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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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

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

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

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

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople


 

The Leading Characters:

Manuel I Komnenos- Byzantine emperor (1143-1180)

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

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

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

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

Andronikos Kontostephanos- Byzantine general and aristocrat

Andronikos Angelos- Byzantine general and aristocrat, father of Isaac

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

Alexios Branas- Byzantine general and usurper

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

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

Bela III- King of Hungary (1172-1196)

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

Ivan Asen I- Tsar of the new Bulgaria 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Seljuk Empire

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

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Council of Clermont, Beginning of the First Crusade, 1095

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

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Peter the Hermit leads the People’s Crusade, 1096

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

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

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

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

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

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The First Crusade on the march

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

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

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

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

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

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Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos

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

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Hyperpyron coin of Alexios I

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

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

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

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Seljuk Turk army ride into Asia Minor

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

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

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

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

The Reign of John II Komnenos (1118-1143)          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Republic of Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of John II Komnenos in Venice

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

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John II and his wife Empress Irene “Piroska”

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

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

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

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Crusader Principality of Antioch seal

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

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

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

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

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


The Reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1176)           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Norman knight in Italy, 12th century

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

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

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

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Flag of the Principality of Armenia in Cilicia

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

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Reynald de Chatillon bows down before Emperor Manuel I, 1159

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos, art by Justinianus the Great

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

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

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

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Vlach people, 12th century

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

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Yaroslav Osmomysyl, Rus Prince of Galicia

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos, art by Spatharokandidatos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos and his wife Maria of Antioch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos Komnenos, cousin of Manuel I, art by Skamandros

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

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

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

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

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

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Isaac Angelos, youngest of Andronikos Angelos’ 6 sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos I Komnenos face icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185

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

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

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

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Pope Urban III

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

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Sicilian Necktie sample

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

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

Aftermath and Conclusion          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VIII- A Byzantine Victory at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and Its Impact on the Empire

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 11th century AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- 10th Century

The Battle of Manzikert was the most decisive disaster in Byzantine history. The Byzantines themselves had no illusions about it. Again and again, their historians refer to that dreadful day.” -Steven Runciman, English historian

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Welcome to the 8th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter VII of this 12-part series, I went over the origins story of the Byzantine Renaissance from the 9th to 10th century on how the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) went gradually from a troubled empire fighting to defend itself to the ultimate military and cultural power in the medieval world. Though the last chapter experimented in retelling the rise of the Byzantine Golden Age from the 9th to 10th centuries by only taking out one character being Empress Theophano, therefore her son Emperor Basil II as well, which meant that a lot of the events turned out very much like how they did in real history, so basically nothing had changed although only in the short-term, as in the long-term things may be different for the Byzantines without Emperor Basil II, though that would be a very hard question to answer. Anyway, this chapter will begin like all chapters in this alternate history series, meaning that the altered course of history from the previous chapter will not continue to the next, therefore this chapter will start out with the events of real history taking place, meaning that the ruling dynasty even if it could be true that they were in fact the Amorians would still be called the Macedonian Dynasty here, as it is historically called and Emperor Basil II known as “the Bulgar-Slayer” who is Byzantium’s longest reigning emperor will be in power at the turn of the 11th century, or more importantly the turn of the 2nd millennium AD. It was at the beginning of the 11th century that the Byzantine Empire under Basil II was again since the 6th century at its peak of cultural and military power that Byzantium here had an empire again controlling almost the entire Balkans all the way east into Armenia and Syria and west to Southern Italy while the army was so powerful that all other powers from beyond feared it especially considering how the Byzantine army was able to defeat the Bulgarian Empire itself, the emperor meanwhile became a supreme authority in the medieval world, the sophisticated Byzantine imperial culture was respected and revered by all including their rival western empire the “Holy Roman Empire”, and the state itself was well organized one. However, as is the case with many empires, what follows its peak of power and influence is its decline and the case of Byzantium here in the 11th century was no exception as following the death of the great ruler Basil II in 1025, it would all go downhill gradually for the Byzantine Empire, thus this period would be known as the 11th Century Crisis. In this period known as the 11th Century Crisis, a series of weak and even bad leadership by some emperors, the constant fighting of wars, corruption in the government especially by greedy eunuchs, ambitious and power-hungry generals on the quest to gain the throne, and disastrous reforms in society would create a gradual economic decline in Byzantium and for the first time in Byzantine history the devaluation of their standard gold currency, but the worst part was that when all these setbacks were happening, the Byzantines would encounter new and unheard of enemies for the first time being the Seljuk Turks from the east and the fierce Norman warriors from the west. True enough the history of the Roman Empire, which extends all the way to the Byzantine Empire’s timeline does repeat itself as centuries ago the Roman Empire was the dominant world power in the 2nd century but what followed this time of power and prosperity was an age of decline being the 3rd Century Crisis which in fact was one of the events that led to the division of the Roman Empire, thus the creation of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire in 330, and centuries later here in the 11th century, the same would happen again to the Eastern Roman Empire wherein after an era of power and prosperity would be an age of political, economic, and military decline the same way it was for the 3rd century old Roman Empire. On the other hand, 4 centuries earlier (the 7th century), if you remember from chapter IV of this series, the Byzantines after defeating their traditional eastern enemy being the Sassanid Persian would unexpectedly face the rise of a new enemy which was here the Arabs from the mysterious Arabian Desert of the south uniting into an empire known as the Caliphate under the faith of Islam and for the past 3 chapters of this series set in the past 3 centuries, the major conflict for the Byzantine Empire was always with these Arab powers but after 3 centuries of conflict, as told in the previous chapter, the Byzantines gained the upper hand and turned the tide of war against the Arab enemies from the east. Now in this chapter, we will say goodbye to the Arabs as the traditional eastern enemy of the Byzantines for 4 centuries as after beating them in battle so many times, the Arabs from being an invincible force of destruction would become severely vulnerable and divided, but even though the Byzantines may be on the winning side after finally weakening the Arabs, a new power from the east is to arise unexpectedly the same way the Arabs did back in the 7th century. Here in the 11th century, from the steppes of the Central Asia, the unexpected power that would rise and within decades already pose a threat to Byzantium are the Seljuk Turks, a band of unknown tribal nomadic Turkic people that had recently united, converted to Islam, and formed an empire with a powerful cavalry army that will be a deadly force even to the superior and disciplined professional Byzantine army.

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Seal of the Seljuk Empire, the new power in the 11th century

The gradual decline of Byzantium in the 11th century after its golden age would culminate at the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the first major battle between the centuries old Byzantine Empire and the new power of the Seljuk Empire which resulted in the most severe and humiliating defeat the powerful Byzantine army faced so far, thus showing that the Byzantine Empire’s army that was thought of as all powerful around the world was indeed not as powerful as it seemed, therefore it is considered the beginning of the end for Byzantium. Now when speaking of the Battle of Manzikert, a lot of people who know Byzantine history see it as a terribly tragic event like it was one battle that all of a sudden turned all of Byzantium’s successes around, but the truth is that even before this fatal battle, things were already going to go terribly for the Byzantines, thus what really led to the defeat of the powerful Byzantine army and the decline of its imperial power and prestige was not this defeat but the greed, corruption, and bad leadership the empire had been going through for the past decades following the death of Basil II in 1025. However, the real event that brought the powerful Byzantine Empire to its knees in the 11th century was in fact not the Battle of Manzikert itself in August of 1071 but its aftermath as following the defeat of the Byzantines here, their emperor Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071) after being betrayed by a rival general was captured by the Seljuk Turk’s sultan Alp Arslan and the emperor’s capture thus created panic and chaos in the empire and with this chaos, civil war erupted and so did a number of generals who used the chaos as an opportunity to seize the Byzantine throne for themselves rather than defending the empire against the new Seljuk enemy, thus this led to the weakening of the Byzantine state and the fall of the Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor to the Seljuks as well as the collapse centuries old Thematic System or the Themes. The aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert was so severe that shockwaves reached as far as Western Europe that in 1095, the new Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos who rose to power to save the empire from destruction sent a distress signal to the pope to send armies from Western Europe to help the Byzantines drive the Seljuks away from their heartland, but instead what came out of this was the First Crusade that would start a world-famous movement in the Middle Ages being the Crusades. The aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert meanwhile was so shocking that it became one of the major factors that led to the rise of the Crusades as well as the rise of the Ottoman Turks due to the Seljuks’ occupation of Asia Minor and they would centuries later carry out the ultimate end of Byzantium in 1453, and true enough if the Byzantines won the Battle of Manzikert, then there would possibly be no Crusades and no Ottoman Empire centuries later. The main point of this story however is not altering history by having the Byzantines win a total victory over the Seljuks at Manzikert, thus becoming a world power again and making the Crusades never happen but rather the point of this story will be if the Byzantines won the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, would the empire’s corruption and political instability still cause its decline?

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Note: Since this story is set in the 11th century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.          

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Painting of the fateful Battle of Manzikert between the Byzantines and Seljuks, 1071
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The Byzantine Empire (red) at its apogee, at Basil II’s death in 1025, in real history
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Map of the expansion of the Seljuk Turks and their empire (yellow), in the 11th century
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The Byzantine Empire (pink) by 1081 after the Battle of Manzikert

 

For this story, I am writing it alone this time, although with my own twists to the well-known catastrophic Battle of Manzikert which due to how well remembered it is in medieval history as a very significantly dreadful event as the quote mentioned above says, it is a very popular what if in Byzantine history that many had in fact made their own alternate history stories and videos regarding Manzikert and its aftermath. My version here however will be my own take on the fatal battle in 1071 and therefore not a usual theory of this popular alternate history scenario as it will not only simply discuss what would happen if things went the other way around with the Byzantines defeating the Seljuk Turks, but rather it will discuss the difficult situation the Byzantine Empire went through after the Battle of Manzikert and if a Byzantine victory over the Turks could actually save the empire from falling apart in this said 11th Century Crisis or not. Basically this chapter will be a lot like the very first one of this series- Byzantine Alternate History Chapter I– except it will have more story than just pure battle scenes. On the other hand, some months ago I came across an article from Medievalists.net by Dr. Georgios Theotokis on the aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert and what really brought Byzantium to its knees (read it here), and true enough the Byzantine defeat at this battle is what ended Byzantium’s power in their heartland Asia Minor and thus the beginning of what would be the “Turkification” of Asia Minor which today is Turkey, but what I discovered from this article I mentioned that is very surprising and unlikely that caused the decline of Byzantine power in Asia Minor was not really the defeat to the Seljuks but the ambitions of the Norman mercenary leader Roussel de Bailleul who using the situation of defeat at Manzikert took for himself some land in Asia Minor declaring himself its ruler in rebellion against the Byzantine emperor and to deal with him the reigning emperor Michael VII Doukas (1071-1078) allied himself with the enemy which were the Seljuks and with their victory over the Norman mercenary, the Seljuks in return were able to take over most of Asia Minor, which was a mistake very difficult for the Byzantines to undo that it would take decades and even the call to start the First Crusade to recover their heartland. Now for this chapter, I will be exploring the era of the 11th century Byzantine Empire and the aftermath of Manzikert by putting more attention to the aftermath of the battle except with the Byzantines winning, therefore no massive Seljuk occupation of Asia Minor following the crucial battle. For its style, this chapter will be very much similar to the style of the previous chapter which is more of a fast-tracked documentary style of this era in which almost everything really is just a retelling of real history except with its own twist and it is only at the latter part in 1071 where the real twist happens wherein also the story will have more depth and detail. Basically, this story will be more like a reverse style of the previous chapter (chapter VII) which had a fast-tracked documentation of the Byzantine golden age of the 10th century and how it came to be, while this one on the other hand will be a reverse of it as it will fast-track document how the decline of Byzantium after its golden age came to be as the 11th century progressed. The story of the entire 11th century history of Byzantium which I find it to be another very interesting period in Byzantine history will be covered here as in order to explain the situation of the empire in 1071 as well as the background of the lead characters of this story and the new military aristocratic families that will rise up in this era such as the Komnenos, Doukas, and Diogenes families, we have to go back to the start of the 11th century in the reign of Emperor Basil II who’s reforms and conquests will shape the course of the 11th century history of Byzantium. This chapter will start in the year 1000 with the great and feared military emperor Basil II as the reigning emperor in order to give a background to this era where the Byzantine Renaissance from the previous century had culminated in together with the ultimate conquest of the Bulgarian Empire in 1018, then we move on to 1025 where the golden age ends with the death of Basil II wherein without ever being married or having children is succeeded by his ineffective brother Constantine VIII who dies just 3 years later. The story will the proceed to the heart of the 11th century when the crisis takes place with Constantine VIII’s daughter Zoe as the kingmaker behind her 3 husbands who were emperors one after the other in which the age of corruption and decline for Byzantium will start taking shape, then in 1056 the long-reigning Macedonian Dynasty that had ruled since 867 will come to an end with the death of Zoe’s sister Empress Theodora, the last Macedonian Dynasty ruler. Following the end of the Macedonian Dynasty, the empire would fall into a dynastic crisis with powerful aristocratic generals taking the throne and becoming emperors including Isaac I Komnenos in 1057, Constantine X Doukas in 1059, and Romanos IV Diogenes in 1068.

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The Chronographia (14 Byzantine Rulers) by Michael Psellos

In this story too, there will be something like a historian’s angle of telling the story as a lot of the events of the 11th century here were told in the point of view of the historian Michael Psellos (1018-1078), a Byzantine monk, writer, philosopher, and politician who witnessed most of the events of this century himself therefore writing it all down in his famous work The Chronographia documenting the reigns of 14 Byzantine emperors from Basil II to Michael VII (976-1079), and in this story Michael Psellos himself will play an important role as he connects the early part of the century under the Macedonian Dynasty to the latter part when the fatal Battle of Manzikert takes place. This story will then be written in a more fast-tracked form until we hit 1071 where the main battle takes place and it is here where it will be more in depth with some insights of my own that I would add to the real story, and here in this chapter the most prominently featured character will be the emperor Romanos IV Diogenes who personally an army of 40,000 soldiers including a large portion of mercenaries from all over the known world against the Seljuks in Manzikert and here there will be a slight fictional angle to his story wherein he will be depicted like in real history as an aristocratic general from a disgraced family who marries the widowed empress Eudokia Makembolitissa, wife of the former emperor Constantine X Doukas in order to become emperor, but in this story Romanos IV has ambitions to take throne in order to put his life back together and gain some credit for his disgraced family’s name by intending to finally defeat the invading Seljuks Turks in battle even if the Seljuks here never really wanted to fully invade Byzantium anyway but just take some land from them in order to pass through in order to carry out their ultimate goal of the conquest of the Arab Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. Here, like in real history Romanos IV will also decide to confront the Seljuks at the massive Battle of Manzikert but for the sake of altering history, the Byzantines would win with Romanos IV coming out alive, but with this pyrrhic victory here, Byzantium would still go through a difficult situation while Romanos IV like in real history would still be betrayed by the imperial court in Constantinople while he is away.

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

Check this link to see alternate history videos on what if the Byzantines won the Battle of Manzikert, from Ripped Lincoln.


 

Now, a lot of this chapter’s information comes from the very detailed book on this era Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood by the Byzantinist historian Anthony Kaldellis, so this chapter like the book may be something like a political and economic lesson as the complicated Byzantine politics and economic crisis of the era will have a major role here, but this is to show how complex these times were but also to again give you all a clear example of the word “byzantine” meaning complicated and how it the Byzantine Empire really defined this word.

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Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood by Anthony Kaldellis

Although this chapter will have a lot of the complex Byzantine politics involved, it would also be a very action packed one with the major battles against the Turks and other powers including the Normans being the real villains of this century, Arabs, Pechenegs, and a lot more including the famous and powerful Varangian Guards fighting for Byzantium, and in addition this chapter too will mention a few side stories most especially on how these new enemies such as the Seljuk Turks in the east and Normans in the west came to be, and also how the Arabs would slowly disappear from the picture as if you take note, this chapter will be the last time the Arabs which appeared so prominently in the last 4 chapters will appear. Now in the bigger picture, the 11th century was not just a very critical period for Byzantium but for the world in general as this century primarily saw the rise of both Seljuk Turks in the east from unknown nomads to a deadly military power and the Normans in the west which would both play an important part in shaping the medieval world in general, and in this century the Normans would go a long way from Viking warriors and adventurers to dominant rulers of Europe as in this century the Norman knights would establish their own state in Italy and not to mention in 1066 the Normans from their base of Normandy in France under William the Conqueror would conquer England and establish what would be the Kingdom of England itself. What would make the 11th century a very eventful one is that it also saw the early Middle Ages transform into the High Middle Ages as most of the powers in Europe began to expand while this century too would end with the rise of a new movement that will define the Middle Ages which were the Crusades that would last for 2 more centuries, and true enough Byzantium did have a part in starting the Crusades which was their defeat to the Seljuks at Manzikert. This story will then end at the end of the 11th century and in one way or another, just like in real history the well-known fan favorite Alexios I Komnenos would still become Byzantine emperor to save the empire, although without the defeat at Manzikert he would have no reason to call for the First Crusade, though the First Crusade would still happen anyway as this story would go with the Seljuks still continuing on heading down south and capturing the important city of Jerusalem as after all, the reason for the Western Europeans or Latins to launch the First Crusade in 1095 was more to avenge the fall of Jerusalem to the Seljuks and take it for themselves rather than to help the Byzantines recover their lands in Asia Minor from the Seljuks. Additionally, this chapter too will not just be all about Manzikert but focusing too on another major issue that happened in the 11th century which was the Great Schism of 1054 that finally split the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church for good which therefore shows the “cold war” style conflict between Byzantium and the Western world again still in place, but in fact becoming ever worse. At the same time, the year 1071 was not only fatal to the Byzantines because of their great defeat to the Seljuks at Manzikert but it was also the same year when all of Byzantine Italy was lost as it had been conquered by the expanding Normans, thus this event as the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson suggests is what totally and permanently separated Byzantium from the Western world making Byzantium more and more Oriental as the centuries would go by. Before beginning I would have to thank Anthony Kaldellis for his book that I had just mentioned as well as history related Youtube channels like Kings and Generals, Thersites the Historian, and History Time, as well as the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson for providing good and accessible information to this era in Byzantine history. Also, I would just like to remind you all that this chapter is more of a retelling of real history with a few alterations such as the personalities and intentions of a few historical characters here told in a rather mocking style not so much to put Byzantium down but to look up at their history.

