Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XII- Constantinople Surrenders to the Ottomans in 1453 in Order to Buy Time to Start a Crusade to Recapture it (Finale)

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 15th century AD. This story will begin with real events in history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XI- 14th Century

Consider then, my brothers and comrades in arms, how the commemoration of our death, our memory, fame and freedom can be rendered eternal.” -Final speech of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, 1453

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Welcome to the 12th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger, the grand finale of this 12-part series! Last time in chapter XI, we went over a possibility wherein the powerful and ambitious Serbian emperor Stefan IV Dusan in the 14th century would take over a deteriorating Byzantium not to destroy it but to save it from decay and expel the new threat of the Ottoman Turks from the Balkans which in real history would in fact be the power that would conquer the once great civilization of the Byzantines in 1453. Once again, as these chapters in this alternate history series are not continuous with each other in plot, the outcome of the previous chapter wherein the Serbian Empire took over Byzantium for a brief time which resulted in the full expulsion of the Ottoman troops in the Balkans before the Byzantine Empire itself returned following the death of the Serbian emperor in Dusan in 1355 would not happen, instead this chapter as usual will begin with what actually happened in real history.

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire (13th-15th centuries)

Now as we all know it, the Byzantine Empire had lived on for so long, and true enough this Byzantine Alternate History series had been running for more than 7 months now, featuring 11 chapters covering more than 1,000 years of Byzantine history beginning all the way back in the 4th century (chapter I) when basically the only major power in Europe and the known world was the Roman Empire eventually becoming the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire that continued to live for over a thousand years to where we are at now wherein it remains a small state in the middle of countless of others all over the world. In the past 11 chapters of this series, we went over many emperors and empresses, battles, traditions, political intrigues, betrayals, disasters, reforms, civil wars, and so much more over the past 1,000 years as well as a large number of foreign powers that the Byzantines had come across over the centuries that either posed as a serious threat to them or came as an ally and these included the likes of the Goths, Huns, Vandals, Sassanids, Franks, Lombards, Avars, Slavs, the Arab Caliphates, Bulgars, Khazars, Rus, Magyars, Pechenegs, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Mongols, Serbians, and finally the Ottoman Turks. The truly impressive and inspiring part here is that the Byzantine Empire saw all of these people come and go with so many kingdoms around them rising, evolving, and falling in its entire existence, but of course all empires have their end and the 15th century where this chapter takes place in was in real history the end of the Byzantine Empire as a state. In the past 1,000 years there were several instances wherein Byzantium could have already ended whether it was to the sudden and rapid expansion of the Arabs back in the 7th and 8th centuries, or to the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, or most recently to the 4th Crusade in 1204 but throughout all these hard times, the Byzantines still persisted and through their determination and willingness to not allow their proud empire to disappear. By the end of the 14th century however, the end for Byzantium was already inevitable and like many threats the empire had faced in it history, the one that had the potential to bring about its end was an unlikely power, in this case the Ottoman Turks. The 14th century true enough saw the rise and quick evolution of the Ottomans from a small Turkish feudal state or Beylik located along the Byzantine border in the former Byzantine heartland Asia Minor to becoming the master power of Asia Minor and the rising new power of the Balkans that had been able to crush the once powerful Serbian Empire in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo, make what was left of the Byzantine Empire its vassal, and later on conquer the entire 2nd Bulgarian Empire and wipe it off the map.

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Flag of the Ottoman Empire

By the end of the 14th century, the Ottomans had already expanded deep into the Balkans to the point of already posing a threat to the more powerful kingdoms of Western Europe but luckily the Byzantine Empire despite being severely reduced to Constantinople already surrounded by Ottoman territory as well as parts of Southern Greece and some Aegean islands was still standing and this was mainly because the Byzantines to ensure their survival surrendered to the Ottomans as a vasal no matter how humiliating it was. However, as the 15th century began, the rising Ottoman Empire’s new sultan Bayezid I whose life-long ambition was to finally capture Constantinople decided to capture it once and for all thus leading to an 8-year siege, while the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos not wanting to surrender what was left of his empire travelled around Europe to seek military aid from the various kingdoms there that had now surpassed the once powerful Byzantium in military and economic power. Though Manuel II returned to Constantinople empty handed, Byzantium was fortunately saved from the inevitable Ottoman threat as in 1402, the undefeatable Ottoman sultan Bayezid I was for once defeated out of the blue by the powerful Turco-Mongol emperor Timur at the Battle of Ankara resulting in the capture of the sultan and the Ottoman Empire itself thrown into anarchy and civil war among the sultan’s sons. If not for Timur crushing the Ottoman army causing a temporary collapse for the Ottomans, Byzantium would have already fallen, but because it happened, Byzantium was given 50 more years left to live allowing their history to extend deep int the 15th century. Manuel II would then die in 1425 and would be succeeded by his son Emperor John VIII Palaiologos (r. 1425-1448) and in the meantime, the Ottomans would get their act back together again thus once more becoming a major threat not only to the existence of Byzantium but to the rest of Europe which made organizing Crusades a thing once again. The Byzantines being the most threatened by the rise of the Ottomans were the ones to have to ask for the kingdoms of the west and for the pope’s approval to launch a Crusade against the ever-expanding Ottomans, but such aid from the west would come at such a high price, and the price to pay here in order for the Catholic kingdoms of the west to agree to help Byzantium was for the Byzantines to give up their old faith of Orthodoxy and convert to Catholicism. In the last days of Byzantium, Byzantine emperors as mentioned even in the previous chapter were more than willing to end the age old schism with the west by submitting their empire to the faith of Catholicism in order for the empire to survive, and though this may turn out to be a practical choice, it proved to be very unpopular among the Byzantine people that there was even a famous saying at this time by the Byzantine imperial official Loukas Notaras in the last days of Constantinople which said “I would rather see a Turkish turban in the midst of the city than the Latin miter” meaning that it would be better off that Byzantium would fall to the Ottomans rather than losing their identity by submitting to the Catholic Church as after all, the Byzantines even over 200 years later could still not get over the damage and destruction brought upon them by the Catholic armies of the 4th Crusade in 1204 as discussed in chapter X of this series. Despite the Byzantine Empire already in ruins and their end near, disunity and conflict among the people especially over religious matters still remained unchanged while the centuries old “Cold War” between Byzantium and the Western world too was still existent even up to Byzantium’s last days. In the meantime, the Ottomans could not also focus all their attention in capturing Constantinople as they too were distracted by other problems in the Balkans such as resistance from the Albanians and the threat of Crusades summoned against them from the other kingdoms of Europe particularly Hungary. The Ottomans however at this time were still able to defeat two massive Crusades launched against them by Hungary, first at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, then at the Battle of Varna in 1444, and lastly once again at the Battle of Kosovo in 1448 fought in the same place the Ottomans crushed the Serbians in 1389, and following the Ottoman victory at the 2nd Battle of Kosovo in 1448 the way to besiege Constantinople was clear. With the death of the Ottoman sultan Murad II in 1451, the new sultan which was his son and successor the young and ambitious yet treacherous Mehmed II had only one single objective which was to simply capture Constantinople and finish off the Byzantine Empire for good as no matter how weakened the Byzantines became to the point of becoming just a small dot surrounded by a vast sea of Ottoman territory, they still posed a dangerous threat by asking for help from the rest of Europe against the Ottomans. Mehmed II in 1453 then raised an army of about 80,000 men including some 320 ships, 70 cannons, and one massive cannon intended to completely destroy Constantinople’s 1,000-year-old walls that no enemy before had ever managed to destroy. The Byzantine emperor here meanwhile which was Constantine XI Palaiologos, the younger brother of John VIII and this story’s tragic hero that came to power in 1449 after John VIII’s death was known to be a brave soldier-emperor, an exception for his time when Byzantine emperors no longer fought in battle themselves, and apparently Constantine XI was in fact given an offer by Mehmed II to simply surrender Constantinople and be able to leave unharmed. Constantine XI however declined this offer and bravely chose to fight to the death, thus resulting in a 2-month Ottoman siege of Constantinople that had been described in such vivid detail wherein Constantine XI despite having an army of roughly more than 7,000 men including barely trained local Greek forces and Italian mercenaries were able to defend Constantinople’s walls against an Ottoman army of over 80,000 that had a more of an advantage with the use of cannons. At the end however, the outnumbered defenders still lost, Constantine XI died as the last Roman emperor, while Constantinople had fallen to the Ottomans on May 29 of 1453 making Sultan Mehmed II be remembered as “Mehmed the Conqueror” who then built Constantinople back up scratch turning it into the Ottoman’s capital. Now, a lot say that the defeat of the Byzantines here in 1453 despite fighting courageously to the end was because they were outnumbered while no aid from the west came for them, and so for this chapter, I would say that if Constantine XI did initially surrender Constantinople to Mehmed II when given the offer, then would this allow Constantine XI to buy time and organize a large Crusade consisting of various European powers now aware of the Ottoman threat which could achieve in taking Constantinople back from the Ottomans a few years later and allow the Byzantine Empire to continue its existence?  

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this chapter is set in the 15th century, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire at 3 different eras; greatest extent in the 6th century (red line), in 1025 (pink), and by 1360 (red)
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Map of the Byzantine Empire by 1450 (purple) and other territories including the Ottoman Empire
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Fall of Byzantine Constantinople to the Ottomans, 1453

Since this chapter will be the grand finale of this 12-part series, I had something specular in mind planned for it, thus this chapter will be a lot longer than the past 11 ones. As the finale, it will be a culmination of all the stories from the past 11 chapters going as far back as the 4th century, and ever since conceptualizing this 12-part series before even writing the first chapter, I had already planned something big for the final chapter. The past 5 chapters since chapter VII now had however contained more history than fiction, but here in the last chapter of the series it will once again be like the first 6 chapters of this series with more fictional elements including larger than life battles, more insights on the people of the story and their character, many side stories and cameos of famous historical figures, and a number of supernatural elements such as ghosts of the important characters from the previous chapters returning here for the grand finale.

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Map of the 1453 Ottoman Siege of Constantinople, art by FaisalHashemi

To conclude this series, this chapter will have a climax more epic and larger than life than the past 11 chapters as after all in real history, the Byzantine Empire in 1453 did not die out with a whimper but with a bang when the Byzantines of Constantinople fought to the end defending their city against the 80,000 Ottoman army despite still losing to the Ottomans at the end, unlike let’s say the Western Roman Empire in 476 which just ended quietly when its last emperor surrendered to a barbarian general who just chose to make himself King of Italy instead of emperor, which if you remember was part of the story of chapter II of this series. However, since this series is always in favor of Byzantium wherein all chapters ended with a Byzantine victory, the series in this chapter will definitely have to end with Byzantium once more victorious and alive, thus we will conclude this series with one epic battle like no other. This chapter like all others in this series will again begin with events that did take place in real history in order to establish the story’s 15th century setting wherein Byzantium although still standing is no longer what it once was as a major world power that all other powers around them were either in awe of or feared but instead reduced to an insignificant backwater in the humiliating position as a vassal of the new power of the Ottomans and a shadow of its former self. World history in the 15th century true enough hardly makes any mention of Byzantium if not for the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 as the 15th century true enough had too much happening around the world that had more significance to what was happening in Byzantium, but on the other hand even if Byzantium was already so reduced to the point of making it more or less a city-state, Constantinople itself despite being so damaged and depopulated still had the prestige of being a thousand-year-old imperial capital and Byzantium itself too still had the prestige of basically being the Roman Empire still alive, thus making it the ultimate goal of the Ottomans to conquer it as the saying goes “whoever possesses Constantinople controls the world” as Constantinople was once the world’s greatest metropolis.

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Coat of Arms of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 13th-15th centuries

Other than the prestige Byzantium still had all the way up to the 15th century, Byzantium although no longer known for being a military power still had a great cultural influence and in its last years as Constantinople was decaying, one of Byzantium’s last holdings in the Peloponnese Peninsula in Southern Greece known as the Morea and particularly its capital Mystras would have an important part to play here as a place where art, culture, and education thrived despite the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople already weak and dying. In this chapter, Mystras will have a major part to play especially since it was here where new ideas formed and ancient ones revived such as the Ancient Greek Platonic philosophy which would later on play a major role in impacting the Renaissance in Italy. The 15th century is as well best remembered for being the century when the Middle Ages came to an end and when the Renaissance began and thrived especially in Italy, but what a lot do not realize is that the kick-start of the Renaissance in Italy can be attributed a lot to the Byzantines especially since throughout the Middle Ages, the Byzantines had preserved the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge of the past, but in the last years of Byzantine history due to Byzantium no longer being safe especially due to the expansion of the Ottomans, several scholars fled to especially to Italy with their texts containing ancient knowledge, which would soon enough begin a trend there in the revival of ancient knowledge in which most were in Greek which only these Byzantine scholars could understand and translate. It was then particularly the event of the Council of Florence from 1437-1440 wherein knowledge from Byzantium was brought into Italy as the Byzantine emperor John VIII himself visited Italy together with several Byzantine scholars in which some chose to stay behind in Italy. The 15th century was therefore true enough an era of major transition and change and a lot of this had to do with the Middle Ages fading away and a new age of learning, art, and science emerging in Europe known as the Renaissance wherein it would now be the rest of Europe’s turn to be more and more of an advanced society the way Byzantium was centuries ago- if you remember from chapter VII of this series set in the 10th century- when the rest of Europe was still in the Dark Ages, however for Byzantium it would be the other way around in the 15th century wherein they would be the ones left behind in time as the rest of Europe progressed. In the 15th century, the biggest challenge the Byzantines would have to face is to now give up their old ways and “Westernize” meaning to be more like how the rest of Europe was turning out to be in this era, but for Byzantium to change, this would mean taking away their soul which is the faith of Orthodoxy as to be at the same level as the rest of Europe they had to convert to the religion of the rest of Europe at that time which was Catholicism. As mentioned earlier, despite the Byzantine rulers of this time willing to submit to Catholicism to save their empire, the thought was strongly opposed by the proudly Orthodox Byzantine people which only did more harm than good to the already dying Byzantium. Now the climax of this story would start off in 1453, the exact same year Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, but here rather than the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos choosing to fight to the end, he would initially surrender Constantinople to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II as a way to buy time and one day a few years later recapture Constantinople. As a more realistic approach, rather than Constantine XI suddenly receiving a last minute Crusade from the west sent by the pope to assist him while defending Constantinople from the Ottomans in 1453, I chose to have Constantine XI surrender at first and return to Mystras in the Morea wherein his brothers Demetrios and Thomas Palaiologos still remained as its governors or Despots, and it is here where Constantine would in the next few years organize a Crusade and personally go to Rome to once and for all submit to the pope and convert to Catholicism realizing it is the only way to get assistance from the more powerful west especially since he would be the one particularly asking for the Crusade.

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Rise of Empires: Ottoman series

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 is then a very well-known historical topic that was true enough made into many historical fiction books and live action series like the recent 2020 Netflix miniseries Rise of Empires: Ottoman (watch the trailer here), however most people when hearing of 1453 will just think about the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI battling against the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II. True enough it was not only Constantine XI that was resisting against the Ottomans as he did in fact have younger brothers in the Morea at the time he was emperor wherein one of them being Thomas was on Constantine’s side willing to also submit Byzantium to Catholicism in order to launch a Crusade against the Ottomans while the other brother Demetrios who for the longest time had bad blood with his brothers envying them strongly opposed Church unity and found it better to just continue having Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal despite Mehmed II unlike the other sultans before him being tired of having Byzantium as a vassal but instead wanting to conquer it once and for all. On the other hand, while Byzantium and the Ottomans were at war with each other, there were a number of famous rulers across the Balkans resisting the Ottoman expansion as well which included the independent Albanian lord George Kastrioti better known as “Skanderbeg” who once serving in the Ottoman army knew their tactics which made him later on be undefeatable by the Ottomans, the Hungarian general John Hunyadi who fought a number of battles against the Ottomans despite losing them but at the end still successfully resisted, and the Voivode or Prince of Wallachia Vlad III Tepes known as “the Impaler”, who would forever be remembered for his atrocities against the Ottomans and basically the basis of the famous “Dracula”. This story’s fictional climax wherein the final battle to recover Constantinople will then take place in 1458, 5 years after the actual fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, and here in 1458 Constantine XI would return to take back Constantinople from Mehmed II now with more assistance as here he would be aided by his brother Thomas as well as the Genoese mercenary general Giovanni Giustiniani- who did assist him in real history when defending Constantinople- while at the same time these great figures I just mentioned being Hunyadi, Skanderbeg, and Vlad III who were all contemporaries of Constantine XI would also come to his assistance as in real history neither of them came to Constantinople’s aid, but if they did then possibly Constantine XI’s side would have more of an advantage. In addition, I wanted to include one more power from Europe that would assist in the reconquest of Constantinople from the Ottomans, and here it would be the very unlikely choice of the Kingdom of Portugal which was also another rising power here in the 15th century.

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Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Portugal, rising star of the 15th century

Now having the Portuguese come to assist Byzantium here seems to be very odd and unlikely considering how far Portugal being at the far western edge of Europe along the Atlantic Ocean was to Byzantium, but here in this story it could be a possibility considering that with Byzantium converting to Catholicism, a Catholic power like Portugal would come to their aid, and out of all the powers that could come to assist Byzantium I chose Portugal for the sake of it being unlikely as for the Byzantines in their entire history of being in contact with several powers around the world, they never in fact had any contact with Portugal, thus this alternate history story would be this chance for the Portuguese and Byzantines to finally meet each other which is the kind of fantasy I always wanted to see happen. Now at this time in history, Portugal was in fact a growing power especially considering that it was here in the 15th century when they would also begin the Age of Exploration where they would develop faster ships known as caravels enabling them to sail down the Atlantic and discover new lands especially in Africa that no one else had seen before, and for this story it would be only fitting to have this new rising star of this era being Portugal to also have a part in assisting Byzantium.

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The last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI in the Portuguese blue and white tile art style, art by myself

Now with all these characters and countries mentioned, this chapter is thus set to be like no other as rather than just a Byzantine story, this chapter as the grand finale will be not only the story of Byzantium but of the Ottomans, Serbia, Albania, Hungary, Wallachia, Italy, and Portugal put together in one big epic. Now due to Portugal’s part in this story’s climax I chose to draw this story’s lead character and tragic hero Emperor Constantine XI in the art style of the Portuguese blue and white tiles. Now, this story’s climax will feature an epic battle like no other mentioned in this series levelling up from battles with Cataphract cavalry soldiers and Greek Fire to one with knights and armies in full plated armor, gunpowder weapons such as cannons and guns finally in use, and faster and more effective ships being the Portuguese caravels squaring off against the much smaller Ottoman ships, and true enough the 15th century saw a major change in the course of warfare with guns and cannons finally coming into the picture. Before moving on to the story itself, I would like to thank the Youtube channels Eastern Roman History and Kings and Generals for providing a good amount of information for this very eventful era especially on the Byzantine angle, while I would also like to thank the artists (Spatharokandidatos, Pyrasterran, FaisalHashemi, Elveo, HistoryGold777, Radialart, Badbuckle, R7artist, JohnJollos, Gambargin, and FlaviantheHistorian) whose works will be featured here in order to guide you viewers through the very action-packed 15th century, the concluding century of the 1,100-year history of Byzantium.

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The Fall and Conquest of Constantinople with the massive cannon, 1453

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XI- The Serbian Empire takes over a dying Byzantium in the 14th Century

Ranking the 12 Centuries of Byzantine History (my personal best to least)

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 Art of War in the Byzantine World


 

The Leading Characters:

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos- Byzantine emperor (1449-1453)

Mehmed II- 7th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire 

George Sphrantzes- Secretary of Constantine XI

Demetrios Palaiologos- Younger brother of Constantine XI and Despot of the Morea

Thomas Palaiologos- Youngest brother of Constantine XI and Despot of the Morea 

Loukas Notaras- Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire under Constantine XI

Giovanni Giustiniani Longo- Italian general in Byzantine service

Mara Brankovic- Serbian princess and former Ottoman empress

Basil Bessarion- Byzantine born Catholic cardinal in Italy

Durad Brankovic- Ottoman vassal Prince of Serbia, father of Mara 

John Hunyadi- Governor-General of Hungary

George Kastrioti “Skanderbeg”- Independent Lord of Albania

Vlad III “Dracula”- Prince of Wallachia

Zaganos Pasha- Grand Vizier and general of the Ottoman Empire under Mehmed II 

Ferdinand, Duke of Viseu- Portuguese prince and adventurer 

Background Guide: Byzantines (blue), Ottomans (dark orange), Serbians (light blue), Hungarians (dark red), Albanians (gold), Wallachians (dark green), Portuguese (light green) 


Prologue- The Ottoman Expansion into the Balkans and the Reign of Manuel II Palaiologos (1389-1425)           

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Once the Ottomans from Asia Minor gained their first holding in Europe in 1354 which was the Byzantine city of Gallipoli along the European shore of the Dardanelles Strait separating Europe from Asia following the massive 1354 earthquake there, nothing was left to stop the Ottomans from expanding. Not too long after the Ottomans had first crossed into Europe, the Byzantine city of Adrianople in Thrace not too far from the imperial capital Constantinople was captured and turned into the new Ottoman capital renamed “Edirne”, thus Constantinople and its surroundings would now be surrounded by a sea of Ottoman territory.

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, founded in 1261

By this point, the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople was only limited to just its capital and its surroundings, a few islands in the Aegean, and a region in the Peloponnese Peninsula in Southern Greece known as the Morea which was however isolated and cut off by land from Constantinople wherein only ships that were in fact not even Byzantine but hired from foreign powers particularly Italian ones were the only means of connection between Constantinople and the Morea. By the late 14th century, the glory days of Byzantium as a Mediterranean power with professional armies of Cataphracts and Varangian Guards, lavish banquets and functions, emperors sitting on a golden mechanically operated throne, secret superpowered weapons like Greek Fire defending the capital, and a cosmopolitan imperial capital of with a multi-ethnic population of about a million was long gone, instead Byzantium was reduced into an impoverished backwater state surrounded by Ottoman territory while the imperial capital of Constantinople was severely depopulated with a population of about only 50,000 with the rest having been killed off by the plague of Black Death in 1340s. Though Constantinople still had its centuries old impressive landmarks including the cathedral of the Hagia Sophia, the Theodosian Walls, and the Hippodrome they were however rundown and neglected to the point of being taken over by cobwebs, insects, and rats as the empire no longer had funds to maintain them anymore, the imperial Blachernae Palace too was run down where a long wooden dining table now appeared before the emperor’s throne, while at the same time there were already patches of farmland within Constantinople’s walls. Though no matter how much of a shell of its former self Byzantium became, it still had the great prestige of being the surviving relic of the centuries old Roman Empire which is why Constantinople itself was such a great prize for the new Ottoman Turkish power to conquer.

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Emperor John V Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1341-1347, 1354-1376, 1379-1391)

The emperor at this point John V Palaiologos who had ruled the empire since he was a child in 1341 although with a few interruptions tried all he could to keep his empire alive as the Ottomans rapidly expanded around him, but when seeing there was no other choice as John V had been turned down every time he asked for assistance from foreign powers such as the Kingdom of Hungary and the Papacy, John V decided to peacefully surrender Byzantium as a vassal to the Ottoman sultan Murad I who was the 3rd Ottoman sultan that had been in power since 1362. With the Byzantine Empire as an Ottoman vassal, the emperor had to pay annual tribute, provide the Ottomans with young Christian boys wherein they would convert to Islam and serve as the Ottomans’ toughest and most loyal soldiers known as the Janissaries, and basically do whatever the sultan ordered him to do. Although no matter how humiliating the idea was of the once proud Byzantine Empire having to submit to the Ottomans as vassal, this at least spared Byzantium from being conquered and wiped off the map by the Ottomans, thus allowing the Ottomans to fight wars against Byzantium’s northern neighbors in the Balkans being Serbia and Bulgaria in which the Ottomans intended to conquer both. As for Serbia here in the 1380s, just 3 decades earlier they were the dominant power of the Balkans being the Serbian Empire but this golden age Serbia however did not last as immediately after the death of the Serbian Empire’s founder and only great ruler Stefan IV Dusan in 1355, Serbia fell into ruin breaking apart into various independent states ruled by their own powerful magnates. In 1387 however, one of these powerful Serbian magnates which was Prince Lazar with a united force of Serbians and Bosnians won a surprising victory over the expanding Ottomans at the Battle of Plocnik, although in the same year the Byzantine city of Thessaloniki in Greece fell to the Ottomans as well after a 4-year siege.

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Prince Lazar of Serbia (r. 1373-1389)

Now due to his victory over the Ottomans in 1387, Prince Lazar felt the confidence to reunite the fractured states of Serbia and revive the Serbian Empire of Dusan that died out 3 decades earlier, thus Prince Lazar began to organize a massive army intending to once and for all drive the Ottomans away from the Balkans. On June 15 of 1389, the massive Serbian army of Prince Lazar then confronted the massive Ottoman army led by their sultan Murad I himself at the Battle of Kosovo in which the site of the battle was known as the “Field of Blackbirds”. Though no matter how large the Serbian army was here, at the end they were still surrounded by the Ottoman forces and thus defeated, and to finish off the last remains of the Serbian forces, Murad I sent a large number of his men to chase the fleeing Serbians though this also left Murad undefended which then caused the Serbian knight Milos Obilic to break into Murad’s tent and assassinate Murad on the spot, although right after killing Murad Milos was immediately cut down and killed by the sultan’s guards.

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Serbians and Ottomans clash at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389

As the battle came to an end, the Serbian army’s leader Prince Lazar too was captured and executed which led to the collapse of the Serbian army here as they no longer had a leader, and as for the Ottomans although they suffered a lot of casualties in this battle, they at least won which then allowed them to continue their expansion into the Balkans. Following Murad I’s death, his son who was also present in this battle commanding a division of the Ottoman army immediately came to power after the battle as the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, and following the Ottoman victory over the Serbians, Bayezid I to seal an alliance with the defeated Serbians married the slain Prince Lazar’s daughter Olivera Despina whose brother then which was Stefan Lazarevic, son of Prince Lazar was made the Ottoman vassal Prince of Serbia ruling Serbia’s northern portion as the entire south of Serbia fell under direct Ottoman rule, therefore Serbia would now be forced to ally with the Ottomans and join their future campaigns. In the meantime back in the Byzantine Empire, the emperor John V in 1390 was suddenly overthrown by his 20-year-old grandson becoming Emperor John VII Palaiologos, who rebelled and overthrew his grandfather to continue what his father started and failed to do as apparently John VII’s father Andronikos IV Palaiologos had rebelled against and had overthrown his father thus becoming emperor for 3 years (1376-1379), however John V being assisted by Murad I took back the throne in 1379 forcing his son Andronikos to surrender, although Andronikos in 1385 decided to rebel again but suddenly died before he could launch another rebellion, which therefore left the job of rebelling against John V to his son.

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John VII Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor in 1390, grandson of Emperor John V

After travelling to Genoa in Italy himself to get some support from the Genoese government, John VII who also got support from the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid I was able to oust his grandfather out of Constantinople and seize the throne, however the deposed John V managed to escape to the Aegean island of Lemnos where his other and more loyal son Manuel Palaiologos was and just 5 months later, John V was able to take the throne back from his grandson with the help of Manuel and the Knights of Rhodes while the young John VII was forced to flee back to his base which was the port town of Selymbria west of Constantinople, although John VII would still not give up his imperial title.

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Bayezid I the “Thunderbolt”, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire since 1389

When back in power, the old John V decided to continue being a vassal of the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, thus part of the agreement was for John to send his grown-up son Manuel as a hostage to the court of Bayezid in both Bursa in Asia Minor and Edirne in Thrace where Manuel was to join in the sultan’s military campaigns. Feeling that his rule was once again secured, John V ordered the repair of the damaged Golden Gate of Constantinople’s Walls, however Sultan Bayezid I saw John V repairing the gate as a threat especially since John repaired it without Bayezid’s permission, and being an Ottoman vassal the Byzantine emperor could not do even the slightest thing such as repairing the gate without the sultan’s permission, thus Bayezid sent John an ultimatum to tear down the Golden Gate he had just repaired or else his son Manuel who was in Bayezid’s court was to be blinded. John V not wanting to lose another son who would succeed him, as his eldest son Andronikos already died back in 1385 complied with the sultan’s orders and so he ordered the gate he just repaired torn down, however John could no longer live from the humiliation of this as true enough he lived a life of constant humiliation and stress, and so in one February night of 1391 John V decided to end his tragic life, and so the 58-year-old John V killed himself in the peaceful way of possibly poisoning his wine, and in the next day he was found dead on his bed. Now John V’s eldest surviving son Manuel who was in Bursa when hearing of his father’s death by suicide returned to Constantinople at the dead of night without even asking permission from his master Sultan Bayezid as Manuel needed to get to Constantinople and be crowned before his nephew John VII would as John VII true enough had still not yet given up his claim to the throne.

