

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

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

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Early-Byzantine era religious icon

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

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The Chalke Gate at the Imperial Palace of Constantinople

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

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Byzantine Iconoclasm from the 9th century Chludov Psalter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Orso Ipato, First Doge of the Republic of Venice

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

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

           

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

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Khazar women’s fashion sample

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

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

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

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Arabic food cooked by Leo III

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

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Sample image of faces damaged by Iconoclasm (not Byzantine)

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

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

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

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Playing music in the Byzantine era

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

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

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


The War of the Emperors (The Climax)        

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

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Coin of Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos

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

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Sample Roman red dress with a Stola

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

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Iconoclasm continues under Constantine V
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Dressing up a Byzantine era woman

           

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

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldier

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

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

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

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

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Pope Zachary, Patriarch of Rome (741-752)

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

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

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

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Byzantine blinding from the Madrid Skylitzes

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

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Sawing in half execution method

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

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Drug flower inhaled by Constantine V

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

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Paramerion, Byzantine curved sword

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

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

Aftermath and Conclusion         

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

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

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

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

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

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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