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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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

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

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

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

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople


 

The Leading Characters:

Manuel I Komnenos- Byzantine emperor (1143-1180)

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

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

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

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

Andronikos Kontostephanos- Byzantine general and aristocrat

Andronikos Angelos- Byzantine general and aristocrat, father of Isaac

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

Alexios Branas- Byzantine general and usurper

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

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

Bela III- King of Hungary (1172-1196)

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

Ivan Asen I- Tsar of the new Bulgaria 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Seljuk Empire

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

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Council of Clermont, Beginning of the First Crusade, 1095

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

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Peter the Hermit leads the People’s Crusade, 1096

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

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

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

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

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

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The First Crusade on the march

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

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Map of the First Crusade’s Route (1096-1099)
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Peter the Hermit and the People’s Crusade arrive before Alexios I in Constantinople, 1096
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Different armies of the First Crusade
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Map of Asia Minor at the time of the First Crusade
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Crusader forces defeat the Seljuks at the Battle of Dorylaeum, 1097
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Crusader forces of Bohemond capture Antioch from the Seljuks, 1098
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Crusaders capture Jerusalem from the Seljuks, End of the First Crusade, 1099

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

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

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

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Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos

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

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Hyperpyron coin of Alexios I

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

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

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

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Seljuk Turk army ride into Asia Minor

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

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

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

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Map of the newly established Crusader States of Outrmer (Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem), 1100
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King Sigurd I of Norway in Constantinople, 1110
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Feasting and court life in the reign of Alexios I Komnenos mosaic

The Reign of John II Komnenos (1118-1143)          

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

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

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

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Emperor John II Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1118-1143), son of Alexios I

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

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

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

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Seal of the Republic of Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of John II Komnenos in Venice

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

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John II and his wife Empress Irene “Piroska”

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

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

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

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Crusader Principality of Antioch seal

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

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

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

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

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


The Reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1176)           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Norman knight in Italy, 12th century

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

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

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

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Flag of the Principality of Armenia in Cilicia

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

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Reynald de Chatillon bows down before Emperor Manuel I, 1159

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos, art by Justinianus the Great

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

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

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

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Vlach people, 12th century

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

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Yaroslav Osmomysyl, Rus Prince of Galicia

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos, art by Spatharokandidatos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos and his wife Maria of Antioch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos Komnenos, cousin of Manuel I, art by Skamandros

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

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

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

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

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

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Isaac Angelos, youngest of Andronikos Angelos’ 6 sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos I Komnenos face icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185

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

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

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

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Pope Urban III

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

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Sicilian Necktie sample

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

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

Aftermath and Conclusion          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3rd Crusade led by Richard I of England arrives in Outremer, 1191

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English and French forces of the 3rd Crusade defeat Saladin’s forces at the Battle of Arsuf, 1191
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The Byzantine Empire before the 4th Crusade (purple), 1203
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Map of the 4th Crusade (1202-1204), in real history
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The 4th Crusade and the Venetian fleet attack Constantinople (1203-1204), in real history