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Manuel II Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor since 1391, son of John V, art by Spatharokandidatos

Manuel luckily made it right in time back to Constantinople in 1391 to be crowned as Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, and as the new emperor Manuel II decided to continue in having Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal while Bayezid I too had forgiven Manuel for leaving Bursa at the dead of night without asking permission, however Bayezid still preferred to have the young John VII instead of Manuel II as Byzantine emperor. Manuel II despite being already 42 by 1392 still remained unmarried as he was both never arranged to marry anyone and had no time to do so, but as emperor and finally having the time to do so, Manuel here married the 20-year-old Serbian princess Helena Dragas, daughter of the Ottoman vassal Serbian prince Konstantin Dejanovic, and despite the age gap between Manuel and Helena their marriage would turn out to be a happy one. Meanwhile, as Bayezid I had Byzantium as a vassal, Byzantine troops were sent to assist the Ottomans in their campaigns into the Asia Minor in which Bayezid would conquer the last remaining Turkish feudal states or Beyliks there that were still not yet under the Ottomans, while at the same time Bayezid also continued his conquests in the Balkans, most particularly his wars against the now deteriorating 2nd Bulgarian Empire which had formed some 2 centuries earlier when the Bulgarian population rebelled against Byzantine rule due to heavy taxation imposed on them by the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195) and after crushing all Byzantine attempts to recapture Bulgaria, the Bulgaria became a full independent empire.

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Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185, ended in 1393

By the end of the 14th century however, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was already weak and divided between two rulers the brothers Tsar Ivan Shishman ruling from the city of Tarnovo and Tsar Ivan Sratsimir ruling from the city of Vidin in Western Bulgaria. In 1393, Bayezid I’s Ottoman forces then laid siege to Tarnovo which was once the united 2nd Bulgarian Empire’s capital, and with the defending Bulgarians unable to resist the attacking Ottomans, Tarnovo was captured by the Ottomans while its ruler Ivan Shishman fled and would be captured and executed by the Ottomans 2 years later, thus leaving Vidin as the last Bulgarian holding for one more year. The fall of Tarnovo to the Ottomans in 1393 then ended the existence of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire making Sultan Bayezid I be the second “Bulgar-Slayer” for slaying the Bulgarian Empire, although instead Bayezid was known as “the Thunderbolt”, while the original “Bulgar-Slayer” was the Byzantine emperor Basil II (r. 976-1025) who in 1018 conquered the original Bulgarian Empire that had been Byzantium’s neighbor being both is ally and enemy since the late 7th century, though this event in 1393 would then once and for all end Bulgaria’s time as a medieval empire putting it now not again under Byzantium but under full Ottoman rule.

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Map of the Ottoman expansion into the Balkans and Asia Minor under Murad I, 1362-1389
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Ottomans defeat the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389
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Sultan Murad I assassinated by Serbian knight Milos Obilic after the Battle of Kosovo, 1389
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Golden Gate of Constantinople’s Walls, repaired and destroyed by John V

Back to the Byzantines, Manuel II began to feel that his nephew John VII who was still in Selymbria might once again launch a coup to take over throne, thus Manuel attempted to solve the tension between them diplomatically, which however turned out to be another violation of the treaty with the Ottomans, as again Manuel was doing something without the sultan’s permission. In response to this act of violation by Manuel, Bayezid I first considered executing Manuel although he instead demanded that Manuel turn the Genoese colony of Galata in Constantinople into an Ottoman colony with a mosque. Manuel II now tired of being bullied by the Ottoman sultan then proceeded to do something very bold yet foolish which was suddenly refusing to pay annual tribute to Bayezid and also no longer responding to all of Bayezid’s letters leading to Bayezid becoming more enraged than ever, thus in 1394 Bayezid began laying siege to Constantinople by blockading it as after all Bayezid’s lifelong dream was to conquer Constantinople.

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Sultan Bayezid I’s 1394 Siege of Constantinople

To enable his conquest, Bayezid constructed a large fortress in the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait known as the Anadoluhisari in Turkish meaning “Fortress of Asia” at the narrowest part of the Bosporus to block of all ships coming from the Black Sea to assist Constantinople while supplies could also not come from the Aegean as the Dardanelles Strait too that connected the Aegean to the Marmara Sea where Constantinople was too was under Ottoman control. The people of Constantinople however soon enough began to get used to life under a blockade as they were apparently able to sustain themselves with the farmland inside the walls.

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King Sigismund of Hungary

In the meantime, there was one chance of salvation for Constantinople here as in 1394 as well, the King of Hungary Sigismund was organizing a Crusade consisting of armies from all across the kingdoms of Europe intending to expel the Ottomans from Europe once and for all as apparently Hungary too began feeling threatened by the Ottomans’ expansion due to the Ottomans crushing the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, crushing and annexing the Bulgarian Empire in 1393, and now laying siege to Constantinople. Although busy in blockading Constantinople, Bayezid I was also busy fighting a war with the rich and dark forested though politically unstable Principality of Wallachia or the “Land of the Vlachs” which now also felt threatened by the Ottomans as their southern neighbor being Bulgaria had just fallen, and so in 1395 the Prince of Wallachia Mircea I with his army clashed against the Ottoman army together with their Serbian vassals led by Bayezid I himself at the Battle of Rovine in Wallachia, and here for the first time Bayezid I was defeated due to the Wallachians using guerilla warfare, though Bayezid still survived but the Serbian prince and Manuel II’s father-in-law Konstantin Dejanovic who was present here assisting Bayezid as his vassal was slain in battle against the Wallachians.

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Prince Mircea I of Wallachia (r. 1386-1418)

Feeling the Ottoman threat was still at large despite winning, Prince Mircea then agreed to join the Crusade organized by King Sigismund of Hungary, and in 1396 despite the rest of Europe in conflict with each other most notably France and England fighting the Hundred-Years’-War with each other, they still sent troops to join Sigismund’s Crusade, while other armies from the Hospitaller and Teutonic Knights, Burgundy, Aragon, Poland, Bohemia, and Italy as well as ships from both the Republics of Venice and Genoa all took up arms joining the Crusade of Hungary and Wallachia against the Ottomans. The massive Crusader army of about 100,000 led by Sigismund then marched south to Bulgaria wherein Bayezid I who was besieging Constantinople quickly marched north when hearing about this, thus the army of Sigismund’s Crusade confronted the Ottoman army of only 30,000 which included Serbian allies too led by the Serbian vassal prince and brother-in-law Stefan Lazarevic at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396.

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Bayezid I defeats the Crusader army at the Battle of Nicopolis, 1396

At the end of the day, no matter how well organized this Crusader army was which consisted of knights in full plate armor and archers armed with powerful longbows, they still suffered a defeat to the Ottomans while King Sigismund in fact barely escaped back to Hungary with his life, although the Ottomans too suffered many casualties but this still did not stop the Ottomans from conquering the last Bulgarian holding which was the city of Vidin later on in 1396. With nothing anymore in the way of the Ottomans, Bayezid I now put all his attention in capturing Constantinople, however Manuel II who was defending it still did not want to surrender that in 1397 he even sent word to the King of France to send a reinforcement army of knights to defend Constantinople, and true enough an army of 1,200 French knights led by the French general Marshal Jean Boucicaut came to the aid of Constantinople.

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French knights, 1390s

With the help of these French knights, the Byzantines still managed to defend Constantinople for more than year but by 1399 the Marshal Jean had to return home to France while he also convinced Manuel to travel himself to the courts of the kings of Western Europe if he desperately wanted military aid, and so in December of 1399 Manuel II recalled his nephew John VII from Selymbria assigning him to defend Constantinople with some 300 French knights while Manuel departed for Western Europe. Before travelling to Western Europe, Manuel first left behind his wife Helena and their 3 sons in the Morea under the care of Manuel’s brother the Despot of the Morea Theodore I Palaiologos as Manuel feared that if his wife and sons were left behind in Constantinople, John VII might harm them as after all John VII had not yet given up his claim to the throne. In early 1400 Manuel II and Jean arrived in Venice from where they headed north to Milan, and from there north to France wherein Jean returned home while Manuel proceeded to the suburbs Paris, the Kingdom of France’s capital meeting the King of France Charles VI of the Valois Dynasty and from there they proceeded to the king’s palace which was the Louvre.

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King Charles VI of France (r. 1380-1422)

In Paris, Charles VI treated Manuel as a special guest entertaining him with banquets and hunting trips and no matter how well received Manuel was, Charles VI was still quite blind to the Ottoman threat and rather than providing Manuel with real assistance, Charles only went as far as sending another army of 1,200 French knights to assist Constantinople. Seeing that he did not gain much from the King of France, Manuel then decided to travel north across the channel to England being the first Roman emperor since Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) who was also the first Byzantine emperor more than a thousand years earlier to set foot in the island of Britain. By this point in 1400, the King of England Henry IV of the Lancaster Dynasty had only been in power for about a year recently just overthrowing his cousin the last Plantagenet King of England Richard II (r. 1377-1399), and by this point as well it had been about 1,000 years since the Roman forces of the Western Roman Empire left and abandoned Britain.

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Manuel II of Byzantium (left) meets King Henry IV of England (right) in London, 1400

In December of 1400, Manuel arrived in England personally meeting its king Henry IV, and for the next 2 months Manuel would stay at Eltham Palace which was one of the royal palaces in London wherein he would spend Christmas and New Years’ in, and true enough Manuel was treated so well by the king that a joust was even held in his honor. The English chroniclers at the king’s court meanwhile were in awe but also perplexed of Manuel and his Byzantine entourage’s exotic look with their long beards and golden robes seeing them as a kind of weird cult, while Manuel on the other hand describes that Henry IV was a good ruler who was generous enough to provide him with a generous donation of 2,000 pounds intended for the defense of Constantinople. Not receiving anything more from Henry IV, Manuel left England in February of 1401 returning to France wherein he would reside for an entire year in the Louvre still feeling it would be unsafe to return to Constantinople which was still under siege. During his stay in the Louvre, Manuel sent letters with important holy relics to a number of rulers across Europe including the pope Boniface IX, Queen Margaret I of Denmark, King Martin of Aragon, and King Charles III of Navarre in order to ask them for further assistance, but in return none of them came to his aid as they all had problems of their own. Fortunately Manuel II received some good news for once from Constantinople later in 1402 and this good news was that the Ottoman threat suddenly vanished as out of the blue, the powerful yet deadly and brutal ruler of the new Turco-Mongol empire of Central Asia Timur also known as “Tamerlane” out of the blue invaded Ottoman Asia Minor forcing Sultan Bayezid I to abandon his siege of Constantinople to confront Timur’s forces and at the Battle of Ankara in Asia Minor in July of 1402, Bayezid I who seemed unbeatable in battle suffered a heavy defeat to the powerful Turco-Mongol army of Timur.       

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Fortress of Asia (AnadoluHisari), built by Bayezid I in 1394 on the Asian side of the Bosporus for the Siege of Constantinople
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Multinational Crusader army of knights at the Battle of Nicopolis, 1396
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Battle of Rovine in 1395, Wallachian army of Prince Mircea I defeat the Ottomans
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The Louvre, late medieval royal residence of the Kings of France in Paris

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 (Kings and Generals).       

At the Battle of Ankara in July of 1402, Bayezid I “the Thunderbolt” commanded an army of 60,000 of Ottomans as well as Serbian allies again led by his brother-in-law Prince Stefan Lazarevic of Serbia while Timur on the other hand who attacked Asia Minor as a result of Bayezid expanding Ottoman territory too far into the east exposing himself to Timur’s new empire commanded an army of 90,000 mostly made up of fully armored Turkic horse archers and Indian war elephants.

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Turco-Mongol army of Timur’s empire

Timur had after all since he began his reign in the 1370s achieved a large number of victories wherein he managed to conquer Persia and even parts of Northern India and Russia through terror, thus by having so much experience especially in conquering entire kingdoms mercilessly, he managed to defeat Bayezid I in battle thus throwing the Ottoman Empire into chaos and anarchy as their sultan Bayezid I himself after his defeat was captured and brought over thousands of kilometers away to Timur’s capital of Samarkand in Central Asia inside a cage, and in the following year (1403) Bayezid I would die there in captivity. Following Timur’s victory, he and his forces freely raided and pillaged Asia Minor mercilessly killing off its inhabitants and when taking as much loot as they wanted, Timur decided to return east as after all he only wanted to pillage Asia Minor as his main objective to conquer was Ming Dynasty China.

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Timur “Tamerlane”, founder and emperor of the Mongol Timurid Empire (r. 1370-1405)

Now Timur’s main objective really was to restore the Mongol Empire of his ancestor Genghis Khan (r. 1206-1227) to its dominance as a power that controlled almost all of Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe some 200 years earlier which is why he intended to conquer Northern India, Persia, Asia Minor, Russia, parts of the Middle East, and China as they were all once under the Mongol Empire until it fragmented wherein some of the Mongol successor states like the Ilkhanate of Persia disintegrated while the Chagatai Khanate of Central Asia which Timur came to rule rose up again, and Timur at the same time too wanted to establish his empire as an Islamic cultural superpower as his branch of the Mongols had in fact adopted the religion of Islam.

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Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos of Byzantium

On the other hand, as Manuel returned home to Constantinople in 1403, he sent tribute money to Timur convincing Timur to not attack the severely reduced Byzantium, but true enough Timur had no such intention as here he was already making preparations to invade China and return it to Mongol rule, however Timur would never achieve this dream as in 1405 before launching his invasion of China, he died at 70 and thus his Timurid Empire would no longer be much of a threat. Now, thanks to Timur’s unlikely intervention in crushing the Ottomans at Ankara, the Byzantines would now be given a great relief as this terrible defeat caused the Ottoman Empire to collapse after just about 100 years of existing, and here civil war would erupt between the sons of Bayezid wherein one of Bayezid’s sons Prince Suleiman took control of Ottoman territory in Europe allying himself with Byzantium, while Bayezid’s other son Prince Mehmed was recognized by Timur as the ruler of Asia Minor that would be vassals of the Timurid Empire, and also as a result of Bayezid’s capture the Serbian prince Stefan Lazarevic declared Serbia once again independent and no longer an Ottoman vassal as his loyalty was only to Bayezid and not his sons.

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Prince Suleiman, claimant Ottoman sultan, son of Bayezid I

By sealing an alliance with Prince Suleiman, the Byzantines fortunately were able to gain back a number of lands they had lost to the Ottomans and this included the city of Thessaloniki itself, a long strip along the Black Sea coast all the way up north to Mesembria in Bulgaria, the Khalkidhiki Peninsula in Northern Greece, and in fact even getting back some land in Asia Minor along the Marmara coast across Constantinople from Scutari to Nicomedia as part of the treaty, while the Byzantines too would stop paying tribute to the Ottomans as well. Now Manuel’s nephew John VII who stayed behind to defend Constantinople apparently did a good job assisted by the few French knights left behind, and the moment Manuel returned to Constantinople, John VII who was able to regain these said lands through the treaty with Prince Suleiman dutifully surrendered control of Constantinople back to his uncle as after all John VII really just wanted some control over Constantinople for a time, and for his loyalty and renouncing his claim to the throne, Manuel rewarded John VII by making him governor of Thessaloniki in which they just gained back from the Ottomans, thus John VII would rule Thessaloniki as its governor until his death not too long after in 1408 never giving his uncle the emperor a hard time anymore, while Manuel’s wife and sons too would return to Constantinople from the Morea at this time.

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Palaiologos family portrait- Emperor Manuel II (in purple) and his wife Empress Helena Dragas and their first 3 sons John (in purple), Theodore, and Andronikos

With the Ottomans now facing a civil war between its princes known as the “Ottoman Interregnum”, Manuel II would now be given a chance to rule his empire in peace and in this period of peace, he turned to continuing Byzantium’s Palaiologan Renaissance by promoting art, culture, and literature in his empire as apart from being a highly skilled diplomat emperor, Manuel was also known to be serious, highly cultured, and devoted scholar and theologian making him have a vision of a highly cultured and educated Byzantium which for the past decades could not have been a reality due to all the wars and disasters the Byzantines had to face, however this would be the last time Byzantium would enjoy a period of peace. In the meantime, Suleiman being the most ambitious of the warring Ottoman princes put his claim on Asia Minor thus marching there but Mehmed who was the crowned-prince had counter-attacked by sending his allied brother Prince Musa to the Balkans to attack Suleiman’s territory which then forced Suleiman to return back to defend his territory. In 1410, Suleiman then defeated Musa’s forces in battle although Musa still escaped alive, and though Suleiman was victorious his troops were however unhappy with him thus they killed him and all defected to Musa’s side.

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Prince Musa, claimant Ottoman sultan, son of Bayezid I

Following Suleiman’s death, Musa then proclaimed himself the ruler of Europe taking over from Suleiman, thus declaring rebellion against his brother Mehmed in Asia Minor and out of revenge on the Byzantines for being his brother Suleiman’s ally, Musa decided to lay siege to Constantinople in 1411. With Constantinople again put under siege although a much smaller one this time, Manuel II then turned to diplomacy to save Constantinople, thus he allied himself with Mehmed who became Musa’s enemy and so Manuel asked Mehmed to cross over to Europe to defeat his brother Musa. When Mehmed arrived outside Constantinople, he managed to help lift Musa’s siege forcing Musa to flee deep into the Balkans.

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Stefan Lazarevic, Ottoman vassal Prince of Serbia (r. 1389-1402), Independent Prince of Serbia (r. 1402-1427), brother-in-law of Bayezid I

It would only be in 1413 when Mehmed and Musa would once again clash in battle, and here in 1413 Mehmed with the help of a small army sent by Manuel II and from Stefan Lazarevic of Serbia defeated Musa’s forces in a battle in Bulgaria killing Musa in the process, thus ending this 11-year period of anarchy in the Ottoman Empire and once again restoring order. With the Ottoman interregnum over, Mehmed I became the full Ottoman sultan and due to Manuel II helping him take over the Ottoman Empire, both rulers would be in good terms with each other while Byzantium would once again no longer have to pay tribute, and now with the Byzantines and Ottomans having established friendly terms with each other, Mehmed I would then focus his attention in taking back lands in Asia Minor and also in conquering the independent feudal states of Albania as this part of the Balkans had not yet fallen under the Ottomans. As part of Mehmed I’s conquests of Albania, one Albanian feudal lord which was John Kastrioti in 1415 surrendered himself as a vassal to Mehmed and in the process, he also sent his 10-year-old son George Kastrioti to Mehmed’s court in Edirne as a Janissary, wherein George would later be known to the Ottomans as “Skanderbeg”.            

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Map of Timur’s Mongol Empire (green), territory invaded by Timur (light green)
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Ottoman sultan Bayezid I captured by Timur at the Battle of Ankara, 1402
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Bayezid I as a prisoner at Timur’s capital Samarkand
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Map of the Byzantine Empire (pink) in 1403 with new gains including Thessaloniki, Thessaly, Thrace, and Asia Minor across Constantinople
Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Ankara in 1402 (Kings and Generals).

With Manuel II and Mehmed I in a more or less peaceful co-existence with each other, Manuel then turned to assigning his 3 eldest sons to control different parts of the empire thus he made his eldest son John his co-emperor in 1414 as Manuel was starting to age, then in 1415 he appointed his second son Theodore as the Despot of the Morea based in its capital Mystras wherein Theodore now as Despot Theodore II would succeed his uncle Manuel’s younger brother Theodore I who had died back in 1407, while at the same time Manuel had already appointed his 3rd son Andronikos who despite being weak-minded and sickly as the Governor of Thessaloniki as the previous governor Manuel’s nephew John VII had died back in 1408, while on the other hand Manuel’s 3 younger sons were both still too young to be given positions while there was also no longer much land in the empire to assign them to anymore.

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Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos

In 1415 when Manuel travelled to the Morea to appoint his son Theodore II as its despot, Manuel did a tour of the Peloponnese Peninsula and here he ordered the construction of wall across the entire Isthmus of Corinth, the small piece of land that connected the Peloponnese to mainland Greece, and this wall that was built here was known as the Hexamilion or “6-mile wall” in which its purpose was to further defend the Morea from attackers from the north. When visiting the Morea and particularly Mystras, Manuel came to believe that if ever Constantinople was to fall, Byzantine civilization would continue to thrive in Mystras as after all Constantinople had grown more and more insignificant while its location too made it very vulnerable for future Ottoman attacks if Mehmed I’s successors were to again resume war with Byzantium, while Mystras on the other hand was in a safe location being found on the high the slopes of the mountains above the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Sparta, thus making its location a hard one to attack which would therefore allow learning and culture to thrive there.

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Sultan Mehmed I of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1413-1421), son of Bayezid I

This period of peace between the Byzantines and Ottomans would however unfortunately not last as in 1421, Sultan Mehmed I after making a quick stop in Constantinople to attend a function hosted by Manuel II as Mehmed was returning back to Bursa in Asia Minor from a military campaign in the Balkans, Mehmed suddenly died only in his 30s when returning to Bursa, thus only ruling for 8 years as a legitimate sultan. Mehmed I was then succeeded by his son Murad II as sultan who was however only 17, while in 1421 as well Manuel already reaching his 70s decided he was too old to run the empire alone, thus he went into retirement leaving his eldest son John to be practically in control of the empire while Manuel only ruled in title, and now the new rulers were not entirely interested in maintaining diplomatic ties with each other the way Manuel and Mehmed did. Byzantium now practically under John had turned out to make quite a risky and foolish move when they attempted to get Murad II away by starting a rebellion within the Ottoman Empire by backing a man named Mustafa who claimed to be the long-lost son of Bayezid I that returned from captivity in Samarkand in rebelling against Murad II. The rebellion of Mustafa was however quickly defeated by Murad II in 1422 and again out of revenge on the Byzantines for supporting the rebel Mustafa, Murad II shortly after once again put Constantinople under the siege the way his uncle Musa did back in 1411 with the same reason as well which was for plain revenge, thus Murad II here did not really have a large enough army to fully capture Constantinople and end Byzantine rule.

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Manuel II as an old man

The co-emperor John in charge of Constantinople was the one here this time to defend it against the Ottomans, however as Constantinople was under siege Manuel II came out of retirement to again use diplomacy to save Constantinople and this time, Manuel found a way to pay off Murad II’s younger brother also named Mustafa to rebel which then forced Murad II to abandon his siege on Constantinople and rush back to Asia Minor to deal with his brother Mustafa in which Murad succeeded in defeating. Constantinople was then once again saved from another Ottoman siege, however Manuel later in 1402 suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed, thus Manuel retired to become a monk using the name Matthew, while his son John from now on really ruled the empire. In the meantime as Murad II put Constantinople under siege, he sent an army to attack the Morea and destroy the Hexamilion Wall Manuel had just built to simply punish the Byzantines while Murad also blockaded Thessaloniki, and though his siege of Constantinople was lifted, Thessaloniki could no longer resist and so in 1423 its governor Manuel’s son Andronikos sold off the whole city of Thessaloniki itself to the Republic of Venice hoping they would defend it better against the Ottomans, thus Andronikos would return to Constantinople to retire as a monk while the Byzantines from here on would forever lose Thessaloniki.

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Sigismund, King Hungary (r. 1387-1437), King of Germany (r. 1411-1437), Holy Roman emperor (r. 1433-1437)

In 1423 as well, Manuel now having recovered but also traumatized from Murad’s attack the previous year decided to do one last trip to Europe to ask for assistance, this time to Buda, the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary wherein his father John V travelled to many decades earlier in 1366, and at this point King Sigismund who led the failed Crusade in 1396 that was defeated by Bayezid I at the Battle of Nicopolis was still Hungary’s king in addition to being King of Germany since 1411. Just like his father many decades earlier, Manuel II here was turned down by the King of Hungary as Sigismund true enough suffered a heavy defeat to the Ottomans at Nicopolis, thus Sigismund came to believe nothing could stop the Ottoman expansion anymore, however Sigismund at this point also had his own problems to deal with in his own lands and this was particularly a civil war in Bohemia known as the Hussite Wars against a militant heretical branch of Christianity known as the Hussites, thus Sigismund needed most his own forces to defend against the Hussites who were many in number. Manuel II then returned back to Constantinople empty handed once more and the worst part was that in 1424, he had to do the humiliating thing once again of signing a treaty together with his son John that would make Byzantium an Ottoman vassal once again to ensure its survival as Murad II unlike his father really intended end Byzantium’s existence, thus the Ottomans were back again as Byzantium’s overlord that would continue to bully it. Manuel II Palaiologos then died at the age of 75 in 1425 as a broken man although as a monk while his son and co-emperor John was away in Rome at this time to seek an alliance with the pope, though Manuel on the other hand left behind a number of philosophical works written in his time as emperor.

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Map of Constantinople in the early 15th century
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Remains of Byzantine Mystras in Greece today
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Byzantine Thessaloniki, sold to Venice in 1423
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1422 Ottoman Siege of Constantinople, art by FaisalHashemi

Watch this to learn more about Manuel II’s reign (Eastern Roman History).


The Reign of John VIII Palaiologos, the last Victories of the Byzantines, and the Resurgence of the Ottomans (1425-1448)        

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The Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos who died in 1425 had a total of 6 children with his wife Empress Helena Dragas the Serbian princess, and all these 6 children were boys with the eldest of them being John who was born in 1392 and named after his grandfather Emperor John V succeeded his father as the senior emperor John VIII Palaiologos who was however still in Rome when hearing of his father’s death.

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Emperor John VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium, son of Manuel II

Here, John who is in Rome after hearing about the death of his father immediately rushed back to Constantinople to be crowned as the new senior emperor at the age of 33, and in personality John was wise, practical, and diplomatic much like his late father. Now the second son of Manuel and Helena which was Theodore II at this point in 1425 still ruled as the Despot of the Morea and although he was very much unambitious and lazy, he still did not want to step down from power while the 3rd son on the other hand which was Andronikos who was previously in charge of Thessaloniki but surrendered it to the Venetians in 1423 had already chosen to retire as a monk and stay away from politics due to his bad health. Meanwhile, the 4th son of Manuel and Helena which was Constantine Palaiologos who was born in 1405 in Constantinople and named after his maternal grandfather- Helena’s father the Serbian prince Konstantin Dejanovic who was killed in the battle against Wallachia in 1395- was a large and muscular man although not very tall but still courageous and adventurous, highly skilled in military matters, as well as in martial arts, horsemanship, and hunting much like the legendary great brave warrior Byzantine emperors centuries ago, although Constantine too was very superstitious but also loyal to his family and empire making him the favorite brother of John VIII. Now the 5th son of Manuel and Helena which was Demetrios Palaiologos who was born in 1407 happened to be the most neglected of the brothers which made him the most selfish and rebellious of the 6 when grown up, however Demetrios only arrived back in the Byzantine Empire in 1427, 2 years after his father’s death as for the past 4 years Demetrios had been living in the court of the King of Hungary Sigismund in Buda feeling that the Hungarian king could protect him from his brothers who constantly gave him a problem, and even though returning to Byzantium in 1427 Demetrios was still granted nothing by his eldest brother the emperor. Lastly the youngest of the 6 sons which was Thomas Palaiologos who was born in 1409 was a large and intimidating man, although being the youngest of the brothers he basically just did whatever he was told.

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Durad Brankovic, Ottoman vassal Prince of Serbia since 1427, successor of Stefan Lazarevic

It also happened that in 1427 the former Ottoman vassal Prince of Serbia Stefan Lazarevic had died and without naming an heir, both the Ottomans and the Kingdom of Hungary came close to the point of having a war with each other over the vacant Serbia, until one of the Ottoman vassal Serbian nobles Durad Brankovic who previously took part fighting with the Ottomans against Timur at Ankara in 1402 also here in 1427 stepped up and claimed the vacant throne of Serbia agreeing to be a vassal prince or “despot” of both the Ottomans and Hungary to prevent either side from invading Serbia, thus Serbia would become the buffer zone between the Ottomans and Hungary. In 1427 as well, the Morea in southern Greece which was under Despot Theodore II Palaiologos became threatened by Carlo I Tocco, the independent Italian ruler of the Ionian Sea islands of Cephalonia and Zakynthos who constantly raided the coasts of Byzantine Morea with the pirate fleet he commanded, and Theodore who was quite an ineffective ruler could barely stop the pirate attacks that the action had to be done by the emperor John VIII himself.

