10 Inventions You Should Know That Came From the Byzantine Empire

Posted by Powee Celdran

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Welcome back to another article from the Byzantium Blogger! This time, it is time again for a bit of break from extremely long and highly researched articles and stories spanning the entire 1,100-year history of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453), therefore time for a quick yet entertaining top 10 list, this time on Byzantine inventions. Now, the Byzantine Empire among the many things it was known for, was known to have come up with a series of spectacular inventions including items we know very well up to this day, however not many know these items date back to the Byzantine era and were created by the Byzantines themselves. Some inventions in the Middle Ages including Greek Fire would immediately be associated with Byzantium when first hearing about especially when one is familiar with Byzantine history, however there is more than just Greek Fire when it comes to items the Byzantines created throughout the existence of their empire. These spectacular creations include larger than life architectural styles such as the pendentive dome and simple everyday items like the fork, and other than that, a lot of civil laws, scientific theories like the Theory of Impetus and that of the round earth and time zones, religious doctrines and icons, and the Cyrillic Alphabet can be attributed to Byzantium too. This article however will be only limited to the material inventions of the Byzantine Empire whether they were for architectural, warfare, or daily life purposes, therefore we will not include Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis or “Body of Civil Laws”, spiritual innovations of the Byzantines which would include religious icons, political innovations like the Thematic System, and scientific theories despite them being of great importance even up to this day. Now if you remember from 2 years ago, I did a similar article to this (check out Forgotten but Significant Byzantine Science and Technology), however this previous one was more related to science as it included not only inventions but scientific theories made by the Byzantines in their history, while this one will basically be limited only to material inventions. Although just like that previous article, this one will also be heavily inspired by the book A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis, and since a lot of these inventions were discussed in the 12 chapters of my recent Byzantine Alternate History series, these chapters will be linked as well in the list of these inventions. Before starting off, I would like to remind you all that this article would seem rather amateur and less researched than the previous ones I made, mainly because this one was just a spontaneous piece I just suddenly thought of writing for now.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire at 3 different eras; greatest extent in the 6th century (red line), in 1025 (pink), and by 1360 (red)

I. Pendentive Dome         

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Pendentive dome of the Hagia Sophia from the interior

Possibly the most famous landmark from the Byzantine Empire which still exists up to this day is the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople which is famous for its massive and high dome, and this type of dome design is known as the Pendentive Dome.

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Pendentive dome design of the Hagia Sophia

The pendentive dome now is a construction solution that allows a circular dome to be built above a rectangular floor plan, and although the Romans before the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople in 4th century had already come up with a number of early designs of this kind of construction plan in which known examples of this include the Pantheon in Rome built in the 1st century, these Ancient Roman pendentive domes were only prototypes and not as high and large as the dome of the Hagia Sophia itself. Shortly after Constantinople’s founding in 330, the original structure of the Hagia Sophia was already present, however it was a much smaller church without a dome and following the Nika Riot of 532 during the reign of Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), most of the city including the original Hagia Sophia was burned down, thus Justinian sought to rebuild it from scratch into a much larger structure with a dome higher than everything else.

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Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, architects of the Hagia Sophia

To build this cathedral, Justinian left the job to two brilliant architects being Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, and in only less than 6 years (532-537), the entire church with the dome included was completed due to having thousands of workers constructing the building day and night and lots of wealth brought back to Constantinople as war spoils from the Byzantine conquest of the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa (533-534). The dome of the Hagia Sophia looked as if it was suspended in midair without any pillar to support it by connecting its middle part to the ground, instead its architects used a solution of building 4 semi-domes or pendentives on the 4 corners below the main dome in order to hold it up. Though no matter how impressive the structure was, the dome itself when completed was unstable that the historian of the 6th century Procopius of Caesarea who saw the cathedral built with his own eyes writes “the piers on top of which the structure was being built, unable to bear the mass that was pressing down on them, somehow or suddenly started to break away and seemed to be on the point of collapsing”.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great of Byzantium (r. 527-565), acrylic painting, art by myself

True enough, following the great earthquake in Constantinople in 557 when the Justinian I was still ruling, the foundation of the Hagia Sophia was weakened, and in the following year (558), the dome itself collapsed. In 563, the dome was rebuilt by the architect Isidore the Younger who was a nephew of its original architect Isidore, and by the time Justinian I died in 565, he at least saw the dome of his cathedral that he put a lot of attention into making completed. Back in the Byzantine era, the dome itself was not only impressive from the outside but from the inside as well, as its interiors were filled with gold mosaics while its base had 40 windows forming a circle that let light in, and the dome was in fact so impressive that people from all over the world were in awe when coming to Constantinople basically because of it. In the 10th century, ambassadors from the Kievan Rus’ Empire (includes today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) sent by their Grand Prince Vladimir I the Great (r. 980-1015) when seeing the dome, suggested to Vladimir that he and his people must convert to Orthodox Christianity as it was their faith that had the most spectacular place of worship being the Hagia Sophia with its dome. The dome meanwhile had a diameter of 33m and a height of 55m from the ground, and for about a thousand years until the 15th century, it would be the world’s largest dome until the one of the Cathedral of Florence which is the Santa Maria de Fiore was completed in the 1430s. The style of the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople’s dome meanwhile would also be the basis for the architectural plans for many Greek Orthodox churches in the centuries to come, and after the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople from the Byzantines and took over the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia with its pendentive dome would be the basis for the architectural plans for many of their mosques as well.

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Cross-section of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, interior and exterior
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The Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- 6th Century.

II. Cross-in-Square         

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Cross-in-square Byzantine church plan

Other than the pendentive dome, another architectural style especially used for churches that can be attributed to the Byzantines was the Cross-in-Square plan, in which many Orthodoxy churches use this kind of style. This kind of plan consisted of a basic square shape with 4 halls in the middle of it being the naves intersecting each other forming a cross while above the intersection area at the middle was the church’s main dome, while the 4 different corners of the square sometimes had their own domes as well, thus this kind of church architecture would usually have 5 domes in total, however there are many variations to this design, therefore not all churches in this cross-in-square plan have this said plan, but this said plan was the standard design for these churches. This kind of style was developed by the Byzantines from the 9th to 10th centuries which took the place of the former long Basilica style of churches which consisted of a great hall with an apse at the end, and as I recall from the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson, in one of its earlier episodes it is said that this kind of compact style of churches was more preferred in the Eastern Roman Empire as a lot of their churches were built over tombs of early Christian martyrs, therefore it had this kind of style while churches in the western world such as in Italy and other parts of Western Europe used the long rectangular Basilica as they were based on the Ancient Roman Basilica structures as the western world on the other hand too did not have that much tombs of early Christian martyrs compared to the east. In the Byzantine world, the cross-in-square style of church was first introduced with the Church of the Nea Ekklesia built between 876 and 880 by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886) which was part of the Imperial Palace Complex of Constantinople, however this structure does not exist anymore today as in 1490 when Constantinople was under the Ottomans who used this former church as a gunpowder storage room, it exploded when it was struck by lightning. However, the earliest cross-in-square style church in Constantinople that still exists up to this day is the Church of the Theotokos dating back to 907/908 constructed under Basil I’s son and successor Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912). At this day, this kind of plan can be seen in many Orthodox churches whether dating back to the Middle Ages or to more recent times all over the Orthodox world especially in countries like Greece, Macedonia Serbia, and Bulgaria.      

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Example of a Middle Byzantine era cross-in-square style church
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Church of the Theotokos, Constantinople

III. Pointed Arch Bridge          

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Byzantine era Karamagara Bridge, Turkey, built in either the 5th or 6th centuries

When it comes to bridge building, the Byzantines too apparently had made innovations to it as well, and one style they had created for bridges was the pointed arch bridge, which as basically a long bridge over a river or other kind of body of water with arches supporting it that are not just a regular semi-circle arches, but arches that narrow at the top forming a point. Now the reason why we conclude that the pointed arch bridge was invented by the Byzantines is because the earliest known pointed arch bridge is in the region of Cappadocia dating back to either the 5th or 6th century where Cappadocia at that time was under the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. This bridge in Cappadocia was the Karamagara Bridge which however unfortunately became submerged with the completion of the Keban Dam in 1975, but before that, it was an impressive bridge crossing the Euphrates River with just a single pointed arch over the river spanning 17m yet holding up the entire bridge without any mortar between the stones that was used in creating the arch. When this bridge was completed in either the 5th or 6th century as part of the Roman road to the city of Melitene in Asia Minor, an inscription was written on the eastern edge of the arch in Greek which is a passage from Psalm 21, verse 8 from the Bible which says “The Lord may guard your entrance and your exit from now and unto all time, amen, amen, amen”, and although this inscription may have nothing really to do with the bridge, it shows that in this part of the empire, Greek was the mainly spoken language. Of course, in the centuries to come, the pointed arch bridge style would become more and more common, and there are many notable ones you can find that still exist such as the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia built by the Ottomans, and apparently the pointed arch design for bridges had happened to be one of the many things the Ottomans had carried over from the Byzantines before them.

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Example of a Byzantine era pointed arch stone bridge

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter II- 5th Century.

IV. Ship Mill          

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Medieval ship mills, original one created by the Byzantines during the 536-537 Siege of Rome

The ship mill, as a means to create milled wheat for flour in order to make bread by the use of a boat on a body of water is credited to the 6th century Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius (505-565) as recorded by the same historian Procopius mentioned earlier who was a secretary of Belisarius.

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Flavius Belisarius (505-565), Byzantine general in Justinian I’s reign, art by Amelianvs

Now Belisarius who was the famous general that served Emperor Justinian I was a military genius not only in the battlefield but in coming up with creative means in order to win including digging trenches to slow down the enemy cavalry as seen with him during the Battle of Dara in 530 against the Sassanid Empire, lighting up campfires across the hills to scare off the enemy to make it seem the Byzantines had a larger army as seen in his campaigns against the Ostrogoths in Italy in the late 530s, and by beating trees in order to release giant gas clouds to scare off the enemy as well in his last battle in 559 fought against the Kutrigur Huns. Another genius solution Belisarius came up with was the ship mill in which he created in 537 after taking over Rome from the Ostrogoths, however the Ostrogoth army led by their king Vitiges attempted to recapture Rome while Belisarius and his army were within, and in order to starve out Rome’s population and Belisarius’ Byzantine army, the Ostrogoths cut off the aqueducts supplying water to Rome, which not only cut the water supply but disabled the mills to create flour as the water from the aqueducts powered the mills too.

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Belisarius and his army

To not make the people starve and to keep his troops strong, Belisarius had the mill wheels of Rome moved to where the current of the Tiber River was the strongest, and here he stretched two ropes across the river as tight as possible attaching them to many boats with the wheels attached to them. This invention then proved successful as the river’s current was strong enough to power the wheels in order to grind the wheat creating flour, and thus the population of Rome and the army had a sufficient food supply despite the city being blocked off by the Ostrogoths’ siege. The Ostrogoths however fought back by tossing logs and the bodies of their dead soldiers into the river which made it into the walls of Rome jamming the mill wheels. Belisarius in return hung chains stretched tightly across the arches of a bridge which then proved successful in stopping the debris and dead bodies thrown by the Ostrogoths, thus resuming the operations of the mills allowing the population to continue being fed, and by late 537, the Ostrogoths lifted their siege of Rome as Belisarius and his army chased them away to the north. Following the success of the ship mill used in Rome, this invention would later spread across Europe as a new way for creating flour that not too long after it reached Paris in 556, Geneva in 563, and Dijon in 575. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, ship mills too became a popular means of milling wheat in the Arab world and common in the rest of Europe as well, although little did they know that this effective means of milling wheat came from the mind of a brilliant Byzantine general.

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Belisarius at the 536-537 Siege of Rome, art by Amelianvs

V. Greek Fire         

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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Arab fleet, 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

When hearing of the Byzantine Empire, usually the naval superweapon of Greek Fire would be one of the first things that comes into a lot of people’s minds, and true enough this was one of the most cutting-edge innovative things the Byzantines had created that only they, and no one else had made, as true enough this weapon was a heavily guarded state secret as it was the secret weapon that saved the empire from ultimate destruction a number of times.

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Emperor Constantine IV of Byzantium (r. 668-685)

Greek Fire (Hygron Pyr in Greek) first came into use during the 674-678 Umayyad Arab Siege of Constantinople where the Syrian refugee Kallinikos made it right in time for the event during the reign of Emperor Constantine IV (668-685), and although this Arab siege basically consisted of on-and-off attacks by the Arab army and fleet, it was with Greek Fire used for the first time on the ship of the emperor Constantine IV himself that was able to relieve Constantinople from the siege. Greek Fire was basically an incendiary weapon that served as a kind of flame-thrower blowing out a sticky kind of fire that could even stick to the water which is why some Byzantine chroniclers call it “sea fire” or “liquid fire”. This weapon not only destroyed enemy ships by burning them but struck fear into the enemies that the enemy armies fighting against the Byzantines at sea when seeing Greek Fire would jump to the sea in fear and would not die really from the fire but by drowning. The fire then came from a liquid mixture which was heated in a brazier, pressurized by a pump, and lastly ejected through a large siphon against the enemy. The Greek Fire now wasn’t entirely this mechanism but the liquid fire formula the mechanism used, however the formula of Greek Fire being kept as a heavily guarded secret remains to be a mystery, but it is most probably a mixture of petroleum, pitch, sulfur, pine or cedar resin, lime, and bitumen, while some even speculate that it even had gunpowder in it due to how the fire could explode.

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Greek Fire operated by the Byzantine navy

The operators of this weapon would then be a very elite force of the imperial guard and only this unit could operate it as the weapon was overall meant to be a secret, however the operation process was a difficult one as the cannon that fired the liquid fire was heavy and unwieldy while the range of the fire was very short, therefore when the weapon was mounted on a ship it needed to be up close to the enemy ship in order for it to be fully effective, and at the same time the weapon was only very effective when being used on a ship when the sea was calm and the wind blew from behind the ship. Although the weapon may have been difficult to use, it defended Constantinople a number of times including against the more massive Umayyad Arab siege from 717-718 and in a massive naval battle near Constantinople against the fleet of the Kievan Rus’ navy in 941. On the other hand, there were many variations of the Greek Fire weapon as well, as long as it used the same formula, and these included Greek Fire that could be stored in grenade jars and thrown at the enemy or hand-held cannons ejecting the same kind of fire known as a Cheirosiphon which was mostly used during sieges as a medieval version of the modern flamethrower. Now it is unclear when the Byzantines discontinued the use of Greek Fire or if they never discontinued it at all, although one theory says that the secret of Greek Fire was lost before the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204, though Greek Fire could have also been used in 1453 in the defense of the city before it fell to the Ottomans.

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Operation process of Greek Fire
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Greek Fire used for the first time at the 674-678 Arab Siege of Constantinople
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Rus’ fleet outside Constantinople’s Walls, 941
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Hand-held Greek Fire (Cheirosiphon), art by Amelianvs

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IV- 7th Century.

VI. Incendiary Grenades           

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Surviving evidence of Byzantine era grenades

Other than using a large cannon as an incendiary weapon, the Byzantines too had used grenades as another means of using Greek Fire, and shortly after the successful defense of Constantinople against the Umayyad Caliphate Arabs from 717-718 during the reign of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741), the soldiers who had defended the city had come to realize that Greek Fire could not be only be projected by flamethrowers, but could be thrown in stone and ceramic jars as well, thus leading to the creation of grenades.

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Sample of a Byzantine era grenade

Over the years, the Byzantines had developed different versions of this exploding weapon such as in storing the flammable substance that Greek Fire was made of into small or large clay jars and pouches used as grenade shells that could be hurled at the enemy, and over time Byzantine soldiers developed a tactic by loading their catapults with these grenades as a way to besiege walled cities, which true enough proved to be effective. Other than using flammable substance, these grenades also dispersed sharp objects or shrapnel as well as smoke when exploding, and in the following centuries, this kind of weapon was adopted by armies of the Islamic world who also developed different forms of these incendiary grenades, and archaeological evidence as well shows that in the 13th century there was a grenade workshop in Syria showing that by this time, the use of grenades became popular in the Islamic world. Even in the video game Assassin’s Creed Revelations– which I said a number of times was one of the many things that introduced me to Byzantine history- which is set in 16th century Constantinople under the Ottomans, you have the option to craft a large variety of these kinds of grenades when playing it, while in one mission you actually get to operate the superweapon of Greek Fire from a ship.

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Arab armies using the Byzantine warfare tactic of throwing grenades

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter V- 8th Century.

VII. The Fork         

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Byzantine era forks

Now if the Byzantines could create larger than life inventions from large domes without any central support to superweapons that could not be rivalled by anything in its time such as Greek Fire, the Byzantines too had made inventions very small and simple yet very important to our daily lives, and such inventions like this include the fork. Now for those who aren’t familiar with the fork and its origins, it certainly does date back to the Byzantine Empire, and although I’ve written about the fork and its Byzantine origins a number of times, I would like to discuss it again here, as recently I have made new discoveries about the fork’s Byzantine origins. Just recently, I had posted on my Facebook page my photos of the Byzantine Collection of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC, and part of this collection included a Byzantine fork, and in the comments of this post someone asked if the fork was really a Byzantine invention as it only first appeared in France in 1315 at the royal court, while someone here replied saying that the Byzantines have been eating using a fork ever since the 4th century, thus it took a full thousand years for an item as simple as this to be adopted in other parts of the world. Now the fork has been a utensil used by the Byzantines ever since the beginning while the rest of Europe had no idea about it, thus for a long time everyone else but the Byzantines had been eating with their bare hands and a knife, that also recently I have just heard a saying from Serbia which was also part of the Byzantine sphere of influence that “while a German would still use his fingers to eat, in the middle ages, a Serb picks his food with the fork”. For the longest time- such as in Ancient Rome- the fork was only used to serve dishes, while it was only in the Byzantine era after the 4th century when it became a personal utensil for eating, and it was only in the 10th century when the Byzantines first introduced this item to Western Europe.

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

This happened in 972 when the Byzantine princess Theophano Sklerina, the niece of the Byzantine emperor at that time John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976) married the future Holy Roman emperor in Germany Otto II, and the people of the imperial court in Germany when seeing the fork for the first time being used by Theophano did not get the idea of it, thinking it was all useless as they already had their hands to do the job of picking up the food and bringing it to their mouths. Another story of the Byzantines introducing the fork to Western Europe happens in 1004 when another Byzantine princess being Maria Argyropoulina married Giovanni Orseolo, the son of the Doge of Venice Pietro II Orseolo, and during their wedding feast Maria used a two-pronged golden fork to eat the food. The Venetians meanwhile who saw her eating with it also did not get its concept thinking it was in fact blasphemous while some members of the clergy there had said “God had provided humans with natural forks being their fingers, therefore it was an insult to substitute them with artificial metal ones for eating”. In 1007, just 3 years after their marriage, both Maria and Giovanni died from a plague in which the Venetians claimed that Maria’s early death was a result of her disrespecting God by eating with a fork. Nowadays, we cannot imagine eating certain things without a fork, and to this we have to thank these Byzantine marriages to rulers in different parts of Europe as over time, these marriages with Byzantium would lead to the spread of the fork across Europe, and from there to the rest of the world.

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Byzantine spoons and a fork, Dumbarton Oaks collection

Read about my take on the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection here.

VIII. Hand-Trebuchet and Counterweight Trebuchet         

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Byzantine army using a trebuchet, Madrid Skylitzes

The Byzantines themselves were adept at siege warfare with weapons like Greek Fire and incendiary grenades, but the other kind of siege weapons they have developed as well and were skilled at were trebuchets, which was a type of catapult used for hurling large stones and missiles during sieges. The unique catapult design of the hand-trebuchet first appeared in the Byzantine Empire during the 10th century, which was Byzantium’s golden age of warfare when they had turned the tide of war against the Arabs from the defensive to the offensive.

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

This hand-trebuchet (Cheiromangana in Greek) was basically a staff sling mounted on a pole using a lever mechanism to propel projectiles which could be operated by only one man and was first advocated as a siege engine in an open battlefield by the military emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) in 965 during his campaigns against the Arabs in Asia Minor and Syria. This weapon too had been mentioned in the Taktika or military manual of the Byzantine general Nikephoros Ouranos in around 1000. Aside from this small single-man operated trebuchet, the Byzantines not too long after this weapon was invented had also been apparently the first ones to use the much larger and more complex counterweight Trebuchet, which was basically a massive catapult with a heavy weight on the opposite side of the projectile to balance it.

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

This weapon is first recorded in the work of the 12th century Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates (1155-1217) who first mentions the use of this weapon during a siege in 1165 taking place in the area of the Danube River border, and that this weapon here was equipped with a windlass, which was an apparatus used for moving heavy weights that earlier trebuchets such as the traction or hybrid ones did not use when launching missiles. However, this counterweight trebuchet was also said to have appeared even before 1165 being introduced at the Byzantine-Crusader Siege of Nicaea in 1097 during the First Crusade against the Seljuk Empire wherein the Byzantine emperor then Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) was credited for having invented it together with other artillery weapons, and with this weapon he made a deep impression on everyone whether Byzantine or Crusader.

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Counterweight trebuchet, first recorded in Byzantium in 1165

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- 10th Century.