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Genealogy of the Macedonian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire which features heavily in this chapter
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Genealogy of the Doukas Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire which features heavily in this chapter

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- A retelling of the 10th century of Byzantium under the Amorian Dynasty

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

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

All Sieges of Constantinople


 

The Leading Characters:

Romanos IV Diogenes- Byzantine emperor (1068-1072)

Constantine X Doukas- Byzantine emperor (1059-1067)

Eudokia Makrembolitissa- Byzantine empress, wife of Constantine X and then of Romanos IV 

Isaac I Komnenos- Byzantine emperor (1057-1059)

Michael Psellos- Byzantine historian and politician

Michael VII Doukas- Byzantine emperor (1071-1078), son of Constantine X and Eudokia 

Maria of Alania- Byzantine empress, wife of Michael VII

Alp Arslan- Sultan of the Seljuk Empire (1063-1072) 

Nikephoros III Botaneiates- Byzantine emperor (1078-1081)

Roussel de Bailleul- Norman mercenary commander and independent leader of Asia Minor lands (1073-1076)

John Doukas Caesar- Imperial Court advisor and brother of Constantine X

Andronikos Doukas- Byzantine general, son of John Doukas

Alexios Komnenos- Byzantine general, future emperor

Nikephoritzes- Byzantine court eunuch advisor of Michael VII

Nikephoros Bryennios- Byzantine general

Robert Guiscard de Hauteville- Norman Duke of Calabria and Apulia (1059-1085) 

Malik-Shah I- Sultan of the Seljuk Empire (1072-1092), son of Alp Arslan

Theodore Alyattes- Byzantine general

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Seljuks (green), Normans (red) 


 

Part I.

Prologue- The Reign of Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer and the Peak of the Byzantine Renaissance (1000-1028)            

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In the year 1000 as the 2nd millennium AD begins, the Byzantine Empire was at its rise to a time of prosperity and influence as not only did it have a powerful and well-organized professional army that was capable of crushing any enemy army whether Arab, Bulgarian, or nomadic Pecheneg, but it was a cultural power wherein its imperial court culture and state administration was sought after that foreign powers like their rival Holy Roman Empire in Germany even began to adopt Byzantine court customs. On the other hand, Byzantium at the turn of the millennium had also culturally influenced powers far away such as the empire of the Kievan Rus’ (consisting of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) as it is through Byzantium that the people of the Kievan Rus’ empire converted to Orthodox Christianity thus falling under the Byzantine sphere of influence. Ruling the Byzantine Empire at its apogee of cultural and military power at the turn of the millennium was Emperor Basil II who had already been ruling the empire alone since 976 and before that had already ruled as a co-emperor since he was only 2-years-old in 960.

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Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer of Byzantium (r. 976-1025)

In 1000, Basil II was a skilled administrator and soldier but also a tough and ruthless commander as well as a strict micromanager with his army and the state administration, though it is quite hard to believe how Basil II became this kind ruler with this kind of ruthless ruling style especially in war and living life like an ordinary soldier, that it would make you think that he grew up on the battlefield coming from a military family, but true enough he did not. Basil II was in fact a purple-born emperor or Porphyrogennetos born in the palace in 958, he too was the son of the emperor Romanos II (r. 959-963) and the empress Theophano, as well as a grandson of the famous scholarly emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959) and true enough Constantine VII and his son Romanos II- who had been mentioned in the previous chapter- were not at all tough military men but highly sophisticated palace emperors that never even set foot in a battle. The reason though to why Basil II grew up to be different being a soldier emperor were the difficulties he faced when growing up as when he was only 5 in 963 his father Romanos II died suddenly and his mother Theophano had to marry the rising star general of the time Nikephoros II Phokas who became emperor here after marrying Theophano to rule as young Basil’s protector but in 969 Nikephoros II despite doing so much to strengthen the empire’s military power was killed in his sleep as part of a conspiracy by his nephew who became the next emperor John I Tzimiskes,who would also rule as Basil’s protector and only after John I’s death in 976 did Basil II come to power as the senior ruler as his younger brother Constantine VIII had already been his co-emperor ever since 962. Now a lot of Basil II’s tough personality, capability in commanding and inspiring his troops, and living a simple lifestyle like an ascetic monk was said to be heavily influenced by his stepfather Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas who as emperor did not enjoy luxury but instead was most happy in the battlefield with his soldiers and Basil II was very much the same as his stepfather that way. Though Basil II was the senior emperor in 976, his rule was not secure as the two ambitious generals Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas challenged his rule by proclaiming themselves emperors seeing Basil as a palace born ruler was a weak one as true enough Basil up until 985 was under the control of his grand-uncle the eunuch Basil Lekapenos. Basil eventually grew tired of being a puppet of his corrupt eunuch grand-uncle and so in 985, Basil II without any hesitation banished his grand-uncle from the palace under charges of corruption and conspiring with the rebels and in 986, Basil II wanting to show that he was not a weak ruler and that the empire was ruled by a member of the ruling dynasty and not by eunuchs or ambitious generals decided to personally lead the army for the first time against their northern neighbor and enemy the Bulgarian Empire but lacking military experience here, Basil II was defeated in battle by the Bulgarians.

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Bardas Phokas the Younger, Byzantine general, art by Akitku

This defeat in 986 gave Basil II a strong desire for revenge against the Bulgarians and a lifelong goal to defeat them once and for all and absorb the entire Bulgarian state into the Byzantine Empire, although Basil’s defeat to the Bulgarians in 986 also exposed his weakness and created an opportunity for the general Bardas Phokas to rise up against Basil. Basil II however was able to defeat the rebellion of Bardas Phokas in 989 with the assistance of an army of 6,000 warriors from the Kievan Rus’ Empire which would be known as the Varangian Guard and with them, the rebel army of Phokas was swiftly destroyed while Phokas himself died from a stroke. The Varangian Guards then proved to be a successful military unit in the Byzantine army that form here on, they would become the new elite bodyguard force of the emperor and warriors from as far as Scandinavia wherein they knew Constantinople as Miklagard or the “Great City” would come to the emperor’s service as part of the Varangian Guard unit.

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Varangian Guard soldier, introduced to Byzantium in 988

Meanwhile in 991, as Basil II was heading back to Bulgaria in a campaign against them, the other rebel general Bardas Skleros was at this point was an old and broken man who had no more support as a lot of his rebel forces and that of Phokas defected to Basil II’ army and without anyone to turn to anymore, the old Skleros peacefully surrendered to Basil II before dying days later. The defeat and death of Bardas Phokas in 989 and Skleros’ surrender in 991 would show that Basil II had gained more military and political abilities and after 991 Basil II would rule alone as the supreme authority with no one to challenge him. Now if you wonder how all of a sudden Basil II became the supreme and unchallenged authority of the empire, this was not only because he defeated his powerful rivals but because of his new policies, and the kind of policy Basil II would be remembered for was in putting away the old military aristocracy of Asia Minor which included that of the families of Phokas and Skleros and replacing them with new rising families that would be completely loyal to him, and these new aristocrats loyal to Basil would include the Komnenos family as well as the generals Nikephoros Xiphias and Constantine Diogenes. Basil II was also known to have confiscated property and wealth of the powerful landed aristocrats in Asia Minor known as the Dynatoi as a way to limit their power showing that the emperor was the supreme authority and not these landed military families, although Basil II also continued with the laws his predecessors passed which was to stop the powerful landed families from expanding their land by buying land from the small farmers while these laws also made sure that these small farmers would not sell their land as they were to pay taxes and by selling their land, there would be no more taxes for the empire’s revenue and certainly Basil II was the type that relied heavily on taxes for his military campaigns. In the meantime, as Basil II’s authority was ever increasing due to his policies to limit the power of the aristocrats, Basil II was able to continue his campaigns against the Bulgarian Empire in the north without any interruptions between in the first decade of the 1000’s according to the historian John Skylitzes (1040-1101), however the thing is that there are not that much sources that document a large part of Basil II’s reign from the 990s to 1010s, therefore there is a lot of missing information on the history of Byzantium at this point in time. However, what is known in this period is that while the Byzantines were at war with Bulgaria in the north, their recently conquered territories in Syria to the south were threatened by the new Arab power of the Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt under the caliph Al-Hakim who is usually described as a madman as he was known to brutally persecute Christians, and Basil II here himself rushed all the way from the Bulgarian frontier south to Syria with his army with such great speed to defend it against the advancing Fatimids.

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Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, Caliph of the Fatimid Caliphate (r. 996-1021)

In 1000, Basil II signed a truce with Caliph Al-Hakim in order for Basil to resume his war with Bulgaria in the north and in the next years, Basil II would launch raids into Bulgarian territory and capture a number of important fortresses and cities as a way a strategy to further weaken the Bulgarian state before carrying out the complete Byzantine conquest. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Empire to the north of Byzantium had once been a major political and military power in the early 10th century but in the 960s it had been destroyed by the Kievan Rus’ army and in 971, Bulgaria itself was conquered by the Byzantine emperor John I Tzimiskes although not entirely as only the eastern third was conquered while the western 2/3 of Bulgaria still remained independent and resisted against Byzantium with a new dynasty rising being the Cometopuli wherein a member of it being Samuil who was a Bulgarian general soon enough became the ruler or tsar of Bulgaria attempting to restore the old power of the Bulgarian state except that right when Bulgaria was rising again, Basil II put all his attention in finishing them off.

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Samuil of the Cometopuli, Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire (r. 997-1014)

By the 1010s, Samuil was still the Tsar of Bulgaria, though the only major decisive battle between the Byzantine forces of Basil II and Samuil’s Bulgarian forces would only take place in 1014 at the Battle of Kleidion at a mountain pass in what is today’s border of Greece and Bulgaria. Here, Samuil planned to ambush the Byzantine army as they were going to march at this mountain pass but before the battle, Basil’s general Nikephoros Xiphias knew of the plan and so he attacked the Bulgarian forces from behind while Basil II and the main army consisting of the new Varangian Guard unit of massive axe-wielding Norsemen as well attacked the Bulgarian forces directly at the mountain pass. At the end of the day, the Byzantine forces under Basil II and the generals Nikephoros Xiphias and Constantine Diogenes won a decisive victory over Samuil’s forces, although Samuil was able to escape but the Byzantines were able to make 15,000 prisoners of war and to send Samuil a message, Basil had them all blinded except for one man out of every group of 100 which was to lead his group back to the Bulgarian capital of Ohrid.

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Basil II rides into Athens after completing his Bulgarian conquest, 1018

When seeing his men blinded, Samuil suffered a heart attack and died shortly after later in 1014 while Basil for winning a decisive victory over the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion and brutally blinding his Bulgarian prisoners would earn the sobriquet of the “Bulgar-Slayer” or Boulgaroktonos in Greek, and the defeat and Kleidion and death of Samuil would put Bulgaria into chaos and succession crisis which allowed Basil to conquer the rest of Bulgaria with ease for the next 4 years. In 1018, after the murder of the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Vladislav, the Bulgarian nobles or boyars seeing there was no more chance for Bulgaria to survive unless they were put under the protection of the Byzantine Empire all surrendered to Basil II and so by 1018 the entire Bulgarian state which had been around for more than 300 years since the Bulgars first arrived in the Danube in 680 was wiped off the map, and here the Byzantine Empire extended all the way to the Danube River having almost the entire Balkans under their control. Following the complete annexation of the Bulgarian Empire, Basil II toured his recently conquered lands ending his tour in Athens to give thanks to God in the Parthenon which under the Byzantines became a church, then after this Basil would return to Constantinople celebrating a triumph.

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Emperor Basil II and the Varangian Guards, in real history, art by Amelianvs
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Byzantines under Basil II defeat the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion, 1014
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Bulgarian prisoners of war blinded by Basil II after their defeat at the Battle of Kleidion, 1014
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Emperor Basil II the “Bulgar-Slayer” at the cover of his book The Menologion

      

With the entire Bulgarian Empire that had once been a power in the Balkans wiped off the map and annexed into the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantine army became a feared force by all the powers around them while the blinding of the Bulgarian POWs sent a message to other foreign powers beyond to not mess with Byzantium or else suffer the fate of Bulgaria. In fact, right after the conquest of Bulgaria, the Serbian states that neighbored it also surrendered to Byzantium fearing they would be destroyed like the Bulgarian Empire while to the northwest of it, the Kingdom of Croatia too accepted the authority of Basil II and agreed to be a vassal paying tribute to Byzantium also fearing they would suffer the fate of Bulgaria if they did not pay tribute, thus practically with Croatia vassalized all of the Balkans was under Byzantine control.

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Emperor Basil II in his later years

Basil II on the other hand despite ruthlessly crushing the Bulgarians in battle had managed to deal with the annexation of Bulgaria mercifully by making sure his new Bulgarian subjects were to be treated as equals to the Byzantines, that they would pay less taxes, also that their nobility would still be allowed to keep their land, and the Bulgarian Church was to be semi-independent and this was all to make sure that the Bulgarians would stay loyal to the Byzantines and integrate instead of rebelling against their conquerors, and true enough Basil’s policy regarding the annexation of Bulgaria turned out to be successful. In the meantime as Basil II was busy with the conquest of Bulgaria, he had also concluded an alliance with the rising maritime power of Italy which was the Republic of Venice in order to use Venetian ships in transporting Byzantine troops around Southern Italy as the main Byzantine navy was too busy in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, and to be specific what was happening in Byzantine Southern Italy at the same time the Bulgarian campaign was happening was that the local Lombard population rose up in rebellion under the Lombard nobleman Melus of Bari against Byzantine rule in Southern Italy. As for Byzantine Southern Italy, back in the 10th century the 3 Themes (military administered provinces) there of Calabria, Lucania, and Apulia had merged into a larger province known as a Catepanate under the control of a military governor called a Catepan which was more powerful than the standard military governor known as the Strategos, although a major percent of the population in Southern Italy consisted of the Germanic Lombards which had been settling in Italy ever since the late 6th century when conquering Byzantine Italy and because of them being the majority, the Lombards sought to overthrow Byzantine rule. In 1017, the Lombard nobleman Melus came across a group of armed pilgrims in Southern Italy and these pilgrims happened to be a new group of warrior people known as the Normans who came from Northern France. The Normans meanwhile have a very interesting story as at the beginning, they had started out as a band of Viking warriors from Norway which in 911 under their leader Rollo had settled in the Northern coast of France which then was the Kingdom of West Frankia as the King of West Frankia here offered the Viking Rollo here some land in exchange for them to protect West Frankia from other foreign raiders. Over the decades, West Frankia would evolve into the Kingdom of France and these Norsemen becoming known as the Normans settled and assimilated in Northern France which under them became Normandy, while also they had adopted the Frankish culture and language, French names, Latin Catholic Christianity, and a feudal system of governance which was to grant land to knights for their victory, although soon as landed knights kept rising up over the decades, Normandy which was too small ran out of land that a lot of knights became adventurers looking for lands abroad to settle in, thus they came across Southern Italy which they saw as fertile and could make them gain a lot wealth.

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Norman knight, early 11th century

In 1018 meanwhile, the same year Basil II conquered the Bulgarian Empire, these Norman knights in Southern Italy joined forces with the Lombard rebels of Melus of Bari and clashed against the Byzantine imperial army including the fierce Varangian Guards at the Battle of Cannae- ironically the same place the army of Carthage under the general Hannibal defeated the Romans in 216BC- but here the Byzantine army again proved its strength by crushing the Lombard-Norman alliance, thus Melus fled to Germany where he died, but the Byzantines seeing the strength of these Norman mercenaries were impressed and had decided to enlist them to the Byzantine army in Italy as mercenaries even giving them land there. Now back to Basil II, as the emperor he devoted his time to commanding the army that he was hardly present in the Imperial Palace in Constantinople but instead in army camps with his soldiers and instead of wearing the lavish silk robes the palace emperors like his father and grandfather wore, he preferred wearing his purple cloak over his armor and being a soldier emperor, he even ate with his men. Meanwhile, the historian Michael Psellos who did not meet Basil personally as he was still a child in Basil’s reign based on what he heard from Basil’s soldiers that he met describes Basil as someone who was shorter than average in height with a stocky built but looked impressive riding his horse while also Basil was described by Psellos as austere in tastes and not an articulate speaker that was even bad at the grammar of the Greek language and instead spoke in such a boorish and unsophisticated way with foul language.

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Basil II on a horse, art by Oznerol-1516

Basil II now had a reputation of being cold-hearted, cruel, boorish, bad-tempered, and foul-mouthed that he never had any real friends or was never really close to anyone and neither did he want any friends, but he was nevertheless highly respected and feared by his army and subjects and that the children of his fallen soldiers that also enlisted in the army saw him as their father as in fact a lot of the children of Basil’s fallen soldiers themselves were put under the his protection and he had them all raised to be tough and capable soldiers. Also being the disciplinarian micromanager, Basil was someone who noticed everything especially when it came to his soldiers’ behavior in the battlefield especially when it came to staying in formation and if a soldier charged out bravely and broke formation despite killing a number of enemy soldiers, Basil would not reward this soldier for his bravery but instead dismiss him from the army without any question. On the other hand, though being a ruthless conqueror, Basil was at the same time a very skilled diplomat that he was able to annex entire states through diplomacy which was seen in 1001 when he absorbed the entire Georgian principality of Tao found along the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire into the empire itself by making a deal with their prince David III that when he dies, Basil would claim his entire principality for further protection, thus when David III died in 1001 his entire state became a Byzantine Theme.

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King George I of Georgia (r. 1014-1027)

Now after the conquest of Bulgaria, Basil II having the Georgian state of Tao under his control used it as a platform to launch a full expedition against the main Georgian Kingdom itself to the north and in 1021 again led the army in battle against the Georgians which resulted in victory for the Byzantines whereas the Georgian king George I fled the battle. In the meantime, Basil II was able to annex a number of Armenian states along the border that had been allied with the Georgian Kingdom into the empire in order to further protect them which included the Armenian principality of Vaspurakan which also became a Byzantine Theme, and in 1022 Basil II was able to score another major victory over the Georgians thus conquering a number of Georgian lands. At the same time though, Nikephoros Xiphias the hero of the Bulgarian War who was in Asia Minor here rebelled against the emperor with support from the defeated George I of Georgia, although Basil proving himself to be effective again crushed Xiphias’ revolt and despite Xiphias helping Basil win victory in 1014 against the Bulgarians, he was not shown mercy and forced to become a monk. Now having secured the annexation of the small Armenian and Georgian states along the eastern border into the empire itself, Basil II turned to his other ultimate goal which was the complete Byzantine reconquest of Sicily which had for 2 centuries now been lost to the hands of the Arabs and this full campaign against the Arabs in Sicily was to be carried out in 1026 but before 1026 came, Basil II died in December of 1025 in Constantinople. Now Basil II known as the “Bulgar-Slayer” would be remembered as one of Byzantium’s greatest emperors, in fact the second most influential emperor since the 6th century Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) and in Basil’s case it was because he was able to achieve the total conquest of Bulgaria while at the same time was able to show the known world that the Byzantine emperor and army was all-powerful, however Basil II still made a very great mistake which was in succession. Basil II as it turned out had never married his entire life therefore never having any children as he wanted to rule and live like an ordinary soldier and ascetic monk that he also had no woman ever close to him his entire life except his mother Theophano who had already died back in the 990s. Fortunately, Basil II had a brother the co-emperor Constantine VIII who had been his co-emperor since the very beginning, although he had no sons but 3 daughters who were even forbidden to marry by their uncle Basil II as Basil thought that if his nieces married then the authority of their Macedonian Dynasty would be threatened.                        