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Seal of Carlo I Tocco, independent Italian warlord in the Ionian Sea

Later in 1427, John VIII together with his brother Constantine and Constantine’s childhood friend and now secretary George Sphrantzes travelled by ship from Constantinople to the Morea to settle down the conflict with Carlo Tocco through diplomacy, however the negotiations failed leading to a minor naval battle along the Western coast of the Morea between the last remains of the Byzantine fleet commanded by Constantine and the pirate fleet of Carlo. The Byzantines however still won the battle defeating Carlo’s fleet, thus in 1428 Carlo agreed to a peace treaty with the Byzantines wherein he returned the islands and parts of the Morea he conquered from Byzantium along the Western coast back to the Byzantines, and to further seal the deal Carlo also married off his niece Theodora to Constantine. For Constantine’s victory against the Italian pirates in the Ionian and reclaiming most of the Peloponnese, John VIII rewarded him by appointing him as Despot of the Morea, however Constantine’s brother Theodore II was still in power as Despot of the Morea, and despite being unambitious Theodore still refused to give up his rule over the Morea, thus both Theodore and Constantine had to share their rule over the Morea. Additionally, John VIII in 1428 as well appointed his youngest brother Thomas who was only 19 as an additional Despot of the Morea thus making the Morea have 3 rulers simultaneously, and while John VIII as the emperor basically in control of just Constantinople would for the next years not really do much, the action from here on would all take place in the Morea with the 3 brothers. Seeing that the entire Byzantine Morea (Peloponnese) was not sufficient enough in land for all 3 brothers to control, the 3 all decided that they should attack and conquer the still surviving but already weakened Latin Principality of Achaea, one of the many states the Crusaders in 1204 established when carving up the remains of Byzantine territory.

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Seal of the Latin Principality of Achaea in Greece, founded in 1204

Although the restored Byzantine emperor and founder of the current Palaiologos Dynasty Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) after restoring Byzantium in 1261 managed to take back the southeast part of the Peloponnese for Byzantium in 1263, thus establishing the city of Mystras which became the major Byzantine city there, the Latin Principality of Achaea still survived, although by the 15th century it was basically reduced to just the northern Peloponnese. Now by 1429, Constantine, Theodore II, and Thomas joined forces in attacking the Principality of Achaea’s strategic port city of Patras along the northern coast of the Morea, however due to Theodore’s laziness and Thomas’ inexperience due to his young age, the conquest of Patras failed leaving Theodore and Thomas to abandon the campaign, though the courageous Constantine still chose to continue it himself together with his secretary George Sphrantzes.

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Constantine Palaiologos in armor, Despot of the Morea and son of Manuel II

Constantine’s siege of Patras that would then go on for 3 months turned out to be a difficult and hopeless one that in one occasion Constantine’s horse was shot by an arrow and killed while Constantine was on it thus nearly killing Constantine if not for George saving his life. Eventually the last Latin knights and soldiers defending Patras surrendered to Constantine accepting him as their overlord, thus Patras after about 225 years of Latin occupation returned to Byzantine rule with George appointed by Constantine as Patras’ Byzantine governor, however the Prince of Achaea which was the Italian Centurione II Zaccaria was still alive and following the fall of Patras to the Byzantines, he retreated to the inland region of Arcadia in the Peloponnese which would here be the last holding of the Latin Principality of Achaea. In the meantime, the 3rd son Andronikos who retired as a monk in Constantinople since 1423 had died in 1429 at the young age of 29 due to sickness while Thessaloniki which was now under the Venetians could no longer resist against the Ottomans that were blockading it, thus in 1430 Thessaloniki once again fell under the rule of the Ottomans, and this time for good. Later in 1429, Constantine experience the tragedy of the death of his wife Theodora Tocco after more than just a year of marriage which resulted in no children.

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Turahan Bey, Ottoman general under Sultan Murad II, art by Pyrasterran

Now due to Constantine crushing the Principality of Achaea which however happened to be an Ottoman vassal as well, the Ottoman sultan Murad II furious about Constantine who was also his vassal attacking another Ottoman vassal which was Achaea sent an Ottoman army led by his general Turahan Bey in 1431 to attack Byzantine Morea by land not to invade it but to pillage it just to teach Constantine and his brothers a lesson that as Ottoman vassals, they should not mess around with their other fellow vassals. The Ottoman devastation over the Morea however was only minimal and now with the Byzantines secured, the youngest brother Thomas made a deal with the defeated Prince of Achaea Centurione II wherein Thomas would marry Centurione’s daughter Caterina Zaccaria as a way to finally put an end to more than 200 years of the Latin Principality of Achaea, and in 1432 following the death of Centurione II as the last Prince of Achaea, the Principality of Achaea itself ceased to exist as Thomas who now married the late prince’s daughter inherited the entire Principality of Achaea. Rather than taking the title of “Prince of Achaea”, Thomas decided to abolish it and choose to simply be “Despot of the Morea”, and now in 1432 the entire Peloponnese Peninsula was again fully under Byzantine rule, except for a few port towns which were under Venice.            

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Map of the Morea (Peloponnese) in the Byzantine era
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Illustration of Constantinople in the 1430s
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Patras Castle in the Morea, attacked by Despot Constantine in 1429
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Byzantine army in the Morea, 15th century

With the entire Peloponnese under Byzantine rule once again, Constantine and his brothers Theodore II and Thomas would now come to the point of co-existing as rulers of the entire peninsula with their own capitals as Theodore would be based in the thriving mountain city of Mystras, Constantine in the fortress city of Kalavryta in the north of the Morea, and Thomas based in the Ancient Greek city of Elis in the west of the Morea.

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Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, art by Spatharokandidatos

Meanwhile, the Byzantine emperor John VIII in Constantinople in his lifetime had been married twice, although the first wife died back in 1417 before he was emperor, while the second wife had divorced him without warning in 1426, and now John was married for the 3rd time, here to the Byzantine princess Maria Komnene from the Byzantine successor state of the Empire of Trebizond at the far eastern corner of Asia Minor along the Black Sea founded in 1204 which in the 1430s was still existing, however both of John’s first two marriages failed to produce children while the 3rd so far too had not produced any. Having no children so far, John VIII whose favorite brother was Constantine considered naming him his heir in case John died without a son and thus John called Constantine to come over to Constantinople in 1435, which however only made Theodore suspicious thinking his brother John was going to make Constantine co-emperor making Theodore follow Constantine to Constantinople leaving Thomas as the only brother to watch over the Morea. However, John VIII only called Constantine to come over to Constantinople to just stay behind as its regent as here John had planned to travel to Italy to attend the Church Council there that had been held since 1431 wherein the Byzantines wanted to have a part in it to negotiate with the pope in finally submitting the Byzantine Church to Catholicism, something no emperor has ever achieved ever since the permanent schism between both Eastern and Western Churches in 1054 if you remember from chapter VIII of this series.

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Helena Dragas, wife of Manuel II and mother of their 6 sons

Although Theodore found out there was really no intention to make Constantine co-emperor, a quarrel still erupted between Theodore and Constantine in Constantinople almost leading to civil war if not for it being resolved a year later (1436) by their mother Helena Dragas who was still alive retired as a nun. All while the Palaiologos brothers Theodore and Constantine were at a petty conflict with each other, a revival of Classical Greek philosophy had been developing in the city of Mystras in the Morea and the one particularly responsible for this revival was the scholar George Gemistus Plethon, a Greek native of Constantinople who for several years studied Ancient Greek texts in the Morea, as well as one of his students which was Basil Bessarion, a Greek native of the Empire of Trebizond.

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George Plethon, 14th to 15th century Byzantine philosopher

Together they were at a campaign to revive the philosophy of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato on nature and politics known as “Neo-Platonism”, and in fact Plethon even called himself that thinking himself as the new Plato. At the same time, the Ottoman capital in Europe Edirne, once Byzantine Adrianople was also growing as a center of learning under Murad II wherein the Ottomans themselves would learn the Ancient Greek philosophy too which the Byzantines had left behind there blending it with their own Islamic philosophy, and in 1435 in Edirne Murad II had married the Serbian princess Mara Brankovic, the daughter of the Ottoman vassal Serbian prince Durad Brankovic who sent his young daughter to marry the sultan to prevent the Ottomans from literally invading Serbia as Durad like many others knew the sultan was up to trouble. John VIII too despite being an Ottoman vassal knew that Murad II was up to trouble as due to his unpredictability Murad could just break their treaty and attack Constantinople anyway, which is then why John agreed to take part in the Church Council held in Italy to submit the Byzantine Church to the pope as he believed it was the only way to get protection from the pope and the more powerful Western kingdoms against the once more ever-expanding Ottomans.

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John VIII in Florentine Renaissance painting by Gozzoli

In 1437, John VIII departed Constantinople for Italy to attend the still ongoing council in Ferrara made to discuss various religious issues of the day, thus John VIII left with an entourage of 700 as a way to show full commitment in submitting to the pope, and the entourage included the Patriarch of Constantinople Joseph II who turned out to be a son of the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shishman, a large number of bishops and priests, and the same scholars from Mystras Plethon and Bessarion who were interested to travel to Italy to introduce their new philosophical ideas there. Meanwhile, the 5th Palaiologos brother Demetrios comes back to the picture here in 1437 being forced by his eldest brother the emperor to join him in their trip to Italy as John surely knew that if Demetrios were left behind in Constantinople he would immediately seize the throne behind John’s back as apparently Demetrios had his own rebellious tendency to seize the throne in the name of the Orthodox faith due to Demetrios’ strong anti-Western worldview.

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Meme of Loukas Notaras, preferring the Sultan’s turban over the Latin miter

Constantine was then left behind to watch over Constantinople as its regent while John VIII was away, and during his time as Regent of Constantinople, Constantine would be advised by his mother Helena Dragas, his secretary George, and the politician Loukas Notaras who just like Demetrios was also strongly anti-Western preferring that it would be better that Byzantium would fall to the Ottomans rather than for the emperor to submit to the pope which is why he said he preferred the sultan’s turban over the Latin miter, while Theodore on the other hand returned to the Morea to rule it together with Thomas.

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Dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, Florence

By 1439, the council moved from Ferrara to Florence where it was held at its famous cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in which just a few years back its impressive and massive high dome that could already rival that of the Hagia Sophia’s in Constantinople had been completed which then would have humbled the Byzantines visiting it unlike before when it was the other way around as those from other parts beyond including Italy were humbled when seeing Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia cathedral. Here at the cathedral of Florence, the historic moment of 1439 happened wherein the union between both Byzantine and Latin Churches was finally declared when the pope Eugene IV as well as the Patriarch of Constantinople Joseph II and Emperor John VIII signed the Church Union making the Byzantine Church now fully submitting to the pope’s authority. At this time, Florence had already been a growing center for arts and culture, and during his visit to Florence John VIII was in fact painted by famous Florentine Italian painters of this age such as Piero de la Francesca and Benozzo Gozzoli in which the latter painted John VIII as one of the figures in a massive wall fresco at the Magi Chapel in Florence which can still be seen today.

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Basil Bessarion, Byzantine scholar turned Catholic cardinal in Italy

Among John VIII’s entourage, Basil Bessarion who had previously been ordained as a priest in Byzantium chose to stay behind in Italy after the Council of Florence and due to the Byzantines submitting to the pope at the council, Bessarion was made a Catholic cardinal as well, while Plethon who however turned out to secretly renounce Christianity and return to worshiping the Ancient Greek gods returned to Mystras. Other than Bessarion, other Byzantine scholars who joined John VIII here in Italy also chose to stay behind as in Byzantium the noble families both no longer had enough money to sponsor scholars and were more interested in mystical ideas- such as the meditation practice of Hesychasm if you remember previously from chapter XI- than progressive philosophy at this time, while in Italy these Byzantine Greek scholars were in high demand as the Italians too had been starting to become interested in Classical Greek philosophy but could not understand it as it was in Greek therefore needing these Byzantine scholars to translate them.

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Cosimo de Medici, Florentine banker and patron of the artists and scholars

On the other hand, there were more wealthy patrons in Italy such as the rich and powerful Cosimo de Medici who was the one responsible for this revival of art and learning in Florence, and it was possibly Cosimo who sponsored these émigré Byzantine scholars in Italy leading to the rise of the Italian Renaissance that began and grew in Florence. John VIII meanwhile extended his stay in Italy to explore the land as after all aside from John’s grandfather Emperor John V who visited Italy back in 1369, there has not been a Byzantine emperor to really travel around Italy since the 7th century Constans II (r. 641-668), who if you remember from chapter IV of this series not only toured Italy but even chose to move the Byzantine capital to the city of Syracuse in Sicily only to get assassinated in his bath there in 668.

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Joseph II, Patriarch of Constantinople, present at the 1439 Council of Florence

Members of John’s entourage including the Patriarch Joseph II with a number of bishops and priests meanwhile did their own side trip to Venice wherein they came across the loot the Crusaders stole from Constantinople back in 1204 while the Venetian locals that toured told them that these were important treasures from Constantinople, however these bishops and priests who true enough could read the Greek inscriptions on these treasures realized that this loot the Venetians stole were not as valuable as the Venetians thought they were as these priests and bishops knew they came from smaller monasteries in Constantinople based on the inscriptions carved into them. John VIII then returned to Constantinople by ship in 1440 while his brother Demetrios returned earlier and back in Constantinople, John returned receiving a grand celebration thrown by Constantine and Demetrios celebrating the union of both Churches that had finally been achieved.          

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Complete painting of John VIII as one of the magi, made during his stay in Florence by Benozzo Gozzoli
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John VIII (far left in red robes and hat), painting by Piero de la Francesca
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Sketch of John VIII and his entourage in Florence by Pisanello

Following John VIII’s return to Constantinople in 1440, his brother Constantine would not yet return to his brothers Theodore and Thomas in the Morea but would stay behind as he was to look for a suitable candidate for a second wife as his first one died back in 1429, and eventually he came across the young Caterina Gattilusio, the daughter of the Italian Lord of Lesbos Dorino Gattilusio who was in fact a Byzantine vassal.

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Coat of arms of the Palaiologos Dynasty (above) and of the Genoese Gattilusio family (below), the Byzantine vassal rulers of Lesbos since 1355

Dorino, the Byzantine vassal Lord of Lesbos apparently had not only been paying tribute to the Byzantines who paid tribute to the Ottomans, but had also turned out to be a second cousin of Constantine as Dorino’s grandmother was Constantine’s great-aunt Maria who was the sister of Constantine’s grandfather Emperor John V, as back in 1355 if you recall from the previous chapter Dorino’s grandfather the Genoese pirate Francesco Gattilusio was rewarded the by John V island of Lesbos to rule it as his own independent vassal state as well as John V’s sister Maria in marriage in exchange for helping John V take back the throne from his father-in-law Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (r. 1347-1354) . Now Constantine’s future wife Caterina would apparently be related to him, although Constantine would not yet meet Caterina until he would go to Lesbos himself in 1441, though prior to this Constantine had already sent George to Lesbos to arrange the marriage. Following Constantine’s arrival in Lesbos in 1441 together with George and Loukas Notaras, Constantine after meeting Caterina and her father would marry Caterina in Lesbos, but shortly after marrying Caterina Constantine finally returned to the Morea leaving Caterina behind in Lesbos with her father.

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Seal of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea

When returning to the Morea, Constantine came to discover that his brothers Theodore and Thomas were able to rule it well while he was in Constantinople for the past 4 years, and although things seemed very much stable in the Morea, it was Constantinople that was not as apparently the people were discontent with their emperor John VIII uniting the Byzantine Church with the Catholic Church. Rather than holding their emperor in such high regard for travelling all the way to Italy and leaving his empire for 3 full years, most of the Byzantine people especially in Constantinople saw their emperor as a selfish traitor who betrayed them for his own personal interests, as the Byzantine people were certainly not willing to let go of their centuries old Orthodox Christian traditions despite their beliefs being very similar to that of the Catholics with only minor differences. The Byzantine people basically even 200 years after the sack of Constantinople by the Catholic Crusaders in 1204 were still traumatized by it which gave them a true reason to refuse submitting their faith to Catholicism. In response to John VIII reuniting with the Catholic Church, the Byzantine people rioted for days in Constantinople, thus the Church union wherein John VIII travelled all the way to Italy for just to sign it never pushed through due to popular objection, and the one mostly responsible for stirring the rioting that went as far as burning houses was no other than the trouble-making brother Demetrios.

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Demetrios Palaiologos, younger brother of John VIII and Constantine, portrait depicting him as one of the magi, made during his stay in Florence by Benozzo Gozzoli

As it turned out, Demetrios not only wanted to rebel against his brother John VIII for his own selfish objectives but to seize the throne in the name of Orthodoxy as Demetrios was a proud Orthodox Christian and traditionalist who resented all the radical changes the Byzantines were going through which John VIII as well as his brothers Theodore, Constantine, and Thomas championed such as Church unity, the introduction of new fashion styles from Western Europe, and new philosophies. Demetrios on the other hand wanted Byzantium to be how it was like in the past centuries, therefore he resented the new fashion styles borrowed from Western Europe which consisted of more comfortable, loose, and simpler robes together with vests and smaller hats for men and women’s dresses that were much more lose with a wider neckline which also showed more skin and shoulders.

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Renaissance fashion styles in Italy, 15th century

Instead, Demetrios still preferred the age old Byzantine fashion styles of tight-fitting and uncomfortable silk tunics and oddly shaped hats for men and tight-fitting silk dresses for women that basically covered up everything except their faces, but more so Demetrios strongly championed these old traditions and fashion styles as they were more associated with the Orthodox faith, while the Ottomans too had supported him as they were true enough threatened by John VIII’s plans to unite with the Catholic Church which for the Ottomans meant starting a Crusade against them. At this time, Demetrios following his return from Italy had been given control of the port of Mesembria along the Black Sea by John VIII, which was at this point Byzantium’s northernmost holding while Constantine on the other hand feeling that he had done his part as Despot of the Morea and now wanted to have a new experience considered switching positions with Demetrios wherein Constantine would rule Mesembria and Demetrios would be Despot of the Morea. Constantine then sent George to deliver Demetrios in Mesembria his proposal but also sending George afterwards to the Ottoman sultan Murad II in Edirne as again with Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal, the slightest thing such as an appointment of a family member in ruling a part of the empire needed the sultan’s approval.

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Murad II, Ottoman sultan since 1421

Demetrios in 1442 however no longer had any desires for new appointments, instead his main objective now was the imperial throne and by having the backing of Sultan Murad II, Demetrios declared war on John VIII thus preparing to march to Constantinople to seize the throne in the name of Orthodoxy and age-old traditions. Seeing Demetrios’ threat being large, John VIII had to recall Constantine from the Morea once again to defend Constantinople as John himself did not have as much military ability as Constantine. On his way to Constantinople, Constantine returned to Lesbos to fetch his wife Caterina but on the way to Constantinople when stopping at the island of Lemnos, Caterina suddenly died after suffering a fever and thus Constantine for the second time lost a wife and again this marriage did not produce any children, though Constantine still arrived outside Constantinople’s walls right in time to repel Demetrios’ attack which however consisted of just a few soldiers.

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Fresco of Despot of the Morea Constantine (left) and his secretary George Sphrantzes (right)

The defeated Demetrios was then imprisoned while George was appointed by Constantine to be in charge of the port town of Selymbria west of Constantinople to keep a watch on Demetrios who was imprisoned there. In the following year 1443, Constantine’s older brother and co-Despot of the Morea Theodore II finally decided it was time to give up his position as despot after holding it for many years and in exchange for resigning his title as Despot of the Morea, Theodore was given control of Selymbria thus George stepped down as he was supposed to be only its temporary governor, thus making Constantine and Thomas the sole Despots of the Morea. In his time as despot co-ruling with Thomas, Constantine ruling from Mystras proved to be highly capable administrator and politician that he greatly won the loyalty of the people and landowners of the Morea by holding athletic games such as footraces for prizes, thus in a way reviving the Ancient Greek Olympic Games in Greece after a thousand years as in the 390 it was the Christian extremist Byzantine emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) that put an end to the centuries old Olympics believing it to be Unchristian. The biggest achievement of Constantine in his time as despot though was that he completely reconstructed and further fortified the Hexamilion Wall at the Isthmus of Corinth that his father Manuel II constructed in 1415 in which the Ottomans destroyed in 1423 and 1431, and its completion in 1444 greatly impressed the people of the Morea as well as the Venetian colonists there.

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Life in Byzantine Morea, 15th century
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The Hexamilion Wall, Isthmus of Corinth, Greece

         

In the meantime, the Kingdom of Hungary had been in a state of chaos after the death of their king Sigismund in 1437- who also became Holy Roman emperor in 1433- and only in 1440 did Hungary once again have a king, and however this new king was the young reigning King of Poland and Duke of Lithuania Wladyslaw III who then came to rule both Poland and Hungary.

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John Hunyadi, Governor-General of Hungary

At this time when Hungary had no legitimate king, the one holding the kingdom together happened to be the general John Hunyadi as its governor-general, while the state of chaos Hungary was in allowed the Ottomans to further threaten Serbia which was the Ottomans’ and Hungary’s buffer state. After becoming King of Hungary, Wladyslaw III then turned to making alliances with the kings all over Europe against the Ottomans and from 1441-1442, both Wladyslaw III and John Hunyadi while waiting for their allies to come began launching initial campaigns against the Ottomans in the Balkans which had turned out to be successful. It was then only in 1443 when Pope Eugene IV considered launching a Crusade against the Ottomans consisting of armies from all across Europe which was to be led by Wladyslaw III, while at the same time the Serbian vassal prince Durad Brankovic also decided to turn against the Ottomans and join forces with the Crusaders. This Crusade initially won a major victory over the Ottomans at the Battle of Nis in 1443 and part of this was due to George Kastrioti known to the Ottomans as “Skanderbeg”- the same Albanian boy originally an Orthodox Christian taken as hostage by the Ottomans in 1415 and converted into Islam to be a Janissary soldier- who at this point was already a grown man turned against the Ottomans switching sides to the Crusaders.

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George Kastrioti “Skanderbeg”, independent Lord of Albania since 1443

Following the Crusade’s victory at Nis in 1443, Skanderbeg returned to Albania converting to Catholicism and ruling it as its independent lord as his father its former feudal lord John Kastrioti died back in 1437, and as for the Crusaders their next battle against the Ottomans later in 1443 would result in defeat, but in early 1444 they would win another victory over the Ottomans. This defeat the Ottomans faced to the Crusaders in early 1444 then made their sultan Murad II unpopular among his subjects that he had to decide to abdicate the throne and go to retirement in Asia Minor despite Murad still being quite young, thus Murad here passed the Ottoman throne to his 12-year-old son Mehmed II who despite being still a child had already been developing a singular objective and obsession which was the ultimate conquest of Constantinople from the Byzantines, however the Crusade of Wladyslaw III and John Hunyadi distracted Mehmed II from pushing through with his main objective.

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King Wladyslaw III of Poland (r. 1434-1444), King of Hungary (r. 1440-1444)

Believing that the Ottomans were now in a weaker state especially since their new ruler was still a child, Wladyslaw III decided to resume his Crusade believing he had a strong chance of winning, thus the young Mehmed II being too young to lead the campaign himself called his father out of retirement to lead the counter-attack against the Crusaders. In the meantime, a smaller Ottoman force was sent by Murad II who came out of retirement to attack Albania in which Skanderbeg had just declared independent from the Ottomans, but apparently Skanderbeg after returning to Albania had united neighboring Albanian and Serbian lords into a military alliance known as the “League of Lezhe” and with a united army of Serbians and Albanians as well as some hit-and-run tactics, Skanderbeg defeated the Ottoman army sent against him in 1444. In October of 1444, the Crusader army led by Wladyslaw III of Hungary and John Hunyadi with armies from Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Wallachia, Serbia, and Burgundy clashed with the Ottoman army led by the retired Murad II at the Battle of Varna in Bulgaria.

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Ottoman Janissaries

The battle started going in the favor of the Crusaders until the tide suddenly turned to the side of the Ottomans when Wladyslaw III after charging at the Ottoman Janissaries and not expecting their fierceness in battle was killed by them while Hunyadi when trying to reach Wladyslaw’s body was encircled by the Ottomans and forced to retreat, thus the Ottomans decimated this large Crusader army and won a decisive victory just like at the Battle of Nicopolis back in 1396. Now as the Ottomans were busy fighting wars in the Balkans, Constantine as the Despot of the Morea used the situation to his advantage and thus with only a few forces marched north to invade the Duchy of Athens which at this point was under the rule of the Catalans ever since 1311, and thus after being defeated in battle the Catalan Duke of Athens was even forced to start paying tribute money to the Byzantines instead of the Ottomans in which they were initially paying tribute to as well.

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Andronikos III Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1328-1341), great-grandfather of Constantine, art by myself

Constantine’s victory over Athens thus made him confident enough to campaign all across Greece with the ambition to return it all again to Byzantine rule much like his great-grandfather Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) who Constantine looked up to wanting to continue his legacy in making all of Greece Byzantine again. However, Constantine would sadly not be able to fulfill his dreams as in 1446, the young Ottoman sultan Mehmed II feeling too young to rule stepped down asking his father Murad II to come back to power while the Janissaries also rebelled demanding that the more experienced Murad II take back the throne, and with Murad II back in power, the Ottomans were again a threat to the expansion of the Byzantines. Murad II then recaptured what Constantine took back in Thessaly and again forced the Duke of Athens that paid tribute to Byzantium to pay tribute to the Ottomans again while Constantine refused to surrender the lands he captured back to Murad, thus Murad tired of Constantine sent an army of 60,000 to attack Byzantine Morea led by Turahan Bey, the same Turkish general that attacked the Morea in 1431.

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Byzantine troops defending the Morea during the 1446 Ottoman raid

Knowing that the Ottomans would again attack from the Hexamilion Wall, both Constantine and Thomas with an army of 20,000 rushed there to defend it but stood no chance against the Ottomans when the Ottomans arrived as the Ottoman army true enough had cannons with enough power to break down this wall. With the use of their cannons, the Ottomans were able to reduce the wall that Constantine had just repaired and fortified to rubble, thus allowing the Ottomans to mercilessly slaughter the Byzantine defenders and take the survivors as slaves, while Constantine and Thomas themselves barely escaped with their lives. The Ottomans then raided south into the Morea even attempting to besiege Mystras, however due to its strategic position on a steep mountain slope, the Ottomans failed to capture it, but because Constantine and Thomas lost a lot of men, they were left with no choice but to again renew their deal with the Ottomans to pay them tribute and not do anything without the sultan’s permission which included promising to never again repair the Hexamilion Wall.

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Pope Eugene IV

On the other hand, the defeat of the Crusaders at the Battle of Varna in 1444 made Pope Eugene IV once more consider calling for another Crusade, but this time the rest of Europe was too busy having their own problems, thus leaving the Hungarian general John Hunyadi alone to face the Ottomans wherein Hunyadi waited for the arrival of Murad II’s forces at the same field of Kosovo where the battle of 1389 wherein the Ottomans crushed the Serbian army despite their sultan Murad I being assassinated took place in. Like in the first battle in 1389, the Ottomans at the 2nd Battle of Kosovo in 1448 again won a major victory, this time over Hunyadi, while Serbia’s prince Durad Brankovic again returned his loyalty to the Ottomans, while in Wallachia the young Ottoman backed prince Vlad III who like Skanderbeg had also been taken as a hostage and made to serve as an Ottoman Janissary seized the entire Wallachia with Ottoman support while his cousin the current prince Vladislav II joined Hunyadi in battle, but due to Hunyadi’s defeat Vladislav II returned home to Wallachia forcing his cousin Vlad to go into hiding in Hungary.