IX. Hospitals          

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Medicine in the Byzantine era

Apparently, even the concept of a hospital was created by the Byzantines, however even way longer before the birth of the Byzantine Empire in the 4th centuries, hospitals were already existent in Ancient Greece, Rome, and in other civilizations, although hospitals back then were only mere places for people to die or for soldiers wounded from battle to be treated. The Byzantines now came up with the concept of hospitals being an institution to offer medical care and possible cures for patients due to the ideals of Christian charity which played a very important role in Byzantine society. In Byzantine Constantinople itself, there were a number of functioning hospitals with one such example being a structure found between the two important churches of the Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene that connected them, and this here was the Hospital of St. Sampson in which its structure however does not exist anymore today. Hospitals in Byzantium meanwhile were mostly associated with monasteries; thus, hospitals were usually found within monastery structures with another notable one being the 12th century Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople (today the Zeyrek Mosque) which was founded in 1136 by Emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) and his wife Empress Irene of Hungary, and back then it was one of the most impressive structures of its time with possibly the best medical services in the empire, if not the entire world. This structure contained not only a monastery but a church, library, hospital, and mausoleum for the Komnenos emperors. Its hospital meanwhile had 50 beds and 5 wards with one for women, 2 doctors per ward with a number of assistants, a chief pharmacist, and a female doctor with female nurses for the female ward. Salaries for male and female nurses here were equal, but for doctors the salary for the female ones was half of their male counterparts. The Pantokrator hospital too had a complete set of medical equipment including lancets, cauterizing irons, catheters, forceps, tonsil knives, tooth files, scalpels, rectal speculums, uterine dilators, rib saws, clysters, tweezers, needles, and something called a “skull-breaker” used possibly to break a dead fetus in order to make its extraction easier. With all these kinds of medical equipment as well as in having female doctors, the Byzantines too were an advanced society in medical matters, but one major innovation the Byzantines too had in medical matters was that they were the first to successfully carry out the operation of separating conjoined twins where the first known case of it took place in the 10th century. In this case, a pair of conjoined twins lived in Constantinople for many years and when one twin died, surgeons removed the dead one and its result was partially successful as the one that was alive still continued living for 3 more days, while the next known case of separating conjoined twins happened so many centuries later in 1689 in Germany.

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Recreation of the Hospital of St. Sampson between the Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene, Constantinople
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12th century Pantokrator Monastery and Hospital in Constantinople, art by myself
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Separation of the conjoined twins in 10th century Byzantium, Madrid Skylitzes

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IX- 12th Century.

X. Mechanical Throne, Lions, and Tree          

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

The type of self-operating mechanism known as an Automaton had already existed a lot earlier before in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, but it was in Byzantium where this mechanism was the most impressive as it was used to elevate a throne, while the lion sculptures that flanked the throne as well as the golden tree were able to operate on its own. Now before writing this article, I asked for suggestions on Byzantine inventions, and apparently someone mentioned the mechanical throne, and so I decided to put it here. The Byzantine automaton being the mechanical throne was mentioned in 949 when the Italian ambassador Liutprand, the Bishop of Cremona visited the imperial court of Constantinople wherein the Byzantine Empire here was ruled by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959).

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

Here, Liutprand when meeting the emperor Constantine VII had mentioned “lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue, a tree of gilded bronze, it’s branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their species, and the emperor’s throne itself which was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air”. What Liutprand here said was that the lion statues on both sides of the emperor’s throne made a roar by itself with the actual sound of the lion, while the birds on the artificial tree next to it sang with the actual sounds of birds, but what was most impressive was that the throne of the emperor itself actually rose up to the air with the emperor as well. This same emperor Constantine VII too confirms in the book he wrote being De Ceremoniis that these mechanical items were present in his throne room at the Imperial Palace in Constantinople. An Ancient Jewish legend however says that King Solomon of Israel using his wisdom designed his throne room to look exactly like this with mechanical animals and a throne that could be elevated, however there is not much proof about this unlike how we have written evidence about Constantine VII’s mechanical throne and sculptures in which its design was definitely inspired by Solomon’s throne room. Now, the big mystery is how the Byzantines were actually able to record the sounds of these animals to make it so exact to fit the artificial animals in the said throne room.

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King Solomon’s throne room with mechanical lions

           

Now with all these fascinating cutting-edge inventions, it truly does show that the Byzantines had a lot of creativity as well as the ability to come up with solutions at difficult times, and usually these difficult situations allowed the Byzantines to create powerful inventions like no other including weapons like Greek Fire and incendiary grenades. On other occasions, the Byzantines created such inventions including the pendentive dome and the mechanical throne as a way to assert the power of their empire and Orthodox faith as these domes were built for their churches to emphasize the power of the Orthodox Church, and the mechanical throne for the imperial throne room to assert the authority of its emperor. Other times, the Byzantines created these innovations out of necessity such as the ship mills, other times out of charity such as the concept of hospitals as a place to recover and not plainly to just die, while other times they created such things to make life easier such as the fork. Now no matter how much the Byzantines have created in their empire’s existence and no matter how great these inventions were, Byzantium does not really get the credit they deserve for coming up with these brilliant inventions, and it is for this reason why I suddenly came up with this short article. These days, we usually eat with forks, have hospitals, and have buildings with domes that seem to be floating in the air, but little do most of us know that the Byzantines played a major part in making these things possible, therefore again this article was made to let you viewers know more about Byzantium’s role in these items in which some are still relevant up to this day. On the other hand as well, there could possibly be more inventions made by the Byzantines that we don’t know much about including the beacon system and so much more, and so it is up to you viewers to comment if I missed out on any other inventions. Anyway, this article was rather quick as this was just a spontaneous article wherein an idea to do this just popped out in my head, which is why I just said whatever came to my mind when writing this without much thought or heavy research in the process. Before finishing off, I would like to greet you all viewers Happy Holidays in advance, and again this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler… Thank you for viewing!       

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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

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

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guide to the Thematic System of the Byzantine army (from Wikipedia); this article contains a lot of terms of Byzantine army units
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A Renaissance era depiction of Byzantine Iconoclasm (breaking of religious icons)
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Guide to the Isaurian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 717-802; these characters will play an important role in this story; character illustrations and layout by myself

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

Byzantine History for Everyday People- Reactions to Quotes from Byzantium

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

The Sieges of Constantinople

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

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Related Videos to this era:

The 22-Year-Anarchy (Eastern Roman History)

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

The Byzantine Empire’s Themes and Thematic Army (Kings and Generals)


The Leading Characters:

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

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

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

Constantine V Kopronymos- Son and successor of Leo III

Anastasios- Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople

Niketas- Byzantine general, son of Artavasdos and Anna

Nikephoros- Son of Artavasdos and Anna

Tzitzak- Khazar wife of Constantine V

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

Eutychius- The last Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna

(Credits to Ediacar, Amelianvs, Faisal-Hashemi, Krzysztof Pyzik, Androklos, and Chrysa Sakel for their art on this era which are featured here.)

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


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

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

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Flag of the Rashidun Caliphate, the 1st Islamic Empire

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

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

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

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

Following the death of Constans II in 668, Caliph Muawiyah I using his fleet took over some of the Byzantine ports of Asia Minor launching the first Arab Siege of Constantinople in 674, although this was not really a major attack but a series of intermittent skirmishes on Constantinople by the Arab army and fleet and up until 677, the siege was not coming into any results until the young emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-685), the son of Constans II counter-attacked the Arab fleet head-on using the secret superweapon Greek Fire for the first time totally obliterating the Arab fleet and army.

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

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

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Khan Asparukh, First ruler of the Bulgarian Empire (r. 681-701)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Justinian II’s Quinisext Council, 692

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

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Mutilation of Justinian II’s nose, 695

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arabic lamb dish, cooked by Konon for Justinian II

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

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Aqueduct of Valens, Constantinople

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

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

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

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Emperor Justinian II Rhinotmetos, 2nd reign, art by Ediacar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prince Masalama, general of the Umayyad forces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Umayyad forces at the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Emperor Leo III the Isaurian, art by Androklos

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

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Leo III’s Ecloga

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

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

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

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Early-Byzantine era religious icon

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

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The Chalke Gate at the Imperial Palace of Constantinople

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

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Byzantine Iconoclasm from the 9th century Chludov Psalter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Orso Ipato, First Doge of the Republic of Venice

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

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

           

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

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Khazar women’s fashion sample

In this story’s case, Tzitzak came to Constantinople in her native Turkic steppe people dress decorated with tons of gold and silver scales, as well as a headdress full of jewelry, and not speaking any Greek at all, therefore having an interpreter with her, and to all the people of Constantinople her appearance totally left everyone questioning it, although this was not the first time an emperor would marry a Khazar woman as Justinian II’s wife Theodora was a Khazar too, although when she arrived in Constantinople in 706, Theodora was already dressed in Byzantine robes as she had already married Justinian II prior to that. What was particularly intriguing to those who saw Tzitzak up close was the tattoos seen around her upper-body as was a nomadic Khazar custom. When being presented to the empress Maria at the baths of the imperial palace, Maria at first took a good look at Tzitzak privately to see if she was healthy in which she seemed to be, however when Maria took a deeper look, she was shocked to see all the tattoos on Tzitzak’s body as true enough to inspect if Tzitzak was healthy, Maria had to undress her as Tzitzak not knowing Greek therefore could not understand that she was told to take her clothes off.

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

When seeing the rest of Tzitzak’s body with her clothes off, Maria then laid her lands all over her body and when feeling that her body was nice and attractive, she felt that Tzitzak was the right match for her son despite all the tattoos, but Maria approved of her more because of her well-behaved personality considering that she did not fight back when she was undressed and seen naked by a woman she just met. Later when Constantine came to see her at his bedroom, he was surprised to see the amount of tattoos when removing her dress as they were to sleep together naked, but for Constantine he’d rather have an exotic foreign wife than a Byzantine woman who he found boring and conservative in dress and appearance. The 18-year-old Tzitzak was then baptized and renamed to the Greek Irene (although she would still be known as Tzitzak in this story) and after being baptized she would marry young Constantine, then in the next years she would have to learn Greek which now completely took over Latin as the empire’s primary language. It also happened in 732 when the Umayyad Arab forces from Spain invaded the Frankish Kingdom but suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Tours to the Frankish army under their general Charles Martel thus putting a full stop to the Arabs’ advancement into Europe. As for Artavasdos, still the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos he would meanwhile remain in the Armeniac Theme’s capital of Amasea with Anna where they would have more children including another son named Nikephoros all while Anna being away from Constantinople for this story’s case would continue her art projects in painting icons away from her father’s eyes, though Artavasdos would see it but not react to it anyway, as he still respected whatever his wife did being happily married to her. The 730s meanwhile was not a much recorded part of Leo III’s reign and so here on a few occasions, Artavasdos and Anna with their children would travel to Constantinople for some family functions wherein for this story Leo himself would cook the flavorful Arabic food he grew up with but for his family this time, although in this story’s case nothing would go by pleasantly as envy and distrust would start erupting between family members especially between Anna and her father over their views on the use of icons, Constantine and Anna as Constantine would soon grow more and more envious of his older sister as she was more liked and got more praise and attention for her art and literary works while Constantine did not despite him also doing them, but the bigger hatred was of course between Artavasdos and Constantine as Artavasdos still felt betrayed by Constantine’s birth.

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Arabic food cooked by Leo III

Artavasdos when in Constantinople would try to do whatever it took to get rid of the lazy and arrogant young Constantine, that Artavasdos when seeing him would mockingly call Constantine “Kopronymos” remembering the incident of Constantine as a baby shitting on the baptismal water thus angering Constantine, and at one point he intentionally pushed Constantine in the imperial palace’s halls making it look like it was an accident and another time, as Mario added Artavasdos would accuse Constantine of stealing his jewellery telling it to Leo III himself, except Leo here refused to believe it saying his son would not do such a thing. Meanwhile, Leo III’s war on icons was still brewing stronger especially in Constantinople that not a day would go by without soldiers looting churches to confiscate icons and bonfires in almost every square of the city wherein icons were burned much like in Nazi Germany where books were burned in bonfires, while Leo III too would have the previous coins of Justinian II with Christ’s image that were still around melted down to make new coins. When in Constantinople seeing icons burned in these bonfires, Anna had enough of her father’s useless and superstitious policy of destroying icons as Anna being a more educated person knew the icons had nothing to do with the empire’s setbacks.

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Sample image of faces damaged by Iconoclasm (not Byzantine)

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

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

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

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Playing music in the Byzantine era

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

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

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


The Climax- War of the Emperors (741-743)        

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

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Coin of Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos

Artavasdos here had the worst day of his life when Constantine V was crowned as the empire’s sole emperor and so Artavasdos rather than attending the coronation in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople went hunting alone in the Opsikion Theme- in this story’s case- while Anna and their children attended. Here Artavasdos was already 54 but still looking as young and strong as he was when helping Leo III come to power in 717 with long dark hair and a long beard, while Anna here at 33 despite having already 9 children was still looking young and beautiful as ever, and Constantine V at 23 looked very young too with thick and long dark curly hair and a short and stocky stature like his father, though he was quite overweight and bad in posture. Constantine V spent the first few months of his reign in 741 consolidating his power and continuing enforcing the Iconoclast policies of his father, and true enough soldiers continued their constant raids into houses and churches across the empire confiscating icons and burning them. While the war on icons continued to rage on, Anna and her resistance movement of women still continued to horde and restore icons in the middle of the night. Constantine V now had everything he wanted as emperor, and almost every night he would host lavish and wild parties at the imperial palace dancing and drinking to the point of getting hangovers. As a bisexual, Constantine enjoyed having young men and women at his parties barely clothed except for a toga over their underwear and in these parties, Constantine too would get high by inhaling a flower that could be used as a drug from Asia Minor. Both Anna and Artavasdos now had their own reasons to hate Constantine as not only was he an Iconoclast extremist and an obstacle to Artavasdos, but he was also an excessive young man that cared more about pleasure than for the good of his empire and so here in their house in Constantinople, Artavasdos when at his bedroom with Anna told her that it was time to get rid of Constantine for the good of the empire by poisoning him, and Anna was also intent on doing it as part of revenge on him for destroying her icons the previous year. Artavasdos here also told Anna in private that Constantine V needed to go as they both knew Constantine had a health condition which was epilepsy, in which was a valid reason to make him not completely suitable to be emperor as just a simple health condition could discredit someone from being emperor, as after all the emperor needed to be seen as a perfect human, and Artavasdos having no kind of health condition or deformity would be a perfect candidate for the throne. In this story’s case in one night in March of 742, while Constantine V was having another wild party in the palace, Anna decided to attend it too as being the emperor’s sister, she would definitely be allowed entry and so in her house, she dressed up for the occasion in more lose and revealing clothes as for Constantine, the more skin showing the better. The dress Anna put on here was simply a red silk Ancient Roman style dress which was just an easy to put on red sleeveless tunic just fastened above the shoulders with a pin, and a red toga cloth known as a Stola draped over it with only two belts to hold up the dress where one was fastened below the bust and the other at the waist, and first of all before putting on the dress, she put on her underwear which was basically a cloth band wrapped around the bust to simply hold it without shoulder straps- as depicted in a 4th century Roman mosaic- and after Anna tightened the band around her bust, she put on the red dress and when wearing it, she realized how comfortable it was compared to the more conservative and difficult to wear tight Byzantine style dresses of her time.

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Sample Roman red dress with a Stola

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

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Iconoclasm continues under Constantine V
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Dressing up a Byzantine era woman

           

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

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldier

Artavasdos then shouted out loud to Constantine that Anna ordered this as she is leading the resistance against Iconoclasm, although Constantine here did not attack Artavasdos fearing Artavasdos’ forces will kill him first, so instead Constantine and the troops loyal to him fled the site retreating to the Anatolic Theme’s capital Amorion which was just nearby. Artavasdos together with Nikephoros after turning on Constantine V also did not continue with the campaign, instead they marched their forces back to Constantinople where Artavasdos was ready to crown himself emperor before Constantine could make it back there. When arriving back in Constantinople, both Anna and Patriarch Anastasios welcomed them, and here there was total shift in Patriarch Anastasios who from being a strong Iconoclast suddenly became an ardent supporter of Artavasdos, of Anna’s resistance, and of icons in general. Anastasios meanwhile just like Artavasdos never really cared much about Iconoclasm or defending icons, as he being the patriarch only wanted to be in favor of the reigning emperor no matter who whether Iconoclast or not, but when seeing for himself how much the people rallying under Anna were so ardent about icons, he felt their pain and therefore in an instant became totally on their side and a defender of icons. Artavasdos at 55 here was soon enough crowned as emperor dressed in the new imperial robes or the Loros Justinian II previously introduced, while Anna was crowned as empress or Augusta, and Nikephoros even though being their second son was crowned as co-emperor to fully secure Artavasdos’ branch of the Isaurian Dynasty as the eldest son Niketas was still over in the Armeniac Theme here at this point in 742, therefore there was no time to crown him as co-emperor as Constantine V could return at any moment. It is also debated by historians that Niketas may not be Artavasdos’ son with Anna but from a previous wife which is why he was not crowned co-emperor, although this is highly unlikely and this wouldn’t be the case for this story. After his coronation, Artavasdos was then backed by Anna’s mother Maria and younger sisters Irene and Kosmo who all encouraged him to take the title of “Protector of the Holy Icons” as by supporting the cause of the people for the icons or the Iconodules, his legitimacy as emperor would be more secure as majority of the people of Constantinople had backed him. Meanwhile in Amorion, Constantine V was still emperor but only there, as the people there especially the army with him and of the Anatolic Theme supported Iconoclasm therefore backing him. As it turned out, the soldiers that were in Amorion were mostly the same ones two years earlier at the Battle of Akroinon that helped Constantine and his father defeat the Arabs and remembering him well, they all rallied under him and so did the entire army and people of the Anatolic Theme. Constantine V here at least got the dream he wanted so much which was to have a great amount of popularity and these soldiers not only supported him, they pledged to fight and die for him and for the name of Iconoclasm as well. Constantine V though when in Amorion in this story’s case would also get some strange dreams, although this would be due to his growing addiction to the flower drugs he was taking, and as Mario put it here, Constantine one time dreamt that he was in his bedroom there in Amorion seeing Artavasdos in the bed next to him thinking it was real until waking up the next day seeing Artavasdos was not there. Artavasdos too experienced the same thing back in Constantinople, except instead he got a dream of Constantine overthrowing and blinding him- as what happened in real history. As emperor in Constantinople, Artavasdos’ first act was to restore all the icons to their rightful places as well as to repaint the frescos in which their faces were destroyed, and all this had to be done in so little time before Constantine V could come back, while Artavasdos too apologized to the people for what he did back in 726 in taking down the mosaic at the Chalke Gate saying he only did it because of his loyalty to Leo III. Under the guidance of Anna with her mother and sisters, a lot of these icons were successfully returned to their rightful places from being kept underground at the Cistern of Theodosius, while a lot of those that were destroyed were fixed to be as good as new again. At the same time, both Constantine V in Amorion and Artavasdos in Constantinople during the autumn and winter of 742 began preparing their armies for the ultimate civil war to come. Constantine further encouraged his soldiers by reminding them that they are fighting to get rid of Artavasdos and Anna who he called the “double-crosser” in his speeches, and this anger also further increased the morale of the soldiers as they knew from reports that they were rapidly undoing the Iconoclast policy of Leo III who was their hero. The armies of the Themes of Thrace and Opsikion would then switch sides to Anna’s resistance and Artavasdos, and so would the distant Armeniac Theme under Niketas who immediately got word from his father to join forces with him against Constantine V who meanwhile was backed by the armies of the Anatolic and Thracesian Themes all being loyal to the Iconoclast cause. By early 743, it turned out that almost the entire population of Constantinople especially monks, nuns, and women were all loyally behind Artavasdos giving him hope that he will defeat Constantine V, also because he had 3 Themes with him while Constantine only had 2 Themes.          

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

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

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

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Pope Zachary, Patriarch of Rome (741-752)

It also happened that back in 741, the new pope Zachary was elected, and in 743 when hearing of Artavasdos coming to power and restoring icons, here in this story’s case he congratulated him agreeing to have the Church of Rome in good terms with Constantinople again. Soon enough, the message to restore icons were spread to the western parts wherein Leo III had previously replaced their bishops with Iconoclast ones, but with the Iconoclast policy gone under both Emperor Artavasdos and Patriarch Anastasios of Constantinople, the icons were freely allowed to be restored. Back in Constantinople, in this story’s case, Anna had managed to actually get Constantine’s wife Tzitzak who was left behind in Constantinople to support icons after having a couple of drinks together, and this would be possibly because women were more attached to religious icons than men. With the army of Artavasdos fully assembled, they all marched into Asia Minor under Artavasdos’ command while the Armeniac Theme’s army under Niketas would meet them along the way, although Artavasdos chose to attack Constantine V in waves but was not expecting that Constantine V led his entire army from both the Anatolic and Thracesian Themes to confront Artavasdos’ forces. The two sides met near the city of Sardis in Western Asia Minor in May of 743 and being outnumbered to the entire Thematic armies of Constantine V, Artavasdos’ and Niketas’ forces were defeated here, although both father and son still survived as Niketas fled north and Artavasdos back to Constantinople to gather the second batch of his troops.

