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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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


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

Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

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

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople


The Leading Characters:

Manuel I Komnenos- Byzantine emperor (1143-1180)

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

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

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

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

Andronikos Kontostephanos- Byzantine general and aristocrat

Andronikos Angelos- Byzantine general and aristocrat, father of Isaac

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

Alexios Branas- Byzantine general and usurper

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

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

Bela III- King of Hungary (1172-1196)

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

Ivan Asen I- Tsar of the new Bulgaria 

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

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

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


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

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

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

Seal of the Seljuk Empire

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

Council of Clermont, Beginning of the First Crusade, 1095

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

Peter the Hermit leads the People’s Crusade, 1096

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

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

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

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

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

The First Crusade on the march

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

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

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

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

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

Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos

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

Hyperpyron coin of Alexios I

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

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

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

Seljuk Turk army ride into Asia Minor

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

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

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

Map of the newly established Crusader States of Outrmer (Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem), 1100
King Sigurd I of Norway in Constantinople, 1110
Cypriot - The Royal wedding of Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina K - (MeisterDrucke-320920)
Feasting and court life in the reign of Alexios I Komnenos mosaic

The Reign of John II Komnenos (1118-1143)          


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

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

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

Emperor John II Comnenus, Hagia Sofia in Istanbul
Emperor John II Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1118-1143), son of Alexios I

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

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

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

Seal of the Republic of Venice

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

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

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

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

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

Seal of John II Komnenos in Venice

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

John II and his wife Empress Irene “Piroska”

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

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

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

Crusader Principality of Antioch seal

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

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

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

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

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

The Reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1176)           


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norman knight in Italy, 12th century

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

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

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

Flag of the Principality of Armenia in Cilicia

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

Reynald de Chatillon bows down before Emperor Manuel I, 1159

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

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

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

Manuel I Komnenos, art by Justinianus the Great

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

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

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

Vlach people, 12th century

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

Yaroslav Osmomysyl, Rus Prince of Galicia

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

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

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

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

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

Seal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

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

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

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

Manuel I Komnenos, art by Spatharokandidatos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Manuel I Komnenos and his wife Maria of Antioch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos Komnenos, cousin of Manuel I, art by Skamandros

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Angelos, youngest of Andronikos Angelos’ 6 sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andronikos I Komnenos face icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185

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

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

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

Pope Urban III

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

Sicilian Necktie sample

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

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

Aftermath and Conclusion          


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pageant of Kings: The Mighty King of Chivalry
3rd Crusade led by Richard I of England arrives in Outremer, 1191

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Decline of Western Rome and Eastern rome compared- Crisis of the 3rd Century and the 11th century crisis

Posted by Powee Celdran



Hello and welcome back to another article from the Byzantium Blogger and this time I’m back again with my usual Roman/ Byzantine history posts and this one is going to be an extra special article. My last post was quite unrelated featuring a different part of history in a totally different place discussing the 4 defenestrations of Prague in which 2 of them had a major impact on history though that article was only meant to be a stand-alone experimental one while this one I’m doing now is back again to something else I want to discuss about Roman and Byzantine history and again will be an extension to the Roman-Byzantine comparison series I did a few months ago. Very few empires in history lasted as long as the Roman Empire (including the Byzantine Empire) and its history lasted so long that you could compare it to itself and in the case I will be comparing the decline and fall of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire to the original Roman Empire or more or less the Western Roman Empire before it. It might seem a bit odd that I’m comparing the same empire to itself but since almost 1,000 years went by between the fall of the Western Empire and Eastern Empire there were so many changes that happened in between most notably that the Eastern Empire despite coming from the original Roman Empire became more and more centered in the east with Constantinople as its capital and its language and culture becoming Greek. The same way I am comparing the same empire to itself would be explained by how for example the Star Wars movies’ story of the original trilogy repeats itself in the sequel trilogy set 30 years later or how the story of the Karate Kid films in many ways repeats itself in its sequel series Cobra Kai, and now for Roman history the story more or less repeats itself almost a thousand years later come Byzantine history through events happening and people running the empire. This kind of article will be my also be my attempt in doing something like the Greek historian in the Roman era Plutarch would do which was comparing the stories of notable people of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome through biographies, and here I will do something just like that telling the stories of notable Byzantine emperors and characters comparing them with their Roman emperor predecessors. This article will show you the story of Byzantium from the 11th century to 12th century compared side by side with the history of the Roman Empire from the late 2nd to early 4th centuries. Of course, when comparing the Eastern Roman Empire to the Western Roman Empire’s story, not all events are exactly the same but rather very similar to each other and in fact you can compare many of the late Byzantine emperors to the Roman emperors in the decline era of Rome but as you would see the biggest difference is that the decline of Western Rome was happened through a quick 200 year period which included the 3rd Century Crisis that led to the empire to change forever and in the process creating the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century which then was fully separated from the west in 395 and in less than 100 years the Western Empire fell in 476 leaving the east as Byzantium to stand for a thousand more years but the decline of the Eastern Empire was long and steady as Byzantine history over these thousand years had many ups and downs but in the 11th century after an era of success and prosperity, the Byzantine Empire would go through the same 3rd Century Crisis the west did almost a thousand years before it but it would take Byzantium 400 more years to die out that it even went through a period of revival and even a temporary fall for 57 years in the 13th century and again another revival of the empire though as a much smaller state for 200 years before finally falling in 1453. At the end, it would turn out that a lot of Byzantine emperors and their Roman emperor predecessors have a lot in common not so much in personality but very much in the given situation their empire is in under them. Now this article will stop at the end of the 12th century for the Byzantine story and at the later half of the 4th century for the original Roman Empire’s story as it would be too long to compare both empires up until the end, this I will do in the second part of this article. Basically, this article ending in the 4th century for Imperial Rome and the 13th century for Byzantium will be more or less comparing the declines and not falls of both empires. On the other hand, this article is going to focus more on comparing late-era Byzantine emperors to their predecessor Roman emperors wherein you can see that most of them have a lot in common like the Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071) with the Roman emperor Valerian (r. 253-260), Byzantine emperor Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071-1078) with the Roman emperor Gallienus (r. 253-268), and the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) with the Roman emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275). Now the format of this article will be focusing on the present which is Byzantium being compared to its past which is Imperial Rome but at the end, the whole point of this article is to show that history repeats itself no matter how many centuries go by and whether it happens in the same empire with the same people or in another part of the world. To compare the stories of the Roman and Byzantine Empires you cannot start from the beginning as the Byzantine Empire was born out of the Roman Empire, therefore it is best to start with the reign of Emperor Basil II of Byzantium at the end of the 10th century and already you can see parallels of it with the era of Rome’s golden age in the 2nd century. Of course, this article will have some fun into it with the use of memes and mentions of my favorite Youtube channel on Roman history, Dovahhatty and though it would be very long, it will be straighter to the point.     

Byzantine Empire flag
Crossover flag of the Roman and Byzantine Empires
Screen Shot 2020-12-09 at 2.59.53 AM
Roman (left) and Byzantine (right) emperors comparison table

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

The Defenestrations of Prague (special edition stand-alone)

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

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

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part1 (300-1000)

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part2 (1000-1461)

Roman and Byzantine Imperial Systems Compared

Roman and Byzantine Imperial Cultures Compared

Imperial Women in the Roman and Byzantine Empires

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine emperors and dynasties

Related Videos:

Roman Emperors and their Deeds Part1 (from Tiny Library).

Roman Emperors and their Deeds Part2 (from Tiny Library).

Succession in the Byzantine Empire (from Eastern Roman History).

The History of the Byzantine Empire Every Month (from Khey Pard).

The reign of Basil II of Byzantium (976-1025) to the 5 Good Emperors of Rome (96-180) and Constantine VIII (1025-1028) to Commodus (180-192)