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Map of the Byzantine Empire and all its Themes at its apogee at the death of Basil II, 1025
Watch this to learn more about the life and reign of Basil II (Kings and Generals).

Basil II died on December 15 of 1025 at the age of 67 as Byzantium’s longest reigning emperor and now the new emperor, Basil II’s younger brother Constantine VIII who was named after his grandfather Constantine VII had come to power as the sole ruler of Byzantium at 65 after ruling as a co-emperor with only a ceremonial function for a full 63 years but the problem was that Constantine VIII despite growing up through same difficulties in the dynastic succession his brother did never had any experience in ruling nor training in running an empire and neither was he influenced by the ruling styles of his former protector emperors before which were Nikephoros II Phokas and John I Tzimiskes.

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Emperor Constantine VIII of Byzantium (r. 1025-1028), younger brother of Basil II

Constantine on the other hand was very much like his father Romanos II who lived a life of pleasure without a care for the real world and the whole time when Basil II was fighting wars or reforming the government, Constantine spent his time hunting, feasting, enjoying comedy shows, and playing Polo or Tzykanion, and only once in his life he joined his brother in a military campaign which was in 989 in the war against Bardas Phokas, but that was it for Constantine. Now Constantine unlike Basil who was short and quite unattractive was tall, athletic, and graceful as well as a skilled horseman who even trained his own horses while he too was married although when he came to power in 1025 his wife had already died, but with her he had no sons but 3 daughters in which the eldest one Eudokia was physically deformed therefore she chose to stay away from public affairs and become a nun while his two other daughters Zoe and Theodora were seen as fit except both were unmarried and were already quite old. By the time Constantine VIII came to power in 1025 he had already been suffering from gout but the worst part though was that he had no state experience and so the golden age of Byzantium Basil II and his predecessors worked so hard to attain would all of a sudden fade away in Constantine VIII’s reign, thus his reign is described as an “unmitigated disaster”, “breakup of the system”, and “a collapse of the empire’s military power”.

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Coin of Basil II and his brother Constantine VIII as co-emperors

In his reign, all of Basil II’s reforms regarding the military and cutting down the aristocracy would already become undone so quickly as Constantine having no government experience was easily manipulated by the powerful people of the court and within months, by listening to the advice of some aristocrats the reforms of Basil II to limit their power were already undone and a lot of these military aristocrats had gained their land back. In the imperial court meanwhile, Basil II had gotten rid of the administration run by corrupt eunuchs which he greatly loathed but with Constantine a lot of these corrupt eunuchs returned to power and for the imperial court, he filled up these positions with incompetent administrators loyal to him rather than competent and experienced ones. Though not having the skill and ambitions of Basil II, Constantine VIII had his cruelty which was seen with his persecution of the nobility for the slightest insults against him and when it came to dealing with punishing those who conspired against him whether they really committed a crime or if the crime was just made up, Constantine made blinding his favorite form of punishment. One example of Constantine VIII’s cruelty was in 1027 when he accused the Strategos of the new Theme of Vaspurakan Nikephoros Komnenos of plotting against the emperor and when brought to Constantinople, Nikephoros was blinded in front of the emperor and over in Western Greece when the people rebelled against and killed their oppressive governor, Constantine punished the people so severely and even had their bishop blinded. Constantine though may have been brutal and quick to anger but he was also someone very emotional that he would be extremely remorseful after blinding or executing someone. However, Constantine was not young and healthy and in 1028 he already knew he was dying and so it was time he thought of a successor which was to marry his daughter Zoe despite his brother wanting none of his nieces to marry, but in order to continue the dynasty, Constantine fell for the competent general and Byzantine governor of Antioch Constantine Dalassenos to marry Zoe and succeed him. Dalassenos then set off on a journey to Constantinople to be crowned but midway through it he found out that he was no longer the candidate for succession as the emperor as usual was convinced by the senate that a weaker ruler must succeed him as the senate wanted someone that could easily manipulated as Dalassenos was a strong general that could be too independent, therefore the senate relied on one of their own which was the Prefect or city mayor of Constantinople Romanos Argyros to marry Zoe and succeed Constantine. Romanos however was already happily married though Constantine VIII had Romanos and his wife arrested and brought to the palace where Constantine forced Romanos to divorce his wife and banish her to a nunnery and marry Constantine’s daughter Zoe or else Romanos and his wife would be blinded as usual with Constantine’s punishments. Romanos then chose the first option and married Zoe as he true enough had some ambition to be emperor and only 3 days after the wedding, Constantine VIII at 68 died on November 11, 1028 as the last male ruler carrying the Macedonian Dynasty’s name. 

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Blinding of Nikephoros Komnenos under Constantine VIII’s orders in 1027, Madrid Skylitzes

 

Empress Zoe and the End of the Macedonian Dynasty (1028-1057)          

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The gradual decline of Byzantium’s imperial power had already begun in the 3-year reign of Constantine VIII (1025-1028) right when the empire was it its strongest which meant that there was still some hope for its imperial power to be revived as it had been only 3 years wherein Byzantium’s power deteriorated, but this was not the case here as the new emperor Romanos III Argyros was very much as incompetent as Constantine VIII.

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Emperor Romanos III Argyros of Byzantium (r. 1028-1034)

Coming to power in 1028 after Constantine’s death and marrying his 50-year-old daughter Zoe, Romanos III was already 60 and had a good amount of government experience except that he was more or less an idiot with unrealistic ambitions, but really he was just insecure as for one he was not part of the ruling dynasty but had only married into it and as emperor he had big shoes to fill as he wanted to imitate the rule of Basil II and continue it, though he was very far from Basil II when it came to military and political skills. Romanos III as emperor too wanted to pattern his rule on that of the great Roman emperors of the past including Trajan (98-117) for his military might, Marcus Aurelius (161-180) for being a philosopher-king, and Justinian I the Great in terms of military and construction projects, but the truth was that Romanos was nowhere near these great men in ability. Now back to Zoe, this had been the first time she had married, and even though already 50, she was said to still be very beautiful, looking like she was still in her 30s and as a matter of fact, back in 1002 when she was much younger, she had been arranged to marry the half-Byzantine Greek Holy Roman emperor Otto III except when arriving in Italy, Zoe found out the man she was going to marry had died, then again in 1028 she was arranged to be married to the German prince Henry, son of the current Holy Roman emperor Conrad II, except that Henry was only 10 while Zoe was 50 and true enough the marriage never came to be as she already married Romanos. Zoe however had the looks but not the brains and though she held real power as she was part of the ruling dynasty, the same historian Michael Psellos describes her in an insulting way that she did not care about state affairs or the good of the empire but rather only cared about spending on luxuries that she in fact spent on the most expensive perfumes and silks from as far away as India.

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Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita of Byzantium, daughter of Constantine VIII

Zoe’s marriage to Romanos though at first which was thought to be a happy one turned out to be the opposite as both were already old and passed the age to bear children that Romanos was said to even consult sorcerers on taking potions and even surgery to make him and Zoe sexually younger in order to have children, but at the end none of this worked and neither did their marriage that in only months after their wedding, the couple would no longer share the bed together. Meanwhile, Zoe’s younger sister Theodora who was not as attractive but smarter than her had an affair with the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Vladislav’s son Presian who was a hostage in Constantinople and together they conspired to assassinate Romanos III but the plot was uncovered and Presian was forced to become a monk while Theodora was banished by Zoe to become a nun. Now with Romanos III’s tax policies, it all seemed like the strong economy was about to fall apart as Romanos wanting to please the landed military aristocracy exempted them from taxes and also allowed them to resume buying off land from small farmers to expand their estates, thus the farmers too losing their land could no longer pay taxes and due to all this, the empire’s revenue would begin to decline. Becoming unpopular with his failed tax policies, Romanos III decided that it was time to prove his popularity by personally leading his troops in battle despite his old age and so in 1030 he led the army himself without realizing that this would be another stupid decision as for the past 5 years since Basil II’s death or even longer, the empire was relatively at peace and now here in 1030 Romanos III for no clear reason would break this streak of peace by declaring war on the Arab Emirate of Aleppo in Syria despite them being allies of the Byzantines. The worst part now was that the area of Syria was a desert and Romanos had decided to attack in July, the hottest summer month and even the Arabs of Aleppo seeing it was not a good idea even asked Romanos to renew their peace agreement with Byzantium to avoid war, but Romanos hard-headed as ever refused these peace terms as well as the advice from his generals to give up the campaign, thus he continued the war. It was not surprising that in August of 1030 Romanos’ army was ambushed by the Arabs at the Battle of Azaz where the Byzantines lost a humiliating defeat, although not a lot of men as a large number including the emperor were able to flee, but the Byzantine camp as well as their supplies ended up looted by the Arabs, thus this battle exposed the vulnerability of the Byzantine army for the first time.

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George Maniakes, Byzantine general

The Byzantines however did not accept their defeat and so luckily for them, a local general in the area which was George Maniakes, a large and intimidating man with a brutal reputation and said to have a voice loud like thunder tricked the Arab army of Aleppo by offering them wine for a dinner feast thus and when getting them all drunk, George was able to destroy every last one of them catching them off guard and mutilating all of the dead Arabs’ noses and ears sending them to the emperor as proof. Now finishing off the war with the Arabs in Syria with some success, Romanos III returned to strengthening his popularity with the people in Constantinople and now knowing he was not that much of a successful commander, he turned to construction projects and here to make a better picture of himself, he put a lot of the state’s money into building a large and lavish church at one of Constantinople’s hills known as the Peribleptos church, meaning “seen from everywhere”. This church however was not so much built as a sign of Romanos’ devotion to God but to glorify himself and show off his wealth, though also by this time, his marriage to Zoe was going from bad to worse that both being away from each other started having their own lovers. As for Zoe due to being away from Romanos, here by 1032 she had fallen in love with a man almost 30 years younger than her which was Michael the Paphlagonian, a native of Paphlagonia from Northern Asia Minor who although not from any noble family was from a family that became wealthy due to their profession as ship builders, although Michael before meeting Zoe was a money changer but was able to come across the empress as Michael’s older brother John known as the Orphanotrophos meaning “director of the orphanage” was the rising court eunuch finance official in Romanos III’s court. Now the eunuch John by 1032 had his first major moment in the imperial court when he arrested Constantine Diogenes, the same general that helped Basil II defeat the Bulgarians in 1014 if you remember for charges of plotting against the emperor. Constantine Diogenes though had been married to a niece of Romanos III but when discovered that he was conspiring against the emperor, he was brought to the Palace of Blachernae along Constantinople’s land walls to be interrogated by the eunuch John but rather than confessing his part in the plot and the names of his co-conspirators due to not wanting a humiliating end of being executed, Constantine instead committed suicide by jumping off the palace’s wall. The Diogenes family thus became disgraced, however Constantine here in fact had a 2-year-old son Romanos Diogenes who would remain unharmed back in their family estate in Cappadocia, though he would true enough be a general and even the emperor one day. Romanos III’s health meanwhile began to worsen by 1033 that he was said to have turned into a “walking skeleton” losing a lot of weight and hair while his skin also began to turn pale, and this was possibly due to cancer, and Zoe did not give a care about her husband’s failing health but instead thought of ways to poison him to quickly finish him off, though Romanos still survived many poisoning attempts by Zoe and Michael who were lovers and to get Michael closer, Zoe had him become a servant in the palace who was in charge of cleaning Romanos’ feet and helping Zoe dress up, and it is here where their affair would grow ever more passionate despite their large age gap. Now in April of 1034, Romanos III finally died in his bath, a fate similar to that of the Byzantine emperor Constans II in 668- if you remember from chapter IV of this series- and Romanos’ death was not due to natural causes as when he was soaking in his tub, the servant sent by Zoe carefully drowned his head in the water and being already sick, Romanos quickly died without it looking like he was assassinated even if he was. The Patriarch of Constantinople Alexios I was shocked hearing of the emperor’s death but more shocked seeing Michael and Zoe in their purple imperial robes sitting on the throne, though after being bribed, the patriarch crowned both Zoe and Michael while Romanos III would be buried ironically in the Church of Peribleptos which he had built.         

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Romanos III in his 1030 Syrian military campaign, art by Ancient City Lullaby
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Defeat of the Byzantines to the Arabs at the Battle of Azaz in 1030, Madrid Skylitzes
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Assassination of Romanos III in his bath in 1034, Madrid Skylitzes
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Wedding of Empress Zoe and Michael the Paphlagonian in 1034, Madrid Skylitzes

Watch this to learn more about Empress Zoe (Jack Rackam).

Michael IV the Paphlagonian in 1034 was now another emperor that came to power despite having humble origins, though he would be the last of these emperors and only in his 20s, Michael was handsome and energetic possessing a lot of intelligence despite not being that educated, however Michael on the other hand was not all perfect as even though he was young, he was already known to be suffering from epilepsy which was very obvious to everyone. Zoe then thought that Michael would be a much more devoted husband unlike Romanos III before him but again it turned out to be the opposite as when coming to power, Michael IV had Zoe confined to the women’s quarters of the palace forbidding her to have the slightest say in his rule and instead Michael not having much political skills relied heavily on his older brother the eunuch John in the state’s finances and administration, despite John being extremely corrupt and greedy.

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Emperor Michael IV of Byzantium (r. 1034-1041), art by Grayjoy15

As emperor, Michael would intend to sideline the ruling Macedonian Dynasty which was basically Zoe and instead put his family members, the Paphlagonians in high-ranking positions in the government as he was here actually planning on replacing the ruling dynasty with his own. Michael IV’s reign began badly with famine and a locust plague in 1035 while at the same time the Nomadic Pecheneg tribes from the north of the Danube attacked Byzantine territory in the Balkans and the Serbs too declared independence from Byzantium when a Serb prince refused to return the money he found in a shipwreck to Byzantium, and considering his condition of epilepsy he would be prone to ambitious generals wanting to seize the throne in their name, but being a decisive thinker Michael was able to put down a number of them. Though being an epileptic, Michael IV wanted to still show he was capable in carrying out full scale military expeditions and so in 1038 he decided to finish what Basil II failed to do before his death in 1025 which was the complete Byzantine reconquest of Sicily from the Arabs and with the fleet already assembled by Basil II years earlier, Michael ordered the postponed expedition to resume putting the empire’s rising star general George Maniakes in charge of it while Michael’s brother-in-law Stephen the admiral was in charge of the navy and at the same time this large expedition would also include a multinational force consisting of the elite Varangian Guard unit led by the exiled Norwegian prince Harald Sigurdsson– known as Araltes in Greek- who would be the future King of Norway Harald III Hardrada as well as Lombard and Norman mercenaries from Italy. Not to mention, George Maniakes back in 1037 being in command of the eastern armies since Romanos III’s reign had successfully recaptured the city of Edessa in Syria for the empire from the Arabs which meant that this expedition to Sicily would not be too hard now that he had a lot of experience in fighting Arabs. The expedition to reclaim Sicily thus was mostly successful that in only 2 years between 1038 and 1040, the Byzantines and their allies were able to successfully take back almost the entire island after the recapture of Syracuse, though right before completely driving off the Arabs from the island, George lost support from his Lombard allies while the Normans unhappy with their pay abandoned the Byzantines and returned to mainland Italy and rebelled. The admiral Stephen meanwhile after being mistreated by the hot-tempered George wrote a letter to the eunuch John and Michael IV accusing George of conspiring to overthrow Michael IV and so John recalled him to Constantinople to be imprisoned, thus the expedition to recapture Sicily ended in tragedy right before it could completely succeed.

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Harald III Sigurdsson “Harald Hardrada”, King of Norway (r. 1046-1066), former Varangian Guard commander in the service of Byzantium

This expedition then was the last Byzantine attempt in taking back Sicily, although there was some reason too for why the troops had to be recalled as at the same time, Bulgaria once again erupted in rebellion. On the other hand, Harald Hardrada was recorded in the Viking sagas that he had campaigned and fought bravely in all corners of the empire during Michael IV’s reign and after the Sicilian expedition, he battled the uprising of the Lombards and Normans in Italy but lost, but then Harald and his men were immediately recalled to join the Byzantine forces in Bulgaria when the uprising broke out there. As it turned out, the policy of Basil II to keep the taxes for the Bulgarians low was violated as the eunuch John began to impose heavier taxes on the empire’s Bulgarian Themes for his own personal use thus triggering a revolt among the Bulgarian population there, although their uprising in 1040 was also for nationalistic purposes as the Bulgarians even after being conquered by Basil II still felt a sense national identity thus wanting independence from Byzantium, and so the Bulgarians rallied under a man named Delyan, a Bulgarian hostage who escaped Constantinople and returned to Bulgaria where he claimed that he was a grandson of the former tsar Samuil.

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Peter II Delyan, Bulgarian Uprising leader and tsar (1040-1041)

The Bulgarian rebels under Delyan then seized the city of Belgrade in the Balkans and here Delyan was proclaimed by the rebels as their tsar being renamed Peter II in opposition to the Byzantine emperor and within months the rebellion grew stronger as it swept across the Balkans by 1041. With the situation in Bulgaria becoming worse, Michael IV here despite his health already becoming worse due to epilepsy and a new condition of swelling legs, he decided to lead the army himself and put down the Bulgarian uprising of Delyan once and for all. The Byzantines here assisted by the Varangian Guards under Harald Hardrada fought a difficult war against the Bulgarian rebels but at the end still managed to succeed while Delyan himself was captured. Now there are two stories regarding Delyan’s fall and death in which one was that his cousin Alusian who was a Byzantine double-agent tricked and blinded him then sent him over to Constantinople to be executed and the other one was recorded in the Viking sagas wherein Harald Hardrada himself cut down Delyan in battle, and this story would go for the version in the Viking sagas and so Delyan here in 1041 was killed by the Viking Harald Hardrada who would become known as the “Bulgar-Burner” the same way Basil II before was remembered as the “Bulgar-Slayer”. The cities and areas that had fallen to the Bulgarian rebellion then returned back to the empire’s control but Michael IV soon enough was that sick that he was near death wherein a seizure could happen at any time. By December of 1041 as Michael IV was close to death, he named his nephew also named Michael, the son of the admiral Stephen and already made a Caesar as his successor, and Michael IV too had made his older wife Empress Zoe adopt his nephew too. Before his death on December 10 of 1041, Michael IV retired to a monastery and even when Zoe begged to see him before his death he still refused, thus he died without seeing his wife for the last time.            