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Byzantine Thematic army soldier, 8th century

3 months later, Niketas and his Armeniac Theme army was spotted and cornered in the town of Modrine near the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor, where Constantine with such a fury led a charge defeating the Armeniac troops, again forcing Niketas to flee. Niketas though would still manage to regroup his army and blockade the Dardanelles strait to prevent Constantine passage into Europe, but later on outside the city of Nicomedia on the way to Constantinople, Niketas lost again to his uncle due to Niketas being too young and inexperienced in fighting battles and when losing, Constantine captured his nephew Niketas himself personally beating him up to the ground, and later shipping him to Constantinople to be imprisoned. Having defeated Niketas, Constantine then crossed the Dardanelles Strait into Thrace and later arriving outside Constantinople’s walls laying siege to it. Constantine V though did not entirely lay siege but more so blockaded it by both land and sea and after some 2 months by November of 743, the defending army tired of being locked in surrendered thus allowing Constantine V entry, while Artavasdos together with Anna and Nikephoros made it in time to flee across the Bosporus to the Opsikion Theme, while Niketas was left in a prison within Constantinople.          

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

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

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Byzantine blinding from the Madrid Skylitzes

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

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Sawing in half execution method

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

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Drug flower inhaled by Constantine V

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

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Paramerion, Byzantine curved sword

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

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

Aftermath and Conclusion         

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

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

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

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

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

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

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

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

However in the remains of Byzantine Italy, not all went in favor for the Byzantines and by 751 with Italy being neglected by Constantine V and Leo III before him as it was too far away, the Exarchate of Ravenna came to an end when Eutychius its last exarch surrendered Ravenna to the Lombards as it proved already too impossible to hold. The fall of Ravenna to the Lombards though was also another blessing in disguise, as if it stayed longer under Byzantine rule, the valuable mosaics there such as those of Justinian and Theodora which had their faces on it would have been destroyed, and the Lombards not being Iconoclasts would keep them that way when holding Ravenna. With the emperor neglecting Byzantine Italy as their problems were mostly in the east, the pope had also begun to lose faith in the Byzantines, also because of their Iconoclast policy, so for protection against the ambitious Lombards, the pope would have to turn to the new powerful Frankish Kingdom up north in today’s France which was willing to fight the Lombards and could be more trusted by the pope, as the Franks unlike the Byzantines did not destroy icons.

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Emperor Constantine V of Byzantium (r. 741-742/ 743-775), art by Chrysa Sakel

From 755 onwards, Constantine V with the threat of the Arabs dealt with turned his attention north to wage war against the Bulgars who also declared war on them when feeling suspicious of Constantine V fortifying the Byzantine border with them. In this war, the Byzantines won 3 major victories over the Bulgars first in 756, then in 759, and lastly in 763 and with all these victories, Constantine surely believed that Iconoclasm was definitely a successful move. Constantine V later planned another attack on the Bulgars again in 775 but failed as he died that year at the age of 57 and at his death, he left the empire stronger than he had founded it. According to the Russian Byzantinist historian George Ostrogorsky (1902-1976), Constantine V had an equally positive and negative reputation as on the positive side he scored countless victories against the Arabs and Bulgars making him very popular with the army especially, but on the negative side he was a more vicious Iconoclast than his father, that the same historian Theophanes the Confessor described him in the same vicious way as he did with Justinian II saying Constantine V was a “monster” and even a “precursor of the Antichrist” because of how extremely he went against icons, therefore because of his extreme Iconoclasm he would forever be remembered as “Kopronymos” or the “shit-named” despite him still being a capable emperor.                 

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

Watch this to learn more about Constantine V (Eastern Roman History).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 7th century AD. This story will begin with events that have happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- 6th Century

I call on you to be advisors and judges for the common welfare of our subjects.” -Emperor Constans II, 641AD

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Welcome to the 4th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter III, I discussed the reign of the Byzantine Empire’s most influential and most remembered emperor Justinian I the Great and his reign in the 6th century when the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) at its golden age was also at its greatest territorial extent. However, being too massive ruling the entire Mediterranean again as a “Roman lake”, it was far too stretched and left far too exposed for enemies to attack on all sides, most notably their traditional enemy in the east, the Sassanid Persian Empire. In the previous story however, I went with the what if scenario of Justinian I saving his empire and preserving its stability for many more centuries to come by sending the devastating plague that hit his empire in 542 east over to the Sassanids resulting in their total destruction, and at the same time the what if of Justinian himself personally going to his own military campaign in Italy to restore it to imperial rule and training his own nephew and successor Justin II to be a strong ruler just like him. However, since the stories in this alternate history series are not continuous with each other, this story will go with the course of events in real history meaning that after Justinian died in 565, the plague was still present in the Byzantine Empire, the economy ruined from all the wars and the plague, the Sassanid Empire in the east still alive and strong, and Justinian’s successor Justin II coming to the throne as a not so competent emperor. The main part of this story where the course of history will change happens a full century after Justinian’s reign, therefore unfamiliar territory for me as I still have much to discover about this era of Byzantium, and here the Byzantine Empire ruled by Emperor Constans II would literally be a shell of its former self, compared to the glorious state it was in under Justinian I. Here in the mid-7th century, Byzantium being devastated from total war, first against the Sassanids and afterwards against a new enemy being the Arabs, it had lost more than 50% of the lands it gained under Justinian and now has to fight on the defensive against the rapidly expanding Arab Caliphate, in which the Byzantines for the longest time never knew would pose such a threat to their existence. Now Justinian’s legacy in the cathedral of the Hagia Sophia which he had constructed in the imperial capital Constantinople and his code of laws known as the Corpus Juris Civilis which he commissioned may have lived long beyond his time, but his legacy in expanding the empire in terms of land did not last long and in the latter half of the 6th century and early 7th century, all his hard work in restoring the old Roman Empire through conquests had begun to fall apart. For instance, after Justinian’s death, Italy which had just recently been put under Byzantine rule quickly began falling to a new Germanic enemy invading from the north which were the Lombards, Byzantine Southern Spain slowly began falling back to the Visigoth Kingdom in the north, the Avars and Slavs began frequently raiding the Byzantine Balkans, and the threat of the Sassanids in the east resuming in full scale wars, and the worst part was that the Byzantine treasury was growing increasingly empty. The hard times for Byzantium then began in 602 when the last emperor of Justinian’s dynasty, Maurice was dethroned and executed by his army which resulted in chaos reigning in Byzantium allowing the Sassanids to now invade imperial territory to the point of coming right outside Constantinople! In 610, Heraclius who would be another strong and decisive emperor came to the throne to save the empire and true enough by 628 he was able to finish off the Sassanid threat once and for all by winning the great war against them which totally fractured the Sassanid Empire, and though the Byzantines here had won, years of war weakened the empire and its economy that one more war could result in Byzantium’s total annihilation. As for the Byzantines, little did they know that the war with the Sassanids was not yet the end, and little did they know that the new deadly threat to them would come from the Arab people from the deserts of the south, who the Byzantines never had thought would ever be much of a threat. Apparently, the disunited Arab tribes of the southern deserts in the early 7th century had all united under the new religion of Islam to form an empire or Caliphate and began expanding north beyond Arabia to conquer both the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires to spread Islam by the sword, and for them the Byzantine capital Constantinople was the ultimate prize. Now, the sudden rise and expansion of the Arab tribes of the desert becoming the Rashidun Caliphate was one of history’s most unexpected moments, but at the same time it was also expected that the Byzantines would lose a great amount of their imperial holdings in the east, most notably all of Egypt and Syria to the Arabs very quickly as the previous war with the Sassanids heavily devastated the Byzantine forces and facing a powerful and swift enemy like the Arabs, the Byzantines could not stand a chance but at least with the Byzantines being able to adapt to these challenging times by coming up with new kinds of military and administrative systems and secret superweapons like Greek Fire, they survived the expansion of the Arabs whereas the Sassanid Empire that had fallen into civil war after the great war with Byzantium stood no chance and was soon enough entirely absorbed into the Arab Caliphate by 651. The main part and climax of this story will then be on the 27-year reign of Constans II (641-668), the grandson of Heraclius who in 641 at only 11 inherits an empire that fell into a war with the Arabs and already at a breaking point. Unlike emperors Justinian I and Heraclius whose reigns and achievements remained well remembered long after their time, Constans II’s does not and remains one of Byzantium’s most underrated emperors despite achieving a lot as emperor and so much happening in his reign as it was under him when the course of Byzantine history had been drastically changing. For instance, it was under Constans II when the Byzantine Empire in an instant lost a large amount of territories most of them being important ones like Egypt and Syria, it was also under Constans II when Byzantium began its shift from Latin to Greek culturally and linguistically, and most importantly it was under Constans II when the new administrative system of Byzantium’s provinces known as the Thematic System was introduced whereas the Byzantines now having to fight constantly on the defensive against the expanding Arabs from the east while at the same time losing large amounts of land had to adapt to the situation, and this meant reducing their provinces in size thus creating smaller military provinces called Themes to increase military presence. Under Constans II, the major shift in the course of Byzantine history took place as it was here where they would now for the next 2 more centuries to come have to fight on the defensive to protect their empire from the ambitious conquests of the Arabs and in these difficult times, Byzantium had to adapt by coming up with all sorts of creative ideas for their survival including the creation of Thematic System- which you will learn more about how it works when reading this- to make their defenses easier, and creating weapons like Greek Fire, a naval superweapon that was to remain a Byzantine state secret, and yes these new solutions the Byzantines came up with in these difficult times did prove effective enough in allowing the Byzantine Empire to live on through these hard times and eventually by the 9th century rise up again to counter-attack the Arabs. As for Constans II on the other hand, others may remember him as the emperor that met a very odd end being killed by a servant using a soap dish when bathing, but in the story of his death that took place in the city of Syracuse of Sicily, Constans II did indeed have some kind of secret intention which was to move the Byzantine Empire’s capital to Sicily seeing Constantinople was far too vulnerable to the Arab attacks and having Syracuse as the new capital was more effective as its location was central in the Mediterranean and could help in further defending the Mediterranean and taking back lands such as Egypt and North Africa that were lost to the expanding Arab Caliphate. Now, I actually think here that Constans II did really intend to move west as he was looking to further defend the Mediterranean from the Arabs while at the same time I also see that he had also cared about the west and Byzantium’s Roman heritage, therefore this makes him and not Justinian the last Roman emperor to have some kind of connection to the west and Rome, considering that the Byzantine emperors despite ruling from the east were still considered Roman emperors. This article will be another long and complex one as it covers the very crucial 7th century and the worlds of the Byzantines, Arab Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates, Sassanid Persians, and even the Tang Chinese Empire but a lot of it will focus on Emperor Constans II’s reign and his decision to move the imperial capital to Syracuse being the last Byzantine emperor that still cared about Byzantium’s western roots, but the real question here is that if Constans II moved the Byzantine capital to Syracuse, could this really change the course of Byzantine history?

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this story is set in the 7th century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be now referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

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The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent by 555 under Emperor Justinian I the Great

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II

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Map of the expansion of the Islamic Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates (622-750)



Here, in chapter IV of my Byzantine Alternate History series, I am writing the story alone this time basing it on historical facts from 7th century Byzantine history and coming up with my own plots for the characters of the story. Most of the story will be relying on historical facts with an intense amount of research and info from the History of Byzantium Podcast and Youtube channels Kings and Generals and Thersites the Historian, as well as other history related media online and books. However, when we get to the year 668, the year Constans II was killed in his bath in Syracuse, rather than going with the course of real history wherein Constans II met his end at the baths, this story will take a different turn whereas Constans II survived and would continue to build up the empire’s Mediterranean defense, as well as continue his war against the Arab forces of the Umayyad Caliphate.

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Coin of Emperor Constans II (r. 641-668)

Although before getting to this story’s climax of Constans II’s fate in 668 wherein he avoids it, it is important to give some context to the story by discussing the background of the plot of the rise of the Byzantine-Arab conflict which will take us all the way back to Byzantium in the late 6th century following Justinian I’s death. This story then will have a long background section that will discuss Byzantium after Justinian, the total war against the Sassanids, the emperor Maurice, the take-over and failed reign of the emperor Phocas, the rise and achievements of Emperor Heraclius, the great war against the Sassanid Empire known also as the “Final Byzantine-Sassanid War” and the Sassanids’ defeat, and the sudden rise of the Arabs and expansion of Islam since it would be difficult to understand the Byzantine Empire of Constans II without knowing about how Byzantium changed so much before his time. Once the background of the story and its conflict is explained in the historical context, this article will proceed to the turbulent reign of Constans II from 641 to 668, and then to the climax of the story wherein things will take a totally fictional shift. This story will then proceed and finish off with the reign of Constans II’s son Constantine IV (668-681) with the first Arab Siege of Constantinople in 674 and the invention of the superweapon Greek Fire despite Constans II still alive, except here in this case after 668 the Byzantine Empire would be split in half to be able to fully defend all its borders properly whereas Constans II would rule permanently from the west in Syracuse while his young son Constantine IV would rule from the east in Constantinople. Now Constans II for me is one of Byzantium’s most underrated yet very important emperors as like mentioned earlier, he ruled Byzantium in a very crucial time when the empire had suddenly downsized in land and population as a large percent was lost to the Arabs, therefore it was in his reign where many important reforms and changes were introduced which would last for many centuries to come such as the introduction of the Thematic System and the shift from Latin to Greek in language and culture which would be the new standard for Byzantium from here onwards with the Latin language and Roman identity of the past slowly but significantly disappearing as for instance, the imperial court began using Greek as the language of administration. Other than the creation of Byzantium’s Theme System that would be the standard of the empire’s governance for many centuries to come, Constans II’s reign was one with many significant moments which included sending an embassy to the Tang Empire of China, almost getting killed in a naval battle against the Arabs, arresting the pope, travelling the empire personally, leading battles himself, settling in Syracuse as if it were the empire’s new capital, and getting assassinated in his bath by a soap dish. Now, the 7th century was a very crucial turning point in the history of Byzantium as this was when the empire entered a somewhat dystopian setting which would be its “Dark Ages” where it drastically downsized, therefore losing the imperial power and prestige it had as the all-powerful empire it was from its beginnings in the 4th century to the age of Justinian in the 6th century and also, it was the time when the purpose of war for the Byzantines shifted from one for territory to holy war to defend Christianity, first against the Zoroastrian Sassanid Persians in the first half of the 7th century and against the Muslim Arabs in the 2nd half; and it would not only be the Byzantines fighting for faith but the Arabs too as their purpose for expanding was to spread Islam. This story in the 7th century thus will only be the beginning of the wars the Byzantines would have against Islam which they would fight against till the very end in 1453, while this story too will be the beginning of the Byzantines vs Arabs and Dark Ages phase, which the next 2 chapters of this series will cover. As for creating a what if story for 7th century Byzantium since each century in Byzantium’s history gets one story in this series, I could have done more popular ones such as if the war against the Sassanids from 602 to 628 had not happened, if the Arab expansion never happened, if Emperor Heraclius lost to the Sassanids, or if Heraclius successfully beat the Arabs, but instead I chose to go deeper into the 7th century and deeper into the Byzantine-Arab conflict, therefore into the complex reign of Constans II as in this alternate history series, I usually like to go for lesser known emperors and events, and this article will do just that. Of course, the more popular events of the 7th century like the reign of Heraclius and his wars against the Sassanids and later with the Arabs will play a large role in this story giving a background to Constans II and the situation of the empire he ruled, and considering Constans II is the grandson of the more famous Byzantine emperor Heraclius, it is impossible to not discuss the heroic yet tragic reign of Heraclius. Now for the main character of the story, I chose Constans II (real name: Heraclius Constantine) who I would consider a very complex person as I always find stories that center on a flawed, unlikeable, and mean-spirited protagonists very interesting and Emperor Constans II is no exception for this kind of character. Unlike the other protagonists I chose for the previous 3 stories like Valentinian I, Anthemius, and Justinian who I portrayed as rather likeable characters, Constans II here as the lead character is the opposite, and just as he is recorded in history to have ruled, Constans II here will be portrayed as a young mean-spirited emperor ruling with an iron fist, purging all those who opposed him including family members and even the pope, and falling out with his family which is why I would also say he left for 5 years to settle in Sicily, never to return again. As an emperor, Constans II too would be his grandfather Heraclius’ polar opposite as Heraclius is usually portrayed in a heroic fashion being Byzantium’s savior from incompetence and tyranny and from the ultimate destruction of the Sassanids yet at the same time as a tragic hero as even though he achieved so much in finally putting an end to the constant war against the Sassanids, he did live long enough to die a broken man unable to stop the new Arab threat while his grandson Constans II is usually and here will be seen as an unlikeable autocratic ruler in which others may know him as “Constans the Bearded” or the “Bearded Autocrat”- as he is depicted  in his coin to have a large beard- and although tyrannical as an emperor and not very effective in religious and foreign policy, he was not incompetent and was actually a visionary with some good intentions for the survival of his empire which is why he introduced the Theme System- though historical sources aren’t that clear about if he exactly created them- and thought of relocating the imperial capital seeing he could use that as a base to save the threatened western provinces. Constans II too being part of the Heraclian Dynasty founded by his grandfather Heraclius would also be the one to set the standard of his dynasty’s ruling style as strong autocratic rulers in which this kind of ruling style Constans II had would be seen with his son Constantine IV as you will also see here, and with Constantine IV’s son Justinian II (r. 685-695) who would be this dynasty’s last emperor, and it was also here at this point in time with Byzantium under the Heraclian emperors wherein you would no longer see powerful women running the empire like in the 5th and 6th centuries, instead you will notice that the 7th century was a time for strong young men running the empire such as Constans II, Constantine IV, and Justinian II with women no longer having a major part in the political scene. This story too will not be the kind of black and white story wherein the Byzantines are all good and their enemies like the Arabs all bad, instead it will be a very gray one as its lead character Constans II despite being the hero of the story will be somewhat villainous in nature as a result of the difficult situation the empire was facing as he grew up, but with actually good intentions therefore being an anti-villain with a complete character arc, while the Arabs on the other hand like Constans II’s arch-enemy Caliph Muawiyah I would not be seen as pure villains even if this story is told through the Byzantine perspective, as true enough the Arab Caliphate’s intention was just to expand and conquer in the name of Islam without any bad intentions yet they had actually been tolerant as rulers at times, thus this story too will do justice to the Arabs who are usually seen as the villains in other stories. At the same time, this story too will give you a full picture of the world of the 7th century by not only telling the story of Constans II but of the collapse of Byzantium’s long-time mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire wherein the Arabs would replace them as the new traditional enemy, the relations of Byzantium with the distant Tang Dynasty Empire of China at this time, the continuation of the endless headache of religious debates and schisms, the introduction of Byzantium’s Theme System which would prove effective in the empire’s survival, the Byzantine Exarchates, the development of Greek Fire, and the ultimate change in the course of Byzantine history from fighting to conquer lands to fighting on the defensive. Of course, in order to be more interesting for a wider range of viewers, this story would not focus too heavily on the endless religious debates of the time and the political situation of the empire, but rather more on the happenings of the time including the wars and power struggles in which Byzantium would also be forever remembered for. Although at the same time, this story will be one that is more centered on the empire and its political and geographic situation rather than on characters, but the characters and their stories like of Constans II will play a major part too.

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Emperor Constans II of Byzantium, black and white illustration, art by Powee Celdran

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Guide to the Heraclian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 610-695 (covered heavily in this story)

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- The Empire Strikes Back

Byzantine History for Everyday People- Reactions to Quotes from Byzantium

Around the World in the Byzantine Era- Part I (330-1000)

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

The Sieges of Constantinople

Lesser Known and Would be Roman and Byzantine Emperors (27BC-695AD)

Related Videos to this era:

Constans II the Bearded (Thersites the Historian)

Early Muslim Expansion- Yarmouk and Al-Qadisiyah (Kings and Generals)

Constans II: Struggle for Survival (Eastern Roman History)

The Byzantine Empire, 565-602 (Dovahhatty)

The Great-Byzantine Sassanid War, 602-630 (Dovahhatty)


The Leading Characters:

Constans II- Byzantine emperor

Constantine IV- Son and heir of Constans II

Theodore I Calliopas- Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna

Mizizios- Byzantine general, Komes of the Opsikion Theme

Muawiyah I- 1st Caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate

Heraclius- Son of Constans II and co-emperor

Tiberius- Son of Constans II and co-emperor 

Fausta- Byzantine empress, wife of Constans II, mother of Constantine IV, Heraclius, and Tiberius

Theodosius- Twin brother of Constans II

Kallinikos of Heliopolis- Byzantine engineer, inventor of Greek Fire

Paul II- Patriarch of Constantinople

Pope Martin I- Patriarch of Rome 

Saborios- Byzantine general, Strategos of the Armeniac Theme

Yazid- Arab general, son of Muawiyah I

Peroz- Last heir of the Sassanid Empire in exile, Persian general in China

*Alexios- Byzantine senator and diplomat sent to China (real character with not much of a story, his story is expanded here)

*Philippikos- Byzantine senator and diplomat sent to China (real character with not much of a story, his story is expanded here)

Gaozong- Tang emperor of China

(Credits to AmelianvsSkamandros, Gambargin, Ahmed AbuElnaga, Marwan Musa, Sergio-Quijada, and Giuseppe Rava for their art on this era which are featured here.)

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Latin west (light blue), Arabs (yellow), Sassanids (green), Chinese (red-orange). 