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Emperor John VIII Palaiologos portrait, died in 1448

Back in Byzantium, Theodore II Palaiologos the former Despot of the Morea who had retired to Selymbria since 1443 had died in June of 1448 while in October of 1448 just 2 weeks after the 2nd Battle of Kosovo, it was the emperor John VIII who died at the age of 55 leaving behind no children as even his 3rd wife who died back in 1439 failed to produce him children, thus a succession crisis broke out. Among the 3 surviving Palaiologos brothers, Constantine being the eldest surviving one was the most popular choice as he was brave and charismatic while the youngest one Thomas backed Constantine as well while the 5th brother Demetrios who had already been released from prison was also popular due to his championing of Orthodoxy and old traditions, and right after John VIII’s death both Demetrios who intended to be emperor and Thomas who did not rushed to Constantinople leaving Constantine behind in the Morea.

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King Wladyslaw III of Poland and Hungary at the Battle of Varna against the Ottomans, 1444
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2nd Battle of Kosovo in 1448, Ottomans defeat the Hungarian army of Hunyadi
Watch this to learn more about the 1402-1413 Ottoman Interregnum and the Battle of Varna in 1444 (Kings and Generals).

The Climax Part I- The Reign and Surrender of Constantine XI (1449-1453)         

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Though both brothers the thin and long-haired nationalist Demetrios and the large sized and bald pro-Western Thomas Palaiologos rushed to Constantinople after the death of their eldest brother Emperor John VIII in 1448, neither of them were crowned as the new emperor as for one their mother Empress Helena Dragas who was still alive preferred Constantine over all her 6 sons and Constantine was true enough the closest to his mother among his brothers that he even went by the name “Constantine Dragases” referring to his mother’s last name at certain times.

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Murad II, 6th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, 1st reign 1421-1444, 2nd reign 1446-1451

Refusing to accept either Demetrios or Thomas as the new emperor, Helena wrote to the Ottoman sultan Murad II who had the final say on who should be emperor that Constantine should take over and Murad being Byzantium’s overlord when getting word of this accepted the offer to make Constantine the new emperor. With the succession problem quickly and peacefully resolved, Helena sent word to her son Constantine in Mystras that he was selected as emperor by Murad II, and in January of 1449 Constantine at age 44 was crowned as Basileus (emperor) Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos in the main cathedral of Mystras though not by the Patriarch of Constantinople but simply by the local bishop crowning him only with a golden headgear instead of an actual crown, and the reason to why Constantine had to be crowned secretly with a small ceremony is that if he was crowned in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the people would riot as they knew Constantine supported the unpopular Church Union policy of John VIII. Constantine eventually arrived in Constantinople in March of 1449, although since the Byzantines no longer had decent ships at this point, Constantine had to in fact hire a Catalan ship from Athens to transport him by sea from the Morea to Constantinople, while it was also impossible to travel by land as the lands between Constantinople and the Morea were no longer under Byzantine rule.

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Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos, crowned in 1449

When arriving in Constantinople, Constantine XI having no time to renovate the deteriorating Byzantine capital immediately focused on consolidating his rule by sending word to Murad II agreeing to continue being his vassal while also sending both Demetrios and Thomas back to the Morea wherein Thomas was to return to his capital Glarentza and Demetrios was to replace Constantine as Despot of the Morea based in Mystras in order to prevent Demetrios from further causing trouble. While negotiating with the anti-unionist Byzantines which included Constantine’s Megas Doux or top advisor Loukas Notaras who previously served John VIII, Constantine made himself busy seeking marriage alliances considering that his two previous wives that died failed to produce children, thus he wrote to the King of Aragon and Naples Alfonso V asking to marry Alfonso’s relative Beatrice who was however very distant coming all the way from the Kingdom of Portugal which was at the opposite end of Europe from Constantinople. The second option for Constantine XI to make a marriage alliance with was with the Byzantine successor state of the Empire of Trebizond at the eastern edge of the Black Sea, which just like the main empire was also stranded and greatly reduced, although despite its distance from the main empire, Trebizond still retained the same Byzantine government systems and Greek culture while also still being ruled by the same Komnenos Dynasty ever since its formation in 1204.

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Flag of the Empire of Trebizond, Byzantine successor state formed after 1204

Constantine XI then sent his old friend and secretary George Sphrantzes to Trebizond to arrange a marriage with the daughter of the Emperor of Trebizond John IV Megas Komnenos as well as with the daughter of the King of Georgia. In the meantime, the Ottoman sultan Murad II continued his campaigns against the independent Lord of Albania Skanderbeg, and in 1449 as well Murad II leading the army himself for once won a victory over Skanderbeg when capturing the Albanian fortress of Berat from Skanderbeg’s forces, thus Murad II with his son Mehmed proceeded to attacking Skanderbeg’s own stronghold itself which was the Castle of Kruje in 1450. Despite having an army of 100,000 and cannons, the Ottomans still failed to capture Kruje Castle due to its strategic position on a steep hill, thus Murad II and his forces retreated to Edirne achieving nothing allowing Skanderbeg to continue posing as a threat to the Ottomans. In 1450 as well, Constantine’s mother Helena Dragas had died in Constantinople at the old age of 78 as the last Byzantine empress, and being a popular figure, her death was mourned by many while the philosopher Plethon in the Morea who was still alive wrote funeral orations praising her for her fortitude and intellect, though 2 years later (1452) it would be Plethon’s turn to die in his 90s.

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Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, son of Murad II

In early 1451, it was Sultan Murad II’s turn to die in Edirne at only 47, thus his son Mehmed II would succeed him for a second time as the 7th Ottoman sultan, although this time permanently. Now with Mehmed II as sultan, there was nothing anymore stopping the Ottomans from taking Constantinople as Mehmed unlike his father before him totally wanted to get rid of Byzantium as vassal once and for all for he really had the lifelong goal of conquering Constantinople and the decaying Byzantium altogether replacing it with the Ottoman Empire, a dream his great-grandfather Sultan Bayezid I had as well which he could have achieved if he were not defeated and captured by Timur at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. Wanting to continue Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal under Mehmed II, Constantine sent envoys to renew the treaty with Mehmed which Mehmed however refused as he surely wanted to capture Constantinople, thus right after becoming sultan he began laying his plans to conquer it. At the same time following Murad II’s death, his Serbian wife Mara Brankovic (known as “Mara Hatun” in Turkish) decided to return to her father Prince Durad Brankovic in Serbia, although it apparently turned out that Mehmed grew up close to his stepmother Mara. At the same time too, George Sphrantzes returned to Constantinople in 1451 from Trebizond and Georgia although empty handed, but he still suggested to Constantine that a highly possible candidate to marry was Mara Brankovic as with her husband dead she was single again. Constantine was then all for marrying Mara, although Mara when getting word of it refused as following Murad’s death, she chose to live the rest of her life alone in Serbia, thus Constantine considered returning to making a marriage alliance with Georgia marrying whoever this Georgian princess would be.   

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Skanderbeg and his Albanian rebel army
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Skanderbeg’s castle in Kruje, Albania
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Map of the Despotate of the Morea in 1450 divided between Constantine XI’s brothers Demetrios (pink) and Thomas (purple)

Ever since Mehmed II was a child, even before his first reign as sultan (1444-1446), he already had the singular dream to capture Constantinople and tear down its walls as he grew up with the saying “whoever possesses Constantinople controls the world”, while also hearing about how his father Murad II, great-uncle Musa, and great-grandfather Bayezid I failed to capture Constantinople, Mehmed grew more and more determined to achieve what they failed to do.

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Mehmed II, 7th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, art by Elveo

Additionally, Mehmed was a very cultured person who knew the Latin and Greek language together with his native Turkish language, Arabic, Persian, and Serbian, and aside from looking up to his Turkish ancestors such as the Ottoman Empire’s founder Osman (r. 1299-1324) who was his direct ancestor as well as the previous Seljuk sultans of Asia Minor from the 11th to 14th centuries, he also looked up to the great men of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Byzantium which gave him every reason to conquer Constantinople as after all Constantinople was once that impressive imperial city that preserved the Greek and Roman civilization in the Middle Ages. Even though Constantinople was no longer the imperial metropolis it once was by the 1450s, conquering it would mean so much as for the past 1,100 years if you remember from the past 11 chapters, several armies had tried to capture but all failed except for the 4th Crusade in 1204 which however only cheated by not breaking down its massive land walls but instead only attacking it from behind through the smaller and weaker sea walls. Mehmed’s attack on Constantinople however would be postponed at first as when coming into power, his authority was immediately challenged by the Ottoman’s vassal Turkish Beylik in Eastern Asia Minor which were the Karamanids, thus Mehmed had to quickly march east into Asia Minor to deal with them.

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Constantine XI Palaiologos, art by Flavian the Historian

At the end, Mehmed managed to put down the Karamanid Beylik’s rebellion but in Constantinople, Constantine XI taking advantage of situation of Mehmed being away used the same kind of diplomacy his father Manuel II used, and this would be in organizing a civil war among the Ottomans as for many years, Mehmed’s cousin the Ottoman prince Orhan had been kept in Constantinople as a political prisoner, and to distract Mehmed from capturing Constantinople, Constantine released Orhan in an attempt to start a civil war as Orhan too had a claim on the Ottoman throne. Orhan however was never released as when Mehmed II returned from Asia Minor his Grand Vizier or top advisor Candarli Halil Pasha who before Mehmed was Murad II’s right-hand-man got word of Constantine’s plot reported it to Mehmed, and for Mehmed this was the last straw as he finally had enough of tricks from the Byzantines, thus Mehmed decided it was time to launch his attack on Constantinople. In 1452, Mehmed II began raising a large army which he envisioned to be about 100,000 in men while also force working his engineers and blacksmiths in Edirne to forge tens of cannons, which were at this point the new trend in warfare, and knowing that no previous siege weapons such as catapults and trebuchets could not bring down Constantinople’s 5th century land walls, Mehmed strongly believed cannons would do the job as after all his father was able to raze the Hexamilion Wall to rubble back in 1446 with cannons. As Mehmed made preparations for besieging Constantinople, a Hungarian engineer named Orban suddenly showed up at Mehmed’s court in Edirne presenting to Mehmed his plans of making a superweapon that would tear down Constantinople’s walls, and this was a massive cannon known which was 17ft long and could fire a cannon ball weighing half a ton for over a mile, and after hearing of its might Mehmed accepted the offer and bought the cannon’s plans from Orban, thus Mehmed immediately ordered the construction of this superweapon.

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The cannon of Orban, Ottoman superweapon

Before selling the plans to Mehmed, Orban apparently tried to offer it to Constantine XI except that Constantine lacked the money to pay for it and its construction. In preparation for the ultimate siege, Mehmed II decided to do the daring move of constructing a fortress on Byzantine soil, and this new fortress Mehmed had constructed was located on the European side of the Bosporus Strait right across the Fortress of Asia (Anadoluhisari) which his great-grandfather Bayezid I built back in 1394. In only 4 months, a stronger and more massive fortress was built across the narrowest part of the Bosporus across the Fortress of Asia, and this new monstrous fortress was known as the Rumelihisari or “Fortress of Europe”, and the intention of this fortress was to again block off all ships coming to Byzantium’s aid from the Black Sea wherein the only way to Constantinople was through the Bosporus, which therefore gave the fortress the nickname of the “throat-cutter”.

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Fortress of Europe, aka. the “throat-cutter”, built by Mehmed II in 1452

Constantine XI meanwhile tried to negotiate with Mehmed to stop the construction of the fortress even giving gifts, but in return Mehmed refused all offers and had the men Constantine sent to negotiate with him beheaded and their heads sent back to Constantine as a warning that Constantinople was to fall. With the fortress completed, Mehmed too imposed a heavy toll on all ships that were not Ottoman passing through it, and when a Venetian ship passed through it ignoring all signals from the Ottomans to stop and be inspected, the Ottoman forces at the fortress fired cannons at the ship sinking it while decapitating all the captured crew members and impaling the captain displaying him in public as a warning to all sailors passing through the Bosporus if they passed without stopping.

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Pope Nicholas V, successor of Eugene IV since 1447

Knowing that the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans was inevitable, Constantine XI decided it was time to renew his late brother John VIII’s policy of Church Union, thus he sent word to the pope Nicholas V in Rome- who had been pope since Eugene IV’s death in 1447- that it was time to have another council and this time the Church union was to be final, and this council was to be held in Constantinople. Pope Nicholas V then agreed to launch a Crusade to defend Constantinople which was now clearly threatened by Mehmed II only if Constantine XI was to fully submit to the pope and his people to the Catholic faith. In 1452, the pope sent his representative the Byzantine Greek native Cardinal Isidore– who was present back in the Council of Florence in 1439 and was also formerly the Papal representative in Russia- to Constantinople together with an army of 200 archers from Naples just for safety measures, and it was Isidore who was to accept Constantine XI’s submission to the Catholic faith.

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Cardinal Isidore, former Papal representative in Russia and to Constantinople in 1452

Right when Cardinal Isidore arrived in Constantinople, the people again just like in 1440 following John VIII’s return from Italy rioted in the streets in strong protest against Church unity believing that Constantine XI just like his brother John VIII and their ancestor Emperor Michael VIII was another traitor that would betray their Orthodox faith for his own selfish interest, however the people were unaware that the Ottomans would capture Constantinople any time soon. In December of 1452, despite popular opposition even by Constantine’s top advisor Loukas Notaras, the union between the Byzantine Orthodox and Latin Catholic Churches was once again declared, this time with a Catholic Mass held in the Hagia Sophia by Cardinal Isidore wherein the names of both the pope Nicholas V and the Patriarch of Constantinople Gregory III were mentioned showing that both Churches had now united, while Constantine as well as the patriarch were present at this Mass as well. Now that the Byzantine emperor had submitted to the pope- although unofficially- Constantine XI was now free to ask for troops from any Catholic kingdom of Western Europe which now had more powerful armies, however it would take time for these reinforcements to arrive as their kings and nobles would have to first train them while travel time to Constantinople would take long as well, so Constantine fearing that Mehmed would lay siege to Constantinople at any time sent word to both his brothers the Despots of the Morea Thomas and Demetrios to send an army to reinforce Constantinople. Both Demetrios and Thomas however could not send troops as in late 1452, another Ottoman army invaded the Morea which was however defeated, but by losing too many men in the process, the brothers still failed to send troops to Constantine.

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Seal of the Republic of Venice

The ones to respond to Constantine’s call early enough though was the Republic of Venice, and even though they were never really always friendly with the Byzantines, their ruler or Doge the very old Francesco Foscari agreed to help them as they had a common enemy being the Ottomans, as true enough the Venetians wanted their revenge against Mehmed II for blowing up one of their ships, killing its crew, and impaling its captain. In January of 1453, Constantinople received a large reinforcement army of 700 Genoese Italian soldiers both knights in full plate armor and archers using either crossbows or longbows, and in command of them was the Genoese general and former pirate Giovanni Giustiniani Longo coming from the Genoese held island of Chios in the Aegean.

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Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, Genoese Italian mercenary general

Now Giovanni Giustiniani was someone from a powerful family in Genoa, although when turning to piracy raiding ships in the Mediterranean, the Genoese government declared him an outlaw, thus he was not allowed to return to Genoa. Though despite having a criminal record, Constantine XI still had to count on Giovanni who was a master of siege warfare and defending cities, and though he was brave and tough, Giovanni was lacking in loyalty as his real purpose to fight was really for pay, however Constantine still appointed Giovanni to be in command of the city’s defense even giving him the Byzantine title of Protostrator, even promising Giovanni the Aegean island of Lemnos if they succeeded in defeating the Ottoman siege. In total, Constantine XI had an army of about 7,000 which included Giovanni’s 700 men while the rest were local Greeks from Constantinople and its surroundings in which most were new and barely trained recruits, while another portion of his army consisted of Ottoman traitors led by Mehmed’s cousin Orhan who Constantine decided to keep within the city in order to further defend it.

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Ottoman Janissaries with guns

Mehmed II on the other hand by early 1453 already put together an army of over 80,000 men including the Ottomans’ most elite troops which were the Janissaries armed with guns, while another of the Ottoman troops consisted of Bashi-Bazouks or drunken shock troops, and the others being cavalry, while Mehmed had also brought about 70 cannons with him over to Constantinople, 320 warships, and the massive superweapon cannon of Orban which took tens of oxen to transport it from Edirne to Constantinople. The 80,000 army of Mehmed II then marched from Edirne to Constantinople with Mehmed and a few of his bodyguards arriving outside the walls on April 2, while the rest of them would arrive a few days later.

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Meme of Constantine XI before Mehmed II

When seeing the walls and its size, Mehmed despite having raised an army of over 80,000 and paying a large sum to construct a superweapon began doubting his ability to breach them, thus he decided to consider the second option of taking Constantinople by forcing the emperor Constantine XI to surrender it to him personally kissing the sultan’s ring and thus he would be allowed to go unharmed and so would his people. Mehmed then sent envoys to Constantine at the Blachernae Palace, and now Constantine was torn with a very tough choice as true enough he had only 7,000 men while Mehmed had over 80,000 making the chances of defending Constantinople very low, and if he surrendered and was allowed to escape alive back to the Morea, then he could one day start a major Crusade and take back Constantinople. On the other hand, Constantine also felt like fighting till the end as he did not want to suffer the same kind of humiliation his grandfather John V did many decades ago who in fact killed himself in 1391 out of the humiliation of surrendering to the Ottoman sultan’s terms. It is now in this part when the story will be altered, and here rather than Constantine refusing Mehmed’s terms to surrender like in real history, he would accept them and bring himself to Mehmed outside the walls and kiss his ring.

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Fortress of Europe (RumeliHisari) in the Ottoman era painting
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The Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I
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Ottoman army led by Sultan Mehmed II, 1453

Watch this to learn more about the details of the 1453 Siege of Constantinople (Eastern Roman History). 

        

In real history, we all know that Constantine XI refused Mehmed II’s terms of surrendering Constantinople and thus he fought to the end beginning with the fist bombardment of the cannons on April 6 ending on May 29 when the Ottomans finally broke through the 1,000-year-old land walls entering through a tiny crack caused by the cannon balls.

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Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine emperor in armor

This story however would no longer go into full detail about how the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 happened, rather we will already jump to the end of it wherein Constantine XI on the final day (Tuesday, May 29) seeing that there was no more after making one last inspiring speech to his troops reminding them of the greatness of their empire, and as Giovanni was injured by an Ottoman arrow dying shortly after, Constantine seeing there was no more hope charged straight into the thickest part of the battle and disappeared for good as his body was never to be found, and after the Ottoman flag was placed above Constantinople’s walls, the victorious Mehmed II rode into the city entering it for the first time becoming known as the Fatih or “conqueror” as well as claiming the title of Qayser-I Rum or “Caesar of the Romans” in Turkish as he true enough conquered the Eastern Roman Empire’s capital since 330 which was Constantinople, thus making him its new emperor.

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Emperor Constantine XI meets Emperor Justinian I, art by Spatharokandidatos

In this story’s case however, before Constantine XI would make the decision to surrender, two ghosts would show up and convince him to surrender and this would be the ghost of Byzantium’s greatest past emperor from 900 earlier Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), and the ghost of his ancestor Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos wherein Justinian I would tell Constantine that their empire once covered the whole Mediterranean which it did under Justinian I if you remember from chapter III, thus he cannot simply let go of it by fighting a fight he is not sure to win, while Michael VIII would tell his descendant that he worked so hard to take back Constantinople from the Latin occupiers in 1261 therefore Constantine can’t just simply let it fall.

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Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), the first Byzantine emperor

Constantine would at first also remember the prophecy saying that the last Byzantine emperor would have the same name as the first one, and true enough Constantine had the name of the first Roman emperor to use Constantinople as his capital which was Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) while the prophecy additionally said the last emperor’s mother’s name would also be the same name as the first emperor’s mother, and true enough both Constantine XI’s and the first emperor Constantine I’s mothers were named Helena, the mother of the first emperor being St. Helena. Constantine XI would thenbe confused as these ghosts were telling him that he should not surrender or he would put all their hard work in vain, but both ghosts would tell him that surrendering would be the wiser choice as one day Constantine can still organize a massive Crusade and take it back. Constantine would also remember from the story of Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071)- if you recall from chapter VIII- whose decision to not accept peace terms and charge straight into battle against the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert only led to the Byzantines’ defeat and the beginning of Turkish occupation over Asia Minor that eventually led to the rise of the Ottomans, and learning from this mistake of Romanos IV underestimating the Turks, Constantine would decide not to go into battle or suffer Romanos IV’s fate.

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Loukas Notaras, Megas Doux of Constantine XI with his sons Isaac and Jacob, and daughter Anna, art by Elveo

After being convinced by these ghosts to surrender, both ghosts disappeared and Constantine headed outside the walls together with Giovanni, Loukas Notaras, and his old friend and secretary George to formally surrender the city to Mehmed II. Constantine dressed in the imperial purple robes with a golden crown on his head would then kneel down before Mehmed II dressed in the complete Ottoman sultan’s robes and turban, and thus Constantine would kiss Mehmed’s ring reluctantly but still telling Mehmed to stay true to his word and spare the people and not loot anything. Mehmed on the other hand having great respect for Constantinople agreed to Constantine’s terms thus allowing Constantine to return to the palace and pack his things, however back in the palace Loukas Notaras who in this story’s case would disapprove of Constantine’s surrender would abandon him right here and together with his sons Isaac and Jacob and daughter Anna choose to stay and serve Constantinople’s new ruler Mehmed II. Now, Constantine removing his imperial robes and putting on formal western style clothes would leave Constantinople together with Cardinal Isidore, George, and Giovanni and decide to return to Mystras, while Mehmed when entering Constantinople would like in real history also now be referred to as “the conqueror” and would also claim the title of “Caesar of Rome”.

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Mehmed II the Conqueror rides into Constantinople after the conquest, 1453

Like in real history, Mehmed’s first act in this story’s case when capturing Constantinople would be converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, thus he would clean and repair all the damage but also cover up all the mosaics showing human images by painting over them as images were forbidden in Islam. Mehmed on the other hand was at least still tolerant towards Christians, thus he would still allow Constantinople’s Christian population especially the Orthodox ones to continue worshiping their faith as long as they no longer rang their church bells and made their churches smaller compared to the mosques in which Mehmed would turn most of Constantinople’s churches into. Being able to take over the Byzantine capital and reside in the Blachernae Palace where Constantine XI all other Byzantine emperors since the Komnenos Dynasty in the 12th century- if you remember from chapter IX of this series- had resided in with exception of the exiled Byzantine emperors in Nicaea (1204-1261) whereas the Latin emperors resided there, Mehmed II would at least be satisfied that he achieved his dream in capturing the Byzantine capital making it now the Ottomans’ new capital.

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Fatih Sultan Mehmed II

In this story’s case then, Mehmed would be initially enraged about not taking Constantinople by force- as in real history Mehmed even ordered his ships dragged across the land from the Bosporus to the Golden Horn to surprise the Byzantines- but would then soon enough come to realize that he did the wise choice of taking over the Byzantine capital through diplomacy as if he chose to declare war, he started coming to think that he would die and thus throw the Ottomans into chaos. The ones disappointed however would be the 80,000 army including his Janissaries, his top general Zaganos Pasha, and the cannon’s engineer Orban as they came all the way there, trained for over a year, and crafted a superweapon including 70 other large cannons for nothing, however Mehmed would be able to convince them that they did not do all that for nothing as he definitely had plans for them in future campaigns namely against the undefeatable Skanderbeg of Albania who Mehmed would believe that Orban’s cannon would have enough power to turn Skanderbeg’s castle on the steep hill into dust.

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Constantine XI Palaiologos, fought till the end in real history, art by HistoryGold777

Back to real history, the Morea where Constantine’s younger brothers Demetrios and Thomas still ruled as Despots still survived as a Byzantine fragment state despite Constantine XI’s death, although Mehmed II still decided to leave the Morea unharmed as long as both brothers continued paying tribute to him as after all, all Mehmed wanted was Constantinople therefore he could just leave the Morea alone considering it was in no significant location. In this story’s case though, Mehmed II would allow Constantine XI now no longer the emperor to return to Morea and once again return to being its Despot ruling it together with his brothers Demetrios and Thomas as long as Constantine continued to pay tribute and not plan any attempts anymore to reclaim Constantinople. In Constantine’s case for this story, he would still secretly form a resistance in the Morea to take back Constantinople which he was actually going to do in real history if he surrendered Constantinople to Mehmed, although here he would at first keep it a secret, and among the men with him that would flee to the Morea in this story, it would be the Italian general Giovanni Giustiniani who would be most disappointed as he really wanted a fight but could not get one as Constantine surrendered. To satisfy Giovanni, Constantine despite not using him for battle would still reward him with the entire island of Lemnos as Constantine returning back to the Morea no longer needed Lemnos.

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Meme of Mehmed II’s takeover of Constantinople and the Roman Empire itself

Constantine would then return to the Morea together with the last remains of the Byzantine senate- as apparently the Byzantine senate still remained in real history up to the empire’s end in 1453- and there Constantine and the senate would rule from Mystras despite Demetrios already being there, however Demetrios when seeing Constantine return would be enraged and thus Demetrios would simply abandon Mytras and the Morea and flee to Constantinople altogether betraying Byzantium and joining the court of Mehmed thinking he would do better off with Mehmed as true enough Mehmed was more accepting towards true Orthodox Christians like Demetrios unlike his brothers Constantine and Thomas who chose to give up their Orthodox faith. Now in the Morea, things will now return to how they were before Constantine XI’s coronation in 1449, therefore the Morea would be under Constantine and Thomas again as Despots with Constantine ruling the eastern half and Thomas the western half, thus Constantine would now rule the Morea again, this time thinking of himself as ruling a Byzantium in exile the way the emperors Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1221) and John III Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) ruled the Empire of Nicaea while the Crusaders captured Constantinople, if you remember from chapter X.

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Fresco of the 1453 Siege of Constantinople
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Mehmed II orders his ships dragged across the land to the Golden Horn, 1453 in real history
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The last stand of Constantine XI against the Ottomans, May 29, 1453 in real history
Watch this to learn more about the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 (Kings and Generals)

The Climax Part II- The Ultimate Reconquest of Constantinople and Final Battle (1453-1458)         

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In this story just like in real history, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II at only 21 achieved the dream that one else did before, which was taking over Constantinople, although in this story Mehmed would not really be seen as much as a great conqueror hero by his people as he still did not achieve in breaking down Constantinople’s walls but rather only took over it through negotiation, although this would still be such a feat for such a young ruler to force an emperor of a 1,100 year empire to surrender.

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Battle of Castillon, French victory over the English finishing the Hundred-Years’-War with the use of cannons, 1453

Now the year 1453 was true enough a very big one world history as not only was it the year when the Eastern Roman Empire finally fell with Mehmed II capturing Constantinople, but in this year the Hundred-Years’-War between England and France that began back in 1337 finally came to an end concluding in the Battle of Castillon in France in July of 1453 just 2 months after the Fall of Constantinople, and here it ended with a French victory and ironically it had a lot to do as well with the use of cannons. 1453 would then see both France and the Ottoman Empire emerge as new world powers now that the French basically conquered all English holdings in France except for Calais while the Ottomans by taking over Constantinople no longer had a small piece of land at the center of their empire that was not theirs, however for Mehmed the French victory that ended the Hundred-Years’-War was too far for him to care about, while his conquest of Constantinople- even though it was only through diplomacy in this story’s case- was only the beginning of his life of more conquests, though in this story’s case Mehmed would start considering an alliance with the French as after all both were victorious in 1453. After capturing Constantinople, Mehmed II would at first consolidate his rule and build up his administration in Constantinople, and here Loukas Notaras who switched sides from Constantine XI to Mehmed would become one of Mehmed’s main advisors as a way to show continuity from Constantinople’s Byzantine administration to the new Ottoman administration, although in real history Loukas who survived the siege was executed by Mehmed a few days after Constantinople fell.

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Zaganos Pasha, Grand vizier of Mehmed II since 1453

Mehmed however when taking Constantinople just like in real history will still choose to rule with the title of “sultan” instead of “emperor” while keeping the Ottoman style administration and military structure, which was however basically based on Byzantine systems, and for his new top advisor or Grand Vizier, Mehmed in this story just like in real history would also get rid of his old top advisor Candarli Halil Pasha by executing him thus replacing him as Grand Vizier with the younger Zaganos Pasha who Mehmed was closer to, while Mehmed would also execute his traitor cousin Orhan who was left behind, as in real history Mehmed also executed Orhan after capturing Constantinople. Meanwhile, Demetrios Palaiologos would arrive in Constantinople later in 1453 after abandoning the Morea to serve Mehmed, and here Mehmed would agree to make Demetrios as one of his top advisors as long as Demetrios stayed fully loyal, again to show continuity from the previous Byzantine administration to the new Ottoman one, although Mehmed would also want to keep Demetrios to boost his popularity as Demetrios was still popular among Constantinople’s people for championing Orthodoxy and old traditions. Just like in real history, Mehmed would also want to keep the Orthodox faith here and not impose Islam on his new subjects, which was not only out of religious toleration but again to show Byzantine continuity and also to protest against the Church union policies of Constantine XI and John VIII before him, thus to spite the Catholic Church Mehmed would appoint the strong anti-unionist Gennadius II who was a major political opponent of Constantine XI as Constantinople’s Patriarch in 1454, thus once again breaking the union with the Catholic Church.