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The 1038-1040 Byzantine Expedition to reclaim Sicily from the Arabs, Madrid Skylitzes
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George Maniakes, Byzantine general in charge of the Sicilian Expedition, art by Amelianvs
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George Maniakes sent back to Constantinople in humiliation in 1040, Madrid Skylitzes
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Michael IV leads his army against the Bulgarian Uprising in 1041, Madrid Skylitzes
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Death of Michael IV as a monk in 1041, Madrid Skylitzes

The rise of the Paphlagonian family of Michael IV thus definitely showed that the age-old Byzantium had wherein nobodies when having connections to the imperial court could even rise up to become emperor whether they were to do it for the good of the empire or if they were just gold diggers. Michael IV however due to the strong influence his family began to have over the imperial court was able to continue his Paphlagonian Dynasty as his nephew Michael V succeeded him.

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Empress Zoe, art by Grayjoy15

As the present day historian Anthony Kaldellis put it, the rise of the Paphlagonian family of Michael IV shows that the republican systems of Ancient Rome still lived on to the 11th century and true enough Byzantium did not have any laws saying that their emperor had divine rights wherein they could only be succeeded by their eldest sons, therefore this is what allowed either ambitious generals or opportunistic gold diggers like Michael IV to grab the opportunity and take the throne, though in this case the long-time Macedonian Dynasty was still in power through Zoe even if her role was only ceremonial but true enough the people too had a say in the imperial government and here Zoe despite not really doing anything was popular with the common people for the reason of being part of the legitimate dynasty as it was usual for the common people to prefer someone legitimate rather than a usurper. Now for an emperor to be able to consolidate his rule without being challenged, he had to both be able to please his people but also be feared by them otherwise if he was too soft, he would be an easy target, though the emperor too should not be too terrifying as this could make seen as very unpopular for being too tyrannical, and the perfect example who had a balance of being loved and feared was Basil II.

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Emperor Michael V of Byzantium (r. 1041-1042), nephew of Michael IV, art by Ancient City Lullaby

In the case of the new young emperor here which was Michael V, he did not have any of the qualities of a strong ruler being both loved and feared, instead he appeared too harsh to his subjects on the outside but on the inside was very weak and emotional and as a matter of fact not independent as his uncle the eunuch John was still the power behind him. At the beginning of 1042 with Michael V in power, he released a number of political prisoners his uncle Michael IV imprisoned including the general George Maniakes who was returned to his position as the Catepan of the Themes of Southern Italy, but the fatal mistake Michael V made here was in banishing his stepmother Zoe from the palace and sending her to a nunnery in the Princes’ Islands outside Constantinople in the Marmara Sea. The people of the capital had apparently loved Zoe and looked down on their rulers the Paphlagonians who they all saw as nobodies that just grabbed the throne for no good reason and when finding out Zoe was banished, thousands of people marched in the street demanding that Michael V to return her to power. The young Michael V having no popular support due to his low birth then agreed to return Zoe to the palace but when returning, Zoe however released her younger sister Theodora from the nunnery where she was sent to years ago and by popular demand declared her co-empress against Michael V in order to please the people. Michael V then with his other uncle fled the palace to the Monastery of Stoudion in Constantinople although the mob followed them there where they seized and blinded both of them. Now the historian of this period Michael Psellos first appears in the picture here as a secretary in the imperial court wherein he had witnessed Michael V and his uncle seized and blinded in which he says that the young Michael childish as usual screamed and kicked as he was being blinded, and in this story’s case we will again go with the version from the Viking sagas wherein it was again Harald Hardrada that had blinded Michael V.

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The empresses Zoe (left) and Theodora (right) in their join rule, 1042

Now in April of 1042, the sisters Zoe and Theodora would rule the empire together as co-rulers while Michael V would die 4 months later as a monk from the injury caused by his blinding, and although Zoe was the higher authority in name as she was the older sister, Theodora was the power behind Zoe as she had more intelligence. For 2 months, both Zoe and Theodora ruled together but soon enough the Byzantine Senate objected to their rule as they saw that women could not rule for a longer time, therefore a man was needed to run the show while on the other hand, the joint rule too was becoming a bit too unbearable as both sisters were eventually competing with each other on who had more favorites while Theodora grew jealous of Zoe for having more public support. A man was thus needed to run the empire and it was up to Zoe to choose her 3rd husband even if 3rd marriages were seen as unacceptable by the Orthodox Church- if you remember from the previous chapter- and this time the 64-year-old Zoe who was still attractive would have to choose her husband among 3 candidates and the person she chose was her old lover from before who was here the 42-year-old Constantine Monomachos, a senator and civil aristocrat from the capital.

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Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos of Byzantium (r. 1042-1055), 3rd husband of Zoe, art by Skamandros

The new emperor Constantine IX was generally a pleasure- and peace-loving person due to his origins as a city and not landed military aristocrat from the provinces and although is he described by Psellos as somewhat neglectful towards state affairs and hated stress therefore only wanting to be emperor to enjoy life’s pleasures to the fullest, he was still someone who would act on issues when needed and for Constantine IX in his reign, he would face more difficulty than time to enjoy life. As someone who only fought wars when necessary, Constantine IX put a lot of money into funding universities, learning centers, and churches in Constantinople and it was also in his reign when this era’s primary source Michael Psellos would rise to prominence as Constantine IX would be Psellos’ patron despite Psellos slandering him. As with Zoe, Constantine IX as the 3rd husband finally allowed her to freely spend on luxuries as he enjoyed spending on them too, though at the beginning of his reign what both he and Zoe would put their attention to is in getting rid of the regime of the troublemaking Paphlagonians by banishing the family members of Michael IV which included the corrupt eunuch John, and not to mention it was also around this time when Harald Hardrada ended his service in the Varangian Guard returning home to Norway rich with the wealth he made serving the empire. Now the emperor on the other hand was someone who was easily paranoid by conspiracies especially by powerful generals even if they did not make their imperial ambitions known and these ambitious generals included George Maniakes in Southern Italy who Constantine IX fearing an uprising by him ordered him to be recalled to Constantinople. In Italy, George was furious about this and when hearing from the emperor that he was going to be replaced, he declared himself emperor and rebelled against Constantine IX as he had grown tired of going back and forth from military service. George and his army then crossed over to the Balkans in 1043 where he faced off the emperor’s army but right before he could win the battle, he was wounded thus later dying from his wound and in the panic his army switched sides back to the emperor while George’s head was paraded back in the capital. Soon after George Maniakes’ rebellion was defeated, Constantine IX met a surprise invasion by the fleet of the Kievan Rus’ from the north as apparently some time ago, some Rus merchants had been killed by an angry mob of Constantinople’s locals triggering the Grand Prince of Kiev Yaroslav I the Wise to attack Byzantium despite the Byzantines and the Rus having concluded an alliance back in Basil II’s reign.

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Yaroslav I the Wise, Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (r. 1019-1054)

The Byzantine fleet however won the naval battle against the Kievan Rus’ fleet near Constantinople while the emperor and Psellos who records this event watched it from above a hill and with the defeat of the Rus, both Constantine IX and Grand Prince Yaroslav settled peace wherein Constantine married off his daughter from a previous marriage to Yaroslav’s son the future Grand Prince Vsevolod I while their son, the future Grand Prince Vladimir II born in 1053 used the name Monomakh which was the Rus’ translation of his grandfather Constantine IX’s last name Monomachos. Following this short conflict with the Rus, Constantine IX marched an army further east into Armenia in 1045 wherein he captured the far-flung small Kingdom of Ani in what is now modern Armenia after its ruler refused to submit as a vassal to the empire, thus Constantine IX expanded even further east than Basil II did before him but this expansion would soon enough further expose Byzantium to more enemies from the east. As part of wanting to avoid ambitious generals from rising up in order to rule in peace, Constantine IX suspecting his nephew the general Leo Tornikios of having imperial ambitions had Leo fired from command and forced to retire as monk, however this action backfired as Leo was popular with his army that in 1047, they rose up against Constantine IX proclaiming Leo as their emperor thus marching to Constantinople to besiege it. Now Byzantium had not had any major civil wars for almost 60 years since the one between Basil II and Bardas Phokas and it was only here in the reign of Constantine IX when civil wars would return first with George Manikaes in 1043 which was not that large but this one in 1047 against Leo Tornikios was a much more serious one as the rebel army actually managed to attack the walls of Constantinople. The emperor in fact almost lost his throne and life when defending the capital from the rebels due to his lack of military experience but by having some political experience and public support, the people themselves volunteered to fight on his side while he managed to win by bribing off Leo’s men to abandon him and switch sides to the emperor. Leo after being defeated fled but was captured and blinded by the emperor’s men, and although Constantine IX was victorious, this civil war weakened military presence in the Balkans by the time a mass migration of the wild and unruly Pecheneg people from the north of the Danube arrived in 1048 which eventually led to a devastating war between the Byzantines and rebellious Pecheneg settlers.           

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Michael V arrested by the mob at the Stoudion Monastery before his blinding in 1042, art by Ediacar
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Empresses Zoe (left) and Theodora (right) in the palace, art by Eldr-Fire
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Crown with Emperor Constantine IX (center), Empress Zoe (left), and Empress Theodora (right)
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Top view of the Armenian capital of Ani, annexed into the Byzantine Empire by Constantine IX in 1045
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Byzantine Civil War of 1047 between Constantine IX and Leo Tornikios, Madrid Skylitzes

Now over in the east, the expansion of Byzantine territory further east wherein no Byzantines had set foot in for over 4 centuries would turn out to be more of a liability than an achievement for the Byzantines as this conquest exposed them to new and unheard enemies from the east and in this case, it was the sudden but rapidly growing empire of the Seljuk Turks. The origins of these Turkic people known as the Seljuks meanwhile remain to be shrouded in mystery, although they were named after their nation’s founder Seljuq, a warlord from the Oghuz Turkic people of the Central Asian steppes that had served the former Khazar Khanate of Southern Russia along the Caspian Sea as a military leader but when the Khazar state was destroyed in the 960s by the Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ then which was Sviatoslav I, Seljuq led his men east wherein they arrived deep in the steppes of Central Asia (today’s Kazakhstan) wherein they encountered Arab traders and converted to Islam. With their conversion to Islam, the people of Seljuq became united but at the same time this also attracted hundreds of nomadic people from the area to join their cause and the moment their movement grew, they began to expand and build a nation in the steppes. Their first leader Seljuq died by 1009 and his descendants would be the one to carry out his bloodline ruling their people; thus, their empire took its name from its ruling dynasty named after its founder.

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Seljuk Turks ride from the steppes into Asia Minor

The difficult situation these Seljuk people went through when living in the steppes made them hardline Muslims thus making them not only Jihads but more specifically Ghazi meaning Muslims fighting other Muslims and being part of the Sunni sect of Islam, the Seljuk Turks made it their mission to fight the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt which belonged to their rival Islamic sect of Shia, while their purpose for expanding to and conquering what is Iran, Iraq, and Eastern Asia Minor was to find more land for their sheep to graze as it was too dangerous in the Central Asian steppes with all the other nomadic invaders coming in. At the beginning, the Seljuks started out as mercenaries serving their more powerful neighboring states, then in 1035 their people when gaining more military experience would establish their own state in the region of Khorasan north of Iran and from there, they would continue expanding westwards. The Seljuk people too had expanded their lands by taking advantage of the weakness of other states such as the still surviving but out of function Arab Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq, and now forming their own state, the Seljuks adopted the Islamic culture and religion but still kept their nomadic ways of fighting such as horse archery and the lifestyle of moving their tents around.

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Seljuk Turk warrior, 11th-12th century

In 1046 due to the Byzantines expanding too far into the east by capturing Ani, they would encounter these Seljuk warriors for the first time and in 1048 their forces would clash for the same time at the Battle of Kapetron, which resulted however in victory for the Byzantines as the Seljuks did not yet come in large numbers. Over in Italy meanwhile, the Norman mercenaries had the same kind of expansion story the way the Seljuks did in the east and just like the Seljuks who expanded by taking advantage of the weakness of their neighboring states, the Norman mercenaries in Italy did the same as after the failed Byzantine reconquest of Sicily in 1040, the Norman mercenaries with them began seizing land in Italy for themselves. The power behind the ambitious expansion of the Normans in Italy was the noble Hauteville family of knights from Normandy which consisted of 12 brothers and following their victory over the Byzantines in 1041, the Hauteville brother William known as the “Iron Arm” would establish the Norman County of Melfi in Southern Italy together with his other brothers. Present day historian Anthony Kaldellis now says that these Normans expanded their power through acts of piracy and terrorism in which they created trouble in Southern Italy by attacking locals in order to force them to pay them money in exchange for protection which led to them to annex their lands in Southern Italy to their control.

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Normans in Southern Italy, 11th century

The Normans despite their courage in battle were more or less just greedy and bloodthirsty conquerors that took pleasure in pressuring weaker people in order to rule over them, which is why in this story’s case the Normans are the true villains of the 11th century more than the Seljuks. In very little time, the Normans would capture the Lombard Principality of Benevento thus making their holdings in Southern Italy much larger that the pope here which was the German Leo IX would already become threatened by the expansion of the Normans fearing that they would soon attack Rome. In 1053, the pope himself led an expedition with allied forces consisting of Lombards, German mercenaries, and even the Byzantine forces from the still surviving Byzantine Catepanate in the south against the Normans and would clash at the Battle of Civitate which resulted in a decisive victory for the Normans commanded by the late William’s brother Robert Guiscard whose sobriquet Guiscard was French for “the Cunning” as he was cunning in battle.

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Robert Guiscard de Hauteville, Norman leader in Southern Italy, later Duke of Calabria and Apulia

The pope was then taken as a prisoner by the Normans although treated well as the Normans too were devout Catholics while over in Byzantium, Constantine IX was in a difficult situation as he had to face conflicts with the Seljuks in the east, Pechenegs in the Balkans, and Normans in Italy all at the same time. The constant spending on these wars which too included the civil war against Leo Tornikios in 1047 and all his wasteful spending on construction projects and luxuries as well as money he handed out to please his people as he was known to be a generous spender, the economy of the empire would fall so severely that it was in Constantine IX’s reign wherein for the first time in the 700 years of Byzantine history that their standard currency which was the gold coin known as the Solidus would be devalued and so the standard gold coin would no longer be purely made of gold, which was indeed very embarrassing for the prestige of Byzantium as the world power. In order to keep the empire’s tax revenue flowing, Constantine had to push for a new kind of political system across the empire known as the Pronoia System which would be Byzantium’s feudal system replacing the centuries old Thematic System, and in this new governing system land would be granted to particular individuals in exchange for military service and those who are granted the land are required to collect taxes from it which would fund the imperial treasury.

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Pecheneg warrior

In the meantime, Zoe had died quietly in 1050 at the age of 72 and in 1053 the Pecheneg rebellion in the Balkans came to an end despite the Byzantines losing in battle against them, although the general that led the Byzantine troops here Nikephoros Botaneiates who had shown great skill and bravery in fighting was promoted to the high rank of Magistros, although to conclude the issue, the emperor had to settle a deal with the Pechenegs allowing them settle within the empire’s borders. The most significant event in Constantine IX’s reign however happened in 1054 and it was not a very pleasant one as it had to do once more with the differences of the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church which had had already been separate and usually at odds with each other ever since the 8th century- back in chapter V of this series if you remember- when the Byzantines at that time had the policy of breaking icons known as “Iconoclasm” which then made the Church of Rome led by the pope grow independent from the Church of Constantinople and even though the Byzantines gave up breaking icons in the mid 9th century, the damage was too much that both Churches could no longer reunite and here in 1054 was the final separation between both Churches of Rome and Constantinople. In 1054, the issue regarding the two Churches mostly had to with the supremacy of the pope or Patriarch of Rome over the Christian world while the theological issues here were mostly minimal as it was just whether the use of unleavened bread the Latin Catholics of the west use for Mass or the leavened bread the Byzantines of the east use was correct, though there was one major theological issue that had to be settled here in 1054 and this had to do with term Filioque whether the Holy Spirit proceeded and was thus equal to the Father and Son and believed by the Western Catholics or if the Holy Spirit just proceeded from God the Father as believed by the Byzantines.

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The Filioque Controversy explained, difference between the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church

This issue however had some political reasons too as back in Southern Italy in the lands the Normans had conquered which had been Byzantine lands, the Norman occupiers by order of Pope Leo IX who now sided with them after he was captured by them the previous year (1053) ordered that these Byzantine Orthodox churches in Southern Italy be converted to Catholic churches wherein Latin and not Greek rites would be practiced. The emperor Constantine IX was willing to comply with the pope’s orders as he did not want any conflict, but the troublemaker here was the current Patriarch of Constantinople Michael I Keroularios who was greatly furious about the pope’s orders as a lot of people in Southern Italy which were Byzantine Greeks were still Orthodox in faith and in retaliation to the pope’s threatening to shut down the Orthodox churches in southern Italy if they did not convert, Patriarch Michael had all Latin Catholic churches in Constantinople shut down without giving any conditions. The pope however before his death in 1054 decided to settle things peacefully with the patriarch by sending the French cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida and other papal legates to Constantinople but when arriving at the Hagia Sophia, it was a trick as instead of negotiating, Cardinal Humbert laid the pope’s excommunication order on Patriarch Michael who was so insulted from this that in return he excommunicated Humbert and his delegation, thus this was the final split between both Churches known as the “Great Schism” as after this there is no going back to unity for both if not for a few unsuccessful attempts to reunite in the following centuries of Byzantine history. This event was then a very shameful one especially for Constantine IX who had to shamefully watch it happen although this was also the end for him as just a few days into the next year 1055, Constantine died peacefully at age 55. A fun fact here is that even up to this day in the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, there is a mosaic depicting Empress Zoe on the right with her husband on the left offering gifts to Christ, and as it turns out the husband in the mosaic up to this day is Constantine IX, her 3rd and final husband though back in the time of this story, the left mosaic’s face had been changed twice when Zoe had a new husband which means that before Constantine IX’s face was in place there it was Michael IV’s, and before him Romanos III’s.           

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Mosaic of Emperor Constantine IX (left) and Empress Zoe (right) offering gifts to Christ; the image of Constantine IX before his face used the faces of Zoe’s previous husbands Romanos III and Michael IV when they were alive
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Norman victory at the Battle of Civitate in Southern Italy, 1053
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The Great Schism of 1054, Patriarch Michael I Keroularios and Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, Madrid Skylitzes
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Map of the final divide between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds after the Great Schism of 1054

Watch this to learn more about the Great Schism (Kings and Generals).

At his death in 1055, Constantine IX Monomachos however had no male heirs although luckily the last remaining member of the Macedonian Dynasty was still alive and this was Zoe’s younger sister Theodora who had been Zoe’s co-ruler ever since both came to power in 1042 and the whole time Constantine IX was in power, Theodora still kept her position. Theodora now in her 70s was at least still agile as she would have to rule the empire alone now, thus making her the second woman to rule Byzantium alone with Empress Irene of Athens (797-802)- the lead character of chapter VI of this series if you remember- being the first sole female ruler of Byzantium. Theodora due to her old age and being a woman was not really taken seriously as a ruler that she would become a target for plots by ambitious generals, and this was already seen right when she came to rule the empire alone in early 1055 as Constantine IX before his death named the governor of the Theme of Bulgaria Nikephoros Proteuon as his heir, however Theodora had already beat Proteuon to the throne and so Proteuon was arrested and forced to become a monk.