When Western Rome fell in 476, the east stood much stronger as the Byzantine Empire and in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), the Byzantine Empire was at its greatest extent taking back most of the lost western provinces like North Africa, Italy, and Southern Spain but constant war and too much expansion weakened the empire’s treasury that a devastating war with the Sassanid Persian Empire in the 7th century permanently stopped Byzantium from becoming as large as Imperial Rome before it was. The 7th century also was the beginning of the Arab expansion and the beginning for Byzantium’s constant wars against Muslim powers and because of this, Byzantium went through a 200-year dark age losing so much territory and having to fight for its survival but in the 9th century the tide changed and Byzantium fought on the offensive again pushing the Arab invaders away from imperial territory in Asia Minor beginning to expand the empire again. In the 10th century, Byzantium entered a new golden age under the Macedonian Dynasty with scholarly emperors like Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) and Constantine VII (r. 913-959) who promoted Byzantine culture as well as strong military emperors like Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944), Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), and John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976) who expanded imperial territory again to the east winning wars against the Arabs. This golden age of 10th century Byzantium is very much the same as the golden age of Imperial Rome in the 1st century known as the age of the 5 Good Emperors Nerva (r. 96-98AD), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (r. 117-138), Antoninus Pius (r. 138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) with his co-emperor Lucius Verus (r. 161-169) who can be considered as the 6th good emperor. This age of the 5 Good Emperors saw the Roman Empire at its greatest extent stretching north to south from Britain to Egypt and west to east from Portugal to the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf, yet it was also an age of cultural superiority, military power, and great prosperity known as the Pax Romana as the whole empire was connected to each other by roads and sea routes allowing good to be traded all over and soldiers to easily protect its borders. For Byzantium, it was the 50-year reign of Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty (976-1025) when the empire was at its greatest extent again north to south from The Crimea in Ukraine to Syria and west to east from Southern Italy to Armenia though not as large as Byzantium in the 6th century wherein it controlled the whole Mediterranean. Unlike the Roman Empire of the 2nd century which was a total world power that no one could beat as it basically won almost every war it fought and in fact in the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161) it was truly at peace, Byzantium in the 10th century meanwhile fought non-stop wars of expansion and by the time Basil II came to power in 976, the Byzantine Empire expanded as far as the Levant (Lebanon and Israel) but to the north, the Bulgarian Empire which had been at war with Byzantium since the late 7th century was still a threat. Basil II would later be one of Byzantium’s most famous emperors next to Constantine I the Great and Justinian I the Great but he came to power with a troubled start fighting a civil war against the general Bardas Skleros between 976 and 979 and again from 987-990 as well as against the general Bardas Phokas the Younger from 987 to 989 and Basil II was able to defeat the rebellions with the use of a new unit in the army which was the Varangian Guard made up of Nordic and Russian warriors given to him as a gift from the Prince of Kievan Rus’ Vladimir I in exchange for marrying Basil II’s sister Anna. Just like Imperial Rome in the 2nd century which was seen as a superior power by all around it, Byzantium in the 10th and early 11th centuries was seen the same way that for the Rus prince Vladimir to marry a Byzantine princess was such a great deal as Byzantium had become respected and feared by all with Basil II’s predecessors fighting hard to expand it again. As for Basil II, there is no particular 2nd century Roman emperor you can compare him to but it is most likely that he can be very much be compared to all the 5 good emperors first with Nerva (r. 96-98) as both Basil II and Nerva were known for issuing fairer reforms for their people, also with Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117) since Basil II like Trajan expanded their empire to its greatest extent, improved the military to an unbeatable force, and secured peace within the empire, also Basil II too can be compared to Trajan successor Hadrian as Basil II like Hadrian travelled all over their empire to make sure it was working efficiently and like Trajan and Hadrian Basil II worked hard to reform the empire’s class and tax system by limiting the military aristocracy and giving the land back to the original people who owned the land taken from them. As for Hadrian’s successor Antoninus Pius who he adopted to take the place as emperor for Hadrian’s actual appointed successors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as they grow up, Basil II’s reign does not really have a lot in common with Pius since Pius’ long reign was a time of relative peace wherein Pius never even left Italy whereas Basil II never really spent time in Constantinople except the peace brought within Byzantium during Basil II’s reign is comparable with Antoninus Pius’ reign as some historians say; Basil II though personally led his army to the point where he built a special connection with them wherein his soldiers would see him as a father. Now Imperial Rome’s golden age closes with the successful reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) who ruled with his adoptive brother Lucius Verus from 161 to Verus’ death in 169 and though this time was still successful, the decline would already begin as Rome would be in a devastating war against their mortal enemy, the Persian Parthian Empire which brought the Antonine Plague or smallpox pandemic to the Roman Empire which killed Lucius Verus and later Marcus Aurelius. This smallpox outbreak in the empire also weakened the soldiers in the northern borders giving the Germanic tribes the advantage to invade the empire in what would be the Macromannic Wars from 166 to 180 which did not end with Rome gaining any new lands but just repelling the Germanic invasions. Like Marcus Aurelius who grew up learning to be an emperor from Hadrian and Antoninus Pius’ who he was the adopted son of, Basil II had been a junior emperor since he was a young boy as he was born in 958 when his grandfather Constantine VII was reigning and in 959 Basil’s father Romanos II succeeded his father as emperor making Basil co-emperor in 960 but in 963 with Romanos II suddenly died making Basil’s mother Theophano marry the empire’s top general who became Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas who was assassinated in 969 by John I Tzimiskes who took over as emperor but died in 976 and while both Nikephoros II and John I were emperors, Basil as well as his younger brother Constantine remained as co-emperors. Though Basil II was the true emperor in 976, he was already challenged by John I’s general Bardas Skleros who was defeated by Basil II’s forces led by Bardas Phokas in 979 but in his early reign Basil had to banish his advisor who was also named Basil in order to rule alone which he wanted to do but at the beginning it was a disaster as in 986 when leading the army, he faced a heavy defeat to the Bulgarians at the Battle of Trajan’s Gate which made Basil II decide to spend more time improving the army and having a lifelong anger towards the Bulgarians who he vowed to destroy. Like Marcus Aurelius who’s reign was challenged in 175 by the governor of Egypt Avidius Cassius who thinking the emperor died in the Macromannic Wars declared himself emperor only to later be assassinated by loyalist forces, Basil II meanwhile faced 2 massive rebellions by Bardas Phokas and Bardas Skleros in which both declared themselves emperors but eventually Basil defeated both allowing him to prioritize his conquest of Bulgaria but it did not happen immediately as he had to deal with conflicts with the Arab Fatimid Caliphate which was based in Egypt. In 1014, Basil II finally defeated the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion and blinded his prisoners sending them back to Bulgaria allegedly killing the Bulgarian tsar Samuil by shock after seeing his men blinded, then with the Bulgarian ruler dead and their army destroyed, the Bulgarian Empire could not do anything but surrender itself and by 1018, the Bulgarian Empire was fully absorbed into Byzantium and for this Basil II would be remembered as “Basil the Bulgar-Slayer”. With the Bulgarian Empire now dissolved and becoming a province of the Byzantine Empire, Basil II turned his attention east to conquer the Armenian states which he absorbed most of them through diplomacy but at this moment, Basil’s general Nikephoros Xiphias staged a rebellion which was immediately dealt with. With Basil II’s conquest of the Bulgarian Empire, all the other powers around them came to fear Byzantium choosing not to attack it anymore or else suffer the same fate as Bulgaria. Now what both Marcus Aurelius and Basil II have in common is that they both spent most of their reigns leading armies in battle but Marcus Aurelius was a well-known stoic philosopher famous for his book Meditations while Basil II was overall a warrior and did not care much about books and knowledge whereas it was his grandfather Constantine VII that was like Marcus Aurelius in that way but the one thing they had in common was that their reign saw the golden age of their empires as well as the end of it and for both the reason why it was the end of the golden age had to do with succession as for Marcus Aurelius he had no other choice for a legitimate successor but his son Commodus appointed as his father’s co-emperor in 177, who was not capable of being a ruler and for Basil II he never married and never had children but luckily his younger brother Constantine was his co-emperor ever since and as Basil II was the strong warrior emperor, Constantine was the skilled administrator. Basil II though had planned the Byzantine reconquest of Sicily but died in 1025 at age 67 before he could do it but even if he had no children to succeed him, the succession was still smooth as his brother immediately took over as Emperor Constantine VIII. Basil II may be Byzantium’s longest reigning ruler though despite his long reign there are not much sources written about it but true enough his brother Constantine VIII ruled longer as co-emperor ever since 962 but was only the sole emperor for 3 years (1025-1028) at the end of his life as an old man. If Basil II was a very powerful emperor respected and feared by most, Constantine VIII did not have the same presence as his older brother, instead Constantine VIII was a decadent pleasure-loving ruler but in fairness to him was actually a skilled administrator and statesman. It is not really that fair though to compare Constantine VIII to Marcus Aurelius’ son and successor Commodus (r. 180-192) as Commodus was one of Rome’s worst emperors who was at most times paranoid and suspicious of everyone and totally neglected state affairs and rather chose to be fighting as a gladiator in the Colosseum while many plots were made to kill him as well and not to mention Commodus out of vanity renamed Rome into Colonia Commodiana after himself out of vanity; while Constantine VIII at least cared about the empire except he did not really have much experience and was already too old for the job so he instead chose to focus on the life of pleasure which makes him like Commodus in this sense. Also, like Commodus who had shown great cruelty by enjoying fighting crippled soldiers in the arena as a way to cheat in order to win, Constantine VIII also had a cruel streak wherein he enjoyed watching those who opposed him be blinded whether they really committed a crime or not. The biggest similarity between Constantine VIII and Commodus though was that they both kept purging political enemies and their reigns rapidly undid the hard work of their predecessors as Constantine VIII easily listened to his scheming advisors and undid Basil II’s land laws thus returning the military aristocracy to their estates while Commodus just abandoning his duties to fight in the arena left the massive Roman Empire with no one to watch over it as a whole leading to generals to later start rebellions to claim the empire. For Commodus, his kind of rule got him hated by everyone especially the Roman Senate and Praetorian Guard so at the end of 192, the senators had Commodus’ wrestling partner strangle him to death in his bath thus starting a succession crisis and civil war in the year 193 wherein the empire would end up having 5 emperors but for Constantine VIII though he died naturally in 1028 after ruling for only 3 years as the sole emperor, he at least chose a successor so no civil war happened. Constantine VIII originally chose a capable general named Constantine Dalessenos as his heir but changing his mind last minute after again listening to his advisors who wanted their friend, the inexperienced senator Romanos Argyros to be his heir as he was someone that could be easily controlled. Constantine VIII went with Romanos and forced the latter to marry his daughter Zoe or be blinded so Romanos married Zoe and right after Constantine VIII died, Romanos succeeded as emperor.

b 1025
The Byzantine Empire (red) at the death of of Basil II, 1025

The Roman Empire at its height, at the death of Emperor Trajan in 117

5 Good Emperors of the Roman Empire (96-180AD)- Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius

The 5 Good Emperors of the Roman Empire by Dovahhatty

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Co-emperors Lucius Verus (left) and Marcus Aurelius (right), r. 161-169
Constantine VIII- Commodus
Left: Emperor Constantine VIII of Byzantium (r. 1025-1028); Right: Roman Emperor Commodus (r. 180-192)

Watch this to learn more about the life and reign of Emperor Basil II of Byzantium (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to learn more about the life and reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to see the story of Rome’s 5 Good Emperors (from Dovahhatty).

Watch this to learn more about the reign of Roman emperor Commodus (from Kings and Generals).