The 12th century was one interesting and very eventful time for the Byzantine Empire from beginning to end as it was one that began with things looking bright for it with 3 consecutive long-reigning seemingly “legendary” emperors from the Komnenos Dynasty in the span of 99 years which were Alexios I (1081-1118), John II (1118-1143), and Manuel I (1143-1180). At the same time, the 12th century was also a time not only for the Byzantines to have a big story but everyone around them as well from the now emerging powers of Europe including England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Hungary, to the Italian republics like Venice, the Crusader states of Outremer, the Normans of Sicily, the Muslim powers of the Middle East like the Zengid Dynasty and then Saladin’s empire, the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in Asia Minor, and the newly independent powers of Serbia and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire. With so much happening around Byzantium, the 12th century was a very rare one especially with Byzantium coming into contact with all these said powers around them especially with the powers of Western Europe, although this century would not only be the first but also the last time Byzantium and the kingdoms of Western Europe so well-known in world history would be in major contact with each other mainly due to the Crusades, which then makes the 12th century ever more intriguing. What it means here that this century would also be the last for Byzantium and the west to have major contact with each other is mainly because this was the last century for Byzantium to be a major world power as by the time the next century which is the 13th begins, the end for Byzantium begins when Constantinople is attacked and captured by the 4th Crusade, and even though the Byzantine Empire would be restored 57 years after its fall to the 4th Crusade in 1204 and the establishment of the Latin Empire in Constantinople, Byzantium would never recover again and instead just stay as a local power in the Balkans. Considering that the 12th century is the last time for Byzantium to be a dominant power in Europe and the Mediterranean, this chapter will be the last one to talk about Byzantium in a larger-than-life way with so many other powers around it involved, as the next 3 chapters of this series which will then be the last leg of it will rather focus on Byzantium in smaller-scale with the empire shrunken to a regional power. At the same with Byzantium in the 12th century this story is set in having so much contact with Western Europe, this was also the exact time the stereotypes we all have about the Byzantines coming from westerners up to this day as corrupt, treacherous, arrogant, tyrannical, and scheming considering how people like Manuel I, Andronikos I, Isaac II, and so many others of this time lived their lives with all the double-crossing, paranoia, and decadence, but their characters no matter how flawed shows that this period in Byzantine history had a lot to tell especially in how flawed the Byzantine Empire was making it again more interesting. Now when writing this chapter set in the 12th century, there happened to be many what if scenarios to choose from as the 12th century from beginning to end was full them and a lot of them were in fact discussed in this story such as what if Anna Komnene instead of John II came to the throne in 1118 after their father Alexios I’s death, what if John II’s eldest son Alexios lived and succeeded his father rather than the youngest son Manuel I in 1143, what if Manuel I had no son and instead had Bela III of Hungary inherit the whole Byzantine Empire therefore making it one with Hungary, and what if Andronikos Komnenos was already dealt with earlier. As a matter of fact, the alternate history premise of this story was not even the original one making this the first ever chapter in this series to have a revised premise, as many months ago when planning out all my alternate history chapters for this series, for this one being chapter IX set in the 12th century, the original premise of this story was just to primarily focus on the reign of Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195) and if he ruled much longer enough to survive the coup of his brother Alexios III in 1195 and finish off the Bulgarian rebellion once and for all, which would possibly avoid the 4th Crusade from happening. However, I came to realize that the original premise for this story would not explain much about the 12th century as a whole but only about the latter part of it, and so in order to put the entire 12th century’s story in it as well as the conflict between Byzantium and Venice to explain the tensions that would lead to the attack on the empire by the 4th Crusade, I decided to change the premise to make it more about Manuel I to explain the entire conflict, but more significantly if his son Alexios II survived. On the other hand, I was also either considering the what if of Bela III inheriting Byzantium after Manuel I’s death or if Manuel I killed off his troublemaking cousin Andronikos to stop Andronikos’ reign of terror later on, but I did not end up with both, as the first option which concerns Bela III would be too complicated and confusing for me to write about as I am not very familiar with Hungarian history the way I am with Byzantine history and if I went with the second option, the story would be less climactic as it ends. Therefore, since I wanted a more exciting and thrilling story that would involve all the big names of the 12th century including Andronikos Komnenos and Isaac Angelos, I went with the more obscure yet more authentic option of Alexios II surviving the attempt on his life by Andronikos and therefore coming to rule the empire along in a ruthless but effective way despite his young age. At the same time, I also chose to go with the option of Alexios II unexpectedly ruling successfully in order to carry out the kind of climax I always wanted to put into one of my Byzantine Alternate History stories which here was the scene of the murdering of all imperial rivals happening simultaneously with a solemn event happening which here was the reconciliation between Byzantium and Venice, which happens to be a scene inspired from the climax of the movie The Godfather (1972). When thinking about and writing about this climax for this story, it made me think that if the Byzantines could finish off most of their problems in this century that way including making peace with Venice again, then perhaps all their problems would solved, but unfortunately in real history with Isaac II Angelos as emperor and his brother Alexios III after him in the last years of the 12th century as emperors ruling incompetently, these events would not happen making them only fantasy. The next chapter of this series will then start off going back to reality, and so Isaac II Angelos too will return, although since it will begin sticking to reality the Byzantines and Venetians would have never made peace, therefore the 4th Crusade would still happen and attack Constantinople in 1204. The 2nd Bulgarian Empire which in this story was dealt with before it could rise too will return in the next chapter as its alternate history scenario will be what if the Bulgarians took back Constantinople from the Latin Crusaders instead of the Byzantines? On the other hand, it may seem like the Komnenos Dynasty had died out in real history with the brutal execution of Andronikos I in 1185 and in this story with Alexios II’s unexpected hunting accident death in 1195, but either way the Komnenos Dynasty still lived on as true enough the Angelos Dynasty that succeeded was related to the Komnenos line by blood and so would be the next dynasties following it until the end of Byzantine history in 1453 due to the large extended family Alexios I created back in his day, and as a matter of fact even the dynasty bearing the Komnenos name did survive as well as after Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204, the Komnenos branch of Andronikos I carried on by his grandsons established the breakaway Byzantine Empire of Trebizond that lasted until 1461, outliving the main empire by 8 years. At the same time too, Isaac II Angelos no matter how much bad reputation he gets also has the legacy of being an ancestor to many of the European dynasties that live on even to this day as I forgot to mention that Isaac’s daughter Irene being married to the German duke Philip of Swabia through their children had descendants all across Europe, therefore making Isaac II and more significantly the Komnenos line of Alexios I he came from the ancestor of these several European monarchies if one were to carefully analyze. Now, I have to say that this story with so much happening especially with the Crusades, Venice, the Seljuks, Serbia, Bulgaria, the Normans Hungary, and so much shifting alliances and conflicts all crossing paths at the same time as well as putting a very complex kind of climax, it was a very tricky one to write but also a very engaging and intriguing one. On the other hand, before I finish off, I also have to thank my friend Ana for giving some ideas in writing this chapter by sharing with me the alternate history story on 12th century Byzantium this one was patterned after, but at the same time I would also like to thank the artists including Ana who’s works were featured in this chapter in order to make its respective century’s story more engaging. Well, this is all for Chapter IX of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler… thank you for your time!       

    

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