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Empress Theodora Porphyrogenita of Byzantium, sole empress (1055-1056)

In her reign, despite Theodora not being seen as fit, she still did all she could to run the empire well although her style of ruling was not very effective as her rule was mostly influenced by her eunuchs. In addition, Theodora removed a number of highly skilled generals from their positions and replaced them with her loyal eunuchs while she did the same too with Church officials which offended Patriarch Michael Keroularios. At this time, Michael Psellos had retired as a monk in a monastery ever since 1054 but in 1056 he was recalled to Constantinople by Theodora but shortly after, Theodora suddenly fell ill coming close to death yet not even having named a successor. It was now certain that the Macedonian Dynasty that had been in power ever since its founding by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian in 867 without any interruptions despite a number of other families marrying into it and ruling through them would come to an end, and without having been married her entire life as well having no children, Theodora had to name her successor at the last minute. Before her death on August 31 of 1056, Theodora named her elderly finance minister and court secretary Michael Bringas as her successor and thus Theodora died as the last ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty.

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Emperor Michael VI Bringas of Byzantium (r. 1056-1057), former court secretary of Theodora

The new emperor Michael VI Bringas known as Gerontas or “the old” in Greek now was not entirely chosen by Theodora but since she was too weak to say something, she just agreed with her eunuchs’ choice and Michael VI was for them the perfect choice as he was an old man who was both weak and unambitious that he could be easily manipulated by them or that he could easily grant them favors. The military aristocrats of the Themes in Asia Minor meanwhile saw that the new emperor was someone they could take advantage of in terms of easily rewarding them but when meeting him they were proven wrong as Michael VI told them “deeds first, rewards later”. Michael VI too being a civil aristocrat from the city was a snob towards the military aristocracy of the provinces who he saw as backwards and unsophisticated and so he did not reward them as much as he did with the city’s aristocrats, though he underestimated the military as they were still a lot more powerful than he thought and among the military aristocrats, the one who felt most insulted by the emperor looking down on them was Isaac Komnenos, a general who had been in the Byzantine army ever since the days of Basil II, yet he too was one of the many young orphaned soldiers placed under Basil II’s care long ago as Isaac’s father Manuel had died a long before while his uncle was the same Nikephoros Komnenos Constantine VIII blinded back in 1027. As it turned out, Isaac was one of the generals dismissed by Theodora earlier but he had a strong support base that included his childhood friends who were now in their 50s and already powerful generals which included his younger brother John Komnenos and friends Constantine Doukas, Katakalon Kekaumenos, and the same Nikephoros Botaneiates that fought against the Pechenegs in 1053. Having had enough of the empire run by eunuchs, empresses, civil aristocrats, and weak emperors, Isaac felt this was time to put the empire under the rule of strong military men again like it was under Basil II and thus bring back the glory days of the empire and so in June of 1057, Isaac declared himself Emperor Isaac I Komnenos with the support of his military cronies, while the Varangian Guard too shifted to Isaac’s cause and in August he and his rebel army clashed with Michael VI’s imperial troops at the Battle of Hades in Asia Minor where Isaac and his rebels won, thus they headed straight to Constantinople where the emperor Michael VI did not want to accept his defeat that he even agreed to settle peace with Isaac adopting him his as his son and making him a Caesar. Michael Psellos was the one sent to Isaac’s camp across the Bosporus to negotiate with him but the emperor’s proposals were rejected although Isaac only agreed to it if he were made co-emperor of Michael VI but back in the capital, the people broke out in a massive riot in favor of Isaac. Michael VI was now hopeless and so here it was the patriarch Michael Keroularios who happened to be the kingmaker that convinced Michael VI to abdicate as the empire was in need of a stronger emperor like Isaac and so Michael VI retired to be a monk allowing Isaac to take the throne and be crowned by the patriarch.

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The Byzantine Empire at Basil II’s death in 1025 (white) with new annexed territories by 1055 (red)

 

 The New Regime and the Road to Manzikert (1057-1070)      

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Once again, the common people of the empire had a say when they all backed the military man Isaac I Komnenos as their new emperor in opposition to the useless Michael VI and once Michael VI abdicated and retired to a monastery, Isaac I was emperor being the first of the Komnenos line which will later on rule the empire.

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Mosaic of Emperor Isaac I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1057-1059)

When coming into power in 1057, Isaac I was 50 and in appearance was tall and intimidating with a loud voice, though what made his position a powerful one despite having no legitimate ties to the previous Macedonian Dynasty was that he both had powerful friends who were all high ranking generals and he belonged to the Komnenos family, a crony family of Basil II that rose to prominence under him and as emperor, Isaac was clear about his intentions to restore the glory days of the Byzantine army under Basil II that had been neglected by the past weak civilian emperors. The people and most especially the army tired of being ruled by palace emperors like Romanos III and Constantine IX that only cared to spend on churches and luxuries were now satisfied with their new soldier emperor although Isaac was a bit too rough around the edges despite being highly educated. Isaac’s first acts were to appoint his conspirators against Michael VI to the highest court positions such as his brother John who was made the Kouropalates or head of the palace as well as the empire’s top commander or Domestikos of the western armies based in the Balkans while Michael Psellos who despite serving the previous regimes was still kept in a high court position for switching his support to Isaac and it was here during Isaac’s reign where Psellos would get all the information about Basil II despite Psellos never meeting Basil in person, although Isaac when he was younger did and it was through Isaac where Psellos would get to known what Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer was like. Now ruling the empire, Isaac I’s top priority was to restore the army and its pay and when it came to taxes, Isaac was a strict tax collector that did not go with second chances while at the same time he was also not a lavish spender like the previous emperors but rather he only spent on the most necessary things which for him was the army and the soldiers’ pay. Isaac I’s major reform in terms of the state’s economy was in cutting off bonuses for court officials and the land grants to certain people which Constantine IX introduced as Isaac’s main goal here by doing this was to reverse the devaluing of the standard gold currency that took place under Constantine IX. Isaac I too had made it clear to everyone that he was to rule as a strongman emperor and something like a military dictator by minting coins with his image holding a sword instead of a scepter or orb like the previous emperors, although Isaac soon enough over did his image as a strong emperor that he would start becoming unpopular for issuing his reforms too soon such as his strict policies in taxation and cancelling bonuses, and the group of Byzantine society that he became most unpopular with was the Church as he cancelled donations given to them by the nobility while he imposed taxes on the Church was well. Once again, the troublemaker was the same patriarch Michael Keroularios who even went as far as threatening to remove Isaac from power as he after all put Isaac in power therefore, he could take him down and he believed he could as he also successfully put down Michael VI. Isaac in 1058 however grew tired of the patriarch’s arrogance which was already made very clear when the patriarch wore the purple boots reserved only for the emperor but before Patriarch Michael could organize a plot, Isaac immediately acted on this and had the Varangian Guard arrest the patriarch and send him to an island in the Marmara Sea. The patriarch despite being sent to exile still refused to resign and so back in Constantinople, Isaac held a council with the objective to legally depose Patriarch Michael but before the council was concluded in early 1059, the patriarch had died in exile.

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Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Hungary, est. 1000

Meanwhile, the situation with the new enemy being the Seljuk Turks in the east grew more severe during Isaac I’s reign that they began penetrating deep into Byzantine Armenia already but without much success while in the Balkans, the Pechenegs continued their raids and so did the Magyars who at this point had already transformed into the Kingdom of Hungary since the beginning of the century. Isaac would however only personally lead the army once in his reign which was in the summer of 1059 in the Balkans where he battled both the Hungarians and Pechenegs, although there are not that much sources recording this 1059 campaign, but what is known is that Isaac here concluded a peace treaty with the Hungarians in the city of Serdica in Bulgaria while with the Pechenegs, he was successful in crushing them. On his return trip to Constantinople, Isaac was caught in a storm and almost killed that a rumor was spread that he died, although Isaac still returned to the capital becoming more paranoid of everyone due the rumor according to Psellos who was present here. Later in 1059, Isaac as a hunting enthusiast went out on a hunting trip outside Constantinople but during the hunt, he fell ill with a fever which lasted for days that he would soon start fearing he would die any time soon and so it was time he named a successor. Isaac meanwhile had been married to the Bulgarian princess Ekaterina, the daughter of the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Vladislav and sister of Presian who if you remember was the lover of Theodora who plotted to kill Romanos III before, and following the annexation of the Bulgarian Empire in 1014 by Basil II, Ekaterina was taken to Constantinople as an important hostage wherein later on she would marry Isaac due to his connections with the emperor Basil II then, although Isaac and Ekaterina had only one daughter and no sons.

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Michael Psellos, advisor and historian in Isaac I’s court

Though having no sons, Isaac had a younger brother the Kouropalates and Domestikos John who was in all ways fit to succeed him but Isaac’s daughter Maria and Psellos convinced him that he must not choose a family member but a man loyal to him to succeed him and this man was the general Constantine Doukas who was however closer to Psellos than to Isaac. Now Isaac agreed to abdicate and pass the throne peacefully to Constantine Doukas, although some weeks later Isaac recovered and felt like he had no need to abdicate but it was too late as Constantine Doukas had already been crowned as Emperor Constantine X with Michael Psellos, now the new kingmaker even placing the purple sandals on his feet. Seeing nothing could be done anymore, Isaac retired for good as a simple monk in the Monastery of Stoudion in Constantinople’s suburbs wherein he grew up and was educated in and now in retirement, he was reduced to performing the simplest tasks such as being the doorman, while not to mention it was also in 1059 when the ex-emperor Michael VI died as a monk somewhere else while Isaac unfortunately died later on in the next year 1060 here in the Stoudion Monastery at 53 when he was the kind of strongman emperor necessary for this time.        

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Coin of Isaac I Komnenos portrayed holding a drawn sword (right)
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Stoudion Monastery, Constantinople, retirement place of Isaac I after 1059

The new emperor Constantine X Doukas was by career a general though he never really had any military experience as compared to his predecessor Isaac I, and the only reason why Constantine was a general was because he was from the nobility, as in fact the Doukas family wherein he came from had turned out to be one of the original families in the Byzantine Senate ever since Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire was founded in 330 by the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), and because of his family’s status, Constantine Doukas was able to attain the rank of general without really deserving it.

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Emperor Constantine X Doukas of Byzantium (r. 1059-1067)

Though not having much military experience, Constantine though had once served as the governor of the Theme of Moesia in Northern Bulgaria but nothing much else is said about his earlier years until helping Isaac I take the throne in 1057 and then now in 1059 succeeding Isaac at the age of 53. The more interesting part though about Constantine X is that before he assisted in Isaac’s rebellion in 1057, he had been married to Eudokia Makrembolitissa, a woman 25 years younger than him who was not really anyone important except that she was only the niece of the former patriarch Michael Keroularios, though they would seem to be an odd couple as Constantine struck everyone as nothing much but a boring and negative old man while Eudokia was much younger, attractive, and flashy therefore her main reason to marry Constantine in this story’s case was because of his wealth and influence, although another reason to why they were married was because both enjoyed debating about religion and philosophy and Constantine was known to be an addict in debating about these topics which he happened to be more interested in than running the empire.

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Doukas family crest

Now as for Constantine X, there are not that much sources that discuss his reign in detail, so rather we only know the important events of his reign, as well as the people of his regime and speaking about the people he appointed, right at the beginning of 1060 when Constantine X had newly occupied the throne as the senior emperor, he already made his eldest son with Eudokia Michael Doukas who was 10-years-old here as his co-emperor as well as their newly born son Constantius, although they also had a middle child named Andronikos but he was left out from the succession for now for unclear reasons, but in this story’s case it would be because being the middle child he was neglected as Constantine too did not need another co-emperor, although Constantine’s younger brother John Doukas here was appointed as a Caesar. Constantine as the emperor lived well while his sons were to be educated by no other than Psellos who was the finest scholar of this time, but while things seemed to be going pretty well in Constantinople, there was more happening around the empire in Constantine X’s reign.

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Coat of Arms of the Norman Duchy of Apulia and Calabria in Southern Italy under the Hauteville family

In 1059 over in Italy, the Normans under the same Robert Guiscard had practically conquered all of Calabria and Apulia from the Byzantines and Lombards leaving only the very tip of Apulia where the city of Bari is under Byzantine control, and by expanding his territory to such a great extent, the pope in 1059 recognized Robert Guiscard as a duke and his territory as the Duchy of Calabria and Apulia. In 1061, the Normans armies of Southern Italy now set off to finally conquer Sicily from the divided Arabs that still held it and in charge of the campaign was Robert’s younger brother Roger, and though the expedition began with failure when battling the Arab fleet near Messina, things would go in favor for the Normans in 1062.

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Roger de Hauteville, brother of Robert Guiscard, later Count of Sicily

By 1063, the Normans would practically conquer almost all of Sicily after defeating the Arab forces at the Battle of Cerami, and here one brave but at the same time, the henchman of the Hauteville brothers Robert and Roger would prove his skill and bravery in battle and this was Roussel de Bailleul, who would later serve as a mercenary for the Byzantines. Back in Constantinople, Constantine X proved that he wasn’t a very competent emperor although on the positive side he was neither idiotic nor wasteful in spending but what made him unpopular with his subjects was because he was basically boring, unattractive, negative, bigoted, and demanded heavy taxes especially since Isaac I before him ruled too short to fill up the empire’s treasury again and restore the original value of the gold solidus coin. Not having any of his predecessor Isaac I’s skills as a strongman running the empire, Constantine decided to discontinue Isaac’s military reforms which turned Isaac’s supporters against him seeing Constantine as a traitor to their movement that in 1061, they plotted to assassinate him in his ship, however they got into the wrong ship as Constantine already set sail in another one and so to punish these conspirators, Constantine only exiled them and confiscated their property rather than doing something harsh like blinding or executing as Constantine was not really a brutal punisher despite being generally hateful towards people and intolerant towards non-Orthodox Armenian Christians who he persecuted. When it came to raising funds, Constantine X resorted to going as far as selling off court positions and for the army, just like Constantine IX before him, he was very much neglectful that he simply decided to disband 50,000 soldiers in the Armenian army as there was no longer that much state funds to pay them, therefore replacing them with mercenaries from all over including Pechenegs, Turks, Normans, and more as they did not need to be paid in a regular basis like the regular army was.

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Alp Arslan, Sultan of the Seljuk Empire (r. 1063-1072), art by Hatem Art

The decision to disband the army however came at the worst time possible as right here, the Seljuks continued their raids into Byzantine territory and what was even worse for the Byzantines was that in 1063, the Seljuks got a new leader or sultan which was Alp Arslan which meant “Great Lion” in their language- although his real name was Muhammad Chaghri– a great-grandson of their founder Seljuq who was a very ambitious ruler compared to his predecessors. In 1064, the Seljuks led by Alp Arslan were able to capture the strategic Armenian capital of Ani from the Byzantines, the same city Constantine IX’s conquered almost 20 years earlier as well as the surrounding areas, and when capturing Ani, the Seljuks carried out such brutal atrocities including massacres on the locals that it sent shockwaves across the empire thus showing for the first the time how capable and deadly the Seljuks were when it came to war. In 1065, the Byzantines faced another disaster which was the loss of their Danube frontier city of Belgrade to the expansion of the Hungarians while at the same time, the Oghuz Turks that were now settling north of the Danube raided imperial territory in the Balkans but their attacks did not last long as a plague broke out there killing many and forcing the remaining ones to retreat. In the meantime, the Normans were not only succeeding in Italy but in other parts as well as in 1066, the Normans had their most famous conquest which was their successful invasion of Anglo-Saxon England under the Duke of mainland Normandy in France William the Conqueror who seeing that England being weakened was able to conquer it with success after the fateful Battle of Hastings, thus he became the first King of England. It also happened in 1066 that the same old Viking Harald Hardrada that served Byzantium under Michael IV before but now became the King of Norway died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England when trying to invade Anglo-Saxon England, but despite the Saxons’ victory their state became too weak that it fell to the Normans later that year. Back in Byzantium, the situation regarding the invasions had already proved too much for the aging Constantine X to handle and so he did not do anything at all and by the time 1067 came, his health had grown worse as already when coming to power in 1059, Constantine X was already unhealthy and overweight and in May of 1067, he died at 61 while on his deathbed he demanded his wife Eudokia to take a vow never to remarry as Constantine wanted to be succeeded by no one else but his sons which is why he already made them co-emperors.         

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Oghuz Turks
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Battle of Stamford Bridge and the death of the King of Norway Harald III Hardrada, 1066 England
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Battle of Hastings, Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, 1066

Though Constantine X’s eldest son with Eudokia Makrembolitissa which was Michael was already 17 here, thus being of legal age to rule alone, he was just as passive as his father and lacked the full training to be sole ruler, so instead his mother Eudokia had to be confirmed as both the regent for her co-emperor sons Michael and Constantius and the ruling empress or Augusta. The state administration for now however was not really under Eudokia’s management but rather by Constantine X’s brother the Caesar John Doukas and Michael Psellos who still remained serving the imperial court. This time however was a bad one in particular for the empire to have no senior male emperor running it as the Seljuks under Alp Arslan following their capture of Ani had expanded to a much larger extent that their territory had stretched across the entire eastern border of Byzantium, thus completely cutting off Byzantium’s border with the Arab powers of Syria and Mesopotamia, and so it was at this point when the Byzantine and Arab worlds that had bordered each other for the past 4 centuries would no longer border each other anymore due to the expansion of the new power of the Seljuk Empire. Despite the dire situation the empire was in wherein it needed a strong emperor in charge, Eudokia still kept her promise to her late husband to never remarry and wait until her sons are capable enough, although this power vacuum true enough caused ambitious generals to grab the opportunity and take the throne by marrying the widowed empress and among them was the same old Nikephoros Botaneiates who by this point resigned from his position as the governor of Antioch and the young Cappadocian Romanos Diogenes- the son of the late Constantine Diogenes who committed suicide back in Romanos III’s reign in 1032 when accused of conspiracy- now finally coming into the picture. Romanos Diogenes who was in the Balkans was much closer to Constantinople and after Constantine X’s death in 1067, Romanos was accused of planning to usurp the throne and so he was arrested in the Balkans and locked up in prison in Constantinople.