Romanos III Argyros (1028-1034) to Pertinax and Didius Julianus (193)


Succeeding Constantine VIII in 1028 was his new son-in-law Romanos III Argyros who was at first an inexperienced senator but when becoming emperor, he had a change of heart and wanted to try his best at being a ruler but he lacked the skills to do so. Romanos III would want to emulate the 5 Good Emperors especially Trajan in terms of military might and Marcus Aurelius in being the “philosopher king” and also be like Justinian the Great, so to emulate the 6th century Justinian, Romanos III carried out the construction of many churches in Constantinople but in military matters, Romanos III was a failure by personally leading a useless campaign in 1030 against Arab raiders in Syria which happened to be so disorganized that it failed going as far as making this defeat a laughing stock. Whereas Romanos III at least succeeded to the throne peacefully following the death of Constantine VIII, the death of Emperor Commodus in 192 created unrest in the empire but the Praetorian Guard would not just have an emperor killed without a plan so to fill in the power vacuum, they dragged the general Pertinax for the position of emperor though he was unwilling for the job and here Rome’s name returned to Rome and like Pertinax, Romanos III was also unwilling for it until he became emperor but unlike Pertinax who was a skilled soldier, Romanos III lacked in military ability and when Pertinax became emperor he also had a change of heart and wanted to reform the military and Praetorian Guard though Pertinax only came to power because the Praetorian Guard put him there thus expecting a bribe from them but Pertinax was a disciplinarian who did not want to bribe them but true enough the treasury was empty so it would take much longer to pay them off. The Praetorian Guard still did not believe Pertinax and after only 3 months in power, Pertinax was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard whereas Romanos III of Byzantium reigned for 6 years though for Pertinax, after his death there was a power vacuum again so the Praetorian Guard had to get a new emperor by selling the position of it and true enough it was bought by an extremely rich man in Rome named Didius Julianus who could finally pay off their bribe by buying the throne. Now Didius Julianus would be one of Rome’s most ineffective emperors and the fact that he bought the throne triggered the provincial governors to rebel in which 3 proclaimed themselves emperors which were Pescennius Niger in Syria, Clodius Albinus in Britain, and Septimius Severus in Pannonia and for this 193 would be the Year of 5 Emperors and as for Romanos III, he was like Julianus in the sense of being an ineffective ruler but Romanos III unlike Julianus did not buy the throne but like Julianus who was seen as a joke for literally buying the throne, Romanos III too was seen as a joke for daring to lead military campaigns despite having no experience of it. Their reigns were troubled with many usurpers too as in the case of Julianus it was Clodius Albinus, Pescennius Niger, and Septimius Severus and for Romanos III, a Bulgarian prince named Presian attempted to usurp the throne in 1029 but was blinded and also in 1029 the general Constantine Diogenes tried to take the throne but when his plot was discovered he was beaten in public and sent to a monastery but in 1032, Romanos III went to campaign in the east again and with the emperor away, Constantine Diogenes left the monastery and declared himself emperor but Romanos discovered the plot and confronted Constantine but wanting to avoid torture, Constantine instead killed himself by jumping off the palace walls. As for Didius Julianus, he met his end also in 193 when Septimius Severus and his forces arrived outside Rome wherein Julianus was executed in prison by Severus’ men thus Septimius Severus became emperor. Now the big similarity you would see between both Pertinax and Julianus with Romanos III was their violent end as both Pertinax and Julianus in 193 were killed by the army although for Romanos III, he was not killed by rebellious soldiers, instead in 1034 he was killed in a plot hatched by his wife Empress Zoe, the daughter of Constantine VIII as the marriage of Zoe and Romanos III was not a happy one so Zoe instead made a young court official Michael the Paphlagonian her lover despite being decades older than him and the same day Zoe and Michael married, Romanos III was drowned to death in his bath, now with this kind of death you can see a similarity between Commodus and Romanos III.


Michael IV the Paphlagonian (1034-1041) to Septimius Severus (193-211)


After Romanos III was killed in his bath, Michael IV the Paphlagonian after marrying Empress Zoe, the wife of Romanos III became emperor, though Zoe thought Michael would be a better husband than Romanos III, instead Michael wanted to rule alone so he limited Zoe’s powers and confined her to the palace. Michael IV would be a better emperor in terms of military matters than Romanos III as Michael was an energetic ruler who took care of all the happenings all over the empire making him like Emperor Septimius Severus of Rome who when coming into power in 193 began rebuilding the strength of the empire that had weakened with Commodus in power, whereas Michael IV spend his reign rebuilding Byzantium as a military power as it was under Basil II. Michael IV though was a peasant in origin from Paphlagonia who began working as a money changer before being recommended by his brother John who worked in the imperial court to become a court official too whereas Septimius Severus was a general long before he became emperor serving under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus and also Severus was of Roman patrician background though of Punic and North African descent originating in today’s Libya. Like Septimius Severus who had to deal with a long civil war in the beginning of his reign first against the usurper in the east Pescennius Niger who was defeated in 194 and later with Clodius Albinus in the west who Severus defeated in 197 as Albinus killed himself while Michael IV on the other hand when coming into power in 1034 had to deal with a usurper in Serbia being a local prince named Stefan Vojislav who Michael immediately had arrested and jailed in Constantinople, also in the same year Michael arrested the same Constantine Dalassenos who Constantine VIII originally chose as a successor since Dalassenos also plotted against the emperor, then again later in 1040 a Byzantine noble named Michael Keroularios plotted to overthrow Michael IV but was sent to a monastery to be a monk as a punishment and as for Septimius Severus, later into his reign in 205 he discovered a plot against him by the Praetorian Prefect Plautianus who he had executed. Like Septimius Severus who hated government administration as an emperor and preferred military campaigns over it, Michael IV was the same in that way as he would rather be out with his army leaving the administration to his brother John despite Michael IV suffering from epilepsy. Also, like Septimius Severus who launched several yet successful but also brutal campaigns into Parthian territory, Arabia, North Africa, and even Scotland annexing more land into the empire at the same time building many new structures including cities like Palmyra and Leptis Magna, whereas Michael IV in his short reign had put all his focus on war punishing the Arab raiders raiding eastern Asia Minor wherein he was able to defeat the Arabs and annex Edessa back to the empire and in the west Michael IV greatest success though not taking part in the action was the near reconquest of Sicily in 1038 in which his general George Maniakes basically retook the whole island from the Arabs until his Lombard allies and Norman mercenaries revolted against him unhappy with their pay but just as Maniakes was going to deal with them, he was recalled to Constantinople as the emperor feared he was starting a plot so Sicily was never taken back by the Byzantines and would later fall to the Normans. For Septimius Severus his life would come to an end in 211 due to sickness while campaigning in Britain against the Picts of Scotland while Michael IV in 1040 with his failing health still thought of leading his army in person as by this time the Serbian prince Vojislav who Michael had jailed escaped and established his own principality known as Duklja in Serbia but the bigger threat to the empire was in Bulgaria as a Bulgarian local named Delyan declared himself the Emperor Peter II of Bulgaria rebelling against Byzantium so Michael IV led his army into Macedonia to confront the Bulgarian rebels and why the Byzantine force here had the advantage was because they had the Varangian Guard force with them and in it was the future King of Norway Harald Hardrada. The Byzantines were successfully able to capture Peter Delyan in 1041 and Delyan was assassinated by his cousin Alusian who sided with the Byzantines and got Delyan drunk thus blinding him and sent him to Constantinople to be executed while the Byzantine forces defeated the last of Delyan’s rebel forces. Not so long after defeating the Bulgarian rebellion, Michael IV died in Constantinople in 1041 at only 31 whereas Septimius Severus ruled the Roman Empire for 18 years dying at age 65 in 211 leaving the empire to his sons Caracalla and Geta founding the Severan Dynasty though the brothers would not agree with each other and in late 211 Geta was killed and Caracalla though accomplishing a lot such as constructing the massive baths in Rome under his name and granting citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire for taxes only ruled until 217 as he was assassinated in Syria in plot led by his Praetorian Prefect Macrinus who took over as emperor but a year later, the forces loyal to the Severans supported Caracalla’s nephew from his mother’s side Elagabalus as a puppet emperor so Macrinus’ forces were defeated outside Antioch and as Macrinus fled he was executed. For Michael IV, before his death in 1041, his brother John forced Michael’s wife Zoe to adopt Michael and John’s nephew also named Michael in order to be the next emperor and with Michael IV dead in late 1041, Michael V came to power.

Michael IV- Septimius Severus
Left: Emperor Michael IV of Byzantium (r. 1034-1041); right: Roman emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211)
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Roman emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211) with usurper emperors Pescennius Niger (left) and Clodius Albinus (right)

Watch this to see the story of Emperor Septimius Severus and the Severan Dynasty (from Dovahhatty).

Michael V (1041-1042) to Elagabalus (218-222) and Constantine IX (1042-1055) to Severus Alexander (222-235)


Michael IV’s nephew and successor Michael V had the title of Kalaphates meaning “caulker” which was his father’s occupation and this would make Michael V the last Byzantine emperor coming from an ordinary background and coming into power, Michael V was around 25. In Ancient Rome, the parallel ruler of Michael V was Elagabalus who came into power in 218 at only 14 thus being a puppet to his mother Julia Soaemias and grandmother being his mother’s mother Julia Maesa, sister of Septimius Severus’ wife Julia Domna but as emperor, Elagabalus would not do much in terms of managing the empire, rather his degenerate behavior made him so unpopular and worse his focus was on completely altering Roman religion by replacing their gods with the foreign sun god the Syrians worshiped in which he was named after whereas Michael V of Byzantium was not really mentioned for having any degenerate behavior but as an emperor he was scandalous too and was plainly careless and undid all of his uncle Michael IV’s hard work. For Michael V, the powerful woman behind him was his co-ruler and stepmother Empress Zoe and for Elagabalus it was his mother and grandmother who basically ran the empire for him while Elagabalus was busy either enjoying life or trying to make his new religion official, although it was Elagabalus who made December 25 a popular festival day for the sun god which later would evolve to becoming Christmas Day but on the downside, Elagabalus’ behavior shocked society such as when he married a Vestal Virgin, openly had male lovers, and even thought of having a sex change. Elagabalus would only rule for 4 years meeting his end in 222 when his grandmother feeling he was becoming too independent and not the puppet she wanted named his cousin Severus Alexander as her new puppet and soon enough the Praetorian Guards killed off Elagabalus and his mother while Michael V after only 4 months in power became very unpopular after he banished his co-ruler Empress Zoe accusing her of trying to poison him but since she was popular the people rioted and demanded her back and when she came back, the mob declared her and her sister Theodora as the new rulers making Michael V flee to a monastery where he was later found, arrested, and blinded dying in August of 1042.