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Sultan Mehmed II (left) and his newly appointed Patriarch of Constantinople in 1454 Gennadius II (right)

In this story’s case, some of the imperial palace’s staff and servants that Mehmed still kept to serve him would secretly be sending letters to the deposed Constantine XI and his brother Thomas in the Morea to inform them of possible opportunities to take back Constantinople, however Constantine and Thomas would at first be preoccupied with their own problems in the Morea and part of this is to rebuild their relations with the pope considering that the Church union just broke off when Mehmed appointed an anti-unionist Patriarch. Mehmed however would not be aware of the palace servants plotting to put Constantine XI back in power as in 1454 he would be busy with launching a new campaign, this time against Serbia as in real history Mehmed II in 1454 just after conquering Constantinople began making preparations to invade Serbia still under Prince Durad Brankovic from who Mehmed no longer wanted to accept tribute money from. In this story, just like in real history Mehmed II between 1454 and 1456 would fight a long campaign against Serbia in which he would win major victories against the Serbians capturing the important Serbian cities of Smederevo and Novo Brdo. In the meantime, as Mehmed was busy campaigning against Serbia, Durad Brankovic’s daughter Mara Brankovic, the widow of the late Ottoman sultan Murad II in this story’s case would have a change of mind by now considering marrying again as she previously chose not to marry again and return to Serbia following Murad II’s death in 1451.

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Mehmed II and his stepmother Mara Brankovic, art by Elveo

In this story’s case, what would make Mara have a change of mind would be mainly because of finding out that her stepson Mehmed II who she was close to had turned against her by launching an invasion of her native land, and now threatened by her stepson, she would now in this story’s case consider marrying the deposed Constantine XI for an alliance as after all both were facing a common situation of losing their power. In the meantime, legend says that in 1454 when Mehmed II left for his campaign against Serbia, the young and mysterious Ottoman vassal Prince of Wallachia Vlad III who had been in hiding after losing his throne in 1448 suddenly appeared with an army outside Constantinople in 1454 where he would decide to now turn against the Ottomans and recapture Constantinople to avenge the fall of Byzantium.

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Prince Vlad III of Wallachia attacks newly conquered Ottoman Constantinople according to legend, 1454

Vlad III taking advantage of the situation of most of the Ottoman forces departing for Serbia would attack Constantinople, however the legend says that Vlad was able to somewhat succeed in breaking into Constantinople as the walls were still in ruin from the previous year’s siege, however it would turn out Vlad did not really come to capture Constantinople from the Ottomans but to bury Constantine XI’s body, and true enough legend says Vlad did in fact find Constantine XI’s body in which Vlad buried it beneath Constantinople’s Golden Gate after turning Constantine undead, which then created the legend of Constantine XI as the “Marble Emperor” that would one day rise from the dead and take back Constantinople. However, in this story’s case none of this would happen as Constantine XI would still be alive and Constantinople’s walls would still be left intact as the siege of 1453 never happened, although what would happen in this story just like in Vlad’s legend would be that Vlad would impale the Ottoman soldiers he had killed in his attack thus leaving behind hundreds of spikes with impaled bodies outside Constantinople’s walls. Now in 1455 in this story’s case, Mara Brankovic would travel from Serbia to the Morea to marry the deposed emperor Constantine XI at a small ceremony in Mystras only attended by a few others including Thomas and Constantine’s old friend and secretary George Sphrantzes, however this ceremony would be a Catholic one as part of Constantine still staying true to his policy of Church Unity. Now with the slim and attractive 40-year-old Mara Brankovic with long dark hair, tanned skin, and green eyes marrying the now 50-year-old Constantine, both Serbia and the exiled Byzantines would make a common cause against the Ottomans, and although this marriage was one for alliance it would still not really result in something spectacular such as a union of two great empires like it could have been if the Byzantine empress Irene of Athens (r. 797-802) and the Frankish emperor Charlemagne (r. 768-814) married- if you remember from chapter VI of this series which was its main story- which could have thus result in uniting both east and west into one large empire but never did.

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Thomas Palaiologos, Despot of the Morea and younger brother of Constantine XI

Although with Constantine marrying again, he would now no longer want to have children as not only was his new wife possibly too old but because Constantine’s younger brother Thomas already had 3 children with his Italian wife Caterina Zaccaria, the daughter of the last Latin prince of Achaea which included a daughter named Zoe and two sons named Andreas and Manuel, thus if Constantine died, he knew the Palaiologos line would be continued through Thomas’ sons. Back to Mehmed II, his campaign against Serbia would be all successful until 1456 when Mehmed would attempt to besiege the city of Belgrade which was the border city between Serbia and Hungary.

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Battle of Belgrade, 1456

Here, Mehmed II himself would battle against the same legendary Hungarian general John Hunyadi, who despite losing against the Ottomans at the Battles of Varna in 1444 and the 2nd Battle of Kosovo in 1448 would this time finally win against the Ottomans in battle this time by successfully defending Belgrade against them. Now John Hunyadi was supposed to come to Constantinople’s rescue in 1453 when it was under siege by the Ottomans, however by that time Hungary had its own problems that Hunyadi had to deal with considering that with the previous King of Hungary Wladyslaw III dead since 1444, the new king Laszlo V was still a child which made Hungary pressured by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick III of the Habsburg Dynasty who thus put his claim over the Kingdom of Hungary. In this story’s case, Hunyadi did not need to come to Constantinople’s rescue anyway as no siege happened, but here his major victory over the Ottomans would make Hunyadi not only a national hero of Hungary but a hero of the Christian faith that the pope in 1456 even started a tradition of ringing church bells at noontime to commemorate the victory of Hunyadi, considering that Hunyadi was a Catholic.

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John Hunyadi, the Athleta Christi (Christ’s Champion), died in 1456 in real history

In real history however, Hunyadi died in 1456 just 3 weeks after defending Belgrade from the Ottomans as a result of a plague, and thus Hunyadi after his death was awarded with the title of Athleta Christi or “Christ’s Champion” for his victory over the Ottomans. For this story however, Hunyadi will not die 3 weeks after his great victory as he would be needed to stay alive for the upcoming final battle in this story, similar to the case of chapter I in this series where we chose to keep the Western Roman emperor Valentinian I (r. 364-375) alive for the Battle of Adrianople in 378 despite him dying 3 years prior to it in 375 from a stroke caused by his own anger. However, the one to die in this story just like in real history in 1456 would be the Ottoman vassal Serbian prince Durad Brankovic at the age of 79, and like in real history he would be succeeded by his son Lazar. Now with Mehmed losing to Hunyadi at the Siege of Belgrade in 1456, he would instead once again return to campaigning against the undefeatable Skanderbeg of Albania, thus in 1457 Mehmed II just like in real history will send an army of 65,000 Ottoman troops under the command of his general Evrenos Isa Bey with the intention to conquer all of Albania and once and for all defeat Skanderbeg. Again, with the use of hit-and-run tactics and knowing the Ottoman warfare style as Skanderbeg grew up serving the Ottomans, he would with only 10,000 men once again defeat the Ottomans and stop another invasion of Albania, which would then make Mehmed even more frustrated.

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Mehmed II and Ottoman Constantinople, Hagia Sophia transformed into a mosque
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Hungarian army of John Hunyadi defeat the Ottomans at the Battle of Belgrade, 1456
Watch this to learn more about Skanderbeg and his rebellion against the Ottomans (Kings and Generals).

In 1457 as well, for this story’s case at least, Constantine XI together with his brother Thomas, new wife Mara Brankovic, secretary George, and Cardinal Isidore would travel themselves to Rome to once again conclude a Church Union at St. Peter’s Basilica- the same place the last competent Western Roman emperor and Byzantine ally Anthemius in 472 was executed (chapter II) and where Charlemagne in 800 was crowned as Roman emperor (chapter VI)- with the new pope Callixtus III who had been pope since the death of Pope Nicholas V in 1455, thus Constantine would see the city where the Roman civilization that his empire continued all began.

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Pope Callixtus III, successor of Nicholas V since 1455

This new pope on the other hand in this story’s case would be willing to accept Constantine’s submission especially since it was aimed for expelling the Ottomans from Europe once and for all, and this new pope was hopeful about it considering Hunyadi’s victory against them in 1456. Callixtus III being from the noble Spanish Aragonese Borgia family would thus have ties to the King of Naples and Aragon Alfonso V who Constantine XI was previously going to ask troops from, however this time both the pope Callixtus III and Alfonso V would tell Constantine that they do not have enough men to assist him while Spain itself also cannot as by this time Spain itself was not yet united but still divided into the 3 kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, and Navarre, however both the pope and Alfonso V of Aragon who were present in Rome at Constantine’s visit in this story would recommend Constantine to count of the 4th kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula west of these Spanish kingdoms being the Kingdom of Portugal. Now Portugal was a land never under Byzantine rule from Constantinople as Justinian I’s conquests in the 6th century- if you remember from chapter III- only went as far as Southern Spain, although before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century Portugal was in fact a Roman province named Lusitania.

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Kingdom of Portugal coat of arms

By this point in the 15th century, Portugal was however a relatively new power although still older than the Ottomans, and if you remember from back in chapter IX, the story of how Portugal became a kingdom was explained as this happened during the 2nd Crusade in the reign of Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) when English knights on the way to the Levant to join the 2nd Crusade stopped over at the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula to help a local Catholic warlord establish his own kingdom by battling the Muslim occupiers, and back in 1147 after the Crusaders assisted this warlord in capturing the city of Lisbon from the Muslims, the Kingdom of Portugal was established with Lisbon as its capital and up this point in the 15th century, it was still the capital. Now by the 15th century, this once small Kingdom of Portugal at the far western end of Europe had evolved into a major maritime power that had just recently driven away its Muslim (Moorish) invaders and began sailing the Atlantic Ocean and exploring as well as colonizing new lands to the south in Africa that one has ever heard of before.

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Alfonso V, King of Aragon and Naples (r. 1416-1458)

Back in 1451, Constantine XI when still in power if you remember had almost married a Portuguese princess who was related to King Alfonso V of Aragon and Naples, although this marriage never came to happen but little did Constantine know that this distant Kingdom of Portugal was in fact a rising power, and when coming to Rome here in 1457 to once and for all submit to the pope, Constantine would meet the man responsible for turning Portugal from a minor backwater to a maritime power, and this was no other than the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator who in this story’s case only had come to Rome to represent Portugal but also to meet Constantine and the Byzantines who were asking for help, and accompanying Henry to Rome was his nephew the Duke of Viseu Ferdinand, who here in the 1450s was a young adventurer exploring the Mediterranean in search for wealth while his older brother the King of Portugal also named Alfonso V was busy ruling.

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Prince Henry the Navigator, son of King Joao I of Portugal

Now Prince Henry the Navigator of the Alviz Dynasty back in 1415 first came into the picture when helping his father the King of Portugal Joao I (r. 1385-1433) in successfully capturing the port city of Ceuta in Morocco from Moorish pirates, which then brought about the rise of the new Portuguese Empire. Henry was then appointed as governor of Portugal’s southern province of the Algarve and with it being located by the Atlantic Ocean, Henry seeing that the age of war against the Moors was over began investing in building effective fast-sailing ships known as caravels that could sail farther than any other ship could, and other than ships Henry also began training sailors and funding their explorations to discover lands down the coast of Africa that no one has ever knew of before as Henry believed that in the far south there was a mysterious rich Christian kingdom that could assist the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms in their fight against the Moors, and now by the 1450s Portuguese explorers sent by Henry had already gone as far as the Senegal River and the islands of Cape Verde in the south and to the Azores islands deep in the Atlantic Ocean to the west, which were lands no other Europeans had set foot in before.

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Ferdinand, Duke of Viseu, brother of King Alfonso V of Portugal

At this point however, Henry himself was too old to help Constantine in battle against the Ottomans, however his young and adventurous nephew Ferdinand, a short, stocky, and slightly overweight man with a slightly deformed neck was all willing as he lived for adventure and battle. Present at this meeting in Rome with the pope, Constantine XI, and the Portuguese princes was the same old Byzantine scholar turned Catholic cardinal Basil Bessarion who in this story together with the Pope Callixtus III would convince Constantine that there would be no other ally in the Catholic world than Portugal that can guarantee real assistance against the Ottomans, as after all Portugal had real experience not only in fighting Muslims but in expelling them from Europe. Although Portugal may be of great help considering that they have built a large navy even more powerful than that of Genoa or Venice, their help would come at such a great price as here Prince Ferdinand told Constantine that he would help him only if Constantine were to give him islands in the Aegean to be used as Portuguese naval bases, the problem here though is that Constantine had nothing left to offer as he already handed over Lemnos to Giovanni Giustaniani, thus the only remaining land he can give up is the Morea. Here in Rome, Constantine had at least formally once and for all concluded the Church union with the pope as following the death of Pope Nicholas V in 1455 and Mehmed installing an anti-union patriarch in Constantinople, the union made in December of 1452 in the Hagia Sophia became void.

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1261-1282), ancestor of Constantine XI and founder of the dynasty

Constantine however here would successfully convince the pope that even though he converted to Catholicism, his people including those who fled to the Morea wanting to escape Mehmed’s rule in Constantinople would have a hard time accepting Catholicism especially since the Orthodox faith was already deeply rooted in them, however the pope here would at least be understanding enough to not force conversion on them as this was the mistake Constantine’s ancestor Michael VIII made when he tried to convert Byzantium to Catholicism in the 1270s if you remember from the previous chapter, however the pope asked Constantine to slowly impose the Catholic faith on his subjects so that they don’t get shocked that suddenly they were forced to change their religion, but after all the differences between the Orthodox and Catholic faiths were very minimal except for a few rituals, which would then make it easier for the Byzantines to convert.

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Byzantine Iconoclasm under Leo III in the 8th century

In addition, Constantine would also apologize to the pope that it was after all the fault of the Byzantines why a schism happened between the Eastern and Western Churches, and this was mostly because of a stupid policy imposed by the Byzantine emperor Leo III (r. 717-718) in the 8th century known as Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons- if you remember from chapter V of this series- which was at first thought to save Byzantium from its troubles but at the end only caused a deep schism with the pope that could never be resolved. Noticing how bold Constantine was to apologize for Byzantium being at fault for their schism, Pope Callixtus III here in this story too would apologize to Constantine for all the wrongs the Papacy did to Byzantium, namely directly insulting the Byzantines by crowning Charlemagne as a “Roman emperor” in 800 and organizing the 4th Crusade that sacked Constantinople in 1204, which was however more of Venice’s doing. Before returning to Morea, both cardinals Bessarion and Isidore would tell Constantine and Thomas that more perks would await if they converted not only themselves but their people to Catholicism, and this would include getting military aid from the two most powerful warriors that resisted the Ottomans being the Hungarian general John Hunyadi and Skanderbeg of Albania who were both Catholics, also that their conversion would make the rest of the European powers start feeling that Byzantium would become one of theirs. Constantine together with Thomas, Mara, and George would then return to the Morea now fully converted to Catholicism, and back in Mystras Constantine would make a speech to his people telling them that he did not want to convert and impose conversion on them but he has no choice as being united as one with the rest of Europe is the only way they could stand against the Ottomans, and after all it was just about time that the Orthodox east and Catholic west must settle all the tension between them that has been going on for over 7 centuries already, thus the saying goes “time heals all wounds”, although Thomas here would tell the people that in case they still never take back Constantinople, the Morea should be reborn as the “New Byzantium”. The people would then surprisingly be fine with the Church union Constantine just signed in Rome as after it was finally agreed that the Byzantines were not forced to convert or be jailed or tortured if they did not comply but instead were just encouraged to do so simply to just not be treated as second class citizens.

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Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror

Now back in Constantinople, Mehmed II would be so infuriated for so many so many reasons including being defeated by Hunyadi at Belgrade, discovering that Constantine was going to strike back against him by concluding the Church union with the pope, discovering his stepmother Mara married Constantine behind his back thinking that she too had turned against him, and seeing his men impaled by Vlad when he was way, though Mehmed still ordered the spikes with the impaled men removed when returning. Mehmed too at this point would also start becoming unpopular especially among his Christian subjects as even though he allowed them to practice their faith, he still treated them like second class citizens while he also did not really care much about his people and instead cared more about conquests that his people started believing he would soon bankrupt the Ottoman treasury despite having already taken Constantinople. In early 1458, Constantine would depart Mystras with an army of about 7,000 Greeks that he had raised in the past 3 years he was in exile there, thus he would say goodbye to his wife Mara who would stay behind in Mystras as if it was the last time they would see each other, thus Constantine and Thomas here in early 1458 would end up provoking Mehmed to declare war on them the moment they suddenly stopped paying tribute to Mehmed.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos meets the leaders of the First Crusade, back in 1096

Now Constantine would come to think of himself as his other direct ancestor the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) by doing exactly what Alexios I did in appealing to the pope to start a Crusade which Constantine did exactly that here, while also thinking of himself as the Byzantine emperor Zeno (r. 474-475/ 476-491) of the 5th century by doing exactly as Zeno did in making a brave attempt to take back throne despite having no chance of getting it back, if you remember from chapter II of this series. Before Constantine and Thomas with their respective armies would head to Constantinople, they would first head north to the ruins of the Hexamilion Wall they were forced to not rebuild anymore back in 1446 by Sultan Murad II, and here Constantine in direct rebellion against Mehmed would order the wall restored, thus Mehmed would send an army this time led by Evrenos Isa Bey who failed to defeat Skanderbeg the previous year to crush Constantine and Thomas’ army.

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Genoese crossbow archer under the command of Giovanni Giustiniani

Here at the Hexamilion, Giovanni Giustiniani coming from Lemnos now with an additional 300 crossbowmen to his army 700 making him now have a total of 1,000 men would then meet up with both brothers, and the moment Evrenos would arrive to crush them, the allied forces of Constantine and Thomas’ Byzantine soldiers and Giovanni’s Italian and local mercenaries from Lemnos would easily crush the Ottoman army of Evrenos killing Evrenos in battle. On the other hand, both Constantine and Thomas despite raising up a combined army of 11,000 still failed to produce cannons as they lacked funds and raw materials to do so, however after crushing the Ottoman army at the Hexamilion, they would seize the 6 cannons the Ottoman forces brought and would load them on the Genoese ships that came for them at the port of Corinth. From Corinth, Constantine together with Thomas and the secretary George as well as Giovanni with a combined army of 12,000 would board the Genoese ships and sail directly to Constantinople to immediately put it under siege. 

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Medieval era St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome
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Portuguese blue and white (Azulejo) tiles depicting 15th century Portuguese caravels

        

After about 4 days on sea, the Genoese ships carrying an army of 12,000 combined would arrive at the port town of Selymbria west of Constantinople, and upon arrival, their large number would easily overwhelm the few Ottoman troops stationed there, thus Selymbria would fall back again to the Byzantines. From Selymbria, Constantine would order all of them to march west to the land walls of Constantinople which would just be 2 hours away, and when arriving before the 5th century land walls build under Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) on April 2 exactly 5 years since Constantine surrendered the city to Mehmed wherein the impaled bodies had just been cleared, Constantine himself would be shocked experiencing something new, as for the longest time being a Byzantine inside the walls, he never knew what it was like to attack them but only defend them, but this time it would be the first time he would see how difficult it was for all the armies in the past like the Sassanids, Arabs, and Bulgarians, including that of Byzantine rebels like his brother Demetrios back in 1442 to attack it.

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Constantine XI in full armor, art by Spatharokandidatos

When arriving before the walls, it would be then be the other way around as compared to 1453 as instead of Mehmed standing before the walls with Constantine looking at him from above, it would be Mehmed standing above the walls and here to insult Constantine, Mehmed would be seen wearing Constantine’s purple imperial robes and crown instead of the sultan’s robes and turban while Constantine below the walls would be dressed not in the traditional Byzantine lamellar armor but in western style full plate armor with a purple cape and a golden band around his head. Standing next to Mehmed would be his top advisor and general Zaganos Pasha together with the Byzantine traitors Demetrios who was now appointed as Constantinople’s prefect or mayor and Loukas Notaras who became one of Mehmed’s top advisors, and from below Constantine would shout at Demetrios and Loukas asking them to come back as they will be given a second chance.

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Loukas Notaras, art by Elveo

Both Loukas and Demetrios however would shout back saying they belong to Mehmed’s Constantinople, while Mehmed would laugh at Constantine for being that daring yet foolish enough to launch an attempt to take back his capital without the military aid from the west that he so desired, however Constantine would shout to Mehmed that he will surprise Mehmed. Once both rulers finished exchanging insulting words with each other, Mehmed would immediately order his Janissaries stationed at the wall to open fire, while Thomas beneath the walls too would order that the 6 cannons to open fire. The battle would thus begin with the Ottoman Janissaries above the 5th century land walls not only firing their bows and crossbows at the Byzantines and their allies but firing actual guns which were however slow to reload, but the attackers beneath the walls would still be frightened at these new weapons hitting them and killing some soldiers with just one shot. Now the attacking Byzantines had no experience in firing cannons, however some of Giovanni’s soldiers did and so in response to the guns fired by the Ottomans, the Genoese soldiers would fire the 6 cannons at Constantinople’s walls. Just as the siege began, horns would be heard from the distance and riding from the hills to west would be no other than the Hungarian John Hunyadi with an army of over 8,000 mostly consisting of fully armored knights, thus Hunyadi would rush down to help the attackers.

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John Hunyadi on a horse

Constantine would at first be relieved that Hunyadi came to his aid while Hunyadi would say it was about time he did as the Byzantines now converted to Catholicism which gave a valid reason for the Catholic Hungarians to help them. Mehmed on the other hand would be enraged at the sight of Hunyadi, the Hungarian that just defeated him in Belgrade 2 years earlier, but this still would not stop Mehmed from having his men fire guns and cannons at the attackers and at the same time send troops to march out of the walls to deal with the attackers. Under the command of Zaganos Pasha, the Ottoman troops including Janissaries, Bashi-Bazouk shock troops, and Sipahi cavalrymen would charge directly at the Hungarians and Byzantines, however Hunyadi here would easily defeat the Sipahi light cavalry with his mounted knights while Giovanni’s Genoese soldiers would take down many Janissaries using their crossbows.

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Ottoman Sipahi cavalry

Constantine on the other hand would then come to realize, that this kind of warfare they are fighting is totally new and that this is what warfare is going to be like from here on as superweapons the Byzantines of the past thought as invincible like Greek Fire had now become obsolete with the invention of more powerful weapons that use gunpowder such as cannons and guns. At the same time, Constantine would also come to realize that the military manuals written by the past Byzantine emperors like Maurice (r. 582-602), Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959), and Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) now did not mean anything with the development of these new weapons, thus the only key to winning is to adapt to this new style of warfare. For the next 5 days then, the siege would remain without results and with neither side gaining the upper hand despite the attackers using cannons, although on the 6th day of the siege, another reinforcement army would arrive, and this would be that of the Albanian lord and leader of the League of Lezhe Skanderbeg dressed in full armor with an army of 15,000 rebels, and just like Hunyadi Skanderbeg who was exactly Constantine’s age would tell Constantine he decided to come to his aid because of Constantine’s conversion to Catholicism which Skanderbeg believed was the way forward which is why he converted to it many years earlier.

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Skanderbeg, Lord of Albania and Leader of the League of Lezhe in armor

Now with Skanderbeg and his army as an addition to the attackers, they would now have more of an advantage that when Zaganos Pasha would continue brining more troops to attack the attackers outside the walls, the attacking side with Skanderbeg’s men ambushing the Ottomans again with hit-and-run tactics would kill off more Ottoman soldiers compared to how many were killed in the past 5 days. Eventually, Skanderbeg’s forces would begin having more difficulty in fighting the Ottomans here as back in Albania they were able to crush the Ottoman invaders basically because of the hilly terrain wherein the Albanian skirmishers had the high ground, unlike here outside Constantinople where the terrain was flatter. In the meantime, a Venetian fleet of 30 ships sent by the pope would arrive at the Marmara exactly a week after the siege began, and due to their larger size, the Venetian warships would then destroy most of Mehmed’s smaller Ottoman ships which were the same ones he brought over back in 1453. After destroying most of the Ottoman fleet, the Venetians would then be able to capture Mehmed’s fortress of Europe, thus the tide of would begin to turn on the allied Crusade forces’ side.

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Ottoman warships, 15th century

However, in the next day Mehmed would light up a few of his smaller ships turning them into fire ships which would then ram into and explode a large number of the Venetian ships on the Bosporus, the same way the Vandals destroyed the Byzantine navy of Emperor Leo I (r. 457-474) back in 468 at the Battle of Cape Bon if you remember from chapter II. In the meantime, it would be Thomas that would grow impatient of besieging Constantinople for so long, thus he would come up with a tactic out of both boredom and frustration just to intimidate the Muslim Ottomans by grabbing some pigs from nearby pig farm run by Byzantine Greek Christians who would also volunteer to join the Crusading army of Constantine, thus Thomas would catapult these pigs into Constantinople, which would however just annoy Mehmed. Demetrios on the other hand who would be in charge of defending the walls too would grow impatient thus he would grab a rifle from one of the Janissaries and try to kill both his brothers Constantine and Thomas with it first targeting Constantine, although a Cretan archer in Constantine’s army would immediately get in front of Constantine taking the bullet and dying, making Demetrios even angrier. For the next 2 days then, the same would go with the Crusader forces of Constantine firing the 6 cannons still not making much progress in destroying the walls, while their Cretan archers would continue firing their longbows as the Ottomans would continue shooting arrows and ammunition at the attackers while Hunyadi’s and Skanderbeg’s forces would still continue obliterating the Ottoman troops sent outside the walls.

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Voivode (Prince) Vlad III of Wallachia on a horse

In the meantime, the 3rd leader was still on his way to Constantinople, and this was the Wallachian Voivode (prince) Vlad III who since 1456 took back the Wallachian throne from his cousin, and although he was not invited to join the Crusade as Vlad still remained Orthodox, Vlad had made a name for himself in slaying Ottomans back in 1454 when impaling Mehmed’s men, while Vlad too had the title Dracula which was given to him by his father the former Prince of Wallachia Vlad II Dracul (r. 1446-1442), and this title was given to members of the Order of the Dragon formed by the former King of Hungary Sigismund in 1408 to combat the Ottomans in which Vlad II was a part of and now his son Vlad III as well. On his way to Constantinople, Vlad with a large and powerful Wallachian army consisting of infantry and cavalry would then pillage the Thracian countryside and again impale the Ottoman soldiers as an act of psychological warfare just as the Byzantine emperor Basil II did back in 1014 when blinding the Bulgarian soldiers he defeated. Not to mention, it would in the exact field outside Adrianople (Edirne) where the battle in chapter I of this series took place wherein the Byzantine emperor Valens (r. 364-378) met his end in real history wherein Vlad III would carry out these atrocities, thus going full circle for this series.

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Ottoman Bashi-Bazouk soldier (shock troop), art by Badbuckle

Now as Vlad III and his forces were still on their way, the attackers at night would face the Ottoman Bashi-Bazouk shock troops which were basically easy to slay with as they were barely armored, but difficult to fight due to their drunken behavior, while the Ottomans too would play such loud battle music to energize their troops which just tortured the ears of the attackers. After again wiping out another Ottoman force sent to attack them despite losing men, Constantine would remember a way to enter the city through the 4th century Aqueduct of Valens in which the Byzantine emperor Justinian II (r. 685-695) successfully used together with Bulgarian troops in 705 when he was restored as emperor, thus Constantine here would have Giovanni and about 100 of his men climb up the aqueduct and sneak into it at night in order to get to the walls and open the gates for them. Giovanni at first would succeed in getting inside the city however due to the aqueduct’s narrowness, 5 of his men would slip and fall off to the ground to their deaths, thus alerting some Ottoman troops in time for them to fire a cannon at the aqueduct in order to kill the sneaking attackers. From outside, the attackers would hear one loud blast of a cannon, and this cannon that would fire at the aqueduct from inside the city would be no other than Orban’s superweapon intended to blast Constantinople’s walls wide open, and here Giovanni and all his men that sneaked through had been blasted to pieces as the massive cannon ball hit the aqueduct.    