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Empress Eudokia Makrembolitissa oversees Romanos Diogenes in prison, 1067, art by Ancient City Lullaby

The thing here for Eudokia was that not only did she need a husband as an emperor but someone to be a father for her children as aside from her 3 sons with Constantine X, they had 3 additional daughters Anna, Theodora, and Zoe and when seeing Romanos for the first time in prison, Eudokia immediately fell in love with him as Romanos unlike her late husband Constantine X who was old and unattractive was handsome, energetic, and charismatic with green eyes and long brown hair and Romanos too was only a year older than Eudokia being 37 while Constantine before him was a full 25 years older. Between the 65-year-old Nikephoros Botaneiates and 37-year-old Romanos Diogenes, Eudokia definitely fell for Romanos and with the approval of the Byzantine Senate, the Caesar John Doukas, Michael Psellos, and the current Patriarch of Constantinople John VIII Xiphilinos, Romanos and Empress Eudokia married on the first day of 1068 whereas Romanos too was crowned as the senior emperor Romanos IV Diogenes and finally Eudokia and Constantine’s middle son Andronikos was crowned as co-emperor together with his two brothers Michael and Constantius.

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Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes of Byzantium (r. 1068-1072), 2nd husband of Empress Eudokia

The leading people of the administration like the Caesar John Doukas and his son Andronikos Doukas who was a general in training, as well as Michael Psellos disliked the new senior emperor Romanos IV who they now saw as the new gold digger who only married Eudokia for wealth the same way how they viewed Eudokia marrying Constantine X before, though they also saw Romanos as a far from capable opportunist as for one he came from a disgraced family as his father in 1032 killed himself rather than confessing his crime and the army Romanos commanded was not the kind of feared and disciplined professional Byzantine army but an undisciplined and disorganized band of mostly foreign mercenaries including Slavs, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Franks, but Romanos at the same time was also a strict disciplinarian and so he was able to quickly discipline his unruly troops. In the meantime, the Seljuk Turks who now had gained allies among the nearby Arab powers and other Turkic nomads mindlessly raided deep into Byzantine Syria, Cilicia, and Cappadocia, even sacking Caesarea, the capital of the Theme of Cappadocia. Alp Arslan however never really intended to invade Asia Minor but only the eastern parts of the Byzantine Empire such as Armenia and Syria in order to gain access to march into the Levant and Egypt held by the Fatimid Caliphate, although at the same time he had been threatening the Kingdom of Georgia northeast of Byzantium in order to get some access to the Black Sea. The problem however was that most of Alp Arslan’s army was disorganized and so they mindlessly penetrated Byzantine Asia Minor without Alp Arslan’s orders, although Romanos knew very little and so he began his reign immediately campaigning in Asia Minor. Romanos IV was the kind of military emperor that disliked being in the capital and having to be involved in court politics and just a she was crowned emperor in early 1068, he immediately gathered his army and campaigned all over Asia Minor with successful results. The Seljuks and their other Turkic allies though proved to be an easy enemy to kill in battle as they travelled light, were barely armored, and primarily only used their bow but the problem with them was that they moved too fast, therefore it was too difficult to be able to contain their raids that here when Romanos was campaigning in Cilicia against a group of Turkic raiders, he got news that another group had breached into the region of Pontus to north, thus he had to rush there and later when being able to capture a band of raiding Turks near the mountain city of Tephrike in Eastern Asia Minor, a large number of them escaped. Another example of how these Turks moved so fast and were able to escape so quickly was later in 1068 when they reached as far as the Anatolic Theme in Western Asia Minor even sacking its capital Amorion and by the time Romanos rushed to Amorion’s defense, it was too late as the Turks escaped back to their base in Eastern Asia Minor. Romanos IV then again spent the next year (1069) once more campaigning in Asia Minor against the uncontrollable Turkic raiders that now resumed attacking the cities of Melitene and Iconium, and hoping he could contain them this time Romanos once again attacked with some success that he was able to pursue the Turk raiders across the Euphrates River.

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Ivory carving of Emperor Romanos IV (left) and Empress Eudokia (right)

Romanos then decided to march further east to capture the fort of Ahlat along Lake Van in Armenia to build a permanent defense there against the Turks, but at the same time, the Turks attacked in the south raiding into Cilicia where the Byzantine army there at least drove them away. Alp Arslan in the meantime was not around to control his people’s mindless raiding into Byzantine territory as he was too busy in the south battling his primary enemy, the Fatimid Caliphate while Romanos waiting for a response from Alp Arslan, returned to Constantinople in 1070 where he would spend most of the year in while he appointed his general Manuel Komnenos, nephew of Isaac I and son of the late John Komnenos (died in 1067) to be in charge of the eastern armies. Empress Eudokia meanwhile being 39 was still able to bear children with Romanos and so in 1070, she had given birth to her twin sons with Romanos which were Leo and Nikephoros Diogenes, which was something positive for the couple but for the rest of the imperial Doukas family such as Eudokia’s children with Constantine X and the Church, the birth of these twins was seen as trouble as one day it could create a major succession crisis on whether Eudokia’s children with Constantine would rule the empire or her sons with Romanos. On the other hand, Romanos too from his previous marriage already had a son named Constantine who was estranged from him so therefore Constantine would never enter the imperial palace and join the imperial family but rather live quietly away from the politics of Constantinople. Another person that was now in the picture of the politics in Constantinople was the Georgian princess Maria of Alania, the daughter of the King of Georgia Bagrat IV who since 1065 had married the co-emperor Michael Doukas as part of Michael’s father Constantine’s alliance with Georgia back then when he was still alive. Maria earlier on in 1056 as a very young girl was brought to Constantinople to be educated under the patronage of Empress Theodora but after Theodora’s death that same year, Maria had to return to Georgia only to return to Constantinople in 1065 to marry the co-emperor Michael and now 1070 she was 17 and in appearance was skinny with reddish-brown hair and pale skin, but despite her somewhat weak appearance, she possessed a lot more ambition compared to her bookish and passive husband. Back to Romanos IV, in the capital he resumed the unpopular economic measures of Isaac I years earlier by doing the same in cancelling bonuses and cutting the budget for beautifying the capital and for spending on court ceremonies and chariot racing in the Hippodrome and instead diverting the budget for the army which made him highly unpopular in the capital. Romanos however saw that it was necessary he cut the budget on these things which he saw as unnecessary as it was obvious that the situation was dire not only in Asia Minor with the Seljuk raids but in Southern Italy where Byzantine control was only limited to the city of Bari which now was already under siege by the Normans.

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Seljuk Turkish army of Alp Arslan, 11th century

 

Part II.

The Climax Part I- The Battle of Manzikert (1071)         

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The year 1071 would indeed be a fatal one for Byzantium as at first in April, the Byzantines had completely lost control of Italy after 500 years of rule when their last city of Bari finally surrendered to the Norman brothers Robert Guiscard and Roger who had been besieging it for the past 3 years, thus these events would according to Robin Pierson of the History of Byzantium Podcast would be the one that would forever make Byzantium culturally and physically distant from the west as Italy was their last holding in the Western world which they held onto since Justinian I’s time in the 6th century. The complete loss of Italy to the Normans was shocking to the emperor Romanos IV but his priority was still Asia Minor as for the past year being back in Constantinople, Romanos had been preparing his army and raising up to 40,000 which as usual of this time due to the disbanding of most of the professional eastern army by Constantine X included a large portion of mercenaries except this time it was very multinational with Armenians, Georgians, Arabs, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Oghuz Turks, Russians, Khazars, Slavs, Pechenegs, Franks (Germans), and Normans which were under the command of the same Roussel de Bailleul of the Battle of Cerami in 1063, while the elite Varangian Guard was to be at his side as they battle Seljuks. Romanos IV true enough used the budget he cut for the capital’s buildings and chariot races to build up this massive army and to pay for their supplies and new superior weapons which he invested heavily on. No matter how much the people booed at him for being no fun or no matter how much he was seen as the kind of military dictator like Isaac I, Romanos did not care as he was doing all of this to defend the empire against a serious threat which was that of the Seljuks which were actually not that serious as again their sultan Alp Arslan was more intent to just take over Byzantine land to gain access to fight the Fatimids of Egypt.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldier in Romanos IV’s army, art by myself

Romanos however was another emperor who wanted to restore Byzantium and its army which had deteriorated over the past years of rule by the weak civilian emperors that neglected it to the glory days of Basil II where the Byzantine army was the most well-organized force in the known world that was feared by everyone, so therefore he wanted to show the Seljuks that they were not dealing with a disorganized force but the world’s most powerful army. On the other hand, Romanos wanted to live up to the name of his father who had helped Basil II ultimately defeat the Bulgarian Empire at the Battle of Kleidion in 1014 and also bring honor to his family that had been disgraced with his father’s suicide in 1032. Alp Arslan however had previously captured the Byzantine fortresses of Manzikert and Archesh along Lake Van though only for strategic purposes as these fortresses controlled the trade routes in the area, but in Constantinople Romanos saw this as a declaration of war, although he did not immediately declare war but instead sent word to Alp Arslan over there that he wanted to conclude a treaty with him. The real purpose for this agreement however was to trick Alp Arslan into attacking him while Alp Arslan was unprepared and once he settled the agreement, Romanos marched out of Constantinople back to Asia Minor but what here would be Romanos’ downfall was his impatience and arrogance as he was intent on a full-scale war with the Seljuks even if they were not really intending to fully conquer Byzantium. In this campaign, Romanos took along with him the Caesar John Doukas’ son Andronikos as a back-up general but also part of Andronikos’ military training, though Romanos’ real reason was to keep him close being paranoid that Andronikos would steal the throne from Romanos while he is away. The march however began out terribly when Romanos’ Norman mercenaries under Roussel pillaged some villages in Asia Minor without orders, though Romanos was able to discipline them by firing a number of Roussel’s men. The army of Romanos eventually reached the area of Lake Van by July wherein they were able to recapture a number of fortresses from the Seljuks, although here Alp Arslan who was over in Syria rushed west to Asia Minor seeing this as an act of violation by Romanos of their treaty. Romanos and his forces meanwhile were able to recapture the important fortress of Manzikert from the Seljuks although they found no signs of Alp Arslan around and so Romanos sent a division of his army to encircle Lake Van in search for Alp Arslan but also to capture the other strategic fortress of Ahlat along Lake Van which was also fell under the Seljuks.

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Elite Seljuk cavalry soldier

After a few days, Romanos believing the men he sent were able to capture Ahlat sent word to them asking them to return to him at his camp near Manzikert, however this division never returned as they were true enough ambushed by Alp Arslan’s forces at the dead of night as it turned out the Turk horsemen having lived in the steppes for generations had the ability to ride and fight even in pitch darkness thus they left the survivors to retreat south to Byzantine Mesopotamia while their commander too did not think about returning as he was never really loyal to Romanos anyway. The next worst thing that happened following the loss of large number of troops was that Romanos’ Oghuz Turk mercenaries deserted and joined the Seljuks as they’d rather fight with their Seljuk Turk cousins than against them. On August 25 of 1071, Alp Arslan here sent envoys to Romanos again to conclude peace as Alp Arslan believed Romanos’ attack could have been a misunderstanding but Romanos having raised up to 40,000 troops and putting all the empire’s money into it was intent on a decisive victory in battle and so he immediately declined the peace terms and sent the envoys away. Romanos here saw it was only the right thing to attack the Seljuks and drive them away once and for all as they had invaded the lands of the Byzantine Empire the heroes of the previous century such as Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes worked so hard and sacrificed so much to fight for in order to put them back into imperial control from the Arabs, therefore he did not want their hard work to be all lost to the new enemy and so here Romanos declined the envoys’ offers, although he still negotiated smartly sending word to Alp Arslan that he would only agree to peace if it were in Ray, the Seljuk’s newly established capital in Iran.

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Route of Romanos IV (purple) and of Alp Arslan (green) to the battle site of Manzikert, 1071
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Fortress of Ahlat along Lake Van today
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Emperor Romanos IV receiving Seljuk envoys from Alp Arslan before the battle, 1071

          

On the night of August 25, Romanos IV’s camp was harassed by the Seljuk horse archers who as mentioned earlier had the ability to ride and attack at the pitch darkness of night constantly fired arrows at the camp killing even a few Byzantines, however Romanos ordered his men not to fight back as he wanted everyone to all fight together during daytime. The next day (Friday, August 26), both Byzantine and Seljuk forces met formally in the battlefield outside the fortress of Manzikert while Alp Arslan too was present and had been awake before the sun rose dressing himself in white which he did seeing it as a sign that he would die in battle knowing how great Romanos’ army was in number, and here Alp Arslan also summoned his son Malik-Shah to the battlefield announcing to everyone that he will succeed him if Alp Arslan would die here. As Alp Arslan saw this battle only as something that he had to get over with as he never saw it coming, Romanos was already seeing a great victory and a triumphal parade in Constantinople ahead wherein Alp Arslan and his son would be paraded as prisoners and so right after waking up, Romanos ordered his army to assemble into organized formations.

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Battle map of the Battle of Manzikert, 1071

Here, Romanos positioned himself at the center with 5,000 men from the professional Byzantine army of Asia Minor and 500 of the Varangian Guards, while on the right flank were 5,000 Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldiers and a large number of foreign mercenaries under the command of the general Nikephoros Bryennios who was a loyalist of Romanos, on the right flank were another 5,000 professional Byzantine soldiers and foreign mercenaries under the command of Romanos’ other loyalist general Theodore Alyattes, while the division behind consisted of the reserve troops under Andronikos Doukas. The one missing however was the Norman Roussel de Bailleul and his 500 Norman mercenaries as apparently during the night, he and his men escaped as they being the stereotypical Normans and mercenaries were only in it for money and not loyalty and so they went away never to be found again. Romanos lost some hope when Roussel’s Normans deserted as well as his Oghuz mercenaries but not wanting to show any signs of fear or unease which could cause panic among his soldiers, Romanos ordered everyone to charge at the same time in formation, the same old tactic the Byzantine armies have been using ever since. The advance of the Byzantine forces and their allies in organized formations however proved to be ineffective to the loose hit-and-run fighting style of the Seljuks who here formed into a loose crescent formation in order to surround the Byzantines with Alp Arslan and his son at the center of it. The Seljuks with their ability to fire arrows when riding at full speed overwhelmed the heavy armored Byzantines and their allies but the Byzantines still resisted and despite the extreme heat of this day considering it was a summer day in August, the Byzantines still continued fighting even if no side was gaining any advantage.

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Byzantine (left) and Seljuk (right) cavalrymen clash at the Battle of Manzikert

The battle would continue to last until the sun was going down and this where everything in this story’s case would change, as in real history Romanos ordered his men to retreat to their camp as the sky started to go dark, but in this story’ case, Romanos not giving up no matter what in order to come out victorious at the end ordered his men to all continue fighting even though it was getting dark as he saw they were coming close to cornering the Seljuk cavalry. The Seljuks however like in real history would also pretend to flee here to set a trap for the Byzantines before they could return and ambush the Byzantines but in this story’s case as Romanos would see the Seljuk horse archers escaping, he would have the Cataphracts under Bryennios and Alyattes pursue them with full speed while Romanos would also order his Varangian Guards to perform their special ability to charge out in a frenzy while screaming at the same time as their large size and voice was true enough a powerful weapon to intimidate the enemy.

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Varangian Guard with his Dane-axe, 1071

The Varangians here would now attack the Seljuk cavalry cutting down hundreds of horses with their large Dane-axes while Andronikos Doukas on the other hand would here like in real history show his intention to betray Romanos who he hated. In real history though, Andronikos would only spread a rumor to his division that Romanos had been killed in battle only when Romanos retreated to the camp and so rather than sending Romanos reinforcements, Andronikos escaped the battlefield with them. For this story however, Andronikos would break out of formation and attack the Seljuks from the other side as he would want to be the one to score the victory rather than making Romanos take the credit and so Andronikos would attack Alp Arslan’s division directly. Now in this story since Andronikos Doukas did not abandon the emperor like in real history, the Byzantines would start gaining the upper hand by the time night fell and here in this story’s case, one young soldier which would be the 15-year-old Alexios Komnenos, nephew of the former emperor Isaac I and 6th son of the late John Komnenos that would fight bravely by the emperor’s side and would even lead Romanos into safety when his division came under the attack of Alp Arslan’s best cavalry as the Varangians went elsewhere fighting the rest of the Seljuks. Now in this story’s case, the battle would come to an end when a Varangian spots Alp Arslan and kills his horse by swinging his axe at his horse, thus tossing the sultan to the ground wherein he would surrender and minutes later, his entire army would pause and panic as they would see their sultan on the ground. Romanos would then retreat to his camp while Alp Arslan would later be brought to him there by Nikephoros Bryennios in chains.          

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The Battle of Manzikert in 1071, art by FaisalHashemi
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Varangian Guards (on the ground) battle the Seljuk cavalry at Manzikert
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Byzantines and Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert in meme form

In real history, after Andronikos Doukas’ betrayal, Romanos and his Varangians were surrounded by the Seljuks and after the Varangians fought bravely to the last man, Romanos after falling off his horse that had been killed and getting shot by an arrow in the hand, was captured by a common Seljuk soldier who mistook him for an ordinary soldier as well as he did not wear his crown while Alp Arslan chased away the remaining Byzantines the next day (August 27).

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Defeat and capture of Romanos IV by the Seljuks, in real history

Romanos in real history was then brought in chains to Alp Arslan’s tent where Alp Arslan mistook Romanos for a common soldier, therefore he placed his foot on Romanos’ neck but when finding out he was the emperor, Alp Arslan began to treat Romanos well. In this story however, when Alp Arslan was brought to Romanos’ camp, Romanos would be the one to step on Alp Arslan’s neck just as a sign of saying he conquered him, but would also treat him well afterwards. In real history, the terms Romanos had to agree to in order to be released were surprisingly not very demanding as Alp Arslan only requested that the Syrian cities of Antioch, Edessa, Hierapolis, and also the fortress of Manzikert be surrendered to the Seljuks to make way for their invasion of Fatimid territories in the south while Romanos was to also pay Alp Arslan 360,000 gold coins annually and to agree for marriage between Alp Arslan’s son and Romanos’ daughter from his previous marriage.