For about 2 months from April to June of 1042, Zoe ruled with her sister Theodora as co-rulers but a man was needed to run the empire so Zoe married the senator Constantine Monomachos who became Emperor Constantine IX who would prove to be another weak ruler and in Imperial Rome, Constantine IX is very much like Elagabalus’ cousin and successor Severus Alexander (r. 222-235) as both ruled an empire in a relative time of stability but were weak in making decisions yet had also faced many external threats. What both Constantine IX and Severus Alexander had in common was that they were pleasure-loving emperors and had powerful women with them as for Alexander it was his mother Julia Mammea and grandmother Julia Maesa before she died early in his reign and Alexander unlike Elagabalus would be an easier puppet to manipulate being only 14 when coming to power but for Constantine IX he was much older being 42 and actually the one in power while his wife Zoe was only seen as more powerful because of her lineage being one of the last of the Macedonian Dynasty as a daughter of Constantine VIII, and if Alexander’s mother and grandmother were the powerful women with him, for Constantine IX it was his wife Zoe and her sister Theodora. For Constantine IX, his early reign was faced by revolts by a number of generals including Theophilos Erotikos’s revolt in Cyprus in 1042 and the same George Maniakes of the Sicilian campaign this time in Southern Italy from 1042 to 1043, however both rebellions were crushed but in 1047, Constantine IX’s nephew Leo Tornikios also tried to seize power but was defeated when Constantine bribed his men to betray him when besieging Constantinople and Alexander like Constantine IX faced many military revolts all over the empire as they did not accept a boy ruler being his mother’s puppet and more than that, he even reduced their pay which his predecessors Septimius Severus and Caracalla increased to make a more sufficient army. Constantine IX though in 1045 would expand Byzantine territory all the way to today’s Armenia annexing the Kingdom of Ani but in 1046, the Byzantines would encounter a new enemy for the first time which were the Seljuk Turks from Central Asia which they battled for the first time with in 1046 with the battle remaining indecisive and as for Alexander 800 years earlier, Rome faced a new enemy from the east being the Sassanid Empire which had just defeated the Parthian Empire and by 231 under their first ruler Ardashir I, they began invading Roman territory in Asia Minor and Syria wherein Alexander after failing to negotiate peace with them confronted them in battle in 233 which turned out to indecisive but at least he took back parts of Mesopotamia. For Constantine IX, it was not only the Turks that he had to face but the Nomadic Pechenegs in the north at the Danube border and for Alexander 800 years earlier, he also had to face a new wave of invading Germanic tribes in the Rhine but instead of fighting an actual war, Alexander turned to bribing them but worse he used the money to pay his troops to bribe the Germanic tribes. In terms of economic policies, Constantine IX and Alexander were very much alike as Constantine IX restored the aristocracy to controlling land thus continuing Byzantium’s Pronoia feudal system while Alexander undid his predecessors’ policies in increasing army pay and power by cutting their pay to save up money and pay off their enemies to not attack. Now the biggest similarity both Constantine IX and Severus Alexander had was the length of their reigns both ruling for 13 years and both their reigns would be a short time of stability before their empire would be plunged into chaos that could not be fixed anymore. Constantine IX though would attempt to unite with the pope by uniting the Byzantine Church with the Western Latin Church when the Normans began attacking Italy but in 1054, Constantinople’s Patriarch who was the same Michael Keroularios Michael IV made a monk refused to adopt practices of the Western Church and excommunicated the pope’s legates which also made the pope excommunicate the Patriarch thus beginning the Great Schism that would permanently split the Byzantine and Latin Churches forever which was the biggest disaster of Constantine IX’s reign but for religious policies, Constantine IX actually thought of Eastern and Western Church unity but had persecuted the Armenian Church forcing them to unite with Byzantium’s Church whereas Severus Alexander was more tolerant in religious policy giving Christian and Jewish minorities freedom of practicing their faith. Constantine IX died in 1055 a year after the split of the Churches and was succeeded by Zoe’s sister Theodora ruling as sole empress as Zoe had already died in 1050 but Theodora only ruled for a year though Constantine named the general in Bulgaria Nikephoros Proteuon as his successor but Theodora came to power first and arrested Nikephoros but in the next year (1056), Theodora died and left the throne to her secretary who became Emperor Michael VI who had the same policy Severus Alexander had of neglecting the army triggering them to rebel and for Alexander while he was in the legions’ camp in Germania (in today’s Mainz), he was killed together with his mother by rebellious soldiers who demanded their pay which was paid to the Germanic tribes and without an emperor, the soldiers named their centurion Maximinus Thrax as emperor while for Michael VI his attitude towards the army triggered many revolts which were put down but in 1057, the general Isaac Komnenos succeeded in overthrowing Michael VI thus becoming the next emperor.


Michael V- Elagabalus
Left: Emperor Michael V of Byzantium (r. 1041-1042); right: Roman emperor Elagabalus (r. 218-222)
Constantine IX- Severus Alexander
Left: Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos of Byzantium (r. 1042-155); right: Roman emperor Severus Alexander (r. 222-235)
Mosaic of Emperor Constantine IX and Empress Zoe

11th Century Crisis to 3rd Century Crisis and Isaac I Komnenos (1057-1059) to Maximinus Thrax (235-238)


Imperial Rome went through the Crisis of the 3rd Century beginning with Maximinus Thrax coming into power in 235 and ending with Diocletian coming into power in 284 and this 50 year period was defined by countless civil wars, external invasions on all frontiers of the empire by new foreign enemies, military takeovers and anarchy, and economic collapse and this crisis would lead to the Roman Empire’s division between east and west with the east eventually becoming the Byzantine Empire and some 800 years after Rome’s 3rd Century Crisis, its successor being the Byzantine Empire underwent the same situation in the 11th Century Crisis beginning with the end of the long reigning Macedonian Dynasty in 1056 and ending with the accession of Alexios I Komnenos to the throne in 1081. For Byzantium, the crisis period was only 25 years being half of the Roman Empire’s 50-year crisis which had more than 20 emperors in this period while Byzantium in its 25-year crisis only had 6 emperors but it was one of the darkest moments in Byzantine history wherein new foreign enemies including the Pechenegs, Normans, and Seljuk Turks invaded for the first time and so much territory was lost with the year 1071 was its lowest point as the Byzantine army was severely defeated at the Battle of Manzikert by the Seljuk Turks beginning their conquest of the Byzantine heartland being Asia Minor and Byzantine Southern Italy here too was lost to the Normans whereas for the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century, a new enemy being the Goths invaded for the first time, the Sassanids devastated the east, and the chaos brought by all the invasions led to the breakup of the empire into 2 separate empires being the Gallic Empire in the west and the Palmyrene Empire in the east, and all this war too had weakened Rome’s economy. Isaac I Komnenos who became Byzantine emperor in 1057 after defeating the forces of the previous emperor Michael VI at the Battle of Hades was of military background being the son of a general under Basil II’s service and in 1057 he became emperor at 50 despite initially being reluctant but when coming into power, he swore to refill the treasury emptied out by Constantine IX and Empress Zoe and make the army strong again, now his Imperial Roman parallel Maximinus Thrax had the same policies as Isaac I and both these emperors were from Thrace with Maximinus Thrax’s name literally meaning “Big Thracian man” as he came from Thrace but was of Dacian origins and joined the Imperial legions under Septimius Severus while Isaac I’s family, the Komnenos family came from Thrace and under Basil II, the Komnenos family became powerful and Isaac in 1057 became the first ruler of this family while 2 decades later, his nephew Alexios I would begin the Komnenos Dynasty. Maximinus though was of low origins and before joining the legions he was either a bandit or shepherd, though as emperor the senate would see him as a barbarian not just for his country of origin but for his brutal behavior as well, but Maximinus was best known for his stature said to be over 8 feet tall and extremely strong but most importantly he was the first Roman emperor to start out as a common soldier eventually becoming the empire’s ruler while Isaac I of Byzantium was already from aristocratic background but like Maximinus was overall a military man and not a politician or scholar. The similar thing between Maximinus Thrax and Isaac I was that when they began their reign, they swore to double the army’s pay which their predecessors cut in order to make the army stronger and to do this, they had to introduce harsh tax measures to fill the treasury, and for Isaac I he imposed high taxes on the rich and confiscated Church property which caused opposition against him but for Maximinus he did it more brutally by torturing people to pay their taxes so he could fund his campaigns into Germanic territory which he led himself while Isaac on the other hand used the tax money to repel the Pecheneg invaders in the north, also Maximinus imposed higher taxes on the rich and nobility which he hated. For Isaac I, his confiscation of Church property caused the Patriarch Michael Keroularios who put him in power to oppose him but Isaac did not respond well to opposition but as Keroularios was popular, Isaac did not want to simply depose him, instead Isaac secretly arrested him and sent him into exile in 1058 while Maximinus Thrax due to his brutal taxation policies became unpopular with the senate that they once tried to elevate a senator named Magnus by stranding Maximinus in Germania while he was there by destroying a bridge in the Rhine but when Maximinus heard of this, he had the conspirators and Magnus executed. Isaac though only ruled for 2 years but before his abdication in 1059, he fought on all sides of the empire securing the north from the Pechenegs and Hungarians, and east from the Seljuks but at the same time after a hunting trip, Isaac caught a fever which brought him close to death that he was advised by his closest advisor Michael Psellos to abdicate and retire to a monastery which he agreed and listening to Psellos, Isaac named the most loyal person to him being Psellos’ friend the nobleman Constantine Doukas as his successor while Isaac in 1059 retired to the Stoudion Monastery where he was educated in and in 1060 he died as a simple monk. Maximinus Thrax on the other hand as a violent ruler had violent end rather than a peaceful one as in 238, the people of the empire came to despise his rule for his constant fighting of wars and brutal taxes and in Carthage they proclaimed its governor the old man Gordian I and his son Gordian II as emperors who were approved by the senate who hated Maximinus but after only less than a month in power, Gordian I and II were defeated by Maximinus’ loyalist forces with Gordian II killed in battle and his father killing himself after the defeat. Maximinus was outraged with the senate planning to replace him, so he thought of marching south to Rome for the first time to execute the whole senate but the senate out of fear after the deaths of Gordian I and II elevated the senators Pupienus and Balbinus as co-emperors who were however unpopular so they had to make Gordian I’s grandson Gordian III their co-emperor as well while Maximinus marched south to Italy but at Aquileia the soldiers there refused him entry to Italy so Maximinus laid siege to Aquileia but when his men ran out of food supply they killed him out of anger. Later in 238, Pupienus and Balbinus ended up mistrusting each other leading to their assassination by the Praetorian Guard leaving Gordian III as the sole ruler in 238 better known as the “Year of the 6 Emperors”. In Byzantium on the other hand, fortunately for Isaac I he did not face opposition with 6 emperors in one year but what makes him similar to Maximinus Thrax was his brutal tax policies and confiscation of properties but Isaac was not as brutal as Maximinus who went as far as killing those he pleased accusing them of crimes they did not commit so that he could take their money to fund his army and campaigns. Also, Isaac I was not as massive in statue said to be 8 feet tall the way Maximinus Thrax was, but the other big similarity they both have is that their coming into power displayed a total change in the character of an emperor as before both Maximinus and Isaac came to power, their respective empire were under soft rulers but when they came in, a strong military man suddenly came to rule the empire and Isaac I in the sense even wanted to show he was one by having his coins show him holding a sword while those before him did not.