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The 5th century Theodosian Land Walls of Constantinople, art by myself
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Ottoman Janissaries battle with guns
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Venetian warship

           

By this point, 2 full weeks had already passed since the Crusader army led by Constantine had laid siege to Constantinople, and while the attackers especially Thomas and Hunyadi began growing impatient, the people inside Constantinople began growing more and more furious that the more they wanted a Byzantine to rule them instead of an Ottoman sultan.

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Mehmed II in full battle gear, art by Elveo

At this point in this story, Mehmed II would begin showing his true cruel side especially in dealing with anyone inside the city who would dare open the gates to the attackers by executing whoever attempted to it even if they just wanted to go out for food. As for Constantine, he would start coming to the point of seeing there was no more hope left especially since his plan to get Giovanni to sneak through the aqueduct and open the gates for them failed with the Ottomans blowing up the aqueduct killing Giovanni in the process. Constantine too would start thinking that the Portuguese prince Ferdinand was never really true to his word in assisting them as the Portuguese reinforcement fleet still had not yet arrived while the only navy they had which consisted of Venetian and Genoese ships had mostly been destroyed by the smaller Ottoman fire ships. When observing the walls one more time, Constantine once again came to realize how powerful they were with its 3 layers, massive towers, and a moat seeing that even the most powerful conquerors like Atilla the Hun back when the walls were still new in the 5th century still failed to breach them, while the 4th Crusade army too failed as they instead attacked the shorter sea walls, which Constantine considered attacking as well, although here that part became unreachable as the Ottomans blocked the way to the Golden Horn with a chain. For the next few days, the 6 cannons the Byzantines stole from the Ottomans in the Morea continued firing at the walls until all cannons broke down due to overheating as none of them knew that these cannons could only be fired every 3 hours to give a cooling period otherwise, they would explode which they did. Constantine and Thomas would then once again try to persuade both Demetrios and Loukas and Notaras to turn against Mehmed and join them again, but again both would refuse and Demetrios more furious than ever that his brothers had not yet left ordered the superweapon cannon of Orban fired to the point that he had fired it too many times that the massive cannon itself blew up exploding some houses and killing a few Ottoman troops in the process, although Demetrios still survived.

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Prince Vlad III of Wallachia in full armor, art by RadialArt

On the 18th day of the siege, the 3rd army arrived to assist the attackers and this was that of the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III dressed in full armor and a hat covered in pearls with an additional 10,000 men including Wallachian knights, however the Crusader leaders Thomas, Hunyadi, and Skanderbeg would not be pleased with Vlad’s arrival as Vlad was never invited to join their fight as he still remained Orthodox. Thomas, Hunyadi, and Skanderbeg who were all men large in size would then gang up on the much smaller Vlad who was a quiet man with long black hair and green eyes, to the point of attempting to beat him up, however Vlad had a silent violent streak by the looks of him that he could eat them alive in an instant, though Constantine would come in time to put down the tensions between the 3 leaders and Vlad before things could go bloody telling them all that this is not the right time to fight among each other while Vlad even if coming uninvited has great use considering that the attackers lost a lot of men following the death of Giovanni. During the night when the rest of the attackers would sleep, Vlad would then prove his ability and deadliness in war as here he and his men would be a wake to counter-attack another wave of Ottomans troops sent outside the walls to attack the camp of the allies, and here Vlad using the tactics he learned from his time in the Ottomans of fighting at night would obliterate the Ottoman forces and again impale them on spikes outside the walls.

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Vlad III the Impaler (Tepes) with the Ottoman soldiers he impaled

When waking up, the leaders who initially were cold to Vlad were now surprised at this ability and ruthlessness seeing the entire Ottoman force sent outside the walls all impaled on spikes, which then even made these leaders start having some respect for Vlad, while in real history Vlad would in fact earn the nickname Tepes meaning “the Impaler” for his cruelty against the Ottomans by impaling the fallen Ottoman soldiers on spikes as an act of psychological warfare. Mehmed now when seeing his men all impaled would once again not only get furious but would be greatly terrified as just like Constantine, Mehmed was also very superstitious. On the other hand, Thomas would also again apply an act of psychological warfare, and this time he would have the heads of the fallen Ottoman soldiers catapulted into the walls to strike fear in the Ottoman defenders, which was a tactic applied by the Byzantine general and later emperor Nikephoros Phokas when besieging the city of Chandax in Crete from the Arabs in 961, if you remember for chapter VII.

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Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), art by Spatharokandidatos

As Thomas would be busy catapulting heads and snakes into the walls, Constantine would remember that in 1261 the Byzantine army of only 800 from Nicaea were able to take back the city from the Latins by passing through a tunnel that led to a monastery, and when finding that tunnel, Constantine sent Hunyadi here with also only 800 men to sneak in order to open the gate from inside. Hunyadi would then successfully make it inside the city wherein he himself would slay a number of Ottoman soldiers including Janissaries with his sword, however the Ottomans would soon become too large in number that they would begin pushing Hunyadi and his men back into the monastery and into the tunnel.

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Hungarian knights, 15th century

Mehmed’s top general Zaganos Pasha would thus arrive in time to drive away Hunyadi and his men to the monastery, and to block off that entrance, Zaganos would have gunpowder barrels brought in, although before Hunyadi and his men could retreat, Zaganos threw a torch straight at the barrels, thus causing it to explode blowing up the entire monastery and that section of the wall as well, thus died Christ’s Champion John Hunyadi, who in real history however had already died 2 years earlier. From outside, Constantine would then see a large part of the walls blown up wondering if Hunyadi had blown up with it, although as soon as the fires from the explosion had gone off, a large number of Ottoman troops rushed out of the small crack in the wall caused by the explosion to the point that the attacking allied army would be encircled. Meanwhile from above the walls, Demetrios when seeing his brothers Constantine and Thomas as well as Skanderbeg and Vlad encircled and fighting off the Ottoman soldiers one by one themselves in order to survive also seeing the small frail secretary George exhausted and falling to the ground and thus brutally beaten up by two large Ottoman Janissaries, Demetrios would then have a change of heart. Beginning to realize his mistake of betraying his people and joining the ultimate enemy which was Mehmed II, Demetrios would then run to the Golden Gate of Constantinople’s walls and thus open it to the attackers. The Ottoman forces meanwhile when seeing the gate open would begin sounding their loud music forcing the rest of their men to fall back thinking that the sultan ordered them to do so, although as the Ottomans would begin falling back the attackers would thus have the advantage, thus Constantine himself with his large broadsword would slay the Janissaries beating up George.

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Constantine XI in full plated armor with his broadsword, art by JohnJollos

Constantine, Thomas, George, Skanderbeg, and Vlad themselves with what was left of their forces would then rush into the gate before it would close and with such momentum would slay all the Ottoman soldiers on the way with their swords. When getting into the gates, Constantine and Thomas seeing Demetrios above would shout a big thank you to him for letting them in before rushing deep into the city. Constantine and Thomas would then be impressed that Mehmed repaired most of their damaged capital but would still be enraged seeing the two holiest churches being the Hagia Sophia and Holy Apostles where most emperors until the 11th century had been buried in turned into mosques while the cross above the Forum of Constantine was removed as well. Mehmed II now dressed in the complete Ottoman sultan’s robes would then rush the walls approaching Demetrios at such an enraged manner that Mehmed would pull out his knife stabbing Demetrios with it right at the heart thus killing him for betraying Mehmed and allowing the attackers in. In the meantime, Thomas would be first to hear a mysterious sound of ship bells ringing, and minutes later several cannon balls from these ships would hit Constantinople’s sea walls at the south side of the city right where the seaside Boukoleon Palace is, and these ships would be no other than the Portuguese caravels led by Prince Ferdinand himself finally coming to assist in the attack of Constantinople. As Thomas would be rushing down Constantinople’s main street or the Mese together with Skanderbeg killing all Ottoman troops at their sight, Thomas himself would spot the traitor Loukas Notaras and kill him with one blow of his sword to his head spilling his brains out while outside the walls at the Marmara Sea, the fleet of 50 Portuguese caravels would finally turn the tide of the battle obliterating the much smaller Ottoman ships with their cannons.

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Portuguese army, 15th century

Soon enough, the Portuguese ships would manage to break down the sea walls along the Marmara with their cannons, thus these ships would dock along the ruined walls while Prince Ferdinand himself with his fully armored knights would immediately jump off to the land and make their way into the city. Mehmed II now seeing that the Crusader army had overwhelmed him would then have no choice but to send his best general and Grand Vizier Zaganos Pasha to the southern walls to counter-attack the Portuguese also to create a distraction, however the Portuguese knights would overwhelm Zaganos and his men thus Zaganos himself would be slain by the swords and pikes of the Portuguese knights in their charge. Constantine when seeing Ferdinand arrive would then be relieved that the Portuguese did indeed stay true to their word, although Vlad who would be slaying Ottoman Janissaries beside Constantine to the point of being pinned down to the ground, when seeing Mehmed all confused getting into a carriage loaded with explosive barrels would tell Constantine that Mehmed was escaping. The fully armored Constantine himself would then get into another carriage and chase Mehmed who was headed out of the city’s walls, and now with the sultan leaving the burning Constantinople, the rest of the Ottoman forces would lose morale thus in an instant the Portuguese army together with Vlad’s men would wipe them all out to the last man to the point when Thomas would suddenly shout out that Constantinople is Byzantine again. Constantine thus would continue chasing Mehmed out of Constantinople on carriage heading north to the high cliffs above the Bosporus where the Fortress of Europe was as apparently Mehmed was headed to the shore to get onto a boat and gather reinforcements from Asia Minor. As both carriages sped through the narrow road along the cliff, Constantine using his carriage would ram straight into Mehmed’s carriage, however the impact of the ram was so strong that both carriages fell off cliff together with Constantine and Mehmed. In midair, the gunpowder barrels due to the crash exploded thus disintegrating the carriages as well as the 53-year-old Constantine and 26-year-old Mehmed to dust falling straight into the Bosporus Sea below. Some hours later as the sun began to set, the 21-day Siege of Constantinople had concluded with Constantinople falling back to the Byzantines, while Thomas, Vlad, Skanderbeg, George, and Ferdinand rushed to the scene where Mehmed and Constantine fell off, and realizing that the emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos had died, the remaining Byzantine troops from Mystras would then proclaim the very shaken Thomas, the last standing of the Palaiologos brothers as their new emperor, while everyone else around him would bow down to him, and before night came they would all return to Constantinople to clear out the mess from the battle.

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Alignment table for this story’s 1458 Reconquest of Constantinople with characters and nations involved
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Diagram of the 3-layered land Walls of Constantinople
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Constantine XI’s final charge against the Ottomans (1453, in real history), art by FaisalHashemi
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Portuguese caravel with full sails

 

The Epilogue and Conclusion              

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Back to real history, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople carried out by Mehmed II on May 29 of 1453 was only the beginning of the many conquests to come for Mehmed II the Conqueror’s next 28 years in power. With Mehmed appointing the anti-unionist Patriarch Gennadius II as the new Patriarch of Constantinople in 1454, the Church Union concluded by Constantine XI in 1452 had become void, also because with Constantine’s death the union which he signed was made void as well as there was no more Eastern Roman emperor to continue it. As mentioned earlier, John Hunyadi in real history had died in 1456 shortly after successfully defending Belgrade from Mehmed II and his army, thus this victory of Hunyadi over the Ottomans here in 1456 would stall the Ottomans from invading Hungary for another 70 years.

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Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror (r. 1451-1481)

While busy continuing his campaigns to put all of the Balkans under Ottoman rule, Mehmed would be busy as well in repopulating and reconstructing the severely damaged late Byzantine era Constantinople to make it worthy of being the “3rd Rome”, and by doing this Mehmed would convert many of the deteriorating Byzantine churches other than the Hagia Sophia into impressive and lavish Ottoman style mosques, while he too would construct a new palace near the ancient church of the Hagia Eirene at the center of Constantinople, thus this palace would be where the Ottoman sultans beginning with Mehmed II would reside in, the Topkapi Palace. In addition, not all churches in Constantinople were turned into mosques as Mehmed respected the Byzantine culture thus, he allowed his subjects to continue practicing their Orthodox faith with a patriarch still charge, though some of the most important churches such as the Hagia Eirene and the 9th century Nea Ekklesia in the former Great Palace Complex built under Emperor Basil I (r. 867-886)- from chapter VII- were both converted into ammunition storage houses instead of mosques. On the other hand, the Morea in real history would continue to be under the rule of Constantine XI’s bothers Demetrios and Thomas as its Despots even after the fall of Constantinople, however rather than working together to take back Constantinople from the Ottomans, Demetrios and Thomas would continue being at odds with each other as both brothers had their own motive whereas Thomas seeing himself as Constantine XI’s successor was making plans to once again seal the Church Union with the pope and launch a Crusade to recapture Constantinople- which was the case of this story- while the anti-Catholic Demetrios was willing to ally with Mehmed, and just like in this story to desert to him in exchange for great rewards. The tensions between the brothers Demetrios and Thomas would then intensify to the point that both almost started a civil war with each other all while Mehmed in 1458 managed to conquer the entire Catalan Duchy of Athens in Greece, and in real history it was only in 1459 when Vlad III of Wallachia who until this point was an Ottoman vassal prince declared war on the Ottomans by refusing to pay tribute to Mehmed and killing the envoys sent by Mehmed to collect tribute by nailing their turbans to their heads. Meanwhile, Mehmed having enough of the Palaiologos brothers in the Morea and fearing that one day Thomas would launch a Crusade to Constantinople decided to invade the Morea with a large army and finish off the brothers once and for all, thus on May 29 of 1460, exactly 7 years after the Fall of Constantinople, the entire Despotate of the Morea fell to the Ottomans.

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Pope Pius II organizes a possible Crusade against the Ottomans with Thomas Palaiologos (in a blue hat) in Italy

Following the fall of the Morea to the Ottomans, Demetrios was taken as a prisoner and sent to Edirne where he would die in 10 years later (1470) while Thomas would eventually flee to Italy and make an attempt to again submit to the pope and launch a Crusade, however the Crusade would not come to happen as its organizer Thomas died in 1465 in Rome, though Thomas’ 3 children Zoe, Andreas, and Manuel would at least make it safely to Italy where they would live from here on as exiles. The Morea however would not completely fall to the Ottomans as a number of Byzantine generals would still resist the Ottoman invasion, however in July of 1461, the last Byzantine holdout which was the Castle of Salmeniko held by the Palaiologos family’s relative the general Graitzas Palaiologos would finally fall which would then mark the complete fall of the Morea to the Ottomans. In the meantime, as Mehmed conquered most the Morea and its capital Mystras in 1460, he decided to also end the last remaining Byzantine state which was the faraway Empire of Trebizond at the far east of the Black Sea, and being isolated with no allies around them, Trebizond was a much easier target than Constantinople. The Ottoman Siege of Trebizond however continued up until August of 1461 when the last emperor of Trebizond David Megas Komnenos having no more means to defend Trebizond and being too far away to ask for an alliance with the powers of Western Europe, had no more choice but to surrender to Mehmed II personally who travelled himself east to Trebizond while also conquering another Turkish Beylik in the process of capturing the city of Trebizond. The surrender of David Megas Komnenos to Mehmed in 1461 thus put an end to the Empire of Trebizond that had been around since 1204 under the same Komnenos Dynasty that once ruled Byzantium at its glory days, thus the Fall of Trebizond marked the complete end of the Byzantine Empire as a state, as even though Constantinople fell Trebizond was still a standing Byzantine state with an emperor who still had a claim to the Byzantine throne, but with David surrendering, all claims to the Byzantine throne was gone, and to make sure David would no longer attempt to take back the throne, he was executed in Constantinople by Mehmed’s orders in 1463. In 1462 meanwhile, it was the turn of Lesbos which had been under the Genoese Gattilusio family since 1355 as a Byzantine vassal to fall to the Ottomans, and in 1462 Mehmed’s forces easily captured the Island of Lesbos as well as its last independent ruler Niccolò Gattilusio who was then executed as well when brought to Constantinople.

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Vlad III of Wallachia charges at the Ottomans

Also in 1462, Vlad III of Wallachia decided to launch an attack on Ottoman Bulgaria, which is when Vlad did what he was most famous for in impaling the Ottoman soldiers he had slain in battle, thus provoking Mehmed to go north himself and counter-attack Vlad, although Mehmed was caught by surprise and ambushed by Vlad and his forces at the Night Attack of Targoviste wherein Mehmed was defeated, however Vlad who attempted to assassinate Mehmed here still failed, though Vlad again impaled the slain Ottoman soldiers. In the same year (1462) however, Vlad was ousted from power as the Prince of Wallachia again due to the political instability of Wallachia where their boyars (nobles) who were not for Vlad’s anti-Ottoman policy plotted against him, thus Vlad escaped into hiding once again eventually fleeing to the Kingdom of Hungary which since 1458 order was again restored with a legitimate king in power which was John Hunyadi’s son Matthias Corvinus. In the meantime, Mehmed II succeeded in finally conquering all of Serbia by 1459 making it a full Ottoman province and it is here where Mara Brankovic would return to the Ottoman court this time in Constantinople, however the King of Bosnia Stefan II Tomasevic, ruling the small kingdom to the west of Serbia had attempts to claim the throne of Serbia while Stefan who was also paying tribute to the Ottomans decided to stop which then made Mehmed launch an army and conquer Bosnia, thus in 1463 after a short campaign, the small Kingdom of Bosnia completely fell under Ottoman rule while Stefan II its last king was executed under Mehmed’s orders. Bosnia then became the Ottomans’ westernmost territory and with Bosnia now under the Ottomans, its old capital Bobovac was no longer in use, instead the new city of Sarajevo was built to be its Ottoman provincial capital.

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Skanderbeg, art by HistoryGold777

The last part of the Balkans now that would still resist Ottoman rule was Albania under Skanderbeg who in 1462 and 1463 again defeated multiple Ottoman invasions that in 1466 Mehmed II himself decided to lead the campaign against Skanderbeg himself with about 100,000 troops intending to conquer Albania once and for all. Here, Skanderbeg was for once defeated as his allies from Italy never arrived, however in 1467 the Ottomans once again failed to capture Skanderbeg’s hilltop castle of Kruje leaving Skanderbeg undefeated again, though in the following year 1468 Skanderbeg died peacefully with all of Albania still not yet falling to the Ottomans. To fully conquer Albania, Mehmed had fortresses built all over Albania’s border to block off all reinforcements, however it would be only in 1478, 10 years after Skanderbeg’s death when all of Albania would finally fall under Ottoman rule when Mehmed managed to capture the Castle of Kruje, thus from here on the entire Balkans was under Ottoman rule.

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Prince Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia (r. 1448/ 1456-1462/ 1476-1477)

On the other hand, Vlad III in late 1476 returned to power as Prince of Wallachia but shortly after a civil war erupted in Wallachia due to Vlad’s return wherein the other faction opposing Vlad was backed by the Ottomans, and in early 1477, Vlad III himself died in battle against his rival faction in the Wallachian Civil War, thus Wallachia became an Ottoman vassal again. With Ottoman rule in the Balkans becoming secure, Mehmed II then turned to finishing off the entire Ottoman conquest of all the Turkish Beyliks in Asia Minor where his great-grandfather Bayezid I failed due to being captured by Timur after losing at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, and here Mehmed would in fact manage to succeed in putting almost the entire Asia Minor under Ottoman rule by 1473, and in 1475 Mehmed had also gone as far as annexing a part of the Crimea Peninsula north of the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire, thus giving the Ottomans some access to the now growing Russian principalities.

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Mehmed II’s failed conquest of Rhodes, 1480

In 1480 then, Mehmed the conqueror after conquering so many lands decided to carry out a conquest of the Island of Rhodes from the Crusader Knights still there as well as his ultimate conquest which was Italy, thus he planned a naval invasion of Italy from Albania, however this invasion only lasted very quickly only succeeding in capturing the Southern Italian city of Otranto which only lasted for a few months, while the invasion of Rhodes failed as well. Before Mehmed could launch a full invasion of Italy, he suddenly died in 1481 from an illness at age 49, and although Mehmed II spend most of his reign at war, he had the legacy of repopulating Constantinople turning it once more into a thriving imperial metropolis, and though Constantinople would only be officially called “Istanbul” in the 20th century, following the Ottoman conquest of 1453 with most of the people that Mehmed repopulated it with being Turks, the name “Istanbul” meaning “to the city” already became the new name people popularly refer to the city as, with “Constantinople” or Konstantiniyye in Turkish being just its official name. At Mehmed II’s death in 1481, the Ottoman Empire had gone a long way from a small Turkish feudal state in Asia Minor to an empire covering the entire Balkans- except for a few islands like Crete that was still under Venice- and almost all of Asia Minor taking the place of Byzantium with the addition of the Crimea and Wallachia as vassals, and following his death Mehmed II would be succeeded by his son Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512) whereas the Ottoman golden age would soon arise. Meanwhile for the Byzantine survivors, the most notable ones would be Cardinal Bessarion who would live as a Catholic Cardinal in Italy until 1472 and together with other scholars that would continue to flee the Ottomans, they would further help initiate the Italian Renaissance.

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Andreas Palaiologos, son of Thomas Palaiologos and last bearer of the Byzantine imperial title, died in 1502 in Rome

As for Thomas’ children, the older son Andreas would still inherit the title of “Byzantine emperor” from his father following his death in 1465 which Thomas thus inherited from his brother Constantine XI, however Andreas despite having the title would eventually lose all his money due to spending unnecessarily that he would have to sell of his title to the King of France, however with the King of France’s death in 1498 the title went back to Andreas who in 1502 died in poverty in Rome as the last bearer of this title of “Byzantine emperor”, at least dying in Rome where the Roman civilization which Byzantium inherited all began. Andreas’ younger brother Manuel on the other hand would end up becoming a mercenary captain serving the various nobles of Italy in battle, although being unhappy with his pay in Italy Manuel would return to Ottoman Constantinople dying there in 1512. Out of Thomas’ 3 children, the one with the happy ending however would be the eldest one, which was his daughter Zoe who in 1472 would be arranged by Cardinal Bessarion to marry the Grand Prince of Moscow in Russia Ivan III, thus Zoe would travel all the way from Italy to Russia, and thus this marriage with a Byzantine princess who was the last emperor’s niece would then give Moscow the claim as the “New Byzantium” and “3rd Rome”, and Zoe would then die in Russia as a princess in 1503 unlike her brothers who died losing everything.

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Fatih Mosque, built by Mehmed II over the Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles
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Fall of Trebizond, last Trebizond Byzantine emperor David Megas Komnenos surrenders to Mehmed II, 1461
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Vlad III and his Wallachian army clash with Mehmed II and his army, 1462
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Ottoman era Constantinople, after 1453
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Map of the Ottoman Empire (green) at the death of Mehmed II in 1481

Watch this to learn more about Mehmed II’s conquests after 1453 (Kings and Generals).

In this story’s case on the other hand, things will turn out to be entirely different with the Byzantines and their allies taking back Constantinople in 1458 and with Mehmed II dying together with Constantine XI. In this story, following the death of Constantine XI and Mehmed at midair after their carriages exploded, Thomas would be proclaimed emperor by his troops while all his allies including Vlad III, Skanderbeg, and the Portuguese prince Ferdinand would all recognize Thomas as the restored Byzantine emperor. The day after the Battle of Constantinople, Thomas would at first summon the Ottoman appointed patriarch Gennadius II and have him blinded then exiled thus replacing him with a Catholic archbishop, which in this story’s case would be Cardinal Bessarion who would travel from Rome back to Constantinople to formally crown Thomas as the new Basileus of the Byzantine Empire at the Hagia Sophia which Thomas would have converted back from a mosque to a church again thus removing the plaster Mehmed painted over the mosaics, but rather than making it an Orthodox church again, the 900-year-old Hagia Sophia would from here on become a Catholic cathedral while Bessarion would no longer hold the title of Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, but instead would be the Catholic Archbishop of Constantinople submitting directly to the pope in Rome.

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Statue of Emperor Constantine XI

In his first act as emperor, Thomas would have his late brother Constantine whose body however exploded into dust be declared as Byzantium’s national hero and defender, thus Thomas would order the construction of a massive statue of his brother Constantine XI in full armor which would be placed above the Column of Constantine, the first landmark to be built in Constantinople by the first emperor Constantine I in 330 to mark the foundation of the new capital of the Roman Empire. Thomas would also commemorate the fallen heroes being the Genoese Giovanni Giustiniani and the Hungarian John Hunyadi by also building statues of them around the Forum of Constantine where Thomas would also restore the exiled Byzantine senate in Mystras to, as the forum was the Constantinople’s original senate house. As for his other brother Demetrios, Thomas would still decide to honor him as a hero as Demetrios did in fact defend Byzantine traditions and the Orthodox faith till the very end and at least redeemed himself by turning against Mehmed and opening Constantinople’s gates, thus Demetrios too would be given a special burial in the Church of the Holy Apostles which Thomas would convert from the Fatih Mosque Mehmed turned it into back again into a church. On the other hand, Loukas Notaras would still be seen as a traitor thus Thomas who killed him himself would dump Loukas’ body together with the fallen Ottoman soldiers including their general Zaganos Pasha in a pit to be burned. Now after defeating the Ottomans and taking back Constantinople, the Byzantines would not only take back Constantinople but its surroundings as well as the entire Aegean coast of Thrace all the way to Thessaloniki in which the city of Thessaloniki itself would return to Byzantine rule, and so would the Princes Islands in the Marmara, and the Marmara coast of Asia Minor including the city of Nicomedia thus gaining some of their old heartland Asia Minor back again. All these lands taken back by Thomas would then be under his direct rule, while the Morea which still remained under Byzantine rule would be placed under Thomas’ sons Andreas and Manuel where they would at first govern as its despots to prepare them to one day rule the empire when their father dies.

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The fallen Constantine XI with the first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar (left) and first Byzantine emperor Constantine I (right)

Though at this point, both Andreas and Manuel being only young children- with Andreas only 5 and Manuel only 3- they would at first be only despots in name but under the regency of their mother Caterina Zaccaria- who in real history died in 1462- and here George Sphrantzes- who in real history would die as a monk in 1478- would be the one to train the young sons of Thomas in the Morea to one day rule the empire and tell also them about the greatness and the sacrifice of their uncle Constantine. In this story’s case, the late Constantine’s Serbian wife Mara Brankovic who remained in the Morea while the battle to recapture Constantinople took place would return back to her homeland Serbia never to be heard from again when hearing of her husband’s death. In this story’s case with Mehmed gone, Serbia would again return to being its own independent principality under Mara’s brother Stefan Brankovic who in 1458 took over from his late brother Lazar as Prince of Serbia, while they would never have to face the threat of the Ottomans again, thus being independent again the Serbians would expand once more across Central Balkans taking former Ottoman lands. As for the Ottomans, their defeat at Constantinople in 1458 and the death of Mehmed would once again throw their empire and system into chaos just like back in 1402 after Bayezid I was captured by Timur, and here in 1458 Thomas to ensure that the Ottomans would not return again would have Mehmed’s young sons including his eldest one and intended heir Bayezid who was only around 10 here executed, and in this case Thomas would send Vlad who now became his close friend over to Edirne where Mehmed’s family was to kill them, and as usual of Vlad, here he would impale all of Mehmed’s slain family members outside Edirne. Now with all of Mehmed’s family killed off, the entire Ottoman Empire’s system would fall into chaos, thus the surviving Ottoman generals would flee back to Asia Minor and dissolve the empire by returning again to the old system of disunited Turkish feudal states or Beyliks in Asia Minor like how it was before Osman founded the Ottoman Empire and united the other Beyliks in 1299, and here each of the surviving generals would establish their own separate Beylik in Asia Minor. With the Ottomans now reverting to decentralized Turkish states that would be too busy in conflict with each other, they would no longer pose a threat to the Byzantines and the Balkans anymore. The Duchy of Athens meanwhile which fell to the Ottomans in 1458 in real history would still stay alive and would also choose to ally themselves with Thomas while Lesbos under the Genoese Gattilusio family too would still stay as a Byzantine vassal continuing in paying tribute to the new emperor Thomas. The Empire of Trebizond at the far east of the Black Sea too would not fall in 1461 due to the Ottoman threat suddenly melting away, thus the Emperor of Trebizond David Megas Komnenos would not be its last emperor, and knowing Constantinople returned to Byzantine hands, he too would also ally himself with Thomas.