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Alp Arslan humiliates Romanos IV by stepping on his neck after Romanos IV’s capture, in real history

Here however, Alp Arslan and Romanos like in real history would end up becoming friends while Alp Arslan would be the one here that would have to agree on not so demanding terms which would just include paying tribute to the Byzantines as well as returning Manzikert and Ahlat in exchange for taking these Syrian cities mentioned earlier in order to fully carry out his conquest of Egypt, but the most demanding thing Alp Arslan would have to face here was to turn over his son Malik-Shah to Romanos as a hostage. In real history, after Romanos agreed to Alp Arslan’s terms, he was released, given gifts, and even escorted halfway into Asia Minor by Alp Arslan himself though here, Romanos would be the one to release Alp Arslan some days later and have his general Theodore Alyattes and the young Alexios Komnenos escort Alp Arslan to Syria wherein they would be the ones to personally hand over to Alp Arslan the keys to Antioch, Edessa, and Hierapolis. Romanos together with Bryennios, Andronikos, and their hostage which was the sultan’s son Malik-Shah would return to Constantinople but before arriving back in the city, Romanos would have both Andronikos and Bryennios search around Asia Minor for the renegade Roussel de Bailleul. Back in Constantinople, Romanos having lost 10% of his army in the battle and coming back extremely tired from it decided to not celebrate a triumph but would instead return to the palace being awaited with a shocking surprise. Like in real history, the Caesar John Doukas and Michael Psellos due to the absence of Romanos would plot against him behind his back thus they bullied the empress Eudokia by forcing her to retire to a monastery while the co-emperor Michael Doukas was proclaimed as the senior emperor Michael VII in October in opposition to Romanos who they declared deposed. In this case, Romanos would be denied entry into the palace by the newly appointed eunuch administrator Nikephoritzes– who’s name literally meant “little Nikephoros”- and he had been in the imperial court ever since Constantine IX’s reign in the 1050s as a secretary but had been exiled due to him spreading lies but John Doukas who was basically calling the shots for the past months with Romanos away recalled Nikephoritzes to the palace as John believed he was a competent administrator despite being a corrupt schemer, while in real history, Michael VII under his uncle John Doukas’ influence also refused to recognize the treaty between Alp Arslan and Romanos. Romanos IV was now left all alone and not even allowed to see his twin sons despite winning the Battle of Manzikert, therefore even if the Byzantines won over the Seljuks over Manzikert, the same political instability and greed would still continue to reign, so it is sad to say that even with a Byzantine victory in Manzikert, the same situation in the empire’s politics would still live on.

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Defeat of the Byzantines to the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert, in real history
Watch this for additional info on the Battle of Manzikert (Eastern Roman History).

 

The Climax Part II- The Aftermath of Manzikert (1072-1078)          

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The Battle of Manzikert in real history at first was not such an extreme loss for the Byzantines as the terms Romanos IV had to agree with Alp Arslan in order to be kept alive were not as harsh as he had thought it would be while only 10% of the Byzantine army was wiped out. The real disaster however was to come gradually after the battle as after the Seljuks had won, they were allowed to roam freely into the Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor thus changing its geography so significantly as after the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert, Asia Minor became something like a donut bitten on one side where all 3 sides along the coast were still under Byzantine hands while the center fell under the Seljuks with the donut’s bite as the area the Seljuks penetrated through to get to the center. The eventual loss of the central regions of Asia Minor including Cappadocia and Armenia to the Seljuks thus led to the collapse of the Thematic System or the Themes as most of the Themes were in Asia Minor but with Seljuk occupation they had collapsed, though the real downfall of Byzantium was not so much the loss of Asia Minor to the Seljuks but the greed of the current powerful officials of the time such as John Doukas, Michael Psellos, and Nikephoritzes who mostly neglected the collapse of the Themes in Asia Minor and instead used the defeat of Romanos IV to increase their power. In this story however, the only difference would be that the Byzantines won at Manzikert, therefore the Seljuks under Alp Arslan would have to turn the other way thus not being able to roam freely in Asia Minor anymore, while at the same time, the same Themes of Asia Minor that had been around for centuries would still stand with the situation Byzantine Asia Minor turning into a donut as I mentioned not happening, but the rest will be the same which would be the increasing greed of the imperial court and the obliviousness of the new emperor Michael VII. In this story, the same would happen like in real history when Michael VII under the influence of his uncle John Doukas would turn against his stepfather Romanos IV, except in real history since Romanos was captured by Alp Arslan, he only learned he was betrayed before he returned to Constantinople, but here even if he won the battle, Romanos would still learn he had been betrayed but already when back in Constantinople, and so when being banned from entering the palace, Romanos here for this story would just get his hostage Malik-Shah, the son of Alp Arslan into the palace while Romanos would afterwards return to Asia Minor in search for the renegade traitor Norman Roussel de Bailleul. The other difference in real history being that Romanos lost to the Seljuks was that all his credibility had disappeared therefore this gave a perfect reason for Michael VII and his court to turn on him, while also in real history the traitor Andronikos Doukas who returned to Constantinople convinced everyone Romanos had died but as soon as Romanos was discovered to be alive, they all turned on him. In this story however, Romanos would also suffer the same fate as when heading back to Asia Minor in search for the escaped Roussel, he would be ambushed by Andronikos Doukas who in this story was sent by Romanos to track Roussel. In the meantime, Romanos’ trusted general Theodore Alyattes who like in real history had also survived the Battle of Manzikert in this story, and Alyattes who in this story’s case returned to Central Asia Minor from Antioch with his troops that survived Manzikert would like in real history confront the forces of Andronikos Doukas. Alyattes being too tired after the Battle of Manzikert and travelling for kilometers would lose to the Doukas brothers and like real history get blinded with the use of tent pegs, thus with such a painful blinding, Alyattes would die a few weeks later from his injuries. Romanos then like in real history after his army’s defeat would first retreat south to his homeland of Cappadocia and then to the coastal city of Adana in Cilicia, although Andronikos like in real history would still be able to track Romanos to Adana and force the local garrison to surrender to him. Romanos was then brought before Andronikos who at least agreed to spare Romanos if he gave up his crown and the imperial purple and retire to be a monk, thus Romanos was loaded into a cart headed for Constantinople by road but before reaching the capital, John Doukas would send word to his son Andronikos that he did not agree with the terms and so here while stopping over at the city of Kotyaion in Western Asia Minor, Romanos like in real history would be betrayed and brutally blinded in June of 1072.

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Blinding of Romanos IV by Andronikos Doukas in 1072, art by Ancient City Lullaby

The blinding of Romanos was allegedly said to be done by an inexperienced Jew- which is true for this story’s case- who took 3 attempts to successfully blind Romanos and due to how bloody and slow the blinding was carried out, the injury inflicted on Romanos was so severe that within only a few weeks, Romanos like in real history who would receive no medical care after his blinding would die so shamefully exiled in one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea outside Constantinople, though at least he would be allowed a proper burial by his wife the exiled empress Eudokia like in real history. Now Romanos IV Diogenes is one Byzantine emperor with a mixed reputation depending on who wrote him as Michael Psellos who in reality just like in this story hated Romanos described him as just a power hungry glory seeker who deserved his defeat at Manzikert in real history as well as his blinding in 1072, while the other historian of Romanos’ time Michael Attaleiates (1022-1080) who knew Romanos well was more sympathetic to Romanos portraying him as a tragic hero who only wanted to do what was best to save the empire from the immediate threat of the Seljuks. Now I would say that a more unbiased way to see Romanos IV was that he was he was someone who would do whatever he thought was right in order to drive away the Seljuks and save his empire but his major flaw though was his arrogance and impatience especially when brashly marching out to battle the Seljuks in Manzikert even if the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan never wanted a full war with Byzantium anyway. And though having to end up with such a tragic fate, Romanos in this story would be the one to thank for saving Asia Minor from collapse through constant Seljuk raids that would take place in reality. On the other hand, Sultan Alp Arslan too would meet his end in 1072 just like in real history, and here as Alp Arslan was preparing to invade his people’s ancestral lands in Central Asia known as Turkestan, he captured a local governor who he had sentenced to death, but before being executed, the governor pulled out his dagger and stabbed Alp Arslan in the chest killing him. Alp Arslan would then be succeeded by his son Malik-Shah I who in this story will be leave Constantinople and return to the Seljuk capital of Ray, although as a ruler he would not be as ambitious as his father and in this story’s case at least, Byzantium and the Seljuks would not be in much conflict with each other anymore.            

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Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Empire and his court
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Sultan Malik-Shah I (r. 1072-1092), son of Alp Arslan, and his court
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Michael Psellos (left) and Emperor Michael VII Doukas (right)

In this story’s case, the reign of Emperor Michael VII Doukas as senior emperor following the Battle of Manzikert and the absence of Romanos IV in 1071 would not turn out to be as disastrous as it was in real history, mainly because the expansion of the Seljuks deep into Asia Minor would not happen due to losing to the Byzantines at Manzikert and following the death of Alp Aslan in late 1072, the Seljuk Empire would weaken in power. Though as he is usually described in real history, Michael VII in this story will be the same kind of incompetent emperor oblivious to the chaos growing in the empire around him, except that with the absence of the continued Seljuk raids in this story, the empire would not be in so much chaos, though Michael’s weakness would surely be an advantage for ambitious generals all over Asia Minor to rebel and put a claim on the throne.

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Emperor Michael VII Doukas of Byzantium (r. 1071-1078), son of Constantine X and Eudokia

Though Michael VII looked strong and tall in appearance with thick curly hair, big eyes, and a large chest, he was weak on the inside being more interested in studying ancient verses thus people complained about him saying that he was more fit to be a bishop than an emperor, and truly he was the wrong kind of emperor in this time of crisis. The major inconvenience of Michael VII’s reign however was that there were so many people in his court with high positions of power as for instance his two other brothers Andronikos and Constantius as well as his half-brothers the twins Leo and Nikephoros Diogenes which were the sons of Romanos IV and Michael’s mother Eudokia were all co-emperors, while Michael’s wife Maria of Alania was now the senior empress or Augusta and his uncle John Doukas still held the title of Caesar, although here one of Michael VII’s sisters which was Theodora had already married Domenico Selvo, the leader or Doge of the rising Republic of Venice in Italy. Michael VII however being a weak ruler was someone easily influenced and here in 1073, he had been completely under the influence of his new eunuch advisor Nikephoritzes and acting under the bad advice of Nikephoritzes, Michael had sidelined his uncle John Doukas forcing him to retire to his estates in Asia Minor while Michael Psellos too would start feeling neglected as his former student the emperor started favoring Nikephoritzes over him and so Psellos here would retire to a monastery once again like he did back in the last years of Constantine IX’s reign before Psellos returned to the court under Empress Theodora (1055-1056). Now retiring to a monastery for good like in real history, Psellos would peacefully finish his Chronographia which is the primary although mostly biased source of this 11th century story.

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Coin of Michael VII (center) with his brothers co-emperors Constantius and Andronikos Doukas beside him

In this story however, since the Byzantines came out victorious over the Seljuks at Manzikert, they unlike in real history would not have to pay annual tribute to the Seljuks, instead the Seljuks would pay tribute to the Byzantines, therefore the economic instability and collapse in Michael VII’s reign would not happen in this story as it did in real history where the economy was so severely ruined with the standard gold solidus again devalued but this time by an entire quarter, thus Michael VII earned the nickname Parapinakes meaning “minus a quarter” as he devalued the gold currency by a full quarter. Though despite not devaluing the currency here in this story due to the income the empire received from the tribute collected from the Seljuks, the standard gold solidus would still not regain its former full gold value it had before Constantine IX’s reign in the 1040s-50s but again like in real history, the main reason for Michael’s downfall was his corrupt eunuch advisor Nikephoritzes. Like in real history, Nikephoritzes would do the same in this story in further causing starvation in the empire by banning free grain trade and putting himself in complete control of it, thus the prices for grain would begin to rise. The economic policies of Nikephoritzes here would like in real history cause the soldiers in Asia Minor and the Balkans to mutiny due to lack of pay while in the Balkans as well, the same will happen like in real history in 1073 when the Bulgarians would rise up once again against Byzantine imperial authorities being the second Bulgarian rebellion since 1040 against Michael IV and again it would be against the corrupt taxations of a eunuch official whereas in the last time it was against the eunuch John and this time against Nikephoritzes. This Bulgarian uprising here too would also be one not only regarding imperial taxation but about Bulgarian national identity, therefore the need to declare independence from Byzantium and again like in 1040 when the Bulgarian uprising’s leader Delyan was said to be a descendant of the last great Bulgarian tsar Samuil, the leader here in 1073 which here though was the Serbian nobleman and ruler of Duklja Constantine Bodin also claimed to be a descendant of Tsar Samuil.

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Constantine Bodin, Ruler of Duklja (Serbia) and leader of the Bulgarian Uprising of 1073

The rebellion in Bulgaria would soon enough prove to be too difficult for the imperial army in the Balkans to contain that it would spread across the region, although at the end the uprising would fully be crushed by the same general from Manzikert Nikephoros Bryennios who in this story after returning west with Romanos IV would be assigned by Michael VII to the Balkans whereas Bodin was captured and the cities taken by the rebels returned to Byzantine rule. Meanwhile, Michael VII seeing all of Byzantine Italy had fallen to the Norman duke Robert Guiscard did not care to take it back anymore as he was already facing many problems and even though in this story’s case due to the Byzantines winning in Manzikert and most of Asia Minor not falling into the hands of the Seljuks therefore there would be no ambitious generals all setting up their own independent lands, the problem in Asia Minor would again come from a Norman which is no other than the escaped Roussel de Bailleul. In real history though, Roussel and his Norman mercenaries joined the forces of the young Alexios Komnenos who accompanied his older brother Isaac in a campaign to drive the Seljuks away from Asia Minor where Isaac ended up captured, therefore Roussel and his 400 Normans saw this as an opportunity to escape and establish their own state in Asia Minor. In this story, though the Seljuks would not penetrate into Asia Minor due to losing to the Byzantines at Manzikert, Asia Minor due to losing 10% of its army at Manzikert would still be weakened in terms of defense, giving the Norman Roussel de Bailleul who comes back into the picture after disappearing for some 2 years, the right opportunity to do as his Norman people did in Italy by attacking the locals in order to demand pay from them in order to stop their attacks and put them under their protection, thus by doing these acts of terrorism, Roussel like in real history would be able to create his own small independent Norman state in Asia Minor with only 400 men.

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Roussel de Bailleul, Independent Norman leader in Asia Minor (1073-1076)

Now the Byzantine historians of this time often portray the Normans as treacherous, greedy, and violent which is actually very much true about them and no matter how the Normans would see themselves as cultured French people and devout Catholics, they were still stuck in the violent and greedy ways of their Viking ancestors, and now that the Normans by the 1070s had an empire ruled by different dynasties that now had control of England, Normandy, and Southern Italy, Roussel being in Asia Minor wanted to add it too into the wider Norman Empire. Michael VII however would not be oblivious to Roussel’s rebellion as by 1074, Roussel had already gained some significant control of Asia Minor making the city of Ancyra (today’s Anakara) as his capital, and so Michael VII would call his uncle John Doukas out of retirement and together with his son Andronikos, who returns to the picture after he last appeared when blinding Romanos IV in 1072, they would head into Roussel’s territory together with a unit of Varangian Guards and an army under the now aged general Nikephoros Botaneiates who would come back into the picture after many years of retirement, but at the end the Byzantines would suffer a defeat in battle due to the strength of Roussel’s famous Norman heavy cavalry and Botaneiates deserting John and Andronikos Doukas seeing he was too old to fight. With his victory, Roussel would further grow his lands in Asia Minor taking over a number of Byzantine Themes before reaching the Asian shore of the Bosporus right across Constantinople. Wanting to legalize his holdings in Asia Minor, Roussel like in real history here would proclaim John Doukas who became his captive as his puppet emperor against his nephew Michael VII. In real history, Michael VII growing nervous of Roussel’s ambitions in 1075 had made an alliance with the raiding Seljuks in Asia Minor agreeing to give them all the lands in Eastern and Central Asia Minor they had been raiding in exchange for defeating Roussel, and even though the Seljuk raiders in real history were able to successfully battle Roussel’s forces, Roussel still escaped east while only John and Andronikos Doukas were captured by the Seljuks. This event and not Manzikert in real history was then what led to the ultimate loss of Asia Minor to the Seljuks as after their success in battling Roussel’s forces, the Seljuks successfully gained control over most of Asia Minor. In real history though, both John and Andronikos Doukas were released when Michael VII paid their ransom to the Seljuks, though for agreeing to be made as Roussel’s puppet emperor, Michael VII forced his uncle John to renounce all his ambitions and titles given to him in exchange for not being blinded, thus John had retired as a monk while his son Andronikos would still survive although he would have to retire from public service due to being badly beaten by both his Norman and Seljuk captors. In this story however, Michael VII would not consider an alliance with the Seljuks as they were not present raiding Asia Minor, therefore a large portion of Byzantium’s heartland would not fall under their control, however Michael would still pay his uncle and cousin’s ransom though this time to Roussel and not the Seljuks and the same fate in real history would happen to John and Andronikos whereas John would be forced to retire as a monk and Andronikos from public service due to injuries.

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Alexios Komnenos, Byzantine general, art by AlexiosI

Instead of relying on the Seljuk Turks to deal with Roussel like in real history, Michael VII here would still rely on his army, and so in 1075 like in real history, Michael VII would send the young general Nikephoros Palaiologos and his army of 6,000 to deal with Roussel but due to not being paid on time, Palaiologos’ troops deserted him, therefore Michael would have to rely on another general and this would be the young Alexios Komnenos returning to the picture once again and despite being only 20 here in 1076, he possessed a lot of military skill. In 1076, Alexios’ forces like in real history would finally manage to capture Roussel in the Armeniac Theme where Alexios himself would drag Roussel in chains to Constantinople where a blindfold was placed over Roussel’s eyes to pretend he was blinded as Alexios here had been thinking that the emperor would want his prisoner brought in one piece. In this story however, Alexios when reaching Constantinople immediately executed Roussel by beheading him in the Hippodrome for everyone to see and Michael VII did not care any less as Roussel was indeed a troublemaker and thus his threat had finally ended and the lands he captured returned to Byzantine control. In real history though, Roussel would be imprisoned for a year but released this time swearing loyalty to Michael VII against a rebel general, but Roussel still switched sides but was later executed, except here with Roussel already executed in 1076 none of this would happen for now.        

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Byzantine territories in Asia Minor by 1075 (purple, bitten donut shaped), new Seljuk territories in Asia Minor in real history (green), Norman lands under Roussel de Bailleul (blue)
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Coin of Roussel de Bailleul
Watch this to learn more about Roussel de Bailleul and the Normans in Asia Minor (History Time).

In the meantime, Michael VII was growing ever more unpopular despite defeating Roussel de Bailleuil, and the main reason here was his chief finance minister the eunuch Nikephoritzes that in 1076 as well, the Byzantine garrison along the Danube in northern Bulgaria rebelled under their commander the Serb Nestor, a former slave of Michael VII’s father Constantine X who was freed and made a governor, though a lot of his wealth and property were confiscated by Nikephoritzes. The troops here demanded that the corrupt Nikephoritzes be removed from office while Nestor allied himself with the Pecheneg people beyond the Danube to gain a larger army in order to march to Constantinople. In 1077, another military rebellion broke out as well and this one was in the Balkans led by Nikephoros Bryennios, the same general that fought at Manzikert in 1071 and crushed the Bulgarian uprising in 1073 and again his rebellion had something to do with Nikephoritzes as Bryennios discovered that he was part of Nikephoritzes’ list of people to assassinate but also growing tired of the emperor Michael VII’s incompetence, he rebelled and marched to his home city of Adrianople in Thrace where he proclaimed himself emperor. Other than Nestor in the Danube and Nikephoros Bryennios in Adrianople, there would be a third general that would rise up against Michael VII and this here was the same old man Nikephoros Botaneiates in Asia Minor, although in real history Botaneiates only rebelled and proclaimed himself emperor after writing a letter to Michael VII asking him to act on the situation in Asia Minor as the Seljuks were already about to take over all of it, but in this story with the Seljuks not going as far as Central Asia Minor, Botaneiates would only rebel as he too was tired of Michael VII’s weak rule and in fear that his weak rule would later allow the Seljuks to one day penetrate deep into Asia Minor. On January 7 of 1078 meanwhile, a number of bishops gathered in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople where they all declared their opposition against Michael VII and proclaiming that Nikephoros Botaneiates should be emperor and here, Michael VII would start losing hope.