The Background- From Justinian I to Heraclius (565-630)

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On November 14, 565 died the most influential ruler of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian I the Great who had ruled for a total of 38 years coming to power back in 527 and with him died the golden age. Under Justinian I, the Byzantines came to rule the entire Mediterranean by conquering North Africa from the Vandal Kingdom, Italy from the Ostrogoth Kingdom, and Southern Spain from the Visigoth Kingdom and though the Vandals and Ostrogoths were destroyed under Justinian I, the Visigoth Kingdom still lived on in Spain as only the south was put under Byzantine rule and despite these conquests, the might of Byzantium was weakened. Certainly, Justinian’s imperial conquests of the former Western Roman provinces needed funds and though the dream to reconquer these provinces had been achieved, the treasury ran low due to all the wars fought to reclaim these lands considering the war to retake all of Italy spanned almost 20 years.

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Icon of Emperor St. Justinian the Great (r. 527-565)

The worst part however was the plague that struck the Byzantine Empire so severely in 542 that killed 1/3 of the empire’s population and as a result of all the deaths crippled the economy, but even though all this happened, Justinian I was able to put the entire Mediterranean under Byzantine rule and die at least knowing he was able to fulfil his ultimate dream despite never even taking part in his own conquests, but instead staying his entire reign in Constantinople. Though Justinian I died with his ultimate dream of reconquest achieved, little did he know that shortly after his death, all his hard work would fall apart and a lot of this would be due to the leadership of his nephew and successor Justin II (r. 565-578) as Justinian in fact never properly trained a successor and never had children of his own with his wife Theodora and following Theodora’s death in 548, the devastated Justinian vowed to never marry again, and little did he know that this would be a terrible decision. Justin II inherited from his uncle a massive empire that controlled the entire Mediterranean but no matter how large it was in territory, he lacked the vision and strong administrative skills his uncle had, and the Byzantine Empire Justinian I left behind to Justin II had an economy ruined by the plague and wars, and having an empty treasury while facing enemies on all borders particularly the Avars across the Danube border in the Balkans allying with the Slavic tribes there making attempts to cross the river and settle in Byzantine lands.

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Emperor Justin II of Byzantium (r. 565-578), nephew and successor of Justinian I

The Avars now had been making raids into the Danube borders of Byzantium ever since Justinian I’s reign but part of Justinian’s policy was to pay off the Avars and their allies, the Slavs (Sclaveni in Latin, Sklabenoi in Greek) to stay where they are and not attack but when becoming emperor, Justin II seeing the treasury was too empty to continue paying the Avars annual tribute decided to stop paying tribute, therefore making them raid with full force into the Byzantine Balkans with their Slav allies to find land to settle down and farm; the Avars here fought as cavalry and the Slavs as infantry. As for Byzantine Italy which had just been entirely conquered from the Ostrogoth Kingdom, the wars and plague left it as a depopulated wasteland and due to pressure from the Avar hordes in Central Europe, the Germanic tribe of the Lombards led by their king Alboin migrated south to look for land as prior to this, some Lombards have already served as mercenaries for the Byzantines in their previous wars to conquer Italy from the Ostrogoths.

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Lombards cross into Italy in 568, art by Giuseppe Rava

When hearing about how the war turned Byzantine Italy into a depopulated wasteland, Alboin saw this as an opportunity to settle in Italy thus he led a large number of men invading Byzantine Italy in 568 meeting very little resistance as not that many troops were left to defend Italy as a result of the deaths from the previous war against the Ostrogoths and in such a short amount of time, the Lombards were able to take over half of Italy leaving only the major cities of Ravenna, Rome, and Naples as well as the south to the Byzantines. In the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire on the other hand, ever since 562 Justinian I agreed to a truce with their mortal enemy, the Sassanid Persian Empire ruled by Shah Khosrow I, King of Kings though the amount of money to be paid off to the Sassanids as tribute was soon to be impossible with the Byzantine state now critically running out of funds, and again like what Justin II decided to do with the Avars, in 572 he decided to stop the annual tribute to the Sassanids, therefore resuming war and this time to an even more severe level wherein the Sassanids had the upper hand making them able to seize some of Byzantine territory in Syria, including the strategic fortress of Dara at the border.

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Avar cavalry (left) and Slav infantry (right)

The resumption of the war against the Sassanids and the defeat of the Byzantine forces to them as well as the pressure of running such a massive yet fractured empire in 573 made Justin II break down and lose his sanity, memory, and confidence that he so believed had that soon enough he became unfit to rule. The historian of that time John of Ephesus mentions that Justin II cried out loud animal sounds, hid under his bed, and tried to jump off the window that his wife the empress Sophia had to install bars on his windows so that he wouldn’t jump off. It was even said that Justin II bit court attendants and bodyguards that the bite marks on them made people believe he was a cannibal; and to be calmed down, Justin II had to be on a mobile throne with the sound of soothing organ music playing day and night. Finally in 574, Justin II was convinced by Sophia to abdicate, leave the palace, and rule in name only and appoint his friend and commander of the palace guard or Comes Excubitorum the Thracian Tiberius to run the empire not as Caesar while Justin II still ruled as Augustus or senior emperor, now Tiberius would be the first Byzantine emperor from here on to primarily speak Greek. Justin II then adopted Tiberius as his son and heir despite them being the same age here (54) as a way to continue the Justinian Dynasty as Justin and Sophia had no sons, and from here on Tiberius would be the one effectively running the empire cleaning up the mess Justin II left behind which included continuing the defense of Italy against the Lombards and campaigning against the Sassanids in the east to push them back, though the campaigns were left to their generals as Tiberius like Justin II and Justinian I before him again ruled as a palace emperor though luckily one day, out of chance Tiberius discovered tons of gold in his new house in Constantinople which was the house of the late Narses, the eunuch general of Justinian I who had died in 573 and apparently Narses had been keeping a large amount of gold for himself and having no children to inherit the wealth, it was passed on to the state. As Caesar, Tiberius made good use of Narses’ hidden wealth spending it generously on public entertainment to make his people happy, buying his way to peace by resuming paying tribute to the Avars and Sassanids, and recruiting tens of thousands of locals from the Balkans and Asia Minor to the army as well using the funds to hire thousands of foreign mercenaries.

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Tiberius II Constantine, Palace Guard Commander, and successor of Justin II (r. 578-582)

In 578, Justin II had died and Tiberius II adding “Constantine” to his name now ruled as the empire’s sole Augustus though Empress Sophia considering marrying him to continue ruling herself as the Augusta or empress but Tiberius already having a wife refused and banished Sophia from the imperial court and now as emperor, Tiberius would at least rule more competently than Justin II but still lacking the abilities, enthusiasm, and vision of Justinian I but still, Tiberius II was popular with the masses as he relaxed taxes and had managed to keep the fractured empire together by keeping the Avars across the Danube away, containing the Lombard threat in Italy by paying off the Franks of Gaul to distract the Lombards by attacking them from the north, and managed to continue making a truce with Khosrow I’s Sassanid Empire. In the Sassanid Empire in 579, the old shah Khosrow I died and was succeeded by his son Hormizd IV who had certainly wanted to continue the war with the Byzantines and with the peace with Sassanids over again, Tiberius here decided to again face off the Sassanids at war and luckily, he had appointed a competent general to lead the campaign against the Sassanids which was the Cappadocian Greek Maurice– formerly Tiberius’ secretary and the palace guard commander since 574 succeeding Tiberius to this position- who in 580 successfully marched the army deep into Sassanid territory as far as Iraq pushing back the Sassanid army.

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Sassanid Empire flag

However, Tiberius II having pulled out troops from the Balkans in order to launch the Sassanid campaign left the Balkans defenseless allowing the Avars and Slavs to continue their raids facing little resistance to the point of taking over the important city of Sirmium (in today’s Serbia) from the Byzantines. By 582, the conflict with the Sassanids was more or less settled allowing Tiberius to continue focusing on the threat of the Avars in the Balkans and not wanting to resume war against them, Tiberius again agreed to pay tribute to them as well as to formally cede the city of Sirmium to the Avars and Slavs but in return the Avars and Slavs destroyed Sirmium when it was given to them. It was also in 582 when Tiberius II Constantine died at 62 most possibly from food poisoning, though it also rumored he was poisoned but when dying he named Maurice his successor saying to Maurice “make your reign my finest epitaph”.  

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Start of the Lombard invasion of Byzantine Italy in 568, Lombard lands (blue), Byzantines (orange)

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

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Byzantine Sirmium, ceded to the Avars and Slavs in 582

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Slavs attack Byzantine Sirmium, 582

Here in 582 at the age of 43, the general Maurice after marrying Tiberius II’s daughter Constantia came to rule the empire and would prove to be a competent and worthy emperor with a vision, another one of who primarily spoke Greek, and the first Byzantine emperor since Theodosius I (r. 379-395) 2 centuries earlier- with the exception of Zeno (r. 474-491)- to personally lead the armies in battle as many of his predecessors, most notably Justinian I never led the armies in battle, instead only giving orders to generals to do the job, and here Maurice would set a new standard for emperors to lead their troops in battle. The loss of Sirmium to the Avars and Slavs was a heavy blow to the prestige of the empire giving Maurice a reason to continue the war with them which he did, though this ended in total disaster that he had to again continue paying off tribute to them which therefore began bankrupting the empire more and more.

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602)

Other than that, as Maurice having a vision to save and rebuild the strong empire Justinian before him planned to have, he looked into the matter in Italy that was under attack by the Lombards, North Africa threatened by the Berber tribes of the Sahara Desert, and Byzantine territory in Southern Spain slowly being taken back by the Visigoths, and here he decided to create two semi-autonomous provinces to further protect the provinces too distant from Constantinople. These two semi-autonomous provinces Maurice had created were known as the Exarchates which were to be ruled by an Exarch or a semi-autonomous governor with almost the same authority as the emperor himself but still answering directly to the emperor, and these Exarchates will play an important role in this story. In 584 the Exarchate of Ravenna was created which was to rule all of the remains of Byzantine Italy as a way to continue in the effort of containing the Lombards as Maurice being too busy dealing with problems in the east and the Balkans at the same time did not have the time and neither could not split himself in half to focus on problems on all sides, therefore he left Italy under the care of an appointed Exarch based in Ravenna, the Byzantine capital of Italy. In 585, it was Byzantine North Africa’ turn to become a Byzantine Exarchate based in Byzantine North Africa’s capital Carthage and here the North African provinces as well as Sardinia and Corsica, and the remains of Byzantine territory in Southern Spain fell under the Exarchate of Africa as again Maurice had no time to focus on the problems there, but at least he still cared to keep these lands that Justinian worked so hard to conquer for the empire. Not to mention, it was also during Maurice’s reign when the fertile lands of Byzantine North Africa outside Carthage (Tunisia and Algeria) due to over-farming and climate change began to dry up turning more and more into a desert, therefore limiting the abundant grain supply for the empire which came from these lands. Meanwhile in the Sassanid Empire, due to the heavy defeat they faced earlier under Maurice’s hands, the shah Hormizd IV was enraged that his general Bahram Chobin lost a number of times to the Byzantines, thus Hormizd IV to remind Bahram of his failures gave him a gift of a woman’s dress as a direct insult. Feeling insulted by his king, Bahram in 590 rebelled against Hormizd IV, and when Sassanid troops loyal to Bahram in the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon killed Hormizd, Bahram then became Shah Bahram VI making Hormizd IV’s son and Khosrow I’s grandson Khosrow II flee into Byzantine territory. Maurice was then given an offer by the young Khosrow II who promised to give him some lands back in exchange for an alliance while the Bahram promised Maurice more land in exchange for an alliance, and torn between the two, Maurice considered allying with Khosrow as he was of the Sassanid imperial family while Bahram was just a usurper. Khosrow II in 591 with with military aid from Maurice returned to Ctesiphon, dethroned and killed Bahram VI, and successfully regained the throne, therefore resuming peace with the Byzantines promising not to attack as Maurice helped him regain the throne.

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Khosrow II, Shah of the Sassanid Empire (r. 591-628)

With the peace once again signed with the Sassanid Empire as well as Byzantine lands in Armenia and Eastern Asia Minor previously conquered by the Sassanids returned to Byzantine control, Maurice now focused on continuing the war with the Avars and Slavs in the Balkans and maintaining diplomatic relations with the neighboring kingdoms of the Caucasus as well as with the Arab tribes of the deserts in the far south, but little did he know that they would one day erupt as a total threat to the Byzantines. At this time, as Maurice continued fighting his wars against the Avars and Slavs in the Balkans and actually leading the army himself, his famous military manual known as the Strategikon was written and though it is debated if Maurice wrote it himself or if it was his brother Peter or some of his generals that wrote it, I would believe that it was actually Maurice himself since he had a lot of military experience and as an emperor was also a skilled and practical general.

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The Strategikon of Emperor Maurice

This military manual here is basically a guide on how to fight particular enemies the Byzantines had at this time whether Franks or Lombards, Avars or Slavs, Sassanids or other eastern enemies, and Nomadic horsemen from the distant steppes of Central Asia and this book discusses not only how to beat the enemy by learning their fighting styles but from learning about their culture and behavior as well, and a lot of the information for this book came from Byzantine spies sent to study these people. However, this book has not much mention about the Arabs from the south and their fighting styles as at this point, they were not in any way seen as a big threat but rather as disunited tribes without much capability in fighting, though the useful advice given here was when it came to fighting the Slavs, it was best to fight them during winter by camping across the Danube in order to contain them and prevent them from crossing as they were at their weakest during winter, but as it would turn out, this tip from the Strategikon would cause Maurice his downfall.

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Byzantine cavalry soldier in Maurice’s reign

In 602, before winter came, Maurice successfully led his forces in beating back the Avars and Slavs across the Danube and with this success, the army was ordered to camp across the Danube during winter while Maurice returned to the capital. From the beginning, Maurice was already unpopular with Constantinople’s people especially the elite for never being around that much in the capital to please them and for his weakness in economic policy which led to the empire’s near bankruptcy and across the Danube, it was his own army that came to despise him for making them live in harsh conditions at enemy territory especially since they were to do it during winter wherein the cold was much more brutal there than it was within Byzantine territory but more importantly, these soldiers began to rise up due to their lack of pay, although this was not Maurice’s fault as the empire’s treasury was already emptying out. The soldiers camped across the Danube then refused following orders and went in open revolt against Maurice and here their centurion or senior officer Phocas who had been spreading lies to the soldiers about Maurice planning to kill them all by forcing them to camp across the Danube was sent to march to Constantinople and overthrow Maurice in favor of Maurice’s son Theodosius who for the army was seen as a better choice. However, when Phocas arrived in Constantinople, the blue and green factions who were traditionally each other’s enemies united and rioted with support from the Byzantine Senate in favor of Phocas as their new emperor. With the unrest ongoing, Maurice with his family fled Constantinople across the narrow Bosporus Sea to Chalcedon on the Asian side but it was too late as when arriving there, they were caught by Phocas’ men although Maurice’s eldest son Theodosius was already sent away right in time to seek help from Khosrow II in the Sassanid Empire, though when caught, Maurice’s wife and daughters were banished to monastery while Maurice and his 5 sons as well as his brother Peter were all sentenced to death. Here on November 27, 602 at one of Constantinople’s harbors, Maurice witnessed his 5 sons beheaded in front of him before he himself was beheaded and when he and his sons were killed with Phocas as the new emperor overseeing the executions, the eldest son Theodosius escaped but was later found though spared and sent to live out his life in the neighboring Kingdom of Lazica (today’s Georgia) in the Caucasus. The execution of Maurice thus ended the Justinian Dynasty founded back in 518 by Justinian’s uncle Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527); some historians too use the event of Maurice’s execution in 602 as the end of antiquity and the Byzantine golden age and the start of the Dark Ages.

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Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna (red), established in 584

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Byzantine Exarchate of Africa (red), established in 585

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Maurice’s troops across the Danube in 600, art by Amelianvs

The Byzantine Emperor Maurice about to be executed by the usurper Phocas, having seen his five children killed in front of him, 602
Execution of Emperor Maurice in 602, end of the Justinian Dynasty

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The Byzantine Empire in 600 (green) and Sassanid Empire (orange)

Watch this to learn more about the Strategikon of Emperor Maurice (Kings and Generals).

Following the execution of Emperor Maurice and his 5 sons, the 53-year-old centurion Phocas, a Greek speaking Thracian was now emperor but for taking over power by killing off Maurice and having no dynastic connections he was seen as a usurper. Phocas had no ties to Maurice or the Justinian Dynasty, therefore making him the first Byzantine emperor to usurp power without having any blood or familial connections with previous emperors, not even a lineage traced back to previous emperors, instead he was a simple and barely educated common soldier rising above the ranks and seizing complete control of the empire by force, though it still remains unclear why the senate still backed him.

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Emperor Phocas of Byzantium (r. 602-610)

Phocas though was married but had no children but as emperor and due to his lack of education, he lacked the skill to run an empire, and being a low-born usurper, he soon enough became a constant target of conspiracies by the elite of Constantinople. Meanwhile, when hearing of Maurice’s execution, the Sassanid shah Khosrow II broke his peace agreement with Byzantium and again declared war as a way to avenge Maurice who helped him come into power where in fact avenging Maurice’s memory was more of an excuse because with Maurice as emperor, Khosrow II would not dare attack Byzantine lands as Maurice backed him but with Maurice dead, Khosrow II who really did intend to conquer Byzantine lands had every reason to now invade and at the end of 602, a massive Sassanid campaign was launched against Byzantium. At the same time, the Sassanids now had their former vassal Arab Lakhmid Kingdom to their south absorbed into their empire as their own province, as well as the lands across the Persian Gulf (today’s Qatar, UAE, and Oman) being the Sassanid province of Mazun, while Yemen too at the southwest portion of the Arabian Peninsula was also made a Sassanid province, though both Yemen and Mazun were not connected to the main Sassanid Empire by land but with these lands already theirs, the Sassanid Persians were now to gain more by expanding west conquering Byzantine provinces. Now Phocas would be a great example of tyranny and incompetence as when he ruled, he primarily focused on eliminating the conspiracies targeted against him and executing all those who opposed him especially the remaining family members of Maurice and Maurice’s loyal generals, while Maurice’s wife Constantia and the daughters they had were all put to death in 605 when Constantia conspired against Phocas. All while Phocas busied himself getting rid of threats against him, little did he know that he left the Balkans even more exposed to the Avars and Slavs and true enough all of Maurice’s hard work to contain them was undone as these enemies raided deeper into the Balkans. Phocas when hearing of the Avars and Slavs’ raids decided to let them attack and not pay them off any tribute as the treasury too had already been emptied out, but the worst part was at the east, as when Phocas was too busy purging those who opposed him the Sassanids without much resistance penetrated deep into Byzantine Asia Minor as well as Syria, and Phocas seeing nothing could be done about it just let it happen. Soon enough, Phocas would lose support from the senate as they never wanted an incompetent usurper as emperor anyway while his most loyal top general Priscus– who was although a loyalist general of Maurice before being made one of Phocas’ top generals- too was accused of treason so in 608, Priscus fled Constantinople to the Exarchate of Africa to get the help of its exarch, the Armenian Heraclius the Elder in Carthage to overthrow Phocas as it turned out a lot of provincial governors had still been loyal to Maurice even if he was unpopular with the senate and elite of Constantinople, especially since a lot of the governors were those that were appointed by Maurice. Heraclius the Elder and his son Heraclius the Younger were no doubt Maurice loyalists especially since the elder was appointed as the first Exarch of Africa by Maurice himself and when Priscus arrived, both father and son were willing to openly rebel against Phocas that in Carthage they started minting coins with their faces and names and named themselves consuls too.

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Coin of Consuls in Carthage Heraclius the Elder and Heraclius the Younger

To fully kick start the rebellion, Heraclius the Younger set off to Egypt as his father was too old to journey therefore remaining in Carthage. Heraclius the Younger with his cousin Nicetas then seized Egypt for themselves in rebellion against Constantinople by cutting off the grain supply for the capital, therefore starving the people of Constantinople which was a sure move that turned them against Phocas who did not do anything to stop the rebellion. In 609, Heraclius the Younger then proceeded with his fleet to Greece and in 610 arrived in Constantinople and once the ship had docked in the harbor, the mob together with Priscus having already turned on Phocas in favor of Heraclius seized Phocas and severely beat him tearing off his robes, thus Phocas was brought to Heraclius whereas Heraclius questioned him “is this how you have ruled, scum?” and in return Phocas said “and will you rule better?” and being so enraged, Heraclius had Phocas beheaded and mutilated at the spot. Now here on October 5, 610, the 35-year-old Flavius Heraclius the Younger, a native Greek speaker of Armenian and Cappadocian Greek descent was crowned emperor who was yet to face a very heavy burden of ruling a damaged empire.

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Khosrow II’s Sassanid imperial court

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Heraclius the Younger overthrows and executes Phocas in 610, art by Amelianvs

          

The Byzantine Empire Heraclius came to rule in 610 was heavily fractured and threatened on all sides, first of all the Avars and Slavs raided even deeper into the Balkans, the Lombards still threatened Italy, and in the east the Sassanids had already captured Byzantine Mesopotamia (Southeastern Turkey) and Heraclius on the other hand who came to power by force was also seen as a usurper as he also had no connections to any of the previous dynasties except that his father was appointed Exarch of Africa by Maurice, though some time after 610, Heraclius the Elder would die at least knowing his son successfully took the throne.

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Heraclius the Younger, Byzantine emperor crowned in 610, art by Skamandros

Meanwhile the Sassanid shah Khosrow II when hearing Phocas had died and Heraclius took over still did not decide to end the war as the Sassanids were already gaining the upper hand and with Byzantium’s eastern borders left poorly defended under Phocas’ rule, the Sassanids led by their powerful and highly skilled and feared general Shahrbaraz– whose name meant “royal boar” although his real name is unclear- scored major victories that in 611 he captured the major city of Antioch itself from Byzantium, followed by the capture of Damascus in 613, and afterwards even Caesarea in Cappadocia in Asia Minor fell to the Sassanids which opened the way for the Sassanids to expand westwards to Constantinople. As for Heraclius, before becoming emperor he had married Fabia Eudokia, a patrician woman from North Africa and in 612 their first child who was to later be Emperor Constantine III was born but shortly after Constantine’s birth, Eudokia died and due to her popularity, the whole of Constantinople mourned at her funeral. With his first wife dead, Heraclius decided he needed to marry again in order to have more children and establish a legitimate ruling dynasty, though Heraclius had no choice but to marry his niece Martina, the daughter of his older sister Maria in 613. The marriage between Heraclius and Martina shocked the population of Constantinople and most especially the Church as it was definitely incestuous and illegal but they still married and Martina was still proclaimed Augusta by Heraclius and crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople Sergius I, who crowned Heraclius back in 610. The Byzantines again suffered a heavy blow to them in 614 when Jerusalem was captured by the Sassanids led by Shahrbaraz, and although Jerusalem and in its location had no strategic importance, as the holy city it did have a lot of spiritual importance and for the Byzantines, losing the city was a heavy loss that angered the people of the empire.

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Sassanid general Shahrbaraz, art by Gambargin

The Sassanids had turned out to favor the Jews over Christians and when capturing Jerusalem with the help of Jews upset about being treated as second class citizens by the Christians, they assigned these Jews to be in charge of the city over the Christians which definitely angered the Christians making them revolt against their Jewish and Sassanid Persian overlords, though the rebellion was brutally crushed by the Sassanid forces and as result of quelling the rebellion, the Sassanids looted the city and massacred a large number of Christians, taking away its most important relics as well including the True Cross wherein Jesus Christ himself was crucified in and many other relics from the time of Christ as well as the Jewish Menorah- which if you remember from the previous chapter was one of the spoils the Byzantines gained when capturing Carthage from the Vandals in 534 which was then returned to Jerusalem, its original place- over to the Sassanid capital, Ctesiphon. The looting of the relics of Jerusalem truly shocked the people of Constantinople who knowing the oppression of the Christians there were not only due to their Sassanid overlords but by their Jewish allies began having anti-Jewish sentiments that the Byzantine Christians in Constantinople would randomly beat-up Jews in the streets, while Heraclius here saw the loss of Jerusalem as God’s punishment for his incestuous marriage to his niece Martina. The Balkans here was still facing a heavy crisis of the raiding Avars and Slavs, and it grew even worse there when Heraclius had to pull out its troops to head over to the east to focus on the Sassanid threat but Heraclius himself too did not want to lose the Balkans, so even with the Sassanid threat ongoing, he headed north to confront the Avars and Slavs where in 619 he tried to propose peace with the Avar khan or ruler as the Sassanid threat was more important and devastating, but the khan refused Heraclius’ offer and set a trap to kidnap him, although Heraclius escaped the trap almost getting himself killed, thus due to failing in kidnapping Heraclius, the Avars were then forced to make peace with the Byzantines.

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Byzantine soldier (right) attacks a Slav (left) with an Avar behind, during the 7th century Balkan Wars

At this point, things would go from bad to worse for the Byzantines as in 619, the Sassanids now managed to invade and capture Byzantine Egypt, thus totally cutting off the empire’s grain supply and triggering riots all over the empire because of this while in 620, almost the entire Byzantine Balkans and half of Greece were lost to the Avars and Slavs as again troops needed to be sent over to fight the Sassanids in the east. With all this crisis going on, Heraclius first thought hope was lost and that he had to move the imperial capital to Carthage where he was based in before, but soon he knew he could solve it but in order to do so, he needed to take the greatest of risks and a lot had to do with taxation policies which included increasing taxes and taxing the Church and cutting in half the annual pay for the soldiers and court officials and although this would trigger them to revolt like they did under Maurice, Heraclius at least convinced them it was only temporary, assuring them everything will soon stabilize when the war against the Sassanids will be over. In the meantime, it was around this point, more particularly in the year 622 down south in the Arabian Desert when the new religion of Islam was born as here in 622 the prophet Muhammad– an Arabian trader from the Quraysh tribe born back in 570 when Justin II ruled Byzantium- with his followers fled his birth city of Mecca to Medina when the people of Mecca did not accept this new faith, although as early as 610, Muhammad had already been receiving some divine revelations.            

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Sassanid army captures Byzantine Jerusalem, 614

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Greatest extent of the Sassanid Empire (orange) under Khosrow II, by 622

In 622, Heraclius’ holdings were only limited to Constantinople, Thrace, some of Greece, the Aegean Islands, and Western Asia Minor as North Africa and Italy were under the control of the exarchs while the Sassanids had now captured almost all of Asia Minor penetrating all the way as far as the Asian shore of the Bosporus, right across Constantinople that the people of Constantinople even reported that at night when looking across the Bosporus, they could already see the campfires of the Sassanid army, although no matter how much land they have conquered, the Sassanid Persians did not have a fleet to let them cross into Europe and lay siege to Constantinople. It was here in 622 when the Sassanid Empire under Shah Khosrow II was at its largest territorial extent reaching as far west as Chalcedon across Constantinople, as far south as Egypt and Yemen, as far north as the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia, and as far east as the border of India, and here Heraclius would make a very bold move by attacking the Sassanids when they were at their most powerful and largest in land.

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Emperor Heraclius in full battle gear

By 622, Heraclius’ army was now fully prepared to face off the might of the Sassanids in battle so here they set off from Constantinople by sea landing at the location of Issus in Cilicia, Southern Asia Minor, the same place Alexander the Great had defeated the Achaemenid Persian Empire all the way back in 333BC. In his campaign, Heraclius brought along with him his wife Martina who would give birth to their children as they travelled while Heraclius’ eldest 10-year-old son Constantine was left behind in Constantinople to watch over it together with Patriarch Sergius I. After landing at Issus, Heraclius and his army headed north to Sassanid occupied Cappadocia where they actually managed to beat the invincible general Shahrbaraz in battle recapturing the region, afterwards heading north back to the region of Pontus along the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor which was still under Byzantine rule, and here Heraclius made the coastal city of Trebizond as his base for the campaign. It was at this point when the idea of warfare would change from fighting over conquering lands to fighting for faith and as to motivate his soldiers in battle, Heraclius encouraged them they were fighting not to get rid of an enemy but in the name of Orthodox Christianity as they saw the Zoroastrian Sassanids as the enemy of their faith considering they looted the holy sites of Jerusalem and stole the most important Christian relics.

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Trebizond, base of Heraclius in his Sassanid campaign

By 623, Heraclius crossed deep into Sassanid territory through Armenia in pursuit of Khosrow II who was believed to be in the Sassanid’s province of Albania (today’s Azerbaijan), although Khosrow II was nowhere to be found but instead it was here in this area where the Zoroastrian holy site of the Fire Temple was found, which had been sacred to the Persians ever since the days of the ancient Persian kingdoms and empires and as Heraclius and his army arrived there, they believed the stolen relics were to be found there, although they were wrong and when finding nothing there, Heraclius out revenge for the Sassanids’ looting of Jerusalem ordered the Fire Temple burned down completely.

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Persian Zoroastrian Fire Temple sample drawing

In 624, Heraclius had come across the Nomadic Turkic Khazar people of the Caucasus and here made an alliance with their khan against the Sassanids as they both had the Sassanids as a common enemy and with this alliance, Heraclius was able to score more major victories against the Sassanids, and it was at this point when the Byzantines were able to reclaim Armenia from the Sassanids and although they had been scoring victories in the east against the Sassanids, it also happened here in 624 in the far west that the Visigoths of Spain completely took over the last remains of Byzantine Southern Spain, which the Byzantines never bothered about recapturing anymore. In 625, Heraclius again with the help of the Khazars were able to recapture Mesopotamia forcing Shahrbaraz who was defeated again here to flee while also here in 625, Martina gave birth to her only healthy son with Heraclius which was Heraklonas as due to inbreeding, the other children of Martina and Heraclius either died shortly after birth or had physical deformities.

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Nomadic Khazar army from the Caucasus

When fleeing Mesopotamia, Shahrbaraz in 626 headed all the way to Sassanid occupied land across Constantinople in Asia Minor where he found a way to send word to the same Avar khan that almost captured Heraclius in 619 to form alliance to attack Constantinople, and here the Avars and Slavs being at the European side laid siege to Constantinople’s land walls itself making this the second time Constantinople was attacked by an enemy army, the last one being the Goths in 378 which failed, mentioned back in chapter I. Using the absence of Heraclius to their advantage, the Avars and Slavs with 80,000 men combined attacked Constantinople’s invincible 5th century Theodosian Walls but using primitive siege weapons, they got nowhere near breaching it and poor communications with the Sassanids across the Bosporus made the coordination of this siege even more difficult. Defending Constantinople here as Heraclius and his best forces away was Heraclius’ 14-year-old son Constantine as well as the patriarch Sergius I and the patrician Bonus who all did not have much military experience and only commanding some 12,000 men, though Heraclius soon got word of the siege and not wanting to waste his efforts in coming close to winning the Sassanid war in the east, here he split his army in 3 parts where the smallest division under him was to defend Armenia, the division of his brother Theodore was sent over to defend what was recaptured in Mesopotamia, and third one to reinforce Constantinople.

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Byzantine fleet intercepts the small Slavic boats, 626 Avar-Slav-Sassanid Siege of Constantinople

As the Avars and Slavs attacked by land, Sharbaraz attempted to aid them by sending his forces across the Bosporus using the small boats of the Slavs which failed as these boats were too unstable to carry large armies and soon enough the Byzantine fleet arrived at the Bosporus destroying the Slavic boats and killing the Sassanid soldiers that boarded them. After multiple attempts at scaling Constantinople’s walls, the Avars and Slavs gave up, and so did the Sassanids, thus they retreated and for the Avars, their loss in this battle broke off their power forcing them to retreat back north never to return again, although leaving their Slav allies behind in the Balkans. Over in Mesopotamia also in 626, Theodore and his forces won a decisive victory over the Sassanid forces led by the general Shahin and with this defeat, Shahin committed suicide while his body was brought over to Khosrow II who enraged with Shahin’s defeat disfigured Shahin’s body himself by whipping it many times. It was in 627 when Heraclius himself resumed personally leading the army as for 626, he left the job mostly to his Khazar allies as in 627, the alliance with the Khazars broke when their khan died and here Heraclius marched south to the Sassanid heartland in Iraq by stalking the Sassanid forces under the general Rhahzadh until both forces met near the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. Here on December 12, 627 when the Byzantine and Sassanid forces clashed at the Battle of Nineveh, Heraclius personally killed Rhahzadh and two other Sassanid commanders himself and at the end of the day, the Byzantines won a decisive victory opening the way for them to besiege the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon which unlike Constantinople was not surrounded by water making it easier to attack being on flat ground. The shah Khosrow II meanwhile began suspecting Shahrbaraz of treason and when sending a letter to Shahrbaraz, Heraclius intercepted it and forged it ordering Shahrbaraz to remain in Asia Minor which definitely allowed Heraclius and his army to seize, capture, and loot Khosrow II’s palace of Dastagird near Ctesiphon in 628 and when looting the palace, they came across tons of exotic spices and Persian carpets, exotic animals like lions and tigers, and 300 Roman war standards captured over the past 3 centuries by the Sassanids in battle and after taking the loot, the palace was burned to the ground, though since Khosrow II was away, Ctesiphon was left untouched by the Byzantines. Khosrow II on the other hand was still nowhere to be found as he fled further east fearing a prophecy saying he would be killed, although his end did not come from the Byzantines but from his own people. After Heraclius and his army began heading back west, the Sassanid nobles together with Khosrow’s son Sheroe and general Shahrbaraz conspired to overthrow Khosrow II and on February 28, 628 Khosrow II was captured and executed and so were his other sons except of course Sheroe who was then crowned as Shah Kavad II and his first act as the new Sassanid emperor was to finally end the war and make peace with Byzantium.

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Execution of Khosrow II, 628

Kavad II acknowledged Heraclius as the victor of the war sending Shahrbaraz to Asia Minor where Heraclius was at to conclude peace and here, the relics looted from Jerusalem including the True Cross were returned to Heraclius. Part of this peace agreement too was for all Sassanid forces in Byzantine territory to retreat back home and to return to the Byzantines all the lands the Sassanids had conquered from them since 602 which included Armenia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt as well as the major cities of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, and right here the long war ended without achieving really anything for the Byzantines despite them penetrating deep into the Sassanid heartland, instead it only resulted in the pre-war borders restored.

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Byzantine era sketch of Heraclius in 628 (left) with his family

Heraclius here at 53 at least returned to Constantinople victorious as a war hero celebrating his return with a triumphal march and in it was paraded all their loot taken from the 6-year campaign including 4 Persian war elephants and with all this victory, Heraclius became extremely popular with his people as also winning the war had filled up the empty treasury once again, thus the promise to resume paying the army and government officials in full again was fulfilled. The following year (629), Heraclius himself journeyed to Jerusalem, which had just been restored to Byzantine rule to return the True Cross and before entering, he felt a kind of divine energy that him feel it wasn’t right to ride into the city, rather he dismounted from his horse and carried the True Cross himself to its rightful place, the Church of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, setting a new tradition for those who would conquer Jerusalem in the next centuries to come which was for the conquering ruler to walk into the city by foot.

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Heraclius returns the True Cross to Jerusalem, 629

Heraclius too after defeating the Sassanids took the ruling title the Sassanid Persian rulers used which was “King of Kings” as well as dropping the Roman title of Augustus in which all Byzantine emperors before him used, instead replacing it with Basileus which was “emperor” in Greek and for the next 800 years all emperors would use this title, thus here marks the beginning of the Greek age of the Byzantine Empire. As for the Sassanids, right when they thought they came too close to crushing the Byzantines and conquering the world, they were proven wrong here as in 628, their all-powerful emperor Khosrow II was executed, his son and successor Kavad II died the same year from the Plague of Justinian which again returned in Sassanid lands, and in the following year, civil war broke out that would definitely spell the end of the Sassanid Empire, thus this war that had just ended would be remembered as the “Final Byzantine-Sassanid War”.

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Byzantines defeat the besieging Sassanid forces at Constantinople, 626

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Emperor Heraclius and his Byzantine forces defeat the Sassanids at the Battle of Nineveh, 627

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Heraclius and his army loot the Sassanid imperial palace at Dastagird, 628

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Ctesiphon, imperial capital of the Sassanid Empire

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602-628 (Kings and Generals).


The Rise of the Arab Caliphate (630-641)

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As the Byzantines and Sassanids clashed in a full-scale war, the disunited Arab tribes of the southern deserts began to unite and what caused them to unite was the new religion of Islam which the prophet Muhammad had successfully spread. By 629, Muhammad and his followers who became his army successfully conquered Mecca where they had been chased away from years earlier, and soon enough they had united almost all of Arabia under Islam except for the lands still under Sassanid rule.

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Muhammad’s Conquest of Mecca, 629

Early Muslim sources say that in 628 before the recapture of Mecca, Muhammad sent letters to both Heraclius of Byzantium who was referred to as the “Roman emperor” and Khosrow II of the Sassanid Empire who was still alive, encouraging them to join him by converting their empires to Islam, and Heraclius here after his triumph received the letter and politely wrote back saying he would consider it but his people would not, while Khosrow II already losing his sanity at this point before his death rudely tore the letter which gave a reason for Muhammad’s followers to one day invade the Sassanid Empire.

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Muhammad’s letter to Heraclius

The failure to convert Byzantium to Islam led a small Arab army to attack the Byzantine lands that bordered the Arabian Desert (today’s Jordan) and here at the Battle of Mu’tah, the Byzantines aided by the forces of their client kingdom, the Christian Arab Ghassanids that had settled right at this part at the edge of the Arabian Desert were able to defeat this small Arab force. Back in the Sassanid Empire, the civil war after Kavad II’s death got even worse that one ruler just kept coming after the other and in this unstable time, the general Shahrbaraz even took the throne and became shah in 630 but was killed the same year and replaced as ruler by Khosrow II’s daughter Boran, the first and only female Sassanid ruler who was later killed in 632 and in this time of civil war, the Sassanid governors of the provinces of Mazun and Yemen declared independence making these provinces an easy target for the now united Arabs which they soon enough had conquered. In the meantime as Heraclius had won the Sassanid war being more popular than ever, he had been touring the eastern provinces that the Sassanids had just returned to the Byzantines and at this time, being the year 630, he had his first grandson which was the son of his eldest son Constantine with his wife Gregoria, born as Heraclius Constantine on November 7 and was named after both his grandfather and father but to not confuse things, historians would refer to him as Constans the nickname he was called which meant “little Constantine” in Latin. It also happened at this time in 632 that the prophet Muhammad died in Medina and at his death, all of Arabia was united under Islam and even though the founder of the rising Empire of Islam had died, his work was to be continued by his close friend and relative Abu Bakr who would succeed Muhammad as the leader of the Islamic people and become the first Caliph or emperor of the first Islamic Empire which here, founded in 632 was the Rashidun Caliphate and it was under the first Caliph Abu Bakr after putting all of Arabia under his rule wherein the Islamic Arab armies would expand beyond Arabia to conquer Byzantine and Sassanid territories.

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Flag of the Rashidun Caliphate, the 1st Islamic Empire

All while the Arab armies were set to expand beyond Arabia, Heraclius as most of the emperors did got himself involved in the endless religious debates and controversies which here in the 7th century was again between the Orthodox and Monophysite Christians with the debates being again on the natures of Christ and ever since 622, Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople proposed a new compromise which was to end the debates by concluding a new doctrine saying that Jesus Christ had one energy. This new doctrine was well agreed to by many bishops and patriarchs across the empire, even by the Patriarch of Rome or the pope, though only the Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius objected to it.

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Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople

While Heraclius had been occupied by religious debates, the Arab armies numbering up to 24,000 here in 633 had now made their first full attacks in Byzantine Syria and Palestine invading from the east as previously, the Arabs had already conquered the Sassanid territories along the border with Byzantine Syria and Palestine. In 634, Caliph Abu Bakr had died and was succeeded by Omar, another follower of Muhammad as the 2nd Rashidun caliph and it was under his rule when Islam would fully expand by force as here too in 634, his forces further defeated the Byzantines and even more in 635 when almost all of Syria including the city of Damascus fell to the Arabs. At this time, Heraclius concluded that he was too old to lead the armies in person but being in Antioch at the time the Arabs began their invasion of Syria, Heraclius sent an army of 40,000 men under a general named Theodore– which was not his brother with the same name- to push the Arabs back, and though the fighting styles of the Arabs were not familiar to the Byzantines at all as it was never mentioned anywhere, not even in Maurice’s Strategikon, Heraclius and his generals at least tried to wing it out thinking the strength of the Arabs was nothing much, as after all they were just desert tribes barely armed and armored and had just began expanding. The Byzantine forces under Theodore and Arab forces under their energetic general Khalid ibn al-Walid, another follower of Muhammad met them at the Battle of the Yarmouk River in the Syrian Desert in August of 636 and here the Byzantines now saw the full strength and capability of the Arab armies that could easily overwhelm them in an instant with the speed of their cavalry consisting of horses and camels as well as their harassing tactics.

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Khalid ibn al-Walid, commander of the Arab forces at the Battle of Yarmouk, 636

The Byzantines though had been used to fighting in fixed formations in all their wars especially against the Sassanids, and here they thought they could face off the Arabs this way, but the Arabs fought differently by attacking in lose formations and with such speed surrounding the Byzantine forces exhausting them. The battle went on for 5 days and at first, the Byzantines seemed to be having the upper hand but on the 5th day, a sudden sandstorm blew at the directions of the Byzantine forces to the point that they could not see even a meter ahead of them and as a result of this, the Arabs not affected by the sandstorm used it as an opportunity to slaughter the Byzantines, and at the end of the day, not a single Byzantine soldier was left alive including their general Theodore, thus this opened the way for the Arabs to capture everything the Byzantines gained back from the Sassanids in 628.        

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Cavalry of the Arab Rashidun Caliphate

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Battle of Yarmouk, 636- Defeat of the Byzantine forces (left) to the Arabs (right)

In the meantime, while the Byzantine forces were absolutely defeated at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636, the Arabs again won another great victory later that year, this time against the Sassanid forces at the Battle of Al-Qadisiya where another division of the Arab army with their speed and harassing tactics totally annihilated the Sassanid forces weakened from the previous war against the Byzantines, and even if the Sassanids had elephants here, they still lost with most of their generals killed. Following this victory, the Arabs proceeded further into the Sassanid Empire with very little resistance and by 637, they had laid siege to Ctesiphon while the very young Sassanid shah Yazdegerd III, grandson of Khosrow II who had come to power in 632 fled Ctesiphon to the north and not surprisingly, Ctesiphon had fallen to the Arabs in very little time. Back in Syria, the way for the Arabs was clear and now their ultimate prize was Jerusalem as they knew it was the holy city for the Byzantine Christians and also a holy city for Islam, though the Arabs knew that capturing Jerusalem would weaken the morale of the Byzantines. The Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius though knew the Arabs would soon attack Jerusalem so before things could get worse, Sophronius had the relic of the True Cross returned by Heraclius in 629 shipped to Constantinople for safekeeping fearing the Arabs would steal it the way the Sassanids did before.