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Prince Ferdinand Alviz of Portugal (Ferdinand, Duke of Viseu)

The Portuguese prince Ferdinand and his troops would then be given the Island of Lemnos by Thomas in exchange for helping take back Constantinople, and considering that Giovanni Giustiniani who was originally given Lemnos had died, the now vacant Lemnos could be given as a reward to the distant Portuguese prince and his army, thus Ferdinand in this story’s case would make Lemnos his own Portuguese colony. In real history, Prince Ferdinand in 1458 was known to have joined his brother the King of Portugal Alfonso V in a military campaign against Moorish pirates in Morocco, and in this story’s case, Ferdinand after helping take back Constantinople would return west with his fleet and also help his brother in this same campaign in Morocco. In the long-term however, this new alliance between Byzantium and the distant Portuguese kingdom would also give the Byzantines access to rare products that the Portuguese would take from their colonies in Africa, as by this time Portuguese exploration and colonization of Africa’s west coast would continue and even progress, while in case Byzantium would be in trouble from the sea as well, the powerful Portuguese fleet would be there at all times to come to their aid.

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Skanderbeg (left) and John Hunyadi(right), the defenders of Europe against the Ottomans, art by R7artist

As for the independent Lord of Albania Skanderbeg, in return for helping in taking back Constantinople, Thomas would allow him to take over territory in Macedonia, Epirus, and Thessaly considering that the Ottomans who held it were gone while the Byzantines not having much of an army anymore would no longer have much interest in recovering old lands. With the Ottoman threat gone, Skanderbeg in this story would no longer have to constantly defend Albania from the Ottomans, thus he would continue to rule in peace until his death in 1468 while Albania itself would never fall to the Ottomans like it did in real history in 1478. Vlad III of Wallachia too would turn out to be a great ally of Thomas and the now Catholic Byzantium despite Vlad still staying Orthodox, and in return for helping the Byzantines Vlad would be allowed by the Byzantines to annex Ottoman Bulgaria into his already rich Principality of Wallachia, and without the Ottomans in the picture anymore Vlad would possibly not be overthrown as prince by a rival pro-Ottoman faction, thus he would also not be killed in the Wallachian civil of 1477, and in addition Hunyadi’s son Matthias Corvinus would as well become King of Hungary too being an additional ally to Byzantium.

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Zoe Palaiologina, daughter of Thomas Palaiologos, married to Ivan III of Moscow in 1472

In 1472 in this story’s case, Thomas unlike in real history who died in 1465 would still live, and unlike in real history wherein it was Cardinal Bessarion who arranged for Thomas’ daughter Zoe to marry the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan III, here it would be both Thomas and Bessarion that would arrange it; thus, the Byzantines would now build ties with the rising Orthodox Grand Principality of Moscow. In this story’s case, Thomas would die in around 1479 at the age of 70 and would be succeeded as emperor by his son Andreas, and by the time of Thomas’ death Byzantium itself would completely change by adopting the ways of the Renaissance like the rest of Europe did at this time by getting rid of their old medieval traditions and fashion styles and begin to adopt the much more comfortable and colorful fashion styles of Renaissance Italy as well as the new invention of printing presses, while the Catholic faith too would slowly be more and more accepted by the Byzantine people who would in return slowly forget the past and all the bad blood with the Latin west thus filly healing the age old schism with the west, though Orthodoxy however would still live on but no longer the dominant faith of the empire. Now even though the Byzantine Empire once again returned and survived, it would still just continue to remain a small Greek kingdom with no more intention to become a world power anymore like how it was under the Komnenos emperors in the 12th century or under Basil II at the beginning of the 11th century, instead it would be happy with what it has especially considering that they not only survived but helped in destroying that undefeatable Ottomans. In the meantime, there would be one power to rise and see themselves as the “New Byzantium” and this would be the Grand Principality of Moscow in Russia considering that their grand prince married the Byzantine princess Zoe, and considering the Byzantines abandoning Orthodoxy and converting to Catholicism, Moscow remaining truly Orthodox would more and more see themselves as the “New Byzantium”, but this would be a whole different story altogether.

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Map of Portuguese discoveries by 1500
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Constantine XI, the “marble emperor”
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Constantine XI (right) in the 19th century Greek Kingdom poster
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Constantine XI Palaiologos with the Byzantine emperors of the past above, left to right: Constantine I the Great, Justinian I the Great, Heraclius, Basil II, John II Komnenos, and Michael VIII Palaiologos, art by JohnJollos

         

And now we have reached the very end not only of this chapter but of this entire 12-part series and the history of Byzantium altogether, and jut to put it short the Byzantine Empire’s story does indeed show an impressive story of how an empire had lived on for a complete 1,123 years and 18 days in total surviving so many wars, disasters, plagues economic crisis, betrayals, and glorious days and conquests.

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The lifetime of the entire Roman civilization- Kingdom, Republic, Empire, and Byzantine Empire (753BC-1453AD)

The Byzantine Empire too was the civilization that created a link between the Classical Greco-Roman world to the Middle Ages and to the Renaissance as true enough the Byzantine Empire was no other than the continuation of the Roman Empire based in the east that outlived the fall of the Western Empire in the 5th century, that preserved the traditions, culture, and knowledge of Ancient Greece and Rome and fused it together with the faith Christianity, and at the end the Byzantines from the east were true enough the ones to return this knowledge of the past to the west in the 15th century and bring about a new age of learning, art, and development known as the Renaissance which would succeed the Middle Ages and define the next 2 centuries to come. The Byzantine Empire did indeed see the various kingdoms of Europe around them rise from small and weak barbarian tribal states formed by migrants following the fall of Western Rome and grow over the centuries to become kingdoms even surpassing Byzantium in power, while the Byzantines too saw several powers in its lifetime rise and fall namely the Arab Caliphates, Bulgarians, and Seljuk Turks which were powers that both rose and fall within the lifetime of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire’s story was then of one empire that had many ups downs one after the other wherein in so many instances the end of the empire was already likely to happen, but miraculously Byzantium survived all these challenges and continued to live on, and true enough Byzantium still continued to live on deep into the 15th century whereas it could have already fallen when century began if not for the intervention of Timur defeating the Ottomans at the Battle of Ankara. However like all empires in history, it still had to end, and its end true enough happened not so longer after it was supposed to end. On the other hand, the saying goes “where one ends, the other begins” and in this case the Byzantine Empire in 1453 if referring to the Fall of Constantinople or 1461 if referring to the Fall of Trebizond may have only just ended as a state as even though it ended politically, its systems, laws, and culture were still passed on to its immediate successor and conqueror, the Ottoman Empire.

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Family tree of the Ottoman sultans beginning 1299

Although an Islamic power that may have seemed at first as a dark foreign invader, the Ottomans which from 1453 onwards took over Constantinople becoming the “New Byzantium” and “3rd Rome” still continued the systems, laws, military organization, and parts of the culture and knowledge the Byzantines were well-known for, and just like the Byzantines the Ottomans would become as successful as they were as in the 16th century the Ottoman Empire itself would be very much like the Byzantine Empire of Justinian I the Great 1000 years earlier in the 6th century being a major world power. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire would then enter its golden age wherein they would in fact manage to conquer the entire Kingdom of Hungary and finally meet the Portuguese in naval battles for new territories, thus the Ottoman Empire at its height would extend all the way to Central and Eastern Europe including parts of Russia and Ukraine, Egypt, parts of North Africa, most of the Middle East, and the Arabian Peninsula. The Ottoman Empire itself just like its predecessor Byzantium would also have such as strong imperial system that their empire would in fact survive all the way up to the 20th century ending in 1922 after World War I, and the more impressive part is that unlike Byzantium which in their 1,100 year history had a total of 15 dynasties, the Ottoman only had one which was the Dynasty of Osman the empire was named after that lived on in one straight line of succession from the empire’s founding in 1299 to its fall in 1922. Although the Ottomans would have succeeded Byzantium politically, it would be Italy considering that they adopted the knowledge from the Byzantines in forming the Renaissance that would succeed Byzantium spiritually, while Russia on the other hand by the 16th century could also be considered as Byzantium’s spiritual successor for continuing the Orthodox faith and Byzantine imperial culture. Meanwhile, despite the Byzantine Empire drastically shrinking to insignificance by the 15th century, the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 was such a catastrophe to the rest of the world as it true enough showed that an empire over a thousand years old could still fall, thus it sent great shockwaves all over Europe. However, the impact of the Fall of Constantinople would only be evident in the long-term as due to the Ottomans capturing Constantinople, this meant that old routes like the Silk Route to get to lands in the far east such as India and China had been closed off, thus leading to several European powers to have to look for new routes to the far east, thus leading to the rise of new powers such as Portugal which had already been searching for sea routes through Africa and Spain by the end of the 15th century in which the powerful kingdoms there of Castile and Aragon had united power being the Kingdom of Spain.

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Christopher Columbus discovers the New World, 1492

Considering that new routes had to be discovered to reach Asia due to the Fall of Constantinople, an indirect coincidental result of this took place by the end of the 15th century which was that of the discovery and beginning of the colonization of the Americas by the Genoese Christopher Columbus under the new united Spain in 1492 where the rest of world history would entirely change altogether. Meanwhile, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror would make such a name for himself in history for achieving the dream no other could in conquering the once great imperial city of Constantinople as well as the entire Balkans. However, the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos too would have such a great legacy for his part in real history when fighting till the end to defend Constantinople that soon enough so many legends about him would arise such as one wherein he is believed to never have died but rather when charging into the Ottomans for a final time on the last day (Tuesday, May 29 of 1453), and angel carried his body away and turned him into marble so that one day he would take back Constantinople from the Turks.

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Constantine XI, the last emperor with the great rulers of Byzantium’s past above, left to right: Basil II, Manuel I Komnenos, Justinian I, Theodora, Irene of Athens, Zoe Porphyrogenita, art by Gambargin

During the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire in 1821, the legend of Constantine XI would be reborn wherein the memory last Byzantine emperor would play a major role in the Greeks’ fight for independence and due to his sacrifice and his part as a well-loved ruler as the Despot of the Morea before his time as emperor, Constantine XI would in fact be until this day one of the national heroes of Greece, while he too is considered as an unofficial saint though both his parents Emperor Manuel II and Empress Helena Dragas happen to be Orthodox saints. As for the other heroes in this story like John Hunyadi and Skanderbeg they too would be national heroes in their own respective countries Hungary and Albania for their role in resisting the ever expanding Ottomans. Vlad III Tepes too would have the same legacy in being a national hero of today’s Romania where Wallachia was for resisting against Ottoman expansion, however he would remain having a mixed reputation wherein westerners would view him as a sadistic monster for being too extreme in fighting the Ottomans to the point of mass genocide while his own people after his time would see him as their country’s protector, however Vlad’s legacy would turn out to be very well-known up to this day as he happens to be the basis for the famous literary vampire Dracula. Now to conclude this entire 12-part, I thought there would be no other way to make it such an epic by having all of these legendary characters like Constantine XI, Sultan Mehmed II, John Hunyadi, Skanderbeg, and Vlad III Tepes put together in a massive epic battle for the fate of the world, while also showing side stories of the happenings around the world, and also the Portuguese part of the story too would have been very unlikely considering how far Portugal was to Constantinople but again because the Portuguese played such a big role in the 15th century, it was only fitting to put them in these legendary epic with all these other legendary historical figures. Overall, the 15th century with the Fall of Byzantium included was entirely one epic century featuring short lived empire’s like Timur’s Empire, the Renaissance, Hundred-Years’-War, the Ottoman expansion, and concluding with the Age of Exploration. Additionally, since this chapter was to conclude the entire series, it had to be obviously longer than all the other chapters as I also wanted to give a throwback to many of the highlights and historical people mentioned in the past 11 chapters in order to make everything come full circle. Now whether we go with this story’s case wherein Byzantium would continue to live or in real history where it fell, everything at the end still did go full circle as first the last emperor Constantine XI shared the same name with the first emperor, and second as Byzantium in which its imperial culture originated in Rome which was in Italy returned to Italy when those who fled the Ottomans returned to Italy and reintroduced the knowledge of the Classical past there. Now, even if the Byzantine Empire may be gone, there are still so many ways up to this day in the distant future where we can still see its legacy remain which include the landmarks left behind by the Byzantines like the Hagia Sophia and many other churches in Greece, the Balkans, Italy, and Turkey with impressive mosaics and frescos, the laws and political systems many countries still use which were based on Justinian I’s code of laws and other Byzantine imperial reforms, the culture of court ceremonies and lavish events, the Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople that still remains up to this day, and of course the stories of these historical figures in its 1,100 year history that will forever stay with us and inspire us. The big question now would be that if we go with this story’s case of the Byzantine Empire surviving, how would things turn to be for them if they lived up to the very dynamic and crucial 16th century? True enough in the 16th century, just a century after Byzantium’s falls was the only time the name “Byzantine” was invented referring to the empire as well as the negative meaning of the word meaning “extremely complicated”, which is why up to this day we see the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire as two different empires even if they were one and the same, however this would be a totally different story for another time, and as this series would come to an end here, up next will no longer be another chapter but an article to conclude this entire series as a whole wherein I would put in my thoughts and feelings about Byzantine history in general and on this entire 12-part series I started and finished after more than 7 months. Now this is all for Chapter XII, the grand finale of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler, thank you and goodbye for now!

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VI- Irene and Charlemagne, the Wedding of the Century

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 8th and 9th centuries AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter V- 8th Century

“But of Salic land no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman: but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex.” -Salic Law

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Welcome to the 6th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter V of this 12-part series, I went over the Byzantine Dark Ages in the 8th century, the chaos and anarchy, the dystopian-like situation the Byzantine Empire, and the controversy of Iconoclasm or the breaking of icons that may have seemed like a simple issue but at the end caused so much tensions in the empire especially in its long-term relations with the western world, particularly the Church of Rome. The last chapter had also mentioned an event that could have ended the controversial Byzantine Iconoclasm before it could get worse and totally ruin Byzantium’s relations with the west and Church unity as a whole, and this event that could have changed it was if the emperor Artavasdos who only reigned a year (742-743) stayed in power longer rather than losing and being blinded by Constantine V (r. 741-775), who returned to power and continued Iconoclasm to an even higher level purging all those who believed in icons and worked to restore them. However, since the stories in this series despite being in chronological form with one chapter per century, their alternate history scenarios are not continuous with each other, so this means that for this chapter, the events of real history would play out whereas the Iconoclast extremist Constantine V would stay in power and not fall off a castle wall like in the previous chapter. This story then continues not so long after the last one left off and will be set at the turn of the 9th century at the tail-end of the Byzantine Dark Ages and the last days of the Iconoclast period, and therefore this will be the last part of the Byzantine dystopian trilogy which began with chapter IV. Now this chapter in this series will be a very special one as we are now at the midpoint of this series, and the thing that will be different about this story compared to the previous ones is that first it will be more of a direct sequel to the previous chapter as the same plot and scenario as well as characters from the last chapter return here except of course for the scenario of Artavasdos defeating Constantine V in the civil war, so basically it will be something not purely a 9th century story but rather an 8th and 9th century crossover alternate history story. Another unique style chapter VI over here will have which the other chapters will not is that its background part will not be a story retelling the past events, but rather already beginning in the main setting in the year 800 while the lead character here Empress Irene Sarantapechaina or Irene of Athens will be the one narrating the events of the past going back to reign of Constantine V where she comes into the picture being chosen as the wife for his son Emperor Leo IV (r. 775-780).

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Empress Irene of Athens, empress-regent (780-797), sole empress (797-802)

Now Empress Irene was one powerful, ambitious, and even ruthless woman who was basically the one running the empire for 27 years (775-802), first as the empress for her weak-ruling husband Leo IV who being already sickly since birth died too soon, then the empress-regent of the empire for Constantine VI (r. 780-797) who was her son with Leo IV as Constantine VI was never an effective ruler anyway that in 797 he was overthrown and blinded by his mother Irene who then became the sole ruler of the empire, the first woman to rule the Byzantine Empire alone. Irene may have a made a lot of achievements for the Byzantine Empire going from an imperial princess, to empress consort, and also it did not need a large anti-government resistance to end Iconoclasm, instead it only needed Irene as an empress strongly believing in icons to end the pointless issue of Iconoclasm in 787 at the 2nd Council of Nicaea. However, despite her achievements, Irene being a female ruler was not fully secured on her throne as the fact of a woman ruling an empire alone was quite unheard of that it became easy for the nobility to challenge her and in addition, she despite being a strong and decisive ruler was not very good at managing the empire and its economy, getting the whole empire loyal to her, while at same time she ruled an empire that was chaotic, almost bankrupt, and weakened. In Irene’s rule as the sole empress (797-802) and as regent before it (780-797), the Byzantine Empire though was already more stabilized than how it was back at the start of the 8th century where it was still not yet fully stable as the issue of Iconoclasm still split the empire’s population in half, a new Arab power in the east being the Abbasid Caliphate had just begun to pose as a threat to the Byzantines despite the threat of the Arabs by this time being nothing new to Byzantium anymore, to the north the new power of the Bulgarian state or the Bulgars was growing to become more of a threat to the Byzantines, and in the west the ruler of the Frankish Kingdom (France) which was Charles I or Charlemagne (Charles the Great) had rapidly built an empire in such a quick matter of time covering almost all of Western Europe that in the year 800, the pope crowned Charlemagne as a “Roman emperor”, therefore a direct insult and threat to the Byzantines who had always seen themselves as the only Roman Empire and its ruler as the only rightful person to call himself a Roman emperor despite the empire no longer being ruled in Rome or Italy, but from Constantinople. Ever since the year 476 (as mentioned in chapter II of this series) when the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna fell, the Eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire was the only Roman power left, but because in the western lands, particularly the Frankish Kingdom, their law known as Salic Law forbade women from ruling and in 800 with the Byzantine Empire ruled by a woman, the western rulers such as Charlemagne did not see her as legitimate, therefore someone like him could challenge her and be crowned as a “Roman emperor” or more specifically an Augustus– not as “Holy Roman emperor” though as many would confuse it- without even seeking the approval of the Byzantines, although the pope also refused to acknowledge the Byzantine Empire as the real Roman Empire but instead Charlemagne’s new Frankish Empire because the issue of Iconoclasm in Byzantium- as mentioned in the previous chapter- had already grown so much to damage the pope’s ties with Byzantium. Now the rise of Charlemagne may be both a threat but also an opportunity to Byzantium as the mere fact of another king being crowned a “Roman emperor” when there is already an existing one being the Byzantine ruler was a heavy blow to the pride of the Byzantine Empire, but at the same time it could have benefited the much weaker Byzantine Empire since its ruler Irene being a widowed woman and Charlemagne being a widower could have married each other, therefore being the magic pill that could reverse all of Byzantium’s previous setbacks, refill its treasury, and unite the east and west again as one massive empire just like the Roman Empire of old before it was permanently split in half in 395, and this new united empire would be known as the “Frankish-Roman Empire“. The marriage between Irene and Charlemagne that almost did happen in 802 could have put what is now France, Italy, and Germany as well as other Western European countries together with the Byzantine Empire then being Greece, Asia Minor, and some of the Balkans as one large super-empire under two rulers of equal power (Charlemagne and Irene) with two capitals (Constantinople in the east and Aachen in the west), and together both rulers with a massive empire and a massive army of the Byzantine Thematic Army and Frankish knights combined could put an end to all of Byzantium’s external threats like the Bulgars, Arabs, and a lot more together but unfortunately, none of this happened as the idea of Byzantium ruled by a foreigner who was seen as a barbarian, which was Charlemagne was shocking to the people of Byzantium and for considering this marriage but also for failing to manage the empire’s economy, Irene had grown increasingly unpopular that with a single conspiracy by the nobility, she was easily ousted from power by a palace coup later in 802 and replaced as emperor by her finance minister Nikephoros I (r. 802-811), while Irene was exiled to the Greek island of Lesbos dying there just a year later. In this story however, the course of history will change when the marriage between Charlemagne and Irene- which would only be for political reasons- does indeed take place as Charlemagne travels to Constantinople and marries Irene before the plot against her is successfully hatched. Of course, if this marriage did indeed happen which in real history did not, then the Byzantine Empire which was here losing its significance would instead just join forces with the rapidly growing Frankish or Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne, though this union of empires which although would be like a magic pill for Byzantium in terms of reversing all the setbacks in its Dark Ages would also be very confusing as the Franks and Byzantines were of two different cultures and government systems, also it would be confusing in religion as the Franks were Catholic Christians and the Byzantines were Orthodox, so it would be confusing which religion the whole empire would fall under, and lastly in terms of succession as Irene’s son Constantine VI by 802 was already blinded and Irene being already 50 could no longer give birth, while Charlemagne though had sons but the issue would be on who rules the east and who rules the west. Now the big question here is, if Charlemagne and Irene married, would this really be the magic pill for Byzantium, or will it only be very confusing for both empires?           

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Note: Since this story is set from the 8th to 9th centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be now referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

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The Byzantine Empire in 800 (purple)
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The Frankish (Carolingian) Empire of Charlemagne
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Flag of Irene and Charlemagne’s fictional united Frankish-Roman Empire, crossover between Byzantine (red) and Frankish (blue) flags (photo from Reddit)

This article is again another work of collaboration and again with Justinianus the Great (follow her on Instagram @justinianusthegreat) who had previously worked with me in creating chapter III of this series on Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), making this the second chapter I am putting the story together with her. Now Justinianus being a Byzantine history enthusiast as you remember from chapter III is a great fan of Emperor Justinian I the Great as her username certainly suggests, but on the other hand, she is also a great fan of Empress Irene of Athens who will be the main focus of this story. Justinianus here had also suggested that Justinian being the lead character of chapter III would make a comeback here at chapter VI and true enough, Justinian I will return here in this story 3 centuries later as a ghost occasionally coming here and there giving some advice to Irene on ruling her empire. Where Justinianus’ part comes in is basically in adding in some fictional elements from her imagination in filling in the blanks to creating some more background to Irene’s story and personality as she is its main character, and history itself too does not really record a lot about Irene’s full backstory like about her family and intentions, thus leaving a lot of historians to make guesses about her, although here a lot of the details about Irene’s unknown backstory thought of by Justinianus are actually very smart guesses. For the information used here, I again went through various articles online and went through videos on Byzantine history on this era by channels such as Kings and Generals, Eastern Roman History, Thersites the Historian, and of course the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson.

Now before beginning the story, this topic of what if Charlemagne and Irene married is a very popular what if in Byzantine history, and possibly one of the biggest and most popular what ifs in medieval history that has already been covered many times by other alternate history blogs and videos, although this article despite it covering an already popular what if topic will have its own take on it. Since this blog site is about Byzantine history while at the same time to just remind you all that I am not very knowledgeable in the history and society of the Franks the way I am with Byzantium, it will tell the story through the Byzantine perspective, basically from Irene’s and not Charlemagne’s eyes, therefore it will cover a lot more about Byzantium in this time rather than Charlemagne’s Frankish Kingdom and later Frankish Empire in the west. Also, unlike these other videos which cover the long-term effects from this said marriage, this story will only cover its short-term effects for the Byzantine and Frankish Empires limited only to the 9th century. Now Charlemagne or “Charles the Great”, the King of the Franks is an already very famous historical figure, not only in the medieval world but in world history as a whole, so his background does not need to be explained so much in this story, although just to give a quick explanation of who he is, he was the king of the Frankish Kingdom (a predecessor to the Holy Roman Empire as well as to today’s France and Germany) from the Carolingian Dynasty who since coming to power in 768 worked for years to expand his kingdom into a powerful empire by fighting wars against the still Pagan and even Christian barbarians in Europe in order to unite Western Europe and spread Christianity and for his conquests and valor, in 800 he was crowned as “Roman emperor” by the pope.

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Charlemagne (Charles I the Great), King of the Franks (768-800), emperor (800-814)

The one confusing thing here though is that a lot think Charlemagne was the first one that was crowned as “Holy Roman emperor” by the pope and his empire became the Holy Roman Empire, though true enough he was crowned as a “Roman emperor” and his empire would be the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire later on which would begin in 962 with the coronation of Otto I as the first Holy Roman emperor, which is to be discussed in the next chapter. Now having an empire that covered both today’s France (except Brittany) and Germany as well as most of Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia, parts of Denmark, and some of Northern Spain, Charlemagne would basically be remembered as the “Father of Europe” for uniting most of Western Europe and laying the foundations of what would be Europe’s most powerful countries being France and Germany, and as for laying the foundations of a Western European Empire, his empire would also be remembered as the “First Reich”. As emperor, he was not only remembered for his conquests but for promoting art, culture, and literacy which were heavily inspired by that of Ancient Rome and Byzantium, therefore bringing into Europe what was known as the “Carolingian Renaissance” leading the west out of the Dark Ages. On the other hand, at the same time as Charlemagne was crowned as an emperor by the pope in 800, the now much downsized and battered Byzantine Empire was ruled by a woman which was Empress Irene who of course Charlemagne and the pope did not see as legitimate because not only was she a woman but seen as a usurper as well for deposing her son and had no blood relation to the Isaurian Dynasty that ruled Byzantium, except that she was only married into it. In addition, the previous years where Iconoclasm or the breaking of icons ruled Byzantium and damaged their relations with the pope, the pope in Rome could no longer accept the rule of the Byzantine emperor, and also because the pope in Rome had been threatened by the power of the Lombards of Italy while the Byzantines were too busy with their own problems in the east to focus on Italy that the pope had to turn to the Frankish Kingdom for their assistance against the ambitious Lombards, which later succeeded as the Lombard Kingdom was crushed and annexed into Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom, therefore making him an ally of the pope. Irene meanwhile was a significant historical figure as not only was she as strong woman figure that ruled an empire by herself and by her own name, but because she put an end to the controversial Iconoclasm which again helped in fixing the schism between the Byzantines and the Western Church, and when later hearing of Charlemagne being crowned as a new emperor challenging her and Byzantium’s authority, she considered marrying him as a diplomatic way to settle all the differences between the west and Byzantium and to unite the empires becoming one Roman Empire again, but this move was too controversial to the Byzantine people that it never succeeded and instead Irene got overthrown. The climax of this story then will be with Irene and Charlemagne actually managing to marry each other and unite their empires despite their differences, and after the climax being the wedding of the century in 802, the story will go on a bit further to see how this marriage will benefit Byzantium especially on how having a united empire in the west would help a lot in military victories against the Arabs and Bulgars as Charlemagne had previously already displayed success in battle against the Lombards, Avars, and Saxons. This story’s main part will then end in the year 811, where in real history the Byzantines under Emperor Nikephoros I suffered a heavy defeat to the Bulgars under their khan Krum at the Battle of Pliska where the emperor himself was killed and his skull turned into a drinking cup, though this story will explore how this battle could play out favorably for the Byzantines if Charlemagne assisted them, so basically this will be a double what if story. As this series also covers one story per century in Byzantine history with this one being the 9th century story, it will be quite odd that its main part is at the very early part of the 9th century, though the proposed marriage of Charlemagne to Irene as well as the Battle of Pliska in 811 are not the only interesting moments of this century as later on in the 9th century, there are a lot more crucial moments in Byzantine history especially with the rule of the Amorian Dynasty (820-867), the beginnings of the Byzantine Renaissance later on and the spread of Orthodox Christianity to the Slavs in the Balkans, but since the what if scenario of Charlemagne and Irene being married and the union of their empires is a very popular one and something that intrigues me and others a lot, I chose to cover that for this 9th century chapter.