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Constantine Doukas, son of Michael VII and Maria of Alania

In the meantime, Michael and his wife Empress Maria of Alania already had a child which was their son Constantine Doukas born in 1074 and already made co-emperor together with Michael’s brothers Andronikos and Constantius who were still around, although since 1077, Michael’s cousin and John Doukas’ son Andronikos had died due to the injuries he received when captured by Roussel, though his father John was still alive and even though he was made a monk, in early 1078 after the bishops turned on Michael, John too advised his nephew that he must abdicate as throne was no longer safe for him. Alexios Komnenos on the other hand also in early 1078 arrived in the Danube garrison right in time to defeat the rebel forces of Nestor, although Nestor who allied himself with the Pechenegs escaped with them never to return again.

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Flag of the Chinese Empire under the Song Dynasty (960-1279)

At around this time as well, Michael VII would make one achievement and this was in being another one of the Byzantine emperors to send ambassadors to China which now was under the Song Dynasty, thus making him the first Byzantine emperor in more than 4 centuries since Constans II (r. 641-668)- if you remember from chapter IV of this series- to send a diplomatic mission to China as it is recorded in this History of Song that in 1081, ambassadors from Byzantine emperor Michael VII visited China, although this mission unlike the one of Constans II if you remember which resulted in something had not and by the time the ambassadors reached China, Michael VII had already been ousted from power for already 3 years as right here in March of 1078, Michael VII like in real history finally decided to abdicate in favor of Nikephoros Botaneiates and retire peacefully to a monastery.

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Younger looking Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (left) and Empress Maria of Alania (right)

Like in real history, Nikephoros Botaneiates here would gather a few Seljuk allies to help him take Constantinople and by the time he reached the capital, the nobility including the empress Maria of Alania all switched sides to Nikephoros and so Michael VII after he abdicated was forced to retire to the same Stoudion Monastery where Isaac I retired to some 20 years earlier to also become a monk. Michael’s brothers Andronikos and Constantius too were forced into monasteries in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea while Romanos IV and Eudokia’s twin sons Nikephoros and Leo Diogenes would still be allowed to remain in the palace, but Nikephoritzes in this story’s case would also flee and like in real history, he would also be tortured to death by the local commander in the Princes’ Islands under Nikephoros’ orders. The empress Maria of Alania on the other hand did not retire with her husband, instead she agreed to marrying the old Nikephoros Botaneiates who was over 50 years older than her as Maria was true enough ambitious therefore wanting to keep her power and secure her son Constantine’s succession as Nikephoros had no children anyway. The marriage between the 76-year-old Nikephoros Botaneiates and 25-year-old Maria of Alania thus seemed so outrageous as Maria was young and attractive while Nikephoros looked like he could be her grandfather, but Maria was only marrying him for political reasons as she still wanted to stay in power while Nikephoros too never really cared much about her except again for political reasons to legitimize his claim as being an old man, Nikephoros saw that Maria was too young and beautiful for him that Nikephoros even considered again marrying the former empress which was Michael’s mother Eudokia like he did 10 years earlier as she was much older, but having retired as a nun for many years already, Eudokia refused and so Nikephoros was left to marry the much younger Maria. Nikephoros Botaneiates then ironically came into the power the same way Isaac I Komnenos did in 1057 in the same kind of military revolution and thus he was crowned as Emperor Nikephoros III at 76, the oldest emperor ever so far to be crowned in Byzantine history and though in real history, Nikephoros III began his reign with the Seljuks already occupying most Asia Minor due to Michael VII’s previous alliance with them as well as his own, here his Seljuk allies being only a few in number would not gain much but being so old already when coming into power, Nikephoros III’s reign would be another unstable one.      

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The loss of Byzantine Asia Minor from 1071-1078 in real history

 

Epilogue and Conclusion   

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The new emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates may have been a better emperor if he was much younger and if the empire were not in so much chaos as here in this story, despite Asia Minor not being so devastated by Seljuk Turkish raids, the Balkans would be the one chaotic as not only was Nikephoros Bryennios still left there rebelling but the Pechenegs continued their raids too. The situation of the empire in real history under Nikephoros III though would be worse as due to getting the Seljuks and their other Turkish allies to support him, Nikephoros III gave them almost all of Asia Minor including the city of Nicaea very close to Constantinople which then became the Seljuks’ new capital, thus almost all of Byzantine Asia Minor was lost. In real history however, the main Seljuk Empire of Alp Arslan had already more or less dissolved following his death in 1072 thus never making their ultimate goal of conquering Egypt, but this still scattered his Turks around Asia Minor dividing into two major groups with one being the main Seljuk Empire’s successor state which was the Sultanate of Rum and the other one in North-Central Asia Minor being the Danishmend Turks, while in the region of Cilicia in Southern Asia Minor the Armenian people from Eastern Asia Minor fleeing from the expansion of the Seljuk and Danishmend Turks would end up there and establish their own state there in 1080 known as the Principality of Cilician Armenia.

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Flag of the Principality of Armenia in Cilicia, founded by Armenian refugees following the Seljuk conquest of Asia Minor in real history

In this story however, none of these would happen in Asia Minor, as the Seljuks would go another way heading down south into the Levant but Nikephoros III’s rule here just like in real history would be the same as he too seeing that the economy had already been damaged under Michael VII would not bother to fix it and just like Constantine X he was another boring old man that would be too old to save the empire and so he would devalue the currency again even more than it was under Michael VII as in fact under Nikephoros III, the standard gold solidus would be devalued by a full third. Though without Asia Minor being completely almost lost to the Turks here, Nikephoros III would have to suffer a number of military uprisings by a number of generals who all saw he was too old and unfit to rule and to deal with them, Nikephoros III would appoint the young Alexios Komnenos to specifically do that job.

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Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates of Byzantium (r. 1078-1081) and his court behind

The first general to rebel against Nikephoros III would be no other than Nikephoros Bryennios in the Balkans although later in 1078, Alexios Komnenos would be able to defeat Bryennios in battle afterwards blinding Bryennios who would however still continue to live. The next general to rebel had the same name as the emperor and the previous usurper and this was Nikephoros Basilakes in the Balkans who in 1079 was easily defeated thus blinded by the young Alexios but in Constantinople, the emperor would almost get assassinated by his own Varangian Guard, though to punish them he only sent them way to a fortress in Asia Minor. In the meantime, since Nikephoros III took the throne, he had cancelled the existing marriage proposal between Michael VII and Maria of Alania’s young son Constantine and the Norman duke of Southern Italy Robert Guiscard’s daughter and because of this, Robert Guiscard grew furious that like in real history, he would begin to prepare his forces to invade Byzantium. In 1080, the empress Maria of Alania had happened to adopt Alexios Komnenos despite him being only 3 years younger than her, although the reason for this was that she fell in love with Alexios behind the emperor’s back. In 1080 as well like in real history, another general again named Nikephoros from the powerful Melissenos family rose up against the emperor in Asia Minor and so Alexios was sent to crush this rebellion but on the way, he was persuaded by no other than the retired Caesar John Doukas who became a monk to instead turn on the old emperor and take the throne and soon enough, a large number of the empire’s aristocracy all backed young Alexios as he was seen as more capable to rule in a hard time like this while he too had support as he was a nephew of the former emperor Isaac I Komnenos, and so Alexios would also give up his affair with the empress as he had married Irene Doukaina, the granddaughter of John Doukas and daughter of the late general Andronikos Doukas. Like in real history here, Nikephoros III when finding out Alexios turned on him would try to ally himself with the Seljuks and attempt to make peace with the rebel general Melissenos but without success.

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

Alexios Komnenos and his forces would arrive outside Constantinople in April of 1081 wherein due to the lack of soldiers defending the walls, Alexios and his army stormed the capital and sacked it while Nikephoros III having no other options abdicated and retired again as a monk although he named Nikephoros Melissenos his successor, but when Alexios Komnenos took the throne, Melissenos surrendered his claim to Alexios. Now Nikephoros III’s name ironically meant “bringer of victory” but he was not able to score any and thus he abdicated as the last emperor in Byzantine history to have that name and in the next year, he would die as a monk at the age of 80. The new emperor Alexios I Komnenos would come to power the same way he did in real history in 1081 ready to save the empire, except without having to face the dire situation of Asia Minor almost lost to the Seljuks but the major threat he would face was the upcoming Norman invasion. First of all, Alexios would adopt Michael VII and Maria of Alania’s son Constantine as his own as well as Romanos IV and Eudokia’s twins Leo and Nikephoros Diogenes in order to secure his legitimacy and despite Alexios being married, he would still allow the empress Maria to remain in the palace while Michael VII’s younger brother Constantius would be released from the monastery and be made one of Alexios’ generals in his upcoming campaign against the Normans.

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Exiled Anglo-Saxon Varangian Guard

Like in real history, the Norman invasion of Byzantium led by their duke Robert Guiscard himself and would take place in October of 1081 and Alexios I and his forces which would include Anglo-Saxons from England exiled by their Norman conquerors in the Varangian Guard unit would march to confront the Normans. The forces of Alexios I and Robert Guiscard’s Normans would like in real history clash at the Battle of Dyrrhachion in today’s Albania in which the Anglo-Saxon Varangians would meet again with their enemy, their Norman conquerors but in a different place and desiring revenge for conquering their homeland and sending them away, the Anglo-Saxons would charge at the Normans without orders thus creating chaos in the Byzantine army which would later lead to their defeat to the Normans. In this story, the Byzantines like in real history would suffer a humiliating defeat to the Normans whereas Constantius Doukas would be killed in battle and the new emperor Alexios barely escaping from it. Alexios however like in real history would still not accept defeat and so he would find a way to bribe Robert Guiscard’s subjects in Italy to rebel against their Norman overlords, thus this had made Robert rush back to Italy to crush their rebellion while at the same time, Alexios would seal what would be a permanent naval alliance with the Republic of Venice against the Normans. Though Robert returned to Italy, his son Bohemond was still left behind to carry out the Norman conquest of Greece but in 1083 his forces would lose to Alexios I’s Byzantine army at the Battle of Larissa in Greece and in 1084, Robert Guiscard would return to Byzantine Greece attempting to carry out a full invasion this time but before being able to, he would die in 1085 like in real history when his army got hit by a local plague in Greece, thus the Norman invasion would be cut short as Bohemond would have to return to Italy to consolidate his rule as its new duke.

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Cumans, allies of Alexios I against the Pechenegs

With everything settled down, the next time Alexios I would come back into action here just like in real history is in 1091 when the Pechenegs in the thousands invade the Byzantine Balkans all the way down to Thrace in such a mindless manner and here Alexios would ally himself with the Pechenegs’ mortal enemy which were the other Turkic nomadic people known as the Cumans. Alexios I here like in real history would defeat the Pechenegs at the Battle of Levounion in 1091 where under the request of the Cumans, the Byzantines would carry out a brutal genocide on the Pechenegs wiping out every last one of them, thus the Pecheneg threat would be settled once and for all. What would not happen here which did in real history was Alexios I’s campaign against the renegade Seljuk general Tzachas who both made for himself an independent state and declared himself a Byzantine emperor using the Byzantine city of Smyrna in Asia Minor as his base, but in this story, with there being no Turks in Asia Minor due to their defeat at Manzikert, there would be no Tzachas to pose a threat to Byzantium. In real history though, Alexios I was able to defeat Tzachas only by tricking the Seljuk Sultan of Rum Kilij Arslan I who was Tzachas’ son-in-law that hated him into killing his father-in-law at a dinner which succeeded, but in this story again with no Turks in Asia Minor, none of this would happen.      

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All territories under the Seljuks in their entire history (orange)
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All territories under the Normans in their history (red)
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Battle of Dyrrhachion, Byzantine defeat to the Normans in Albania, 1081, art by FaisalHashemi
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Alexios Komnenos and Maria of Alania, art by Minahboh24
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Alexios I Komnenos, art by Diogos_tales

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Dyrrhachion, 1081 (Kings and Generals). 

  

For this story, the rest of Alexios I Komnenos’ reign would be fast-tracked, but I would still describe how the situation in the empire would be like in the 1090s considering that the Seljuks lost at Manzikert and therefore did not end up taking almost all of Asia Minor like in real history. On the other hand, the previous emperor Michael VII Doukas who had retired in 1078 to become a monk in this story like in real history would end up becoming the Bishop of Ephesus during Alexios I’s reign and would die sometime in the 1090s, although in real history Ephesus which was in Asia Minor would still be one of the few remaining territories under Byzantine hands while the rest had already fallen to the divided Seljuk powers, but in this case most of Asia Minor would still be Byzantine except for the far east where Armenia is which in this story would have already fallen to the Seljuks.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos

In real history, the collapse of Asia Minor to the rule of the Turks was so dire that even the Byzantine army which was still strong considering now that the empire had a strongman emperor again running it which was Alexios I, they still could not do anything themselves to recover all of Asia Minor from the Turks and so this meant that the emperor needed to seek military aid from Western Europe and this would come in the form of the First Crusade. Now in this story without almost all of Asia Minor lost to the Seljuks and other Turkish powers, Alexios I would have no reason to ask for military assistance from the west as Constantinople itself was not threatened anyway but I would still say that the First Crusade happened as after all the Council of Clermont in France organized in 1095 by Pope Urban II was called not really to help Byzantium fight against the Turkish invaders but to capture the holy city of Jerusalem from the Turks that had recently captured it. Now Jerusalem for over 4 centuries since the 630s- mentioned back in chapter IV of this series- had been under Muslim hands although the previous Muslim rulers of Jerusalem which were the Arab Caliphates still allowed Christian pilgrims from Europe to travel freely into the city, but with the new Muslim power of the Seljuk Turks seizing Jerusalem- which like in real history would also happen in this story- it had become too dangerous for Christian pilgrims to travel there as along the way they would be ambushed by Seljuk Turk raiders who were more fanatical Muslims than their Arab predecessors.

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Council of Clermont, Beginning of the First Crusade, 1095

When the First Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the Turks was called in 1095, a large number of knights and nobles from Europe willingly agreed to it to defend their faith but a lot of them also did it in search of land and riches and true enough the Normans of Italy led by no other than Bohemond, the son of Robert Guiscard was willing to fight in the Crusades for his own personal glory, especially to add more lands this time in the Middle East into the empire of the Normans. The first wave of Crusaders to march from Europe to the Middle East by land were however not a group of organized knights but an unruly pack of peasants led by a certain Peter the Hermit, and this movement was known as the People’s Crusade which in 1096 arrived in Byzantine lands pillaging it that Alexios I had to act on it quickly and so he had these unorganized Western European peasants quickly transported across the Bosporus into Asia Minor where they would be defeated, dispersed, and captured by the Seljuks never even making it anywhere near their main objective in the Levant.

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Knights of the First Crusade

The army Alexios I asked for however came in 1097 and part of it was his old nemesis the Norman Bohemond, and this army consisting of knights and noblemen despite being organized were however also troublesome as they never really wanted to help Byzantium regain their lands but take these lands for themselves and so to put them under control, Alexios I brought them to Constantinople to make sure they all swore loyalty to him or else they would not be allowed to continue their march. Most of the Crusader leaders however swore their loyalty but some of them still did not and even though some did, they still never remained loyal. As the Crusaders continued their march, most of Asia Minor was still returned to Byzantium as the Byzantine army had escorted them to make sure Byzantine lands were restored to the empire and true enough the city of Nicaea was returned to Byzantium in 1097 only because the Byzantine army took it back from the Seljuks by surprise behind the Crusaders’ backs, although after this the Crusaders managed to win a decisive victory over the Seljuks at the Battle of Dorylaeum in Asia Minor which then opened for them the way to march south into the Middle East.

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Bohemond, Prince of Crusader Antioch (r. 1098-1111), son of Robert Guiscard

The Crusaders had soon enough been able to reach Syria with much difficulty and in 1098, the Norman forces under Bohemond were able to capture the city of Antioch from the Seljuks thus Bohemond had claimed it for himself establishing the Norman Principality of Antioch with him as its prince. The rest of the Crusaders then proceed south and in 1099, before the next century had begun, the Crusades’ division of the Frenchman Godfrey of Bouillon were able to achieve their ultimate goal which was capturing Jerusalem and what followed the Crusaders’ capture of Jerusalem was a complete massacre of the city’s Muslim and Jewish population by the Crusaders out of revenge. In this story however, since the Byzantines again would not suffer the loss of almost all of their heartland Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks, none of these events would happen as Alexios I would not have to ask for military assistance from the west which would in real history come in the form of the First Crusade that would be both a benefit and problem for the Byzantines, although without having to ask for military assistance from the west, the First Crusade would surely still happen as Jerusalem would still fall to the Turks, therefore the pope would still have to gather the people of Europe to fight back, but thing here is that without Byzantium asking for their assistance, these Crusaders would have no way to get to the Middle East as the only way was through Byzantium itself, and so without the Byzantine emperor asking for them, the Crusaders would have to find another way to get to Jerusalem but that would be a totally different story that you would have to decide for yourselves how that would go. Anyway, I would have to end the story right here where the eventful and challenging 11th century ends and where a new era begins, and this new era being the era of the Crusades would be a story for another time. Now, what a Byzantine victory at Manzikert in 1071 would result in would simply be that the situation of Asia Minor being overrun by the Turks would not be so devastating like it was in real history, therefore no need for the Byzantine emperor to call for Western military assistance, although a lot of things would still be the same and this would be that Byzantium even though winning a victory over the Seljuks would still have to face the disaster of civil wars and rebellions as well as a damaged economy while even though Byzantium would not ask for Western military assistance against the Seljuks, the First Crusade would still more or less come to happen as their main objective was Jerusalem anyway and not to help Byzantium.

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Map of the First Crusade’s Route (1096-1099)
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Map of Asia Minor at the time of the First Crusade
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People’s Crusade led by Peter the Hermit
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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

Our story will end right here where this roller-coaster 11th century ends, and like many centuries in the history of Byzantium, the 11th century beginning with Basil II and ending with the First Crusade was one that had only featured so many events happening as it saw Byzantium go from a world power when the century began with the reign of Basil II to an empire weakened by new enemies they never have never heard of until they came. The 11th century started off with Byzan