Isaac I- Maximinus
Left: Emperor Isaac I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1057-1059); right: Roman emperor Maximinus Thrax (r.

Watch this to see the story of the Crisis of the 3rd Century in the Roman Empire (from Dovahhatty).

Constantine X Doukas (1059-1067) to Gordian III (238-244) and Philip I (244-249)


Constantine X Doukas, though a general did not really have much military experience but an obsession for theological debates, he also came from the nobility and in 1057 he helped Isaac I come power and in 1059, Constantine came to power when Isaac I abdicated and Constantine X’s reign would be one of the most ineffective and troubled in Byzantine history as in his reign the Seljuks were now making constant raids into Asia Minor and in the north the Hungarian Kingdom began raiding too while Normans were rapidly invading Byzantine Italy. In the Roman Empire some 800 years earlier, Constantine X’s parallel is Gordian III who was only 13 when coming to power in 238 which was the Year of 6 Emperors while Constantine X came to power at already 53 in 1059 but what was similar about them was that their reign was when the crisis grew and large scale foreign invasions were starting to trouble the empire. For Constantine X, as soon as he became emperor, over in Southern Italy the Norman forces under the ruler Duke Robert Guiscard took over Byzantine Calabria leaving only Apulia left to the Byzantines and as for Gordian III, despite coming from a chaotic year of 6 emperors wherein he came out as the sole ruler, the first years of his reign were peaceful though still a boy he ruled under the regency of his Praetorian Prefect Timesitheus but in 242, the first Sassanid ruler Ardashir I died and left the Sassanid Empire to his son Shapur I who immediately invaded Roman territory in the Middle East and unlike the Parthian Empire before it which was not as powerful and easily beaten by Rome many times but remained unconquered, the new Sassanid Empire of Iran that defeated the Parthians was 10 times more powerful than it and had the full strength to destroy the Roman Empire and for the next decades, Shapur I would pain the Romans. In 243, Gordian III joined his general Timesitheus in campaigning against Shapur’s invasion of Syria and Timesitheus was at least able to defeat the Sassanids at the Battle of Resaena and continued pushing the invaders away but while doing it, he mysteriously died leaving Gordian III defenseless so he listened to one of his Praetorian Guards named Priscus to make Priscus’ brother named Philip his new Praetorian Prefect and when Philip was appointed, Gordian III was killed in 244 though it is unclear as Gordian III could have also died in battle against the Sassanids but with Gordian III dead, Philip I known as “The Arab” coming from Roman Arabia as the new emperor settled peace with the Sassanids ceding Armenia to them and returned to Rome making his son Philip II his co-emperor leaving his brother Priscus to rule in the east. Meanwhile for Constantine X, just as how Gordian III faced the first wave of Shapur I’s Sassanid invasions, he faced the first wave of the Seljuk invasions of Asia Minor in 1064 under their new sultan Alsp Arslan who in this case would be the 11th century parallel of Shapur I and just like Shapur, Alp Arslan was an ambitious warrior ruler except his aim was not to conquer the whole Byzantine Empire but everything on his way to get to Fatimid Caliphate Egypt. Constantine X earlier on had disbanded most of the army in Asia Minor replacing them with mercenaries but he happened to do it in the worst time possible as just a few years after he disbanded them, Alp Arslan began his invasions and without much of an army, the Byzantines faced a number of defeats. Though Constantine X like Gordian III faced the first wave of foreign invasions that would weaken the empire which was the Seljuks for Constantine X and the Sassanids for Gordian III, Constantine X did not die out of mysterious circumstances like Gordian III in 244, instead Constantine X would also be the Byzantine parallel of Gordian III’s successor Philip I as Constantine like Philip I who made his son Philip II co-emperor, made his 2 sons Michael VII and Constantius his co-emperors and as Philip I in his reign saw the Goths invading the Roman Empire from the Danube for the first time ever in 248 at the same time when celebrating the 1000-year anniversary of Rome, Constantine X saw another invader in the exact same area in the Danube being the Oghuz Turks in 1064 as well as the Hungarians who took over Belgrade in 1065. Philip I in his later reign after facing the first wave of the invading Goths also faced usurpers in which their rebellions failed in a few days but just as he sent a senator named Decius to lead the army against the Goths in the Danube, the rebellious legions held Decius hostage forcing him to be their emperor and overthrow Philip I and Philip II though Decius wanted to reconcile with Philip I but Philip I was already convinced that Decius betrayed him so when their forces met in battle in Italy in 249, Philip I’s forces were defeated and together with his son was killed in battle making Decius the new emperor. As for Constantine X, he also did not have the same end as Philip I, instead in 1067 after ruling for 8 years, Constantine X Doukas died from his failing health. As for Philip I’s successor Decius, there is no emperor in 11th century Byzantium that has a similar story to him though Decius only ruled for 2 years but was well known for persecuting Christians and fighting wars against the Goths but in 251, he was killed in battle against the Goths led by their king Cniva. Although Decius was betrayed by his general Gallus who made a deal with Cniva to make him the new emperor if Decius died as Gallus also agreed to pay a tribute to the Goths and Gallus returned to Rome as the new emperor but in 253 was usurped and killed by Aemilianus who had just won battles against the Goths who began invading the empire again when Gallus failed to pay them. There too is no parallel for Gallus (r. 251-253) and Aemilianus (r. 253) too in 11th century Byzantium.

Meme of Byzantine emperor Constantine X Doukas

Romanos IV Diogenes (1068-1071) to Valerian (253-260)


Before Constantine X died in 1067, he made his wife Empress Eudokia promise that she would never remarry and have one their sons succeed him but a general named Romanos Diogenes from Cappadocia in Asia Minor attempted to seize the throne from the sons but later on, the empress decided to spare him and marry him to be he sons’ protector since her sons were still too young and the empire was troubled with enemies on all sides so a strong leader was needed. Now in the 3rd century Roman Empire, Romanos IV’s parallel is Emperor Valerian who in 253 as a general commanding the legions in Germania marched south to Italy to depose the usurper Aemilianus in which he succeeded in doing and both Valerian and Romanos IV came from the nobility with Romanos IV coming from the Byzantine military aristocracy also being the son of the usurper Constantine Diogenes who killed himself in 1032 and Valerian having been a senator before and both came to power at a time when the empire was in total chaos as for Valerian the Rhine and Danube borders were being invaded by Germanic tribes and the east invaded by the Sassanids and for Romanos IV, Byzantium was facing Seljuk invasions in the east and more in the north which was also the Danube border. Right after coming to power in 1068, Romanos IV would already begin commanding the armies in person as his solution to the whole Seljuk conflict was to face them in battle even if the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan did not prioritize invading Byzantium whereas in the 3rd century the Sassanids under Shapur I sought to conquer the Roman Middle East and as Valerian came to power in  253, Shapur I had taken over and sacked Antioch but for Valerian he could not handle all the problems of the empire alone so he split the administration with his son Gallienus who was made co-emperor the moment Valerian came to power so when both were crowned, Valerian chose to head east to take care of the Sassanids leaving Gallienus to take care of the problems in Europe. Like Romanos IV who was the senior emperor while his 3 stepsons being Eudokia and Constantine X’s sons Michael VII, Constantius, and Andronikos were his co-emperors and in 1070 when Romanos and Eudokia had their own sons named Leo and Nikephoros Diogenes, they were made co-emperors too, Valerian on the other hand made his son Gallienus who was fully grown up though as his co-emperor and Gallienus made his young sons Valerian II in 256 and Saloninus in 258 his co-emperors to represent imperial authority in the borders with Valerian II placed in the Danube and Saloninus placed in the Rhine but Valerian II in 258 was killed possibly by his protector, the governor of the Illyrian provinces named Ingenuus who led a failed rebellion against Gallienus in 260 and Saloninus in the Rhine was killed also in 260 in Cologne when a general named Postumus seized power by invading the city declared independence from the empire. Valerian meanwhile between 253 and 260 campaigned against the Sassanid Persians in the east ironically also in Asia Minor where Romanos IV would campaign against the Seljuks some 800 years later but as Valerian campaigned in the east, he continued persecuting Christians but plague devastated his army too though in 257 Valerian was able to recapture Antioch from the Sassanids but plague killed most of his men so in 260 when Valerian’s forces met with the forces of Shapur I at the Battle of Edessa in Asia Minor, Valerian’s forces were outnumbered and weakened with the plague and Shapur’s troops being more in number defeated the Romans wherein Valerian was forced to surrender and was taken as a prisoner deep into the Persian heartland. Romanos IV on the other hand became unpopular with the people as in 1070 he decided to cancel all entertainment to focus solely on fighting the Seljuks and in 1071 Alp Arslan though proposed a peace agreement with Romanos in exchange for the Byzantines to give up only the eastern parts of Asia Minor but Romanos wanted a real victory so war was declared but just like Valerian at the Battle of Edessa in 260 wherein he was outnumbered, Romanos IV at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 was not entirely outnumbered but his troops fighting in straight lines were no match against the guerrilla tactics and horse archery of the Seljuks, also the battle took place in the heat summer and lasted until the night wherein the Seljuks had the skill of navigating the battlefield at night and as the battle raged, a unit betrayed Romanos thinking he was dead and at the end Romanos’ men were outnumbered and he was taken as a prisoner to Alp Arslan. The Battle of Manzikert in 1071 was the fatal blow for the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of its end as from here on the Seljuks began their invasion of Asia Minor and for the Roman Empire in 260, the Battle of Edessa was the same kind of humiliating defeat and brought further chaos to the empire especially with the emperor Valerian being captured. Now what both Romanos IV Diogenes and Valerian have in common was that they were both there at their empire’s most humiliating defeats ironically these 2 places were near each other as Edessa and Manzikert were both in the same part of Eastern Asia Minor and after these battles, both Valerian and Romanos were captured by the enemy ruler except for Romanos he was treated well by Alp Arslan and allowed to return home freely but Valerian was humiliated and taken to Persia as Shapur I’s slave. However, it is not clear if Valerian was actually made Shapur’s personal slave and footstool and later flayed alive as some say Valerian was allowed to live peacefully in Persian territory as a construction worker with the other captured Romans though Valerian died in captivity never allowed to return home, but still the thought of an emperor being captured by a foreign enemy broke the reputation of the Roman emperor as someone all powerful. Romanos IV meanwhile when returning to Constantinople discovered that his stepson Michael VII took the throne from him forcing Romanos to fight a civil war against his forces wherein Romanos was defeated and had to flee but when found in 1072 he was initially going to be spared but instead he was blinded so brutally that he died.   

Romanos IV- Valerian
Left: Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes of Byzantium (r. 1068-1071); right: Roman emperor Valerian (r. 253-260)
Battle of Manzikert, 1071

Watch this to learn more about the 1071 Battle of Manzikert (from Kings and Generals).

Michael VII Doukas (1071-1078) to Gallienus (253-268)


The defeat of the Byzantines to the Seljuks at Manzikert in 1071 was not only humiliating due to the fact that their army which was thought to be invincible suffered a heavy defeat and their emperor was captured but this defeat brought so much chaos to the empire especially since Romanos IV was presumed dead when he was captured by the Seljuks. In Constantinople, as Romanos IV was captured by Alp Arslan, having no emperor, his stepson Michael VII Doukas which was his wife’s son with the previous emperor Constantine X was made emperor thus Romanos IV was deposed. In the case of the aftermath of the Byzantine defeat and Manzikert and the chaotic situation it caused; Michael VII Doukas can very much be compared to the 3rd Century Crisis Roman emperor Gallienus (r. 253-268) who was the son of Valerian made co-emperor when his father came to power in 253 although the difference here is that with Romanos IV being Byzantium’s version of Valerian, Michael VII was not Romanos’ real son like Gallienus was to Valerian but stepson and while Romanos IV was the senior emperor, Michael VII as co-emperor was only co-emperor in name as he did not do anything as co-emperor while Gallienus ruled the west between 253 and 260 when his father ruled the east taking care of the Sassanid situation but when Valerian was defeated and captured by the Sassanids in 260, Gallienus became the sole ruler of the empire the same way Michael VII in 1071 became the empire’s sole ruler following Romanos IV’s capture except Romanos IV returned shortly after to retake the throne but failed while Valerian never returned. Now Michael VII and Gallienus are only comparable to each other because of the situation of the empire they had to face in which for both of them, they came to power at a time when their empire was in total chaos with foreign invaders, usurpers, and civil wars everywhere except Michael VII during his reign was incompetent and did not seem to care about the empire collapsing around him while Gallienus did nothing but fight against all the invaders and usurpers to put the empire back together again, except he failed to do it as the pressure was too much. In 253, as Valerian left for the east to take care of the Sassanid threat, Gallienus already faced his own threats in the west being the invasions of a new Germanic tribal coalition known as the Franks began invading the Rhine borders, the Goths invading again through the Danube, as well as the Alemanni through the Germanic border. Following Valerian’s defeat and capture in 260, chaos erupted all over the empire as many generals felt that the imperial family could not rule the empire themselves and to protect their lands that they were in charge of many of them declared themselves emperor such as the general Ingenuus in Pannonia who previously arranged the murder of Gallienus’ son Valerian II though Gallienus quickly defeated Ingenuus in battle in 260 after defeating the Alemanni that just invaded Italy and after the defeat Ingenuus killed himself though just shortly after in Pannonia as well, another general named Regalianus declared himself emperor but was killed by invading Sarmatians which Gallienus also defeated as these Sarmatians marched towards Italy. However in Gaul also in 260, a general named Postumus who was of Germanic origin felt that the emperor could not protect the lands there so he declared himself emperor with Gaul, Britain, Germania, and even Hispania as independent from Rome and under his Gallic Empire though doing this, he would also protect Rome from invaders coming from across the Rhine but Gallienus did not allow this new empire so he would fight hard to return it to his control. In the east however, also in 260 after Valerian’s capture the Sassanids raided deep into Roman Syria and Cappadocia in Asia Minor but the Sassanids were apparently defeated by the remnants of Valerian’s army led by his general Ballista, his treasurer Macrianus, and the governor of Palmyra Odaenathus though with this victory Macrianus would claim power making himself emperor and naming his 2 sons as co-emperors thus heading back to Europe with one son leaving the other one in Antioch with Ballista but Odaenathus executed Ballista and the other son for treason as Odaenathus despite declaring Palmyra an independent kingdom was loyal to Rome as his whole purpose for doing this was to provide additional protection against the Sassanid invaders; Gallienus then recognized Palmyra as an independent kingdom while Gaul, Britain, and Hispania already separated from the empire. The usurper emperor Macrianus and his son were then killed in battle by Gallienus’ forces when they arrived in Thrace in 261. Though Gallienus left Palmyra independent, he would have to continue fighting to put the Gallic Empire under his control but only succeeded in taking back Raetia (Switzerland) and in one battle Gallienus was even wounded by an arrow forcing him to give up on his campaign against Postumus’ empire, but as he was fighting against the rebel Gallic Empire, from 261 to 262 he faced another usurper in Egypt named Aemilianus who was easily defeated in 262 when Gallienus sent his fleet to depose him. As for Michael VII of Byzantium, he had the same situation of Gallienus facing enemies on all sides and usurpers everywhere as when Michael VII came to power after Manzikert, one of Romanos IV’s generals which was the Armenian Philaretos Brachamios who after Manzikert fled with his army south and established his own state including Antioch and Edessa with him as its ruler, ironically he declared his own state at the exact same place as Odaenathus’ Palmyrene Kingdom and exactly the same Edessa where Valerian was defeated in 260, in this case Brachamios would be the parallel of Odaenathus in 11th century Byzantium as Michael VII recognized his authority the same way Gallienus recognized Odaenathus’. Postumus’ Gallic Empire in the story of Michael VII as Byzantium’s Gallienus was basically all of Byzantine Italy being lost to Normans in 1071 but in 1073, a Norman mercenary in the Byzantine service named Roussel de Bailleul declared his own independent state in Asia Minor based in Ankara with him as emperor though Michael VII quickly responded to it by sending his uncle John Doukas to crush it but it failed as John sided with the Normans so Michael VII sent the younger and more competent general Alexios Komnenos to deal with Roussel which in 1074 Alexios defeated and captured Roussel but the Norman mercenaries instead named John Doukas as emperor so to deal with this, Michael VII chose the disastrous option of getting the Seljuks to defeat the Normans and his uncle thus it resulted in having most of Asia Minor fall to the Seljuks and Michael VII did not care about it anymore just allowing the Seljuks to have the Byzantine heartland; John Doukas was later ransomed by Michael VII but punished by being sent to a monastery. Though back in 3rd century Rome, Gallienus fought hard to restore order to his crumbling empire by introducing a new mobile cavalry reform to the Roman army and even lead his army in battle himself, Michael VII as a young and pleasure-loving emperor never set foot in battle and worse he was heavily influenced by an incompetent advisor named Nikephoritzes and listening to him, Michael did not focus anymore on military spending leading to many revolts, instead he focused on luxury spending but all this would soon enough weaken the economy and devalue the currency by a quarter giving Michael VII his nickname which is literally Greek for “minus a quarter”. Just like Gallienus who faced smaller revolts which he defeated such as those of Ingenuus and Regalianus in 260 and Aemilianus from 261 to 262, Michael VII faced smaller ones including that of the Bulgarian Constantine Bodin from 1072-1073 which was easily crushed and Bodin sent to Antioch as a prisoner, then later in 1076 a military commander who was Michael VII’s father Constantine X’s former slave named Nestor with his army’s support named himself emperor in his garrison in Bulgaria as he rebelled against Nikephoritzes confiscating his wealth but Michael VII did not respond to Nestor’s rebellion until 1078 when he sent the same Alexios Komnenos to deal with it, and Alexios successfully crushed it making Nestor flee with his Pecheneg allies into Pecheneg territory never to return again. Just like Gallienus who faced Germanic barbarian invaders almost taking Rome in 260 and the Goths invading deep into Greece and Asia Minor afterwards, Michael VII faced the Seljuks almost taking over all of Asia Minor though it was mostly his doing and in the north it was the Pechenegs invading deep into Bulgaria when assisting Nestor’s revolt in 1076 though Gallienus in 268  faced another uprising this time by his own cavalry commander, the Dacian Aureolus who Gallienus tasked to defend Italy against Postumus’ Gallic Empire, instead Aureolus switched sides to Postumus and rebelled against Gallienus despite Postumus never coming to support him but Aureolus went as far as taking over Mediolanum (Milan) in time for Gallienus to confront him but before their forces met each other, Gallienus in 268 was killed by his own Praetorian Guard who then proclaimed Gallienus’ other general Claudius as the next emperor. Michael VII on the other hand almost had the same end as Gallienus as in 1078, two generals simultaneously revolted which was Nikephoros Bryennios in the Balkans and Nikephoros Botaneiates in Asia Minor and Bryennios would be the parallel of Aureolus in the 11th century except his forces never confronted with Michael VII and Botaneiates made it first to Constantinople forcing Michael VII to abdicate and retire to a monastery as monk; now the biggest difference is that Gallienus was killed in 268 by his own army while Michael VII just retired and lived long enough to later become the Bishop of Ephesus though both Gallienus and Michael VII ruled for the same amount of years Gallienus for 8 years as sole emperor and Michael VII for 7 years though Gallienus ruled for another 7 years as co-emperor with his father and Michael VII was already co-emperor under his father Constantine X in his reign from 1059 to 1067 and also under his step-father Romanos IV from 1068 to 1071. Similarly, the reign of Gallienus saw the Roman Empire break apart with the entire west except for Italy and Illyria turn into the independent Gallic Empire and Syria into the independent state of Palmyra, while for Michael VII he saw the effective Byzantine Theme or military district system of Asia Minor that had been around since the 7th century collapse due to the Seljuks’ invasion.

Michael VII- Gallienus
Left: Emperor Michael VII Doukas of Byzantium (r. 1071-1078); right: Roman emperor Gallienus (r. 253-268)

Watch this to learn more about the Roman Empire’s 3rd Century Crisis (from Kings and Generals).

Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078-1081) to Claudius II (268-270)


The general Nikephoros Botaneiates succeeded in taking over the throne in 1078 forcing Michael VII to abdicate and retire thus taking Michael VII’s wife the Georgian Maria of Alania as his wife to secure his claim but as Nikephoros III Botaneiates became emperor, the other general Nikephoros Bryennios who challenged Michael VII at the same time now became a challenge to Nikephoros III but Nikephoros III already being 76 when becoming emperor dealt with Bryennios by having the same Alexios Komnenos defeat him in battle which Alexios succeeded in doing and Bryennios was blinded, Alexios then shifted his allegiance from Michael VII to Nikephoros III. Now Nikephoros III can be compared to Gallienus’ successor Claudius II as both before becoming emperors were generals for a very long time as Nikephoros was a commander in the imperial military service ever since the reign of Constantine IX (1042-1055) while Claudius was already military commander almost 20 years before he became emperor in 268. Claudius though was of low birth and a native of Illyria making him the first of many Illyrians to become the Roman emperor while Nikephoros III was from the Byzantine military aristocracy but both came to power in almost the same way as Claudius II was made emperor by the Praetorian Guards that killed Gallienus though Nikephoros III came to power by revolting against Michael VII for his ineffectiveness in dealing with the Seljuk expansion in Asia Minor. When Nikephoros III came to power in 1078, he immediately had to deal with Bryennios who then became a challenge to him which he succeeded in doing while Claudius II began his reign dealing with the usurper Aureolus in Italy who revolted against Gallienus but with Gallienus dead he became a threat to Claudius. For Claudius II, he came to power when the empire was still in total chaos with the western part still under the Gallic Empire and the east under Palmyra while Goths, Alemanni, and Vandals still continued invading the empire from the north and as for Nikephoros III, he came to power when the empire was left in chaos since Manzikert with the Seljuks having almost all of Asia Minor although Claudius who spent his short reign of 2 years continuing to fight hard to restore the empire, Nikephoros III unlike his predecessor Michael VII did the same too except he was too old for the job thus many usurpers came to challenge him. After Claudius II became emperor, he first pushed away an invasion of the Alemanni from Italy then headed to the Danube in today’s Serbia where he defeated a large Gothic invasion at the Battle of Naissus in 268 thus giving him the title “Gothicus” though the Goths continued raiding Asia Minor and Greece after stealing the imperial fleet while for Nikephoros III, his greatest external threat was the Norman invasion of the Byzantine Balkans in 1081 by the same Robert Guiscard who was recently conquering Italy from the Byzantines but the biggest problem Nikephoros III would have were usurping generals who felt he was too old to rule that in 1079, he was almost assassinated by his Varangian Guard force. For Claudius, it was not usurping generals that was his problem but rather in the Palmyrene Kingdom that had been loyal to Rome, their king Odaenathus was mysteriously murdered in 267 and his wife Zenobia took over as queen cutting all ties with Rome now giving the empire a new enemy all while it still had to fight off invaders and the Gallic Empire but for the Gallic Empire, it had weakened in 269 when its first emperor Postumus was killed by his own troops in Mainz after defeating another usurper when Postumus ordered them not to loot and within 2 years, there was a change of emperor 3 times in the Gallic Empire and in this chaos all the provinces in Spain rejoined the Roman Empire and Claudius II was even able to take back Eastern Gaul up to the Rhone River, similarly for Nikephoros III just as how the provinces in Spain returned to Claudius II, the emperor at Antioch Philaretos Brachamios in 1078 gave up his claim as emperor and surrendered to Nikephoros III becoming “Duke of Antioch” instead. In 1079, a general in Byzantine Albania named Nikephoros Basilakes revolted against the emperor but was defeated by Alexios Komnenos, then in 1080 another general named Nikephoros with Melissenos as his last name who was loyal to Michael VII revolted in the Balkans but was not defeated by Alexios, instead Alexios in 1081 gave up his loyalty to Nikephoros III and revolted against him later marching into Constantinople and forced Nikephoros III to abdicate while Melissenos only gave up his claim as emperor when he found out Alexios beat him to it, though Meliseenos was spared and joined forces with Alexios I Komnenos. For Claudius II, he was not overthrown at an old age like Nikephoros III, instead he died in 270 of the same plague that devastated Valerian’s troops back in 260 and Claudius was not that old being only 55 when he died while Nikephoros was 79 when he abdicated though when Claudius II died in 270, Palmyra under Zenobia already declared war against Rome and took over Egypt and the whole Middle East and in Rome after Claudius’ death his brother Quintillus usurped the throne but with the approval of the senate though Claudius before dying named his most successful general Aurelian as his successor and in 11th century Byzantium, Nikephoros Melissenos would be similar to Quintillus as he usurped power before the death of the reigning emperor though Alexios would be in many ways the Byzantine parallel of Aurelian as he was Nikephoros III’s and Michael VII’s most trusted general who won many battles for them the same way Aurelian was to Claudius II and Gallienus earlier except Aurelian did not turn on Claudius the way Alexios did on Nikephoros and when Aurelian was named emperor, he overthrew Quintillus while Melissenos just surrendered his claim to Alexios. The difference between Claudius II and Nikephoros III was their age as Claudius was still not so old and fighting the battles himself while Nikephoros was too old for it despite him appearing to look young in images of him from his time, but their biggest similarities is that they both ruled their empires for such a short time when they were needed most to clean up the chaos as both were strong military leaders under so much pressure, yet at the end both Nikephoros III and Claudius II never made it to the end to see their goals to restore their empires achieved.

Nikephoros III- Claudius II
Left: Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates of Byzantium (r. 1078-1081); right: Roman emperor Claudius II (r. 268-270)
Map of the Roman Empire (red) under Claudius II in the 3rd Century Crisis, remains of the Gallic Empire (green) and the Palmyrene Empire (yellow)

Watch this to learn more about Emperor Nikephoros III of Byzantium (from Eastern Roman History).

Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) to Aurelian (270-275)