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Map of the Frankish-Roman Empire under Charlemagne and Irene (yellow)
What if Charlemagne marries Irene, Alternate History video (Monsieur Z)

Now this story as the halfway point of this series will be a very big one being a story of two great empires- Byzantine and Frankish- and two influential rulers being Charlemagne and Irene, but of course it will more or less primarily focus on Byzantine society and not medieval Frankish society, which means that the same issue of Iconoclasm from the previous story and how it divided Byzantium would return here, and part of the elements of Byzantine society here will of course include the same old Thematic System in the empire’s administration which was introduced back in chapter IV of this series, and the extravagance of the Byzantine imperial court with all its rituals, court dress, dining, and parties. Now in this story, Irene as the leading character would be depicted as a strong and ambitious woman who at the same time is a devout Orthodox Christian strongly dedicated to religious icons and despite coming from a backwater of the empire then which was Athens although from the nobility, she would also be someone who is ahead of her time for being a woman ruling in her own name, not afraid to make her own decisions for the empire, and someone with a very liberal thinking in such a conservative society, and this can be seen where she is open to marrying someone like Charlemagne who is many worlds away from her in culture and thinking whereas Byzantine women in that time only married who they were told to marry and think only the way they were told to think. To also add a sexy and sensual angle to this story, Irene would be the lead character as a woman who stays beautiful and attractive even as she ages that in an instant, she attracts the much older Charlemagne, who is however just 10 years older than her. As for Charlemagne on the other hand, history always shows him as a great emperor that united Europe under his rule, but for this story’s case just for the sake of experimenting, Charlemagne here will be downplayed as someone who seems to be so great when hearing about him, but in reality as he comes over to Constantinople, the people would just see him as a tired old man that has nothing really special about him, as having done his part now just wants to retire and marry an attractive Byzantine woman he could sleep with, which is of course Irene. Of course, this story to add more story telling element to it will include some suspense, drama, and comedy, as well as a number of important Byzantine figures of this time namely Irene’s finance minister who in reality overthrew her which was Nikephoros the Logothete who will usually be referred to as “the Logothete” – as confusingly enough there will also be another Nikephoros here who is Irene’s brother-in-law- in this story who would be the main villain as he is quite an interesting and seedy character at first being loyal to Irene though only doing this to further his ambitions to become emperor. The other characters this story will heavily feature on would be Irene’s family members from her own family from Athens and from her late husband Leo IV’s side being the ruling Isaurian Dynasty of Byzantium which was introduced in the previous chapter, as well as Irene’s son Constantine VI who here will be seen as a useless and sadistic young emperor that deserved his blinding in 797, and Irene’s eunuchs Staurakios and Aetios who are in conflict with each other. Overall, this story will be the kind of war and dystopian epic mixed together with romance and comedy, but is more importantly a story not so much anymore about Byzantium’s constant conflicts with the Arabs but about their cultural differences, and the other constant theme in the history of Byzantium which was its “Cold War” style conflict with the west that will also play a major part here. In addition, Empress Irene happens to be one of Byzantium’s most popular figures that just recently there is an entire podcast series dedicated to her, check out Icons/Idols: Irene, and before proceeding to the rest of the story I would like to thank the artists (Ediacar, Amelianvs, GeoffreyLi, HistoryGold777, Giuseppe Rava, Androklos, Melissinos Arts, and Byzantine Tales) for providing art for this era in Byzantine history.

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Guide to the Thematic System of the Byzantine army (from Wikipedia); this article contains a lot of terms of Byzantine army units
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Guide to the Isaurian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 717-802; characters here will be featured heavily in this chapter; character illustrations and layout by myself
Watch this to learn about Empress Irene’s life and reign (History Tea Time with Lindsay Holiday)

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- Justinian the Great Joins his Campaigns

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

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


 

The Leading Characters: 

Irene Sarantapechaina “Irene of Athens”- Byzantine empress 

Charlemagne “Charles I the Great”- Frankish emperor

Nikephoros the Logothete- Finance Minister of the Byzantine Empire under Irene

Nikephoros Caesar- Imperial usurper, brother-in-law of Irene

Tarasios- Iconophile Patriarch of Constantinople

Staurakios- Byzantine eunuch official and general of Irene

Aetios- Byzantine eunuch official of Irene

Leo IV “the Khazar”- Byzantine emperor (775-780), first husband of Irene

Constantine VI- Byzantine emperor (780-797), son of Leo IV and Irene

Theophano Sarantapechaina- Irene’s cousin

Anthousa- Twin sister of Leo IV, sister-in-law of Irene  

Christopher Caesar- Imperial usurper, brother-in-law of Irene

Leo the Armenian- Iconoclast Byzantine general

Bardanes Tourkos- Byzantine general, Irene loyalist

Louis I the Fair- Son and successor of Charlemagne

Krum- Khan of the Bulgars since 803

Harun al-Rashid- Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Franks (gold), Bulgars (red), Abbasid Arabs (green). 


The Background Part I- The Isaurian Dynasty and Empress Irene’s Origins        

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It is the year 800AD, and the Byzantine Empire at the turn of the 9th century was stronger than it was at the turn of the previous century. Here, the Byzantines had already taken back basically all of Greece from the Slavic tribes that had raided and settled it for the past 2 centuries, while in the east imperial territory stretched as far as Armenia as a lot of lands were taken back from the expanding Arab Caliphate which had been the empire’s traditional enemy for already almost 2 centuries, though in the west Byzantine control of Italy has been reduced to only the south as well as to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia as almost all of Italy fell under the control of the Lombards and the northern part of it to the Frankish Kingdom. Ruling the Byzantine Empire in 800 was a woman, Empress Irene Sarantapechaina of Athens who at the age of 48 was still stunningly beautiful with long and thick dark hair, green eyes, and a voluptuous figure. Irene however despite ruling the empire alone was not from the ruling Isaurian Dynasty that had ruled the empire since 717 when Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741) came to power, rather Irene was a girl from Athens from the noble family of Sarantapechos who back in 769 married Leo III’s grandson Leo IV who would later be crowned as emperor in 775 following the death of his father Emperor Constantine V (r. 741-775), the son of Leo III. Following Leo IV’s death in 775 after only 5 years as emperor, Irene came to power as regent for their young son Constantine VI (r. 780-797) who in 797 after being in conflict with her was deposed and blinded by his own mother Irene. After blinding her son who although survived it, Irene in this story’s case did not feel much guilt but now 3 years after it, she has become haunted with the guilt of blinding her son.

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Empress Irene of Athens

As the sole empress though, Irene did not choose to reign with the title of Basileus or Greek for “emperor”, but rather in respect for her gender, she still ruled with the title of Basilissa or “empress” in Greek, and in the coins minted with her name and image, she appeared alone but still using the title “Basilissa” which she also used when signing documents. Just a year earlier (799), Irene fell fatally ill that her doctors believed she was already close to death, but luckily she recovered and now in 800 having fully recovered, at the Boukoleon Palace along the shore of the Marmara Sea at the imperial palace complex of Constantinople, she was going to meet with her newly appointed finance minister or Logothete Nikephoros, a man Irene put great trust into as he was first of all an Iconophile (or Iconodule), a believer of icons the way she was, and he had a brilliant mind in finance and military matters, which was something Irene was not so skilled in, and of course he was loyal as Irene valued loyalty from her officials above all else. Now Nikephoros was a man 2 years older than Irene born in 750 in Constantinople in this story’s case, as real history does not record his place of birth, but what is documented are his ethnic origins as the Syriac source Michael the Syrian (1126-1199) and Arab source Al-Tabari (839-923) say Nikephoros is of Arab-Ghassanid descent with his ancestors coming from the Ghassanid Kingdom, the old Byzantine client kingdom at the northern edge of the Arabian Desert which was destroyed by the First Islamic Arab power of the Rashidun Caliphate in 638 before the Arab-Byzantine wars still ongoing up to this time began. In this story’s case, Nikephoros certainly did have Arab blood as seen with his black curly hair and olive skin, and he was proud of this heritage, while at the same time a proud Byzantine and Orthodox Christian too, thus showing a good amount of ethnic diversity and inclusion in Byzantium. Here, barely knowing Irene, Nikephoros was already endlessly charming her by talking about his knowledge of the Arab world and his Arab heritage that here- for this story’s case only- he introduced to Irene an odd drink that the Arabs already had knowledge of at this time, which was coffee, though not the kind of coffee we mostly know of today, but a thick and bitter muddy drink which seemed to be addicting giving someone a great amount of energy when drinking it.

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Arabian coffee

Of course, the Byzantines in their time surely had no idea of coffee even if the Arabs in the 9th century had already been cultivating the bean and drank its liquid and true enough, coffee beans had already been cultivated in Yemen since the 6th century, and Nikephoros here being a descendant of the Ghassanid Arabs traces his origins back to Yemen in which that area was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix, the lesser known fertile southern part of the otherwise desert Arabian Peninsula; and doing this, in this story’s case, he was able to get his hands on this bean and the recipe of how to make it a drink too. When getting a taste of the drink, Irene found the taste and texture odd, but Nikephoros was quite used to it and as they drank it, Nikephoros told Irene a local legend from the Arab traders he acquired the coffee beans from knew of, which was that some time ago, a goatherd in Ethiopia (in Africa) discovered the properties of the coffee bean after seeing his goats act all excited when eating the cherries from a bush wherein the beans were found in, and true enough even the goatherd felt the same way when tasting the bean. Nikephoros though did not fully believe this story the same way it is mostly seen as a legend because coffee beans had certainly already been cultivated in Yemen since the 6th century, which is the side of the story we will stick to here, though on the other hand it was here at the beginning of the 9th century when coffee cultivation became a major thing in the area of Ethiopia and Yemen right across it from the Red Sea, and in this story’s case just too add an interesting element, the Byzantines had already gotten their hands on it from Arab traders. Now that Nikephoros told his rather trivial story, it was time Irene told hers which was also the story of the Isaurian Dynasty she married into.          

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9th century legend of the discovery of the coffee bean by the Ethiopian goatherd
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Location of Arabia Felix
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Boukoleon Palace, seaside palace of Constantinople

The story of the Isaurian Dynasty that ruled Byzantium began in 717 when a Syrian general of low birth named Konon who was Irene’s grandfather-in-law took over the Byzantine throne in a period of anarchy that had seen 6 different emperors in only 22 years (695-717). When coming into power, Konon became Emperor Leo III and swore to end the anarchy period that could have brought the end of the Byzantine Empire and true enough, after successfully defending Constantinople with the help of the Bulgars in the north against the siege of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate in 718, Leo III brought order and stability to the severely weakened Byzantine Empire.

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

In his 24-year-reign, Leo III restored much of the lands in the east that the Byzantines lost to the expanding Arabs, reformed the law, and reorganized the political-military structure of the empire known as the Thematic System which was long story short, basically how the military ran the empire’s provinces as a defense system, but despite his successes Leo III would be controversial for something that damaged the empire a lot internally which was his ban on religious icons first acted on in 726 and made legal in 730. This ban on icons or Iconoclasm soon enough became popular with half the empire’s population especially the army wherein most came from eastern provinces in Asia Minor where their beliefs had been inspired by that of the Muslims and Jews who believed worshiping God or saints through painted images was sinful as it was equivalent to idolatry, and Leo III as a superstitious person blamed all the empire’s setbacks on his people’s excessive use of icons. Half the empire’s population meanwhile especially those from western provinces like Thrace or Greece where Irene’s family came from, or Italy saw the use of icons as a sacred tradition, and hearing that the imperial government as well as the Church of Constantinople put a ban on it deeply outraged them that the people of Italy being encouraged by the pope or the Patriarch of Rome rebelled against their Byzantine imperial authorities that the Venetian lagoon in the northeast coast of Italy declared their independence from Byzantium in 730 forming the Republic of Venice, though still being loyal allies to the Byzantines in business matters.

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Byzantine Iconoclasm under Leo III from the 9th century Chludov Psalter

Leo III having successfully driven away the Umayyad Arab armies from Asia Minor fully came to believe that the ban on icons was necessary and helped the empire a lot and in 741 he died peacefully passing the empire to his son Constantine V better known as Konstantinos Kopronymos or the “Constantine the Shit-Named” as the Iconodules or believers of icons branded him as that for being their worst enemy as an Iconoclast extremist and to simply put it the “Icon of Iconoclasm”, although this nickname also comes from a rumor about him defecating on the baptismal water as a baby during his baptism. Though inheriting the imperial throne from his father, just a year after (742), Constantine V was challenged by his brother-in-law Artavasdos who being married to Constantine’s older sister Anna felt betrayed as Leo III back in 717 promised him the throne in return for helping Leo come to power as his friend and partner, and as Constantine campaigned against the Arabs in Asia Minor, Artavasdos deserted him in battle and proclaimed himself emperor using the restoration of icons as his motive for usurping power and as emperor, he did indeed have the icons that had been outlawed restored but only a year later in 743, his forces were defeated by Constantine V’s in the civil war between them. Losing the war, Artavasdos was blinded by Constantine V as being blind prevented someone from taking the throne, and he was then sent to a monastery to die 2 years later from the injuries caused by his blinding, while Constantine V took back the throne seeing Artavasdos’ rebellion as a sign to make a stronger stance against the use of icons.

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

Constantine V true enough became even more of an Iconoclast extremist than his father that when issuing a ban on religious icons, he also launched a full-scale persecution on people who owned them or restored them, and as part of his anti-icon policies, countless of monks, nuns, and icon painters were either tortured, blinded, exiled, or even executed and regardless of class or age, everyone who went against the emperor’s anti-icon policies were punished. Now Irene was born in 752 in Athens which was part of the Byzantine Theme or military controlled province of Hellas as Constantine V was emperor, and the family she came from which was the Sarantapechos clan was a rich family of great influence in Byzantine Greece. Athens meanwhile which was Irene’s home city according to the English historian John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries (1988), in Irene’s time “was no longer the center of the intellectual world as it was in the Ancient days but a pious little provincial town wherein the famous temple of the Parthenon even became a church”, though the people of Athens were said to be strong supporters of religious icons when it was banned, and Irene and her family was no exception.

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Athens in the Byzantine era

The Sarantapechos family wherein Irene came from however was an obscure family though a wealthy one, and despite being loyal to the reigning emperor Constantine V, they were strong believers in icons, however Irene’s childhood and upbringing in Athens is unclear, but according to Justinianus when creating this story, Irene grew up wealthy and privileged receiving the best education from Greek teachers especially in history, philosophy, poetry, and the arts. Irene too was said to be an orphan but it is unclear when and how her parents died, but in this story’s case, let’s say they died when she was only 10 in 762 when both were on ship which sank during a storm in the Aegean Sea, though it was never discovered by Constantine V that Irene’s parents were Iconophiles, otherwise he would have executed them seeing it as treason. For this story according to Justinianus, Irene was a strong Iconophile growing up especially after her parents died as a way to honor their memory, but the one thing she longed for was an opportunity to get out of her conservative and sleepy Athens and go to Constantinople to make a name for herself. Now back to Constantine V, in 750 his wife Tzitzak an Oriental beauty who came from the Khazar state or Khazaria in today’s Southern Russia gave birth to twins which was first their son Leo named after Constantine’s father Leo III and their daughter Anthousa, although it is unclear if she was really Leo’s twin or the twin of one of Constantine V’s other sons with his next wife Eudokia, but for this story Anthousa would be Leo’s twin. In 750 however, Tzitzak would die shortly after giving birth to her twins, and a year later Constantine would marry Eudokia, a local Byzantine Greek.

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Church Council of Hieria in 754, headed by Emperor Constantine V and Empress Eudokia (left)

In 754 meanwhile at the Council of Hieria, Iconoclasm became fully legal in the empire in the eyes of the Church too, while churches and monasteries were to be legally raided to confiscate icons, but also to confiscate their hidden wealth which was to pay for the army and true enough, all the raids on churches and monasteries grew the army to a more powerful force. Another thing Constantine V would be known for was the breaking down of a number of Themes in Asia Minor such as the notorious Opsikion Theme in half as a way to weaken the power of the Theme’s military governor or Strategos to prevent rebellions, and part of this act was creating the Optimatoi Theme out of the Opsikion Theme, and this new Theme located right across the Bosporus Sea from Constantinople based in the city of Nicomedia was the Theme assigned to the new elite imperial army Constantine V created which was the Tagmata, the emperor’s personal guard that was to be absolutely loyal to the reigning emperor.

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

In the east, Constantine V taking advantage of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate falling into civil war raided deep into enemy territory retaking a large amount of land all the way up to Syria which the Byzantines had lost to the Arabs in the past century. When being able to take back some of Syria, Constantine V relocated its Christian population to Thrace as a way to make the border of the Arab and Byzantine worlds which was the Taurus Mountains a no-man’s land without anyone living there to farm it so that invading Arabs would not want to pass there to invade as they would starve to death without any food supply present there. For his many victories and giving away free food to the population of Constantinople, Constantine V was extremely popular despite his vile treatment to those who opposed him and supported icons, and by being extremely popular especially with the mostly Iconoclast army, he was seen as their hero and true savior that they would die in battle for him, but no matter how popular and well-loved he was, Constantine V too suffered from epilepsy.

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Flag of the Abbasid Caliphate, founded in 750

As for the events around the world, things would be in favor for the Byzantines in the east as in 750 the Arab Umayyad Caliphate based in Damascus had dissolved as it was overthrown by the new Arab Muslim power of the Abbasid Caliphate which needed some time to consolidate its rule, therefore they would not yet pose a threat to Byzantium, and with their capital now in Baghdad they would not be so much of a threat to the Byzantines too as they were farther away than Damascus, the previous Umayyad Caliphate’s capital. In Italy on the other hand, things would be worse for the Byzantines as in 751 their capital there which was Ravenna fell to the Lombards when its last Exarch or semi-autonomous governor Eutychius surrendered it to them being unable to hold it any longer as the imperial authorities in Constantinople neglected Italy too, thus the Byzantines were only left with Southern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia which would become Themes too (except for Sardinia).

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

Now as the threat of the Arabs died down in the east, the new state of the Bulgarian Khanate in the north which had been there since 681 though not yet a massive empire would be the new major threat to Byzantium as after Constantine fortified the northern border with the Bulgars, the Bulgars saw this as a reason to declare war on the Byzantines which they did in 755 and from here on, Constantine V would fight a constant war with them as luckily he did not have to focus on the east anymore with the Arabs no longer a big threat. In 756 Constantine V won a major victory against the Bulgars though was defeated by them in 759, but in 763 after the Bulgars raided Byzantine territory, Constantine V crushed the invading Bulgars at the Battle of Anchialus along the Black Sea coast, and as a result of the defeats, the Bulgarians would be plunged into anarchy with a change of ruler 5 times from 763 to 768.

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Bulgar army, 8th century

Now as Constantine V was busy at war against the Bulgars in the north, it was in 769 when he chose Irene to be the wife of his son Leo, and it was very ironic as Constantine V was in fact the “Icon of Iconoclasm” and Irene was a strong Iconophile, but Constantine did not know it. The reason now to why Leo or even his father chose Irene is a mystery but the most accepted one is that she at the age of 17 was that even if the empire had a lot of beautiful young women for the imperial heir to choose, she was an exceptional beauty and also because Constantine V knew the Sarantapechos family of Athens well, and Irene herself had already proven to be a smart and capable person. Here in 769 with both her parents dead, in this story’s case, Irene would be raised by her uncle which was her father’s younger brother the general Constantine Sarantapechos, who would later on be the Strategos of the Hellas Theme. By this point, Constantine V with his wife Eudokia also had 5 sons together in which the eldest one Nikephoros born in 755 would later be made a Caesar (Kaisar in Greek) in title together with his younger brother Christopher, while the next 3 sons Niketas, Eudokimos, and Anthimos would only receive the title of Nobelissimos.             

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Byzantine Asia Minor’s Themes by 750, under Emperor Constantine V
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Constantine V’s Iconoclasm from the Manases Chronicle
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Iconoclasm- breaking of religious icons and persecution of monks in the Byzantine Empire under Constantine V (743-775)
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Map of the new Arab Abbasid Caliphate (black), formed in 750 replacing the Umayyad Caliphate

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

Back in 800, Irene and Nikephoros continued drinking their coffee while overlooking the Marmara Sea from the Boukoleon Palace, and when looking at the sea and the steps leading up to the palace from the shore, Irene recalled the moment she first stepped there in 769 when she was chosen to marry Constantine’s son the imperial prince Leo and here, she continued telling her background story. On November 1 of 769, the 17-year-old Irene saw the great metropolis of Constantinople for the first time in her life as the ship she boarded from Athens arrived at the dock of this exact Boukoleon Palace greeted by a large number of people and afterwards escorted by soldiers of Constantine V’s elite Tagmata force to the Great Palace Complex (or Imperial Palace Complex) itself and along the way, people all cheered for her for some reason, which was most likely because she was to be the future empress. Irene back then coming straight out of the sleepy and slow city of Athens was shocked with the amount of energy in Constantinople’s streets, but most significantly feeling so important that she had to be escorted by palace guards, greeted by so many people of the high ranks of society, and was cheered by so much people as if she were a big star as back in Athens, no one really noticed her in the streets despite coming from the city’s influential family.

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Map of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex

On the other hand, she was also shocked but in awe with all the landmarks she saw in Constantinople such as the Boukoleon Palace built right next to the sea, the Hippodrome, Great Palace, the Hagia Sophia and its dome, and all the dining halls, bedrooms, and baths all decorated with such extravagance. Irene’s first stop in the Great Palace was her designated room in the women’s section which even had its own bath and personal assistants assigned to her. As the day ended, Irene was invited to a feast at the main dining hall of the palace wherein she would meet the emperor Constantine V himself who Irene remembers as someone at the age of 51 who was quite overweight with messy hair and a messy beard, and there she would also meet his 19-year-old son Leo who was to be her husband, who was short and round in appearance and since he was half-Khazar with his late mother being a Khazar, Leo had strong Oriental features including small and slanted gray eyes, though also having curly brown hair, a round face, and big ears. Being Khazar in his mother’s side, he was known as “Leo the Khazar” also because of his features, though his most recognizable quality was his easy going and nice personality unlike his father who was usually unstable, violent, and quick to anger. Now as Justinianus for this story says, why Leo fell for Irene who was his father’s choice for her out of all young women in the empire was because of her beauty and when meeting her for the first time, Leo was impressed not only with her looks and height wherein she seemed quite tall, but with her quick thinking and confidence that she was not shy to speak to him and his father. The day after she arrived in Constantinople, Irene’s 6 weeks of learning court etiquette began, and usually it would not be this long but in this story’s case as Constantine V noticed Irene’s rather fresh and outspoken attitude whereas women in this conservative society were supposed to be reserved and proper, her time to be taught the right way in court etiquette and protocols had to be extended before she was to marry Leo. Now from something I recently just learned when commenting on a post on Instagram asking about women’s fashion in the Byzantine era, I just found out with all the influences from the Arab world and the movement of Iconoclasm becoming a major factor that impacted the empire, women in Byzantium increasingly became more conservative in behavior and fashion, and in this story’s case Irene was someone who did not want to play along with the conservative ways of the Byzantine court.

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Byzantine female court fashion

Of course in order to be the future empress, Irene had to go through this 6 weeks of training in the proper behavior of an empress, and as the History of Byzantium Podcast host Robin Pierson had said, this would be an endless of process for Irene in learning the proper behavior of the Byzantine imperial court, and part of her training would be on how to talk to people of high status, how to behave in church, how to greet the people and senators, how to respond to foreign ambassadors, and also on how to sit properly when eating, and how to use a fork which was a symbol showing how sophisticated the Byzantines were when it came to dining as other people especially in the western lands did not use a fork. In this 6-week period, the one person Irene would become close to in this story’s case was the eunuch Staurakios who came from a prominent family and was making a name for himself as a eunuch in the imperial court, and in this story’s case only, he would be the palace’s chef who was very skilled at cooking lavish dishes for the imperial court but at the same time, he was also a master at managing state affairs and the army in which he taught some of that to Irene- except for cooking dishes- in these 6 weeks. Another thing Irene vividly remembered about this period of training was when she was taught to dress the proper way in imperial style as the court officials and court women that trained her noticed the informal style of the lose clothes she dressed in coming from Athens wherein they dressed like that, and in so little time 2 dresses were prepared for her which was first her wedding dress for the wedding ceremony and the gold dress for her coronation.

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Ancient Roman/ Byzantine female underwear (evidence from a 4th century mosaic in Sicily)

Irene also remembered that here in this 6-week period as she was in the baths of the palace, she was taught how to wear the imperial dresses by the court ladies where these court ladies had asked her to take off her robe to be examined if her body was healthy, as the wife of the imperial heir had to be healthy in order to give birth to a healthy heir, and true enough Irene was in good health here, though her soon-to-be husband Leo was not. Here too in the baths when dressing down to what was her underwear- a piece of cloth wrapped around the bust and the waist- her body was to be measured for the 2 dresses for the upcoming ceremonies. For Irene, this moment was rather awkward as she had to experience some women she doesn’t know see her practically naked except for her underwear, and even more that these women were to take the measurements of her bust, waist, and hips while she was barely clothed. The women measuring her here would go as far as to touching her breasts and stomach while she was again only wearing her underwear, to see if her body was in perfect shape basically because even the court ladies were attracted to her looks, perfect shape of body, and height. When this 6-week period of preparations ended on December 17 of 769, Irene came out as a fully grown and proper imperial woman at only 17 dressed in the golden coronation dress, which was a tight long-sleeved golden dress that covered almost the entire body, and when fully dressed up she met her husband-to-be Leo IV at the Hagia Sophia where Leo already being made years earlier by his father as his co-emperor placed a golden outer robe on Irene’s shoulders, and afterwards placed a crown on her head, thus Irene was now crowned as a co-empress, or at least an imperial princess and the 4th most powerful person in the imperial authority (first being the emperor Constantine V, then his wife Eudokia, then the co-emperor Leo, and lastly Irene). Now in Byzantine coronation tradition, the Patriarch of Constantinople was to crown the emperor symbolizing that the emperor got his authority from God, but the empress was not crowned by the patriarch but rather by the emperor showing she got her power from her husband, the emperor. Following the coronation, Leo presented Irene dressed in her golden dress and crown to the people of Constantinople from a balcony of the imperial palace. Leo then proceeded to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos in the Imperial Palace Complex while Irene returned to her dressing room to change into her wedding gown, another conservative dress that covered almost her entire body, and then met up with Leo at the Pharos church where the Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople married them, and in attendance was Leo’s entire family including his father the emperor and the senate. At the end of the day, Irene was both crowned and married and with both ceremonies over, she and Leo changed back into more comfortable but still formal outfits for the banquet given to them by the emperor that night. The entire ceremony process would then end only 3 days later on December 20 with a bath ceremony held for Irene, except no one would see her bathe, instead as the palace officials and guards led her to her baths which was already prepared with the tub filled and towels and robes for her hanging, they left her alone to undress, fall into the tub, and take her time. Though now being married, Irene and Leo did not share the bedroom at all times but rather, Leo would frequently visit Irene in her bedchamber and in 770, Irene would be pregnant at 18 but everyone speculated if it would be a boy and true enough in January of 771, Irene gave birth to a healthy boy at the purple room of the imperial palace or Porphyria, a dark room with walls made of purple marble or porphyry and draped with purple silks. This now was another Byzantine imperial tradition as only the imperial wife or the wife of the imperial heir could give birth here as a way to secure the succession of their children to secure legitimacy as no one else but the imperial family had access to this room, and in 771 Irene and Leo’s son Constantine named after his grandfather the emperor was the second one to be born here in the purple room, the first being Leo himself as well as his twin sister Anthousa in 750. With the birth of Constantine who was to be emperor one day, his grandfather the emperor who he was named after threw lavish celebrations including chariot races in the Hippodrome and the free distribution of the purple sherbet drink Lochozema to the people of the capital and after these celebrations, the baby Constantine dressed in a golden robe was presented to the people. With the celebrations over, the Patriarch of Constantinople baptized the baby Constantine, except unlike his grandfather back in 718, he did not defecate on the water though the emperor Constantine V who was right there in that exact same spot many years later still remembered that embarrassing moment, at least from what he heard of. It was also here in her son’s baptism when Irene got herself acquainted with her in-laws such as the empress or Augusta Eudokia who was at least friendly with her in this story’s case, her sister-in-law Anthousa who was Leo’s twin wherein both her Irene would soon develop a strong bond as Anthousa also secretly supported the icons, and lastly Irene would meet the emperor’s much older sister Anna, who being 10 years older than Constantine V was still alive at 63, except she appeared to be cold and bitter as her brother blinded her husband Artavasdos and her sons with him leading to their deaths even if it was already almost 30 years ago when it happened, but where Irene and Anna would later find common ground was in their support for icons as Anna way back then- in this story’s case- led a resistance to restore the icons which failed when her brother took back the throne in 743 which also removed Anna as empress. 2 years later though (773)- in this story’s case as history does not record it- Anna would die and