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Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem

Now in early 637, the Arab forces again led by the victor of Yarmouk Al-Walid laid siege to Jerusalem which was poorly defended by the very exhausted and outnumbered Byzantine troops with only Patriarch Sophronius leading them. Seeing the Arab forces outside, Sophronius did not want to put up a fight, instead he agreed to surrender the city only if the caliph Omar himself would accept the surrender. At this time, Omar all the way in the Arab Caliphate’s capital Medina in the Arabian Desert travelled himself north to Jerusalem in a white camel, where doing the same as Heraclius did in 629 out of respect for the city got off his camel and entered the city by foot where he was met by Sophronius himself who surrendered the keys of the city to Omar. In Jerusalem, Omar was treated well as Sophronius himself gave him a tour of the city’s holy sites, and here they made a deal which was that Omar was allowed to take Jerusalem as long as he allowed Sophronius to keep his position as patriarch and for the Christians and Jews to be left alone to worship freely with their Muslim occupiers. Jerusalem then fell peacefully while the Arabs later conquered all of Syria and Palestine except for Antioch where the emperor was still in, but hearing now that Jerusalem and Syria was lost, Heraclius just chose to say goodbye knowing that with the might of the Arabs, it would be too difficult to take them back so he then set sail returning to Constantinople while later in 637, even Antioch had fallen to the Arabs.

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Surrender of Jerusalem to Rashidun Caliph Omar (on camel), 637

Over in the Sassanid Empire, the Arabs again severely defeated the Sassanid forces at the Battle of Jalula in Iraq while Shah Yazdegerd III fled even deeper into Iran which the Sassanids still held. Heraclius on the other hand had been losing his popularity after losing all of the east to the Arabs, and a lot of people blamed his defeats again all on his incestuous marriage to Martina and when arriving back across the Bosporus in Constantinople, Heraclius had developed a great fear of water that Martina had to have a wooden bridge lined with railings for him to cross so that he would not see the water. In 638, Heraclius here had been losing his sanity that he could no longer rule alone so here he appointed his 26-year-old son Constantine to be his co-emperor Constantine III though Martina also convinced Heraclius to make her son with him Heraklonas who was now 13 as his other co-emperor equal in rank to Constantine III.

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Emperor Heraclius of Byzantium (r. 610-641) as an older man

It also happened in 638 that Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem and Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople both died peacefully- in their respective cities- leaving the new Monothelite doctrine unresolved while Heraclius’ health grew even worse that it was said by the 9th century historian Nikephoros that Heraclius was suffering a kind of prostate cancer as he had difficulties in urinating. By 639, the Arabs now began their invasion of Byzantine Egypt while in 640, they began invading Byzantine Armenia and Heraclius here was now in shock, but knowing nothing can be done about it anymore, as here, the dying emperor concluded that God was definitely punishing him for marrying Martina.

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Empress Martina, wife and niece of Heraclius, art by Skamandros

In February 11, 641 the 66-year-old Emperor Heraclius had died in Constantinople ruling for 30 years through many ups and downs. In his reign, Heraclius began ruling a deeply troubled empire in ruins which grew worse but was able to put it back together, but just as he thought he did, everything he worked so hard on fell apart, thus he died a broken man seeing all the lands he regained after defeating the Sassanids lost to the Arabs, therefore it can simply be said that Heraclius had lived too long that it would be better off that he died shortly after his victory against the Sassanids in 628 as a happy man, but instead he lived long enough to see all his hard work undone unlike Justinian I before him who at least died long before his hard work in expanding the empire would be all shattered. Heraclius though had the legacy of beginning the Greek era of Byzantium by turning Greek into the major language that it would no longer be only a major language for everyday use but a language used in the government and army, reorganizing the political-military system of the empire by laying the foundations for the Thematic System that would be operational years later, and seeing the Taurus Mountains of Asia Minor as the empire’s new natural defense against the Arabs, which sure enough will soon happen as well.

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Battle of Al-Qadisiyah- ultimate defeat of the Sassanid Empire to the Arab Rashidun Caliphate, 636

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Coin of Heraclius, Constantine III, and Heraklonas as co-emperors, 638-641

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Fullest extent of the Arab Rashidun Caliphate in the 7th century (green) with vassal states (light green)


The Reign of Constans II (641-656)             

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The year 641 would forever be remembered as the year of the 4 emperors first being Heraclius who died in February of that year and was immediately succeeded by his eldest son Constantine III who was extremely popular with the people of Constantinople as it was him at only age 14 back in 626 who helped successfully defend Constantinople from the Avars, Slavs, and Sassanids. However, Constantine III is not be confused with another Roman emperor who was also Constantine III, a usurper turned legitimate emperor from the Western Roman Empire (r. 407-411) who was mentioned in chapter II of this series, though surprisingly this Byzantine emperor in 641 was also Constantine III despite there being another one with his name, and as emperor at age 29, the Byzantine Constantine III was already in bad health suffering from tuberculosis, and the empire he inherited from his father had a very empty treasury due to the previous wars with the Sassanids and now with the Arabs that a few weeks after his father’s death, he had to open his father’s coffin, take the crown, and sell it to increase the treasury. After only 2 months of being in power, Constantine III fell deathly ill and here he sent off some money to an Armenian general named Valentinus, a descendant of Armenia’s ancient Arsacid Dynasty that ruled Armenia (54-428AD), to back Constantine’s young son Constans as the new emperor as Constantine did not feel his half-brother Heraklonas who was his co-emperor at an equal level was fit to be emperor as he was under the regency of his mother Martina who Constantine III did not really trust as his step-mother.

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Emperor Heraklonas of Byzantium (r. 641), son of Heraclius and Martina

Previously, Martina convinced Heraclius that her son Heraklonas should be Constantine III’s co-emperor to protect her interests which the old Heraclius had agreed to and although a lot of historians always give a bad image of Martina as the wicked step-mother, it is not entirely true as at that time, ambitious women were usually given a bad image as the standard back then was for women to be content with where they are and true enough in this story’s case, Martina never really had any evil intentions. On May 3 of 641, Constantine III died from tuberculosis, though again others suspect Martina and Heraklonas of poisoning him, and Constantine’s son Constans surely believed Martina and Heraklonas envied his father and poisoned him and so now the 16-year-old Heraklonas ruled as the sole emperor, though only a puppet of his mother Martina. Heraklonas’ actually ruled as “Heraclius II” but to not be confused with his father, he used the name Heraklonas meaning “little Heraclius” just as Constans meant “little Constantine” and already when Heraklonas came to power, he was already unpopular, precisely because he was the child of an incestuous marriage between uncle and niece and his mother Martina was surely unpopular being an ambitious woman. It was here some months after Heraklonas became emperor when the general Valentinus arrived outside Constantinople with orders from the late Constantine III demanding that Heraklonas make young Constans his co-emperor to continue Constantine III’s line, but Heraklonas and Martina refused the offer. Sometime later, Valentinus began spreading rumors that Martina and Heraklonas wanted to depose young Constans, and the people who were loyal to Constantine III with Constans being his son all revolted in favor of Constans and by September of 641, both Martina and Heraklonas were arrested and the almost 11-year-old Constans was put in the throne reigning as “Constantine IV”, although history would forever remember him by reigning with his nickname as “Constans II” whereas his son who will appear later on would be the “Constantine IV”, and now the first Constans was the 4th century Byzantine emperor Constans I (r. 337-350), who was discussed back in chapter I. Martina and Heraklonas were then banished from the palace and young Constans II came to rule the empire under the regency of Valentinus, the senate, his mother Gregoria, and the new Patriarch of Constantinople Paul II. Later that year at only 11, Constans would already show the kind of autocratic style of ruling that would define his reign when he spoke to the senate at the square outside Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia known as the Augusteum where the Column of Justinian was, and here he falsely accused Martina and Heraklonas of poisoning his father even if he died naturally, yet with his speech, the young emperor would already show how smart, cunning, and articulate he was in the skill of speech, and here is how the speech goes:

After my father Constantine was born, he was emperor with his own father, my grandfather Heraclius for a long time during his life, but after him for a very short while, for the envy of his stepmother Martina ended his high hopes and his life. She did this for the sake of Heraklonas, who was her illegitimate son by Heraclius. It was mostly your decision, which expelled her and her son from the imperial power, and your great dignity knows it well. Therefore, I can call on you to be advisors and judges for the common wealth of our subjects.

-Constans II, 641

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The Augusteum of Constantinople with the Hagia Sophia and Column of Justinian

           

Now Martina and Heraklonas in fact did not commit any crime, rather they just envied Constantine III but with this kind of eloquent speech made by young Constans II, the senate immediately put all the blame on Martina and Heraklonas falsely accusing them, as they never saw Heraklonas as legitimate ruler anyway as for them the incestuous marriage between Heraclius and Martina was already illegal, therefore Heraklonas was an illegitimate child and unfit for being an emperor. As Martina and Heraklonas were both condemned as public enemies, the mob seized them and had Martina’s tongue slit while Heraklonas’ nose was cut off, the first time it would happen to an emperor, thus making this a new practice for deposing emperors, as having just a single deformity like not having a nose would make someone unfit to rule whereas the Byzantines saw that their emperor had to be perfect in physical form. Both Martina and Heraklonas were then banished to the Island of Rhodes where Heraklonas would die by early 642 possibly from suicide or from the severity of the injury caused by his nose being cut-off while Martina would die possibly peacefully years later in Rhodes as well. Now back to young Constans II, it also turned out that he too was a child of an incestuous marriage, although the level of the marriage of Constantine III and Gregoria was not as high as the level of incest between Heraclius and Martina being uncle and niece as Constantine III and Gregoria were only second cousins with Greogria being the daughter of Heraclius’ cousin Nicetas who helped Heraclius seize Egypt back in 608 from Phocas’ loyalist army, and one lesser known fact was that Constans II did indeed have a twin brother named Theodosius who looked very similar to him but not exactly, making this one of the few rare cases of rulers in world history that actually had a twin. The big question here was why it was Constans that was chosen to be emperor and not Theodosius even if possibly one could not tell which was the older one, but the answer could be that their father Constantine III certainly knew Constans came out first on November 7 of 630. Constans and Theodosius were born when their grandfather Heraclius was at his height of popularity but as they grew up, they would hear nothing more but tragic news of entire provinces being lost to the Arabs and their grandfather losing his popularity by a lot, and as the host of the History of Byzantium podcast Robin Pierson says, the reason why Constans II would end up ruling in such a bitter and paranoid way was the childhood he grew up with as first he grew up hearing stories of his empire’s armies which were once so powerful suddenly being defeated, then he became emperor at only 11 inheriting a highly troubled empire, therefore he would indeed lose his childhood putting all his attention to his empire. As for Theodosius, due to the fact that he did not become emperor, he would instead enjoy life growing up in the imperial palace while his twin brother ruled, although he secretly did want to claim the empire as he had some kind of idea that he could have been born first, which is why he would later be suspected of plotting, well at least in this story’s case. The empire Constans II had inherited was now having to fight on the defensive against the Arabs in the east with the provinces of Syria and Palestine lost, Egypt now under attack, the Balkans and half of Greece entirely lost to the Slavs who were left behind by their Avar allies there, Italy split in half between the Byzantines and Lombards, all of Byzantine Spain lost, and North Africa where Carthage was soon to be threatened by the Arabs. The biggest mystery for Constans II, which in this story’s case would define his true intention to fully deal with the Arabs by force is how the Arabs expanded out nowhere as just shortly before his birth, they had just been scattered tribes in the southern deserts that did not ever pose much of a threat to the Byzantines that the Strategikon of Maurice even said nothing about their fighting styles, yet now in only less than 20 years since expanding out of the desert they had crushed the Sassanid Empire and took away almost half of Byzantium. The answer to this mystery then is that if all the people of this vast desert in which there were many all united under a common ideology which here is the religion of Islam, then they would all be fighting with such zeal that would allow them to keep wanting to conquer, and this true enough was the case for the Arabs who no one saw their sudden expansion out of the Arabian Desert coming. In addition, the Arabs being people of the desert moved quick and light which allowed them to travel so fast unlike the Byzantines and Sassanids who always moved in formation and always with a plan, while the Arabs just moved spontaneously without having much equipment and supplies the way the Byzantines and Sassanids did, and also unlike the Byzantines and Sassanids who could not cross deserts, the Arabs being from it could which allowed them to quickly take over all of Byzantine Egypt soon enough.

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7th century Arab infantry army charges with full speed

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7th century Arab cavalry advances across the desert

          

Now the year 642 would be a bad year for the Byzantines as this was when Egypt completely fell to the Arab Rashidun Caliphate when the last Byzantine garrison in Alexandria feeling they could no longer hold onto it agreed to surrender the imperial capital of Egypt to the Arabs, although the Byzantine authorities back in Constantinople knew it was not yet over and that they could still take it back one day.

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Last of the Byzantine forces in Egypt, 642, by Amelianvs

It was also in 642 when Valentinus married off his daughter Fausta to Constans, and though it was not recorded how old Fausta was, in this story’s case she would be 2 years older than Constans, and as for Valentinus he was appointed as commander of the armies or Magister Militum which was still in use but would soon no longer be, and being only regent and not co-emperor, he was still allowed to wear the imperial purple. In 643, with news of the Arabs attacking Eastern Asia Minor, Valentinus with an army was sent to deal with them while also in this year, the young Constans II would score a great achievement, not only in military matters but in diplomacy, and here is when he would send Byzantine ambassadors far away to the court of the Tang Empire of China itself. There are not much sources on Constans II’s embassy to Tang China, but it is said that it happened here in the year 643, though it is not said who exactly young Constans II sent to China, but in this fan fiction story’s case, the two ambassadors sent all the way there were 2 senators from the patrician class named Alexios which was the older one and Philippikos the younger one with 2 other attendants- as an illustration of the imperial court of China with them in it depicts- who would travel for a year or more, and considering the Sassanid Empire at this point was already in ruins and the Arab Caliphate having not yet reached Central Asia, their journey would be easier.

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Byzantine ambassadors of Constans II arrive in the court of the Tang Chinese emperor Taizong in Chang’an

Despite the distance of China, then known as Seres to the Romans (Byzantines), Constans II knew something about it considering that the Byzantine silk industry was something taken from China when a century ago if you remember from the previous chapter, monks that journeyed there smuggled Chinese silkworms presenting them to the emperor Justinian I also reporting to him how they made their silks there, and after stealing the Chinese state secret, the Byzantines were true enough able to develop top quality silk just as the Chinese did, which was true enough indeed able to once again revive their economy that was ruined by the plague. Apparently, the Old Book of Tang as well as the New Book of Tang from China in this era records an embassy from the Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 643 by Constans II (referred to by the Chinese as King Buduoli) and his empire as Fulin, although even before this, the Roman Empire and China have long been aware of each other. The gifts Alexios and Philippikos brought over to the Chinese Empire’s capital of Chang’an in behalf of Constans II included red glass and green gemstones, though it is not clear what their intention was, but in this story’s case I would say these ambassadors came to Tang China asking their emperor Taizong for some military alliance and funds against the expanding Arabs.

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Taizong, Tang Chinese emperor (r. 626-649)

Back in Byzantium in 643, a rebellion in Italy rose up against Constans II, this one here was in Rome led by its military commander or Dux Maurikios Chartoularios (his name literally the Greek translation of Maurice) and here he wanted to rule Rome as his own state independent from the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna, but the Exarch of Ravenna here which was Isaac soon enough got word about this, thus sending an army to Rome which successfully captured Maurikios, executing him in Ravenna. Meanwhile, Valentinus and his army suffered a defeat to the Arabs in Asia Minor and Valentinus wanting to regain his relevance after this defeat marched back to Constantinople demanding the throne and for Constans II to be deposed. As Valentinus and his army amassed outside Constantinople in 644 now turning on Constans II, the people persuaded by Patriarch Paul II backed Constans II as he was seen as the legitimate ruler, therefore turning on Valentinus who was later killed by the mob as they rushed out of the gates, thus leaving Constans II here at only 14 as the sole ruler of the empire without a regent. Historical sources though do not mention what Constans II’s mother Gregoria had been doing here or his wife Fausta, but let’s just say here that Gregoria refused to run the empire leaving everything behind to her young son, who here would lose his childhood and teenage years plain and simple by having to face the burden of ruling an empire. On the other hand, the Byzantine Christian people of the lands of Syria and Palestine which the Arabs had conquered were actually fine with being under the Arabs and not demanding the Byzantines to reclaim their lands as the Arabs proved to be tolerant rulers that were easy on taxation, therefore no need for rebelling against them. Although in Arab occupied Egypt, things were much different there as there the Arab overlords were harsher in taxation and less tolerant in allowing the Christians there to practice their faith which led the people to rebel wanting Byzantine rule to be restored. Just as the people of Egypt started rising up against their new Arab overlords, a Byzantine fleet from Constantinople with an army on board under the command of the admiral Manuel was to set sail for Egypt to liberate at least Alexandria from the Arabs. In 645, Manuel and his forces captured and occupied Alexandria putting it back again under Byzantine rule using the absence of its Arab governor Amr ibn al-As to his advantage as the governor was recalled to Medina, the Rashidun Caliphate’s capital as here they had a new caliph which was Uthman, another of Muhammad’s followers who had succeeded Omar following Omar’s death in 644.

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Amr ibn al-As, Arab general and governor of Egypt, art by sergio-quijada

Manuel was seen in Alexandria as their liberator and savior but in 646, the Arab governor Amr arrived back in Egypt, and to the surprise of the Byzantines the Arabs returned with a full fleet as apparently, in the previous years with the Arabs having captured the Levant (Syria and Palestine), they had been able to amass a fleet capturing old Byzantine ships and get the locals of the area to sail the fleet for them and so here in 646, the Arab fleet defeated the Byzantine fleet and took back Alexandria together with the rest of Egypt while Manuel returned to Byzantine territory, never to be heard from again. This event here in 646 marked the end of Byzantine rule in Egypt which was to be certainly a heavy blow to the empire as the major grain supply was lost, but not all of it as the empire still had Carthage which produced a major amount of grain, but losing Egypt too meant allowing the Arabs to take over more ports which then blocked off the Byzantines’ trade with the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, and when losing Egypt here in 646, the Byzantines now would never have hopes in taking it back anymore. Prior to the complete fall of Byzantine Egypt in 646, when the Arabs under Amr ibn al-As occupied Alexandria back in 642, Amr had the walls of Alexandria razed and here legends says, he had the ancient and highly important Library of Alexandria burned down together with all the books and knowledge kept in it but really, when he occupied Alexandria, the library was already rundown ever since the late 4th century when fanatical Christian mobs ransacked the library wanting to get rid of ancient Pagan knowledge. The truth however was that the Arabs did not want the metropolis of Alexandria as their capital, instead they would rather have a location along the desert and not by the sea as this was the life they were used to coming from the Arabian deserts, and so back in 642 Amr turned the village of Fustat deeper down the Nile River and closer to the Egyptian Desert as the new provincial capital, which would later on become the city of Cairo.

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Fustat (Cairo), new imperial capital of Egypt under the Arabs

Fast-forward to 646, now that the Arabs had all of Egypt with Cairo as their capital, they decided next to turn west and conquer the Byzantine Maghreb (Northwest Africa) including Carthage while at the same time in Carthage, the Exarch of Africa Gregory who was a relative of the ruling Heraclian Dynasty, and therefore of Constans II rebelled and declared himself emperor feeling Constans was too underaged, but the Arab armies having the ability to cross a desert without difficulty crossed the Sahara Desert from Egypt arriving near Carthage in 647 forcing Gregory to have to confront them in battle. Being as far west as Carthage, Exarch Gregory did not know that much about how powerful the Arabs were in battle until confronting them and right here, Gregory was killed at the Battle of Sufetula near Carthage against the Arabs and so was almost his entire army, therefore ending his rebellion. Though the Arabs defeated the Byzantines here in North Africa and made raids into it, North Africa did not yet fall to the Arabs as the Byzantine authorities of Carthage agreed to pay tribute to the Arabs, now making the Exarchate of Carthage a vassal state to the Arab Rashidun Caliphate. It also happened in 647 that the Arab armies from the east now having occupied most of the Sassanid Empire started raiding deeper into Byzantine Asia Minor into regions such as Cappadocia, Cilicia, and the mountains of Isauria, and these attacks were being directed by the Arab governor of Syria Muawiyah, a native of the Arabian Desert coming from the Umayyad clan, meaning he was not part of Muhammad’s clan and before Muhammad united Arabia, Muawiyah and his family opposed Muhammad until Muhammad recaptured Mecca in 629 wherein Muawiyah switched his support to Muhammad, converted to Islam, and became Muhammad’s scribe and in 639 following the Arab conquest of Syria, Muawiyah was appointed as its governor by Caliph Omar and to be based in Damascus, and he had turned out to be a very ambitious leader with the ultimate goal of conquering Constantinople. 

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Arab forces of the Rashidun Caliphate march across the Sahara Desert to Carthage, 647

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Byzantine era Carthage, capital of the Exarchate of Africa

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Sufetula, 647 (Kings and Generals).

         

As the Arabs directed by Muawiyah continued their raids into Byzantine territory in 648 wherein they had reached as far west as Phrygia in Asia Minor, Constans II knew it was to time to act in defending the empire and this meant not repeating the past mistakes of emperors which even included his grandfather Heraclius who busied himself too much with creating the new doctrine of Monothelitism and trying to consolidate it across the empire while the Arabs were winning victories against them, so Constans here decided it was time to put all the endless religious debates on the natures of Christ aside as there was an even bigger threat, the Arab expansion.

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Coin of Constans II as a young emperor

To solve the entire issue of the religious debates, Constans here in 648 with Patriarch Paul II’s guidance issued a decree known as the Typos that forbade any kind of debates on the natures of Christ that was tearing the religious unity of the empire apart at such a difficult time, but it was to also to stop the persecutions of heretical sects of Christianity that were not seen as Orthodox, though what this decree actually meant was absolutely no more debating on Christ’s natures, and what was already ruled by the Patriarch of Constantinople on Christ’s nature which here was the Monothelite doctrine of Christ having one energy was final, and those who did not abide by this would get their property confiscated or worse, be jailed. Here at age 18, Constans had already shown the full autocratic nature of his reign and how much he had despised the Byzantine senate even if they were the ones that put him in power as a child and had been acting as his regents as he was still quite young, but here at this point even being only 18, Constans already showed to the senate he was capable of ruling alone with absolute power and did not need them at all. By issuing a decree that was to prohibit all religious debates on Christ’s natures, Constans had now become increasingly unpopular with most of the bishops of the empire- except Patriarch Paul II- as it was the bishops’ job to debate on religious matters and these bishops included the Patriarch of Rome or the pope himself, which in 649 was Pope Martin I who had just been elected as pope, though illegally according to Constans II, and just as he was elected as pope, Martin I called for a council in Rome to condemn Constans II’s ruling of the Monothelite doctrine and the Typos itself as it did not allow religious leaders to do their job.

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Pope Martin I

Meanwhile in 649, Muawiyah had already been making some progress as here he had landed in Byzantine controlled Cyprus partially taking the island leaving the other half still to the Byzantines, and for the next 300 years, the island of Cyprus would remain split between Arab and Byzantine control. Constans here when finding out half of Cyprus was lost to the Arabs, he decided to sign a peace treaty with Muawiyah and the Rashidun Caliphate but little did he know that by signing this, this would allow Muawiyah to build his fleet as his intention to capture Cyprus was to build a fleet there that could attack Constantinople by sea. In 650 on the other hand, Constans II now decided to take action on Pope Martin I for violating the decree of the Typos by holding a council that spoke against the decree and for Constans, it did not matter who violated this decree, even if it was the pope, and so here Constans sent a letter to the reigning Exarch of Ravenna in Italy Olympius ordering him to head over to Rome and arrest the pope who was to be brought over to Constans himself in Constantinople. Exarch Olympius then carried out the job and headed to Rome but when there, he failed to arrest the pope as he claimed the pope was too divinely protected as most possibly, Pope Martin successfully convinced him to turn away. Now rather than arresting the pope, Olympius in 650 instead turned on Constans, led his soldiers in rebellion, and declared himself emperor ruling Byzantine Italy as his own state completely independent from the empire. Soon enough, a small Arab army and fleet arrived in Sicily to raid it and here Exarch Olympius headed south to Sicily to counter-attack the Arab force that invaded it but in 652 as Olympius was in Sicily, another episode of the Plague of Justinian from the previous century had broken out killing many there including Olympius himself, as well as most of the invading Arab army, thus the Arab invasion failed. In the meantime, it happened in 651 when the Sassanid Empire completely died out and not with a big event like a large battle, instead the Sassanid Persian Empire only died out here when its last ruler Yazdegerd III at age 27 when continuing his flight east to escape the Arab invasion of the Sassanid Empire was killed outside the city of Merv in the Steppes of Central Asia at the edge of their empire.

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Yazdegerd III, last shah of the Sassanids (r. 632-651) fleeing from the Arabs

It remains unclear on how Shah Yazdegerd III had been killed but some sources say a simple miller killed him to take his jewellery but no matter what was the cause of his death, his death marked the end of the Sassanid Empire that just recently was a dominant world power having been around for 4 centuries since the 3rd century, and with the Sassanids gone after years of civil war and defeats to the Arabs, it was now time for the Arab Caliphate to replace the Sassanids as Byzantium’s new traditional eastern enemy. Though the last Sassanid emperor had died when actually trying to flee east to the Tang Empire of China, he at least had a wife who though unnamed was said to be a Christian and with her they had a young son named Peroz who was also a Christian and not a Zoroastrian like his father, and young Peroz and his mother would at least survive and make it to China, their final destination to seek refuge in.

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Imperial court of Constans II in Constantinople

           

Hearing about the final dissolution of the Sassanid Empire in 651 was not so much a relief for Constans II as all while hearing of this happening, he knew the empire of the Arabs would grow even larger and true enough with Sassanid authority crumbling in their last province of Khorasan (Central Asia), the Arabs were able to also take this entire area, thus wiping the Sassanid Empire out of the map. Now it is about time to discuss a bit about Constans II’s life as an emperor at a young age and his family, and here Constans was now in his 20s but with all the difficulties he faced in his teenage years, he had aged very fast both in looks and in mentality, but this meant that his bitter nature and autocratic style of ruling would increase even more.

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Young Constans II illustration

Historical sources though do not say much about Constans II’s twin brother Theodosius but in this case, let’s just say that now at this point, Constans was growing more suspicious of him even though Theodosius was rather useless and had no potential to be a serious threat, but for Constans- at least in this story’s case- having a twin brother meant potential trouble and even though Theodosius was not really seen as a threat, one day he could be when his soldiers might mistake Theodosius as Constans considering that they looked very much alike even if not identical twins and with this, they could even start calling Theodosius their emperor, forgetting Constans is still around, or possibly Theodosius would one day rebel and take the throne with the excuse that it does not matter who is emperor as both are twins and no one would really be sure who was born first. Historical sources too do not mention about the happenings with Constans’ mother Gregoria at this point, so for this story’s case we could just say Gregoria had retired and had completely left the world of politics, though other than Gregoria, historical sources do not also mention much about Constans’ wife the empress Fausta except that here in 652 she gave birth to her first child with Constans and sticking to the naming tradition of the eldest son named after his grandfather- just how Constans with Heraclius as his real name was named after his grandfather- Constans’ first son was named Constantine after Constans’ father Constantine III, and this Constantine would be the emperor Constantine IV. Now about Fausta who historical sources do not say much about, in this story’s case as mentioned earlier, she was 2 years older than her husband and of Armenian descent as her father, the late general Valentinus was an Armenian, though her mother remains unknown, though in appearance Fausta- in this story’s case- had a strong Armenian or eastern look with large piercing green eyes, tanned skin, black hair, and a short and round stature. In the meantime, Constans II was still not yet finished with his plan to arrest Pope Martin I for disagreeing with his decree, so here in 653 with the previous exarch of Ravenna Olympius dying the previous year from the plague in Sicily, the new Exarch of Ravenna Theodore I Calliopas– who had already previously been Exarch of Ravenna from 643 to 645- was again reappointed by Constans and following his appointment was charged by Constans to again head over to Rome and arrest the pope. This time, Exarch Theodore succeeded in arresting Pope Martin I by sending his soldiers to the pope’s palace at the Lateran Basilica who tricked him into shipping him over to the Greek island of Naxos in the Aegean Sea where the pope when arriving there was thrown into prison, while back in Rome Theodore convinced the Roman bishops to elect someone else as their pope which they did by electing Pope Eugene I in the next year (654).

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Pope Martin I arrested and brought to Constantinople, 653

Later on in 653, Martin I was brought over from Naxos to Constantinople where he was paraded in the streets in chains like a prisoner before confronting Constans II at the Hippodrome who sentenced him to be executed for opposing the emperor’s Monothelite decree as well as being elected illegally, although for Constans Martin I was accused of being elected illegally meant that he was elected without the emperor’s approval. Right when Constans was about to have the deposed pope executed, the dying Patriarch of Constantinople Paul II came to the pope’s rescue and when listening to Martin’s pleas, Paul convinced Constans to not execute Martin but to instead send him to exile in the most remote land of the Byzantine Empire, which was the isolated Peninsula of Cherson or the Crimea (in today’s Ukraine), a cold and desolate Byzantine port colony in the north coast of the Black Sea, as exiling the pope to a warm Aegean or Ionian island would be sending him to exile in some kind of island paradise while sending him to cold Cherson would be a fitting death sentence. As it would turn out, when Pope Martin I was sent into exile in Cherson, he would die soon enough in 655 at age 57, possibly due to the cold and lack of food there but he would still become a saint after his death, whereas Patriarch Paul II would die in late 653.

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Byzantine ruins of Cherson in the Crimea, Ukraine; exile place of Pope Martin I

On the other hand, Muawiyah here continued his conquests of the Mediterranean islands that in 654, he had conquered the Greek island of Kos and afterwards Rhodes, and when in Rhodes the first thing the Arab army did was to clear out the ruins of the famous Colossus of Rhodes, a massive statue of the Greek sun god Helios build in 280BC standing 30m high but over time after several earthquakes, the statue was reduced to ruins, and though some legends say Mauwiyah and his army tore down the Colossus itself, rather when the Arabs arrived, they found it ruins and decided to scrap it to be made into gold coins, and when taking down the ruins, it was said that the Arabs used up to 900 camels to cart off the ruined blocks as the statue was literally that large and the metal that it was made of was that heavy. Hearing of the fall of Rhodes to the Arabs, Constans now felt threatened and decided he had enough and so he put an end to the truce he signed with Muawiyah back in 649 and assembled a fleet in Constantinople to attack Muawiyah’s fleet which had at this point been stationed in the southwestern coast of Asia Minor while at the same time here in 654, he appointed his 2-year-old son Constantine as co-emperor. The Byzantine fleet of 500 ships was fully constructed by 655- the same year Pope Martin I died in Cherson- and the 25-year-old Constans II here decided to lead the fleet himself assuring they would score a victory that way and so the fleet sailed south to the Lycian coast of Asia Minor where Muawiyah’s fleet was stationed. On the night before the battle, Constans II when sleeping in his luxurious cabin in the emperor’s personal ship- according to the Byzantine historian of the next century Theophanes the Confessor– and in this story’s case as well, he had a dream that he was in the city of Thessaloniki and when waking up, he thought this meant he would win a victory as Thessaloniki in Greek meant something to do with scoring a victory, but little did he know that the “Thessaloniki” of his dream meant the other definition of the name which in Greek was thes allo nike meaning “give victory to another”. The next day, the Byzantine and Arab fleets met at a location known as Finike (Phoenix) off the Lycian coast of Asia Minor and here as the sea was rough the battle was fought, and this battle here would be remembered as the “Battle of the Masts”, referring to the masts of the ships.

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Battle of the Masts, Byzantine vs Arab naval battle, 655

The battle resulted in a decisive victory for the Arabs despite them having only 200 ships compared to the Byzantines having 500, and although it is not clear on how the Arabs won, in this story’s case the Arab ships being smaller in size were faster thus being able to quickly crash into the larger Byzantine ships, which they quickly boarded, and were soon enough able to outnumber the more heavily armored Byzantine troops in them. Constans himself barely escaped the battle, that according to the same Theophanes, and in this story’s case too, he did a trick he was good at, so he exchanged his purple imperial robes with a young sailor who was about the same age and short stature as him, and while Constans escaped disguising himself as a sailor, the sailor dressed as the emperor was mistaken for Constans and was killed right at the spot by an Arab soldier whereas Constans retreated back to Constantinople in a small ship that had survived. As it turned out, Constans’ dream meant the opposite of what he thought it meant, therefore meaning “give victory to another” which were the Arabs but the following year (656), the Byzantines would have at least some luck as here when Caliph Uthman was assassinated in Medina, conflict broke out between the ambitious Muawiyah of the Umayyad clan and Uthman’s successor Caliph Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad and this conflict would be the first full civil war in this history of the Islamic Caliphates, better known as the First Fitnah.

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Location of Cherson (encircled in black)

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Colossus of Rhodes before the Arab conquest of Rhodes in 654

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Arab fleet (left) and Byzantine fleet (right) engage each other at the Battle of the Masts, 655

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Byzantine and Arab fleets clash with each other at the Battle of the Masts


 

Birth of the Thematic System and the Move West (656-668)       

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With the Arab Caliphate at a civil war with each other, Constans II now used the moment to his advantage in order to focus on restoring some parts of the empire that had been ruined by the previous wars and invasions, and these included the Balkans and Eastern Asia Minor while Muawiyah who was here in conflict with the caliph Ali agreed to not bother Constans and instead to even pay tribute to him.

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Ali, the last Rashidun caliph (r. 656-661), art by Ahmed AbuElnaga

Now focusing on the problems of the empire, the first thing Constans thought about was the economy considering that the loss of Egypt had a heavy blow on the once abundant grain supply for Constantinople and the empire that before it happened once a month that this abundant grain supply from Egypt allowed people in the capital to get free distribution of bread, but with Egypt gone free bread was no longer possible. Although the second grain source which was Carthage was still around and fortunately for the Byzantines, after the civil war between Muawiyah and Ali broke out, the Exarchate of Africa based in Carthage which had become a vassal of the Caliphate since 647 was fully restored to imperial rule, although unfortunately the land around Carthage had already been drying up turning into a desert from over-farming, so the next place the Byzantines looked to for grain supply was Thrace and Asia Minor, although the grain supply in these places weren’t as abundant as Egypt, therefore there would be no more free grain distribution for the people of Constantinople. The next major challenge in the Byzantine Empire other than the economy was the cultural shift from Latin to Greek which was now truly evident in Constans’ time than it was in his grandfather Heraclius’ time, as here the Greek language had almost entirely replaced Latin amongst the people of the empire and in the imperial court, as well as in the army that Latin titles had now been evolving to Greek ones, which was evident even in the imperial court as the emperor was now referred to as the Greek “Basileus” meaning emperor instead of Augustus, or the Greek title Autokrator instead of the Latin Imperator, and a lot of these changes in the Greek language becoming the more dominant one had a lot to do with Heraclius’ reign as he was a native Greek speaker of Cappadocian and Armenian descent, meaning he had more connections to the east while the people he appointed to govern the empire were also native Greek speakers from the eastern provinces unlike before when most high officials of the empire were Latin speakers from the Balkans or western provinces. Constans meanwhile was adapting to the changes in the empire both in geography and in language as well culture quite well, but he was still feeling some kind of connection to the west and the empire’s Roman roots- at least for this story- and here in 658 with the conflict against the Arabs in the east at least put to a halt for now, he decided to turn his attention west to the Balkans which was now completely overrun and settled by the Slavs who were left behind there by their Avar allies who retreated back north sometime after they failed to besiege Constantinople in 626. The loss of the Balkans meanwhile was a heavy blow to the Byzantines as for the longest time, all the way back to the era of the Roman Empire, the Balkans played a major role as the major recruitment ground for soldiers, so now with the Balkans gone, this would mean shortage of soldiers, but again with the pressure of the Arabs coming to a halt here in 658, Constans set off from Constantinople to campaign in the still Byzantine territories of the Balkans.

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7th century Byzantine soldier clashes with a Slav warrior

Here, Constans managed to win a number of victories against the Slavs by defeating a large Slavic raid, and afterwards returned some of Greece to Byzantine rule and after defeating these invading Slavs, his army had captured many prisoners of war which were Slavic warriors, who were then all stuffed into ships and sent over across the Aegean Sea to Asia Minor to be resettled in as the previous wars against the Sassanids and Arabs have resulted in the near depopulation of Asia Minor. In 659, Constans briefly returned to Constantinople to be with his family as by this point his wife Fausta had given birth to two new sons Heraclius and Tiberius, although history does not specify their birth years, so instead for this story Heraclius as the elder one would have been born in 656 and Tiberius in 657, and here in 659 Constans back in Constantinople appointed both sons Heraclius and Tiberius as co-emperors even if they were too young to read and write, and so now there were 4 people with the imperial title being Constans II and his 3 sons, and this for sure would have made Constans’ twin brother Theodosius feel threatened as he was put aside in favor of Constans’ very young sons, but Constans on the other hand never really cared as he always saw that having a twin was a threat, so here Constans began his plans in eliminating his twin brother. After his short stay in Constantinople, Constans travelled to Asia Minor, this time to drive back the Arab forces that had still remained, and due to the Arab Caliphate in conflict with each other, Constans took advantage of the situation and when leading the army himself, he campaigned far into the east of Asia Minor successfully driving away the Arabs. It was in this 659 campaign in Asia Minor where Constans would make his greatest achievement in the history of Byzantium, which was the creation of the Thematic Systems or to put it short, the Themes (Themata in Greek), and this was another change that marked the transition of the empire from Latin to Greek as the names of these new smaller provinces or Themes would be in Greek. History though is not very clear about the formation of the Theme System or if Constans II exactly created it, as others say it was his grandfather Heraclius that did, but many sources still agree that the first 5 Themes or shrunken military provinces of the Byzantine Empire were created under Constans II between 659 and 661, and in this story’s case it will true enough be Constans II that toured Asia Minor between 659 and 661 to create the Thematic System.

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Strategos, Commanding general of a Byzantine Theme

The word “Theme” here does not really have a literal translation but it simply meant the name of a particular area bearing the name of the mobile army that was stationed in it, as each of these new provinces had their own mobile armies assigned to it, and these provinces too were under the administration of their army’s general known as the Strategos, basically a Greek title which replaced the former Latin Magister Militum. Now in these new provinces or Themes of Asia Minor, the soldiers stationed in them were given land of their own in which their children would inherit as well as succeed their fathers as soldiers as a way to ensure their full loyalty as the empire was sure enough running out of soldier recruits with most of the Balkans lost and the remnants of the Plague of Justinian from the previous century still making comebacks. On the other hand, the Slavic warriors that were previously captured in the Balkans were relocated to Asia Minor to be settled as the soldiers for these Themes wherein here they were to marry the locals, though at the same time Constans still encouraged many of the local men of Asia Minor to join the army and had many of the ruined castles of Asia Minor rebuilt as well, which were to be the strongholds for each of the Themes’ armies. It was here at this point that Asia Minor became the Byzantine Empire’s new heartland as it was to now provide both soldiers and food supply for the empire and with the creation of these new provinces or Themes, each of the Themes were to produce their own goods for the empire’s survival whether it was minerals, food, wood, or military equipment while each Theme too had its own foundry to manufacture its soldiers’ uniform weapons and armor.

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Byzantine Thematic army soldier, 7th century

Under Constans II, 4 Themes were created in Byzantine Asia Minor (Turkey) with their own generals in charge of it and with its own capital, and these first 4 Themes were the Anatolic Theme (Anatolikon in Greek) consisting of the central and southern part of Asia Minor in which the eastern army of the empire was stationed in and the city of Amorion was its capital; next was the Armeniac Theme (Armeniakon) which was the largest of the Themes being located in the eastern part of Asia Minor along the border with the city of Amasea as its capital; next was the Thracesian Theme (Thrakesion) in the western coast of Asia Minor where the Thracian army would be based in, hence the origin of its name; and last would be the Opsikion Theme in the northwest part of Asia Minor which here was to be administered directly from Constantinople, and this Theme would be under the most elite army of the empire or the Praesental army commanded not by a Strategos but by a general with the title of Komes, which was an honorary title for a general. After creating the 4 land Themes in Asia Minor, Constans decided to create a fifth one which was this time to be a naval Theme under the imperial navy and marines which was to be the Karabasian Theme (Kibyrrhaioton) in the southern coast of Asia Minor to further protect the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Asia Minor. The first known generals Constans II appointed to be in charge of these Themes included one of Sassanid Persian descent named Saborios, whose name is the Greek version of the Persian name Shapur who would be the Strategos of the Armeniac Theme and another one named Mizizios, an Armenian general who was made the Komes of the Opsikion Theme, the most elite of the Themes. Constans on the other hand before even hitting the age of 30 made a very strategic achievement for the empire that was to prove very effective in the next centuries to come, although still it was not entirely him who came up with the idea of these Themes from scratch but rather his grandfather Heraclius when he saw the provinces of Syria and Palestine lost to the Arabs and Asia Minor as the new core of the empire, though it would be Constans II to put this whole idea into full effect. There is a lot more to explain about the Themes of Byzantium, the Thematic System and how it functioned, and its elite armies being the Cataphract cavalry but that would be for the upcoming stories after this one, but to put it short, it was effective in the way that when both parts of the empire were under attack, one Theme’s army could focus on one side while the other could focus on the other side without having to march an entire army from one far end of the empire to the other, therefore these Themes made it quicker for armies to respond to external attacks.

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Map of the first original 5 Themes of Asia Minor created under Constans II

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Slavic warriors, resettled into Asia Minor by Constans II

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Cataphract cavalry, elite army of the Byzantine Themes

Watch this to learn more about the Thematic System and its structure (Kings and Generals).

      

After being away from Constantinople for 2 years from 659 to 661, Constans returned to the capital wherein he started becoming increasingly unpopular and though it is not really said why, in this story’s case this would be mainly due to his defeat to the Arabs back in 655 at the Battle of the Masts and for being absent from the capital for 2 years despite doing the latter to actually further protect the empire by creating the Themes.

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Caliph Muawiyah I, 1st Umayyad Caliph

It also happened in 661 that the caliph Ali was assassinated in a mosque at the city of Kufa (in today’s Iraq) and with his death died the Rashidun Caliphate as with Ali dead, Muawiyah took over as Caliph ending the civil war and beginning the Umayyad Caliphate wherein he turned the Caliphate into something more politically organized and had also moved the caliphate’s capital from Medina in the Arabian Desert to Damascus in Syria which was more of a threat to the Byzantines as the Arabs’ capital was closer to their borders, although for the meantime, Muawiyah still organizing the new caliphate did not yet have plans to attack Byzantium, thus giving Constans more time to rebuild the ruins of his empire and put the Themes into full effect. Here in 661, Constans II at the age of 30 now had a full and thick square beard in his large round face, which was the first thing to be noticed about him as well as his thick and long curly hair as seen in his coin which too will be a new standard for future Byzantine emperors in appearance, henceforth his nickname Konstantinos ho Pogonatos meaning “Constantine the Bearded” in Greek as true enough he ruled by his real name “Constantine” while his family members and those closest to him still referred to him as the Latin “Constans” or “little Constantine” (Konstas in Greek). Now back to Constans’ growing unpopularity, the people here at this point in 661 started favoring Theodosius over his twin brother and considering that they almost looked a like, the people who hated Constans thought it would not hurt those who favored Constans if they deposed Constans and replaced him with Theodosius as long as Theodosius would grow a longer beard the way Constans has, therefore those who are loyal to Constans would still mistake him for Constans, however it would not really work out as Theodosius still did not have Constans’ brutal and autocratic personality whereas Theodosius was still more relaxed. For this story at least, Constans suspected something wrong about his twin, so let’s say the faction loyal to Constans soon enough knew of the plot by those who opposed him to overthrow him and replace him with Theodosius and so when finding out about this, Constans now knew this was the right time to act against his twin brother and get rid of him for good. History too does not say when Constans and Theodosius’ mother Gregoria died but let’s just say that here in 661 she had already died which now gave Constans every reason to get rid of his twin brother as he would most definitely not do it while their mother was still alive. Having enough of the possibility of Theodosius taking over the throne from him with popular support, Constans without any hesitation had some of the palace guards arrest Theodosius at his quarters in Constantinople’s imperial palace and cut off his tongue, again as a way to make sure he would not try to claim the throne, as again a single deformity like missing a tongue would render him unable to rule as emperor. Constans too thought of simply executing his twin brother but he soon started to think cutting off his tongue was a better punishment as Theodosius had still done nothing wrong that deserves the death penalty that in fact he never even once tried to launch a coup against Constans, and so after getting his tongue cut off, Theodosius was forced to take Holy Orders and become a monk in a monastery outside Constantinople, but little did Constans know that the injury Theodosius received when getting his tongue cut off cost him his life and later on in 661, Theodosius had died as a monk. Constans here would therefore be remembered as the “Bearded Autocrat” or “Constans the Killer” and this would not be it yet for his vicious deeds, although he was at least still very loyal to his wife Fausta and 3 sons but Fausta hearing about Constans’ vicious act that ended up killing his twin brother would soon begin to fall out with him. Each day- in this story’s case- Constans and Fausta would argue more and more that they would stop eating and sleeping together, while Fausta even tried to get her 3 sons Constantine, Heraclius, and Tiberius away from their father fearing that her sons would follow in their father’s footsteps becoming a bloodthirsty tyrant. Now in 662, Constans had grown tired of living in Constantinople being unpopular with the people and ignored by his family, so here is when he decided to leave the capital again and protect the empire, but here he also began to think about the rather short life he had lived so far, about how he had lost his childhood and teenage years when having to put it aside for the responsibilities of running an empire, about how the difficulties in his early reign of having to face challengers left and right turned him into a bloodthirsty autocratic ruler, and how this kind of personality of his turned his people and family against him. Constans here thought it was time to change his image which is why he decided to head to Greece and protect it as he got word that the Slavs were invading again, and here at this point, the Theme Systems was now more or less fully operational that if Constans pulled out one Theme’s army, the armies of the other Themes could defend that Theme wherein the army had been pulled out, and since the Opsikion Theme was closest to Constantinople with its troops being the elite retinue of the imperial army, he called for this Theme’s army to join him in this campaign. The Opsikion Theme’s general Komes Mizizios, the Armenian noble 8 years older than Constans who was said to be very tall and handsome but at the same time shy and reserved led his troops across the Marmara to meet Constans in Constantinople where he and his troops were to accompany the emperor in his new campaign.

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Coin of Mizizios, Komes of the Opsikion Theme under Constans II

Meanwhile- in this story’s case- the senators Constans sent to China almost 20 years earlier, Alexios and Philippikos had returned to Constantinople with Alexios who left Constantinople in his 40s was now in his 60s and Philippikos who was then in his 20s now in his 40s, and now when returning both reported to Constans about their fascinating journey in this far away land, about how sophisticated the imperial court was in their capital of Chang’an with buildings made with crystal and glass, about the colorful silks worn by its people that in fact even the poorest people there wore silks, and the exotic and tasty food there unknown to the Byzantines such as fisheye that was only reserved for the emperor.

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Women’s fashion in Tang Dynasty China, 7th century

Additionally, the senators told Constans that in China, it were yellow and gold silks reserved only for members of the imperial family unlike in Byzantium where it was purple while there in Tang China, women too were more empowered than in Byzantium and that they were fascinated with the rather peculiar fashion women there wore such as the kind of silk gowns that appeared rather revealing wherein they left their upper chests exposed with only a thin silk robe covering the arms, which thus reflected the empowerment of women there. The senators then also told Constans that their emperor Taizong had agreed to lend them some money in exchange for Byzantine jewelry, although Taizong had already died back in 649 and was succeeded by his son Gaozong, who at this point was still ruling and Gaozong too had agreed to help Byzantium as he too feared the expansion of the Arabs even if it was still far from China. The senators too had told Constans that the last Sassanid heir which was the young Peroz, son of the last shah Yazdegerd III had arrived in China seeking refuge wherein at this point he had already grown up and had built a church there as he was true enough a Christian and there in Tang China, the young Peroz had been training to be a general to command the Chinese imperial forces to one day lead an attack against the Arabs in Central Asia. Constans was intrigued hearing of the stories from what he thought was a parallel world to Byzantium but not wanting to waste time, he asked both senators Alexios and Philippikos to join him in his campaign with Mizizios and the Opsikion army.

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Illustration of Byzantine era Thessaloniki

After setting off from Constantinople by sea, Constans and his retinue arrived first in Thessaloniki, where Constans having dreamt about being there back in 655 before losing the Battle of the Masts would finally step foot there, as true enough dreams usually do predict a future, and as he also remembered that the dream he dreamt meant for him scoring a victory, this time his predication actually came true as here in Thessaloniki, Constans himself leading the Opsikion Theme’s army fought the invading Slavic army with success driving them away from the walls of Thessaloniki. For the rest of 662, Constans together with the Opsikion army, Alexios, and Philippikos for a long time toured the remains of Byzantine Greece as Constans needed this lengthy amount of time to examine the situation in Greece, for he also thought of expanding the Themes beyond Asia Minor by establishing one in Greece too but in his long stay in Greece, Constans recruited more men to the Byzantine army as well which also included the Slavs he had defeated in battle and captured. For the winter of 662-663, Constans set himself up in Athens which at this time was now a ghost town wherein he would start drafting new plans for creating Themes in Greece but by early 663, Constans had now decided to leave Greece and set sail west for Byzantine Italy whereas Mizizios and the Opsikion army, Alexios, and Philippikos joined him once more.   

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7th century Constantinople street life, art by Amelianvs

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Chang’an, imperial capital of the Chinese Tang Empire

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Full coin of Constans II the Bearded including reverse

In 663, Constans and his men set sail from Athens to Italy arriving some weeks later in the port of Taranto in Southern Italy which was still under the Byzantines but right when arriving, Constans following the example of his grandfather Heraclius and Maurice before him, decided to lead his army north to attack the Lombard capital Benevento taking advantage of the fact that the Lombard king Grimoald I left his capital to head north and fight off a Frankish invasion.

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Map of 7th century Italy divided between the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna (orange) and Lombards (blue)

In one swift campaign led by Constans and Mizizios, the Byzantines overwhelmed the Lombards in their holdings in Southern Italy taking over a number of fortress before arriving in their capital Benevento facing little resistance there, also considering the fact that it was the mostly elite Byzantine army that was brought over to Italy that made the Byzantines win quite an easy victory here. The Byzantine forces did in fact come so close to taking over Benevento, however a Lombard messenger reached Grimoald I in time to warn him of the Byzantines’ attack and in very little time, the forces of Grimoald arrived to relieve Benevento forcing Constans’ army to retreat, although at least the Byzantines despite losing did not suffer many casualties and were able to retreat to Byzantine held Naples in an orderly way, though a portion of Constans’ army again suffered a heavy defeat when retreating to Naples.

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Lombard army of Italy, 7th century

After a short stay in Naples, Constans now joined by his old friend Exarch Theodore Calliopas- in this story’s case at least- joined him and from Naples, they all headed north and visited Rome which was still under Byzantine hands, making him the first Roman emperor to set foot in Rome since the Western Roman emperors 2 centuries earlier, and the last Roman (Byzantine) emperor to do so for several centuries. At some time in 663, Constans had a 12-day visit of Rome wherein he was greeted personally by Pope Vitalian– the successor of the former pope Eugene I who died in 657- who personally showed Constans, Theodore, Alexios, and Philippikos around Rome, the eternal city and Vitalian was also pleased with Constans for getting rid of Martin I who Vitalian had opposed before. Constans who had still felt Byzantium’s connection to its Roman origins showed a lot of respect for the eternal city that he stopped at every important Roman landmark including the Forum, Trajan’s Column, Baths of Caracalla, and the Palatine Hill Imperial Palace, and wanting to show the people of Byzantine held Rome that he was a much better person than how everyone saw him as, he greeted most of the people he saw in the city in a friendly way, although his soldiers acted differently except for their general Mizizios due to his reserved personality.

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Pope Vitalian

When stopping by the Ancient Roman Pantheon, which had been turned into a church by the Byzantine usurper emperor Phocas who Heraclius overthrew in 610, Constans saw his soldiers looting its valuables and stripping off its copper roof, although Constans despite getting angry at them for doing it still allowed them to do it as long as the loot was to be sent to Constantinople to be minted as coins to further improve the economy and not so long after, Constans’ 12-day stay in Rome was over, so here he proceeded south to Sicily setting himself up in its most important city, Syracuse while Theodore returned north to Ravenna. Constans II’s real intention for setting himself up in Syracuse still remains unclear as some say it could be because he wanted to restore Western Rome’s relevance in Byzantium the way Justinian I a century before him wanted to do as well, or maybe because he remembered his grandfather Heraclius’ possible decision one time to move the capital to Carthage as Constantinople was more at risk to be attacked especially now with the Arabs making Sicily a safer location as it was easier to defend being at the center of the Mediterranean, or rather because Sicily would be a good base to reclaim parts of Byzantine North Africa like Cyrenaica (Northern Libya) and Egypt that were lost to the Arabs, and for this story, it would be for all these reasons why Constans decided to set himself up in Sicily which he would do for the next 5 years never thinking of returning to Constantinople again. Another possible reason why Constans left his family behind in Constantinople to journey alone was to make up for his lost teenage and young adult years in which he spent nonstop worrying about defending his empire, according again to the History of Byzantium podcast, and for this story I would also agree with it that Constans left to at least enjoy life in the warm Mediterranean climate of Sicily, and for this story’s case he true enough would do just that drinking and partying hard with his soldiers. Although when basing himself in Sicily, Constans also decided to raise the taxes to the same levels as taxes were in Constantinople, Byzantine Greece, Asia Minor, and North Africa to make things fair and also to increase the army’s pay, though forgetting that the people of Sicily were much poorer than in the other parts of the empire. Constans here in Sicily would again return to showing how much of an apathetic autocratic ruler he was when he started losing his sanity by nonsensically brutalizing the tax collection on the Sicilians that it was said that the Sicilians had to sell their children to slavery and that women were forced into prostitution just so that they could pay up Constans’ harsh taxes, although most of these were just written by sources hostile to Constans, but in this story’s case with Constans as a villainous ruler, it would be true that all of these were happening for the next 5 years as Constans was in Sicily. Constans in Sicily on the other hand after a time wrote to Fausta in Constantinople asking her to come over to Sicily with their 3 sons, abandon Constantinople, and all settle in Syracuse as the new imperial capital as Constans also knew that with the Themes set up in Asia Minor, Constantinople will still be protected. In 663 meanwhile, as the months passed with the emperor not present in the capital, the Byzantine senate decided to name the 11-year-old son of Constans, Constantine as emperor in Constantinople knowing Constans would not return, although since Constantine was only 11, the same age his father was when becoming emperor, he was to rule under the senate’s guidance but only as co-emperor as Constans still being around was still the senior one.

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White flag of the Umayyad Caliphate

Now back in the newly formed Umayyad Caliphate of Caliph Muawiyah that had just adopted a simple white flag as their symbol, at this point after forming his new caliphate, he resumed his attacks on Byzantine Asia Minor which were carried out by his son and general Yazid, who Muawiyah also named his successor, which was a practice unheard of in the Arab world as a caliph did not inherit his position from his father, but rather was elected by the Caliphate’s leaders but to secure the new Caliphate’s succession, Muawiyah thought it would be better to adopt a hereditary succession like the Byzantines and Sassanids had. With the Arabs back in action again, the newly created Themes in Asia Minor were for the first time put into their full wartime function and here, the Anatolic and Armeniac Themes were able to hold out against the Caliphate’s attacks for a time though from 665 to 666, the Armeniac Theme had become more and more devastated from the Arab attacks which made their troops and their Strategos Saborios think that Constans being in Sicily gave up on the east allowing the Themes there to suffer defeats to the Arabs. In 667, the general Saborios of the Armeniac Theme decided that with Constans away and unable to protect Asia Minor, it was time for him to declare himself emperor against Constans and his family as there was no emperor to protect the east, but rather than continuing the war against the Arabs, Saborios instead asked for an alliance with Muawiyah sending word to Damascus agreeing to even pay tribute to the Umayyad Caliphate and in return Muawiyah agreed to it even sending some Arab troops to back Saborios’ rebellion, and in late 667 Saborios with the Armeniac Theme’s army marched west to Constantinople. In the meantime, the people of Constantinople were beginning to grow worried especially since their senior emperor Constans II had been away for 5 years now while the Arabs were gaining some success in invading Asia Minor, but right at the moment when everyone was starting to think hope was lost, an unlikely Byzantine Greek refugee from Arab occupied Syria, Kallinikos of Heliopolis arrived at young Constantine’s imperial court in Constantinople thinking Constans was there as he had plans of creating a superweapon that could destroy the Arab fleet which only needed the emperor’s approval.

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The Pantheon of Rome, parts stripped down by Constans II’s soldiers in 663

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Constans II in Sicily, art by Amelianvs


The Climax- Constans II Strikes Back (668-675)   

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While Muawiyah’s Arab armies were again putting pressure on Byzantium’s eastern borders and this time actually gaining an opportunity when allying with the usurping general Saborios, Constans was still in Sicily enjoying himself by again drinking and partying every night with his soldiers as well as with Mizizios, Alexios, and Philippikos as a way to make up for not being able to do this in his younger years while the people of Sicily were suffering by having to pay the heavy taxes Constans imposed on them, and with his oppressive way of ruling the Sicilians, they would start referring to Constans as the new Phocas- in this story’s case- the usurping emperor Constans’ grandfather deposed. Another thing Constans had done now in Sicily- which is only for this story- is that he started adopting the Chinese imperial practice Alexios and Philippikos had told him about which the Tang emperor of China Gaozong had done, eating fisheyes, a dish only reserved for the emperor and that everyone else who ate it was to be executed, and here Constans did just that as the Chinese emperor did by having everyone else who ate fisheyes executed that here in 668 he had about 40 people killed whether they were Sicilian fishermen or elites for simply eating fisheyes. The real turning point however for Constans’ life was on September 15, 668 when Constans went to the bathhouse of the imperial palace in Syracuse and here as he bathed, a Greek servant who was the only one in the room that was to scrub the emperor grabbed a bucket or rather a soap dish and used it to assassinate the emperor, which is how the contemporary historian of this time Theophilus of Edessa, who was a Greek working for the caliph described Constans’ death, therefore a very odd way of assassinating someone.

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Assassination of Constans II in real history with the use of a soap dish, 668

In this story’s case however, as the 37-year-old Constans was alone in the imperial baths to enjoy himself on the afternoon of September 15, he had noticed something different in the energy around him after this Greek servant put some soap over his eyes, and as the servant went further away from Constans to grab a soap dish, Constans in his usual paranoia feeling that the soap dish might be used against him got some water to wash his eyes, afterwards when able to see everything, he grabbed the servant by the leg dragging him into the pool whereas the heavy marble soap dish fell into the water sinking. While soaking in the pool water, Constans strangled the servant with his arm asking him if he really intended to kill him, and the servant replied saying he came into the baths to do just that. While Constans strangled him, the servant told him everything about the plot and that killing Constans in the baths was the easiest way since the palace in Syracuse was heavily guarded and the only way to get to Constans up close was to do it in the baths while no one else was around, not even the guards.

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Marble soap dish intended to kill Constans II

The servant too had said that earlier in that day, he got a letter with orders from Caliph Muawiyah in behalf of the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos Saborios in which both wanted Constans dead as Muawiyah feared that now with Constans in Sicily, he could easily take back Arab held Egypt from there as Muawiyah knew that when Constans was younger his forces took back Alexandria for a year, therefore believing Constans had the same intention again, while Saborios wanted Constans dead so he could fully take the throne without opposition believing Constans did not care at all about the eastern border. After Constans learned everything he needed to know form this servant, he strangled the servant to the point of unconsciousness with his bare arm and when knocked out, Constans dragged the servant up to the marble ground where Constans killed the servant ironically by smashing his head with the same marble soap dish meant to kill Constans, and afterwards the guards rushed into the baths as Constans put on a towel.

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Meme of Constans II’s assassination

And now history is fully altered here as Constans II survived his assassination and would continue ruling from Syracuse, but the big mystery now is why and who directed the assassination attempt on Constans II, and others here say it could be the people of Sicily who were totally over with his brutal taxation policy, or it could be some disgruntled soldiers who were tired of being in Sicily for so long and had wanted to return to Asia Minor, but the best reason could be that it was masterminded by Caliph Muawiyah who was given more insider information on the job by Saborios who knew Constans personally, except that Saborios did not know anything about Sicily but rather he knew Constans’ personal schedule, and for Muawiyah, he could sense that Constans was surely going to take back Egypt with Sicily as his base since Sicily was much closer than Constantinople to Egypt and for the Arabs, Egypt too had proved to be a very valuable asset.

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Seal of Caliph Muawiyah I

In this story’s case, Constans being in Sicily had now changed his mind as when he was a young ruler, he thought when Egypt was fully lost in 646 there was no more hope in taking it back, but now the much older Constans was fully intent to take it back as it also meant resuming their trade with India and China due to access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. With Constans now surviving the assassination attempt unlike in real history, he would meet with Alexios and Philippikos in the Syracuse palace where he would once again ask them to return by land to Tang China, this time to ask for a military alliance with Emperor Gaozong to counter-attack the Arabs from the east as Constans here knew from the servant who tried to kill him that Muawiyah was again set to direct more attacks on Byzantium after allying with the rebellious general Saborios, and Constans here even with the Themes did not have much men to face off the full might of the Arabs, therefore if the Chinese forces were to attack the Arabs from the east in Central Asia, the farthest the Caliphate extended to in the east, then this would distract the Arabs making them have to focus their attention east. Alexios and Philippikos then set sail to Constantinople by ship first to inform Constans’ family that he was almost killed but had survived and that they must ready themselves for a full Arab attack, and from there they would sail for Cherson in the Crimea where they would again journey east by land back to Tang China’s capital Chang’an. Now in real history, following Constans’ assassination, his army in Sicily proclaimed their general Mizizios as emperor against his will while in Constantinople, the 16-year-old Constantine IV became the senior emperor, and only when seeing coins with Mizizios’ face on it did he deal with Mizizios by travelling to Sicily himself in 669 to deal with Mizizios’ forces, although the army of the Exarch of Africa loyal to Constans had already sailed north to Sicily where they beat Mizizios’ forces and had already executed Mizizios- despite Mizizios having no part in Constans’ assassination- by the time Constantine IV had arrived there. In this story however with Constans surviving, Mizizios would have no reason to become emperor as he had no ambition anyway as could be seen with his reserved personality, so here Constans with Mizizios would plan their reconquest of the rest of North Africa as well as Cyrenaica and Egypt with the then Exarch of Africa Eleutherios, while the Exarch of Ravenna Theodore- who in real history had died in 666, but for this story’s sake would still be alive- would be put in charge of continuing the defense of Italy against the Lombards.

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Syracuse in the Byzantine era, Constans II’s new capital

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Damascus, capital of the Umayyad Caliphate beginning 661

           

For the past 5 years now, young Constantine IV had been put in charge of Constantinople’s administration while his father was away in Sicily, and in these 5 years, young Constantine had learned to be a strong and competent emperor. In this story’s case, in 668 rather than getting word that his father had been assassinated, Alexios and Philippikos at their arrival in Constantinople instead told young Constantine that his father now intended to divide the empire whereas Constans II would rule from Syracuse and Constantine IV from Constantinople, so therefore Constans in his letter asked Constantine to crown himself emperor, which he did here in 668 at the age of 16, and now Byzantium had 2 reigning senior emperors as Constantine’s younger brothers Heraclius and Tiberius remained as junior co-emperors.

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