In 1081, Byzantium was at a breaking point with the Seljuks occupying most of Asia Minor, the Pechenegs in the Balkans, and the Normans just invading Byzantine Greece and Albania as well but with all this chaos, a young but skilled general named Alexios Komnenos came to save the day after deposing the elderly emperor Nikephoros III who was too old to handle all this pressure. The Roman Empire in 270 had the same situation, and the successful general Aurelian was made emperor and came to save the day as when he arrived in Rome, he deposed the usurper Quintillus and was officially made emperor with his first act being expelling the Germanic invaders from Italy then in 271 as the Goths were invading through the Danube again, Aurelian marched there and defeated them in battle but also made the strategic decision of abandoning Dacia (Romania) by evacuating all its citizens and legions stationed there before turning his focus on reuniting the Roman Empire by taking back the Gallic and Palmyrene Empires. Alexios I meanwhile had the same situation when coming into power as his main priority was to eliminate all threats to the empire and reunite it again and in terms of background, Aurelian was of low birth from the Balkans starting out as a common soldier but rose up the ranks under Gallienus and Claudius II and at 55 he became emperor, though for Alexios Komnenos he started out his military career at a young age and under Michael VII and Nikephoros III was already a general and at only 26 he became emperor though unlike Aurelian who was originally a commoner, Alexios was from Byzantine nobility and his uncle was the previous emperor Isaac I Komnenos (r. 1057-1059). Just like Aurelian who began his reign wiping out all threats to the empire by facing off the Goths in 271 afterwards taking in the defeated Goths to his army, Alexios I after coming into power in 1081 decided to confront the invading Norman forces of Robert Guiscard in Albania, although Aurelian defeated the Goths in only one battle, Alexios I was at first severely defeated at the Battle of Dyrrhachion in Albania to the Normans except he later paid off the King of Germany Henry IV to invade Norman Italy forcing Robert Guiscard to return there while Alexios signed an alliance with the Republic of Venice against the Normans though the Normans were already invading Greece but by 1085, Alexios I was able to push them out and with Robert Guiscard dying in Greece in 1085 due to sickness, the Normans had to retreat thus sparing Byzantium. For Aurelian in 272, he headed further east now aiming to take back the Palmyrene Empire from Zenobia and he successfully took back Asia Minor with ease and later overwhelmed Zenobia’s forces in Syria defeating her but before she could flee to the Sassanids for their aid, she was found and captured, later taken to Rome as a prisoner with her son Vaballathus who was her puppet emperor, and with the Palmyrene Empire taken, Egypt returned to Roman rule allowing the grain shipment to continue and Palmyra itself in 273 was destroyed. For Alexios I, his next problem would have to be dealing with was the nomadic Pechenegs who went as far south as Thrace and just as how Aurelian mercilessly defeated Palmyra, Alexios I mercilessly defeated and massacred the Pecheneg army at the Battle of Levounion in 1091 though Alexios got the Pechenegs’ mortal enemy being the Cumans to his side. However the Zenobia in the story of Alexios I was the Turkish emir of Smyrna named Tzachas who was one of the Seljuk lords that invaded Asia Minor following the defeat at Manzikert in 1071 and he set himself up in the city of Smyrna in Asia Minor making himself its ruler and like Zenobia who went as far as making herself “empress”, Tzachas went as far as calling himself “Byzantine emperor” also getting the Pechenegs to ally with him and take over Constantinople. In 1092 however, Alexios I defeated Tzachas by sending a fleet to Lesbos which Tzachas surrendered to Byzantium when his forces were defeated though Tzachas fled back to Smyrna though Alexios found him too dangerous to be kept alive so Alexios actually allied with the Seljuk sultan of Rum, the Seljuk state formed in Asia Minor against Tzachas and in 1093 Tzachas himself was killed by the Seljuk sultan during dinner and Smyrna was returned to Byzantium just as how the Palmyrene Empire returned to Rome. For Aurelian, just like Alexios I, he did not just use war to win but diplomacy too and to get the Gallic Empire back to Roman rule, Aurelian used diplomacy with its current emperor Tetricus by just asking him to surrender his lands in exchange for being spared and Tetricus now with his empire reduced and army weakened feared facing Aurelian in battle so he simply surrendered the Gallic Empire back to the main Roman Empire in 274 and right after that Aurelian had restored the whole Roman Empire which is why he has the title of Restitutor Orbis or “Restorer of the World”. Restoring the whole empire was not yet it for Aurelian so next he sought to march east and finally battle the Sassanids and conquer their empire seeing the right opportunity since their ruler Shapur I who defeated Valerian back in 260 had already died and his successors were weaker rulers but Aurelian unfortunately died before he could battle the Sassanids. In 275 while at Thrace, Aurelian’s secretary who recently committed a crime fearing harsh punishment from Aurelian faked a letter listing names of people Aurelian ordered executed and the secretary showed it to the Praetorian Guard who panicked and killed Aurelian, though when they found out the letter was fake, in their grief and anger for killing their emperor, the Praetorian Guard did justice to the secretary and exposed him in the woods to be eaten by wild animals. With Aurelian dead, his wife Ulpia Severina in Rome ruled as regent until the senate in late 275 elected an old senator named Tacitus as emperor but later in 276 Tacitus while continuing Aurelian’s campaign in Asia Minor died of fever appointing Aurelian’s most trusted general Probus as the next emperor except Tacitus’ half-brother and Praetorian Prefect Florianus already seized power. The similarity between Aurelian and Alexios I was that they both quickly restored order to their crumbling empire except Aurelian only ruled for 5 years but was at least able to restore the whole empire, though his sudden death prevented actually brining back full stability to the empire and it would take a few more emperors to do that whereas for Alexios I, unlike Aurelian who only ruled for 5 years, he ruled for 37 years and in it was able to do the job of the next 3 emperors after Aurelian and when Alexios I died in 1118, the Byzantine Empire was again strong and large but not as large anymore as it was at Basil II’s death in 1025. Aurelian though was able to defeat both the Palmyrene and Gallic Empires as he was a very skilled general but also a skilled diplomat and Alexios I was both a skilled general and diplomat too, though where both emperors were very similar to each other was in terms of reforms as Alexios I reformed Byzantium’s currency by increasing the value of its coins which dropped in the past years while Aurelian did the same too although Aurelian would be better known for religious reforms by making the now popular sun god Sol Invictus as the main god of the Roman Pantheon and aside from that, Aurelian also restored many cities and public buildings in the empire including constructing the Aurelian Walls of Rome while Alexios I did the same for Byzantium as well in terms of restoring buildings. Aurelian though died before the empire could be fully stabilized wherein successors would still have to work hard to achieve this dream, though Alexios lived long enough to get the chance to campaign against the Seljuks and weaken them while Aurelian died before fully campaigning against the Sassanids. Alexios I though could not fully take care of the Seljuks alone but since the Seljuks already took over Jerusalem, the nobles of Europe and the Catholic Church called for the 1st Crusade in 1095 wherein Alexios saw it too as an opportunity to gain allies to take back lands lost to the Seljuks but it did not go as planned as at first; the first wave to come to fight the Seljuks was a mob of peasants that troubled Alexios when they reached Byzantium and following them was an army of knights led by princes of Europe including Alexios’ enemy the Norman Bohemond, son of Robert Guiscard and for Alexios this would mean that these rulers would take the lands for themselves and not return them to Byzantium. True enough, when the Crusader knights and princes arrived in Byzantium some of them refused to swear loyalty to Alexios I and they would take lands they conquered for themselves though most of what they conquered in Asia Minor was returned to Byzantium but as they proceeded further south, the Crusaders took these lands for themselves such as Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli, and Jerusalem and in 1099 the Crusaders were victorious in the 1st Crusade when Jerusalem was taken back from the Seljuks though the victories of the Crusades only gave more problems to Byzantium as more states formed near them but to handle it Alexios made sure even if they were independent, they swore loyalty to Byzantium though even if these states were independent, at least they would spare Byzantium from more conflicts coming from the Seljuks and other Muslim powers. Later on, in 1107, Bohemond who became Prince of Antioch refused to swear loyalty to Alexios I leading to war between them but when Bohemond’s fleet was blockaded in the Adriatic, he had to surrender to Alexios and be a vassal. Before Alexios I’s death in 1118 he continued campaigning against the Seljuks in Asia Minor and succeeded in them. Back to the Roman Empire after Aurelian’s death in 275, and Tacitus’ sudden death in 276, the new emperor Probus who also an Illyrian like Aurelian spent his 6 year reign continuing to stabilize the empire that had come out of the 3rd Century Crisis which makes his reign mirror that of Alexios I after the 1st Crusade when the Seljuks were pushed back and now forced to fight on the defensive making Byzantium stronger again and able to rebuild the empire. Probus as emperor first defeated the usurper Florianus in battle in 276 in Cilicia and later proceeded to campaign all over the empire and eliminate all barbarian invasions in the Rhine and Danube that had grown stronger in number after Aurelian’s death and after successfully doing that, the empire had actually turned out to be as peaceful as it was back in the 230s but without much battles to fight anymore, Probus had to make his soldiers continue working by repairing structures damaged by war and perform civic duty like draining marshes which made the soldiers angry and even angrier when hearing Probus said Rome would not need soldiers anymore with a peaceful future in mind which made them assassinated Probus in 282. Now Alexios I is not in any way comparable to Emperor Tacitus but more comparable to Probus as in the later part of Alexios I’s reign he saw the empire at more peace and turned the tide against the Seljuks from the defensive to the offensive. Back to Probus, after his death the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard that killed him named their commander Carus as emperor who was unwilling but accepted it anyway but feeling he was too old to rule alone he made his sons co-emperor and decided to finally launch the campaign against the Sassanids in 283 even going as far as Mesopotamia with his army and his son the co-emperor Numerian but was struck by lightning making his army march back to Roman territory. Alexios I though is not comparable to Carus or his sons in any way but in some ways can be compared to their successor Diocletian who led the army back from Persia but when back in Asia Minor, Carus’ son Numerian was found dead in his tent and though his brother Carinus was left to rule Rome, the army decided to elect Diocletian who was a cavalry commander as their emperor in 284 as they found Carinus useless and as they reached the Balkans, they defeated Carinus in battle where he was killed. Diocletian was originally a commoner from Illyria too named Diocles but quickly rose up the ranks under Aurelian together with Probus and Constantius who would later be emperor and all 3 were Illyrians but becoming emperor, Diocles changed his name to Diocletian and it was he who fully solved the Crisis of the 3rd Century by reforming the state into a more autocratic one with the emperor having more power over the senate but he also had to officially split the empire with his friend Maximian in 286 with Diocletian having the east and Maximian the west as senior emperors or Augusti but in 293 they had to further divide the empire to manage it better so Diocletian divided his half by making his heir or Caesar which was Galerius and Maximian had Constantius as his Caesar and this system with the empire divided in quarters would be known as the Tetrarchy which would be the foundation for Byzantium. As for Alexios I, he is only comparable to Diocletian by also making the emperor and imperial family more autocratic by introducing more titles to family members and nobles to prevent usurpers the same way Diocletian made imperial power more autocratic and in fact divine in order to prevent usurpers as usurping would already be considered as blasphemy. Diocletian though was best known for persecuting Christians and Manicheans in his later reign which many suffered and died under him while Alexios I in his later reign severely persecuted the heretical Christian sects of the Bogomils and Paulicians which led to his unpopularity too. Unlike Diocletian who split the empire to make it more efficient to run, Alexios I did not do anything similar as his empire was way smaller than how it was under Diocletian which still stretched from Britain all the way to Egypt and from Portugal all the way to Syria and this Tetrarchy would at first seem effective but in the years to come, it became a failure and led to more crisis in the empire.

Alexios I- Aurelian
Left: Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1081-1118); right: Roman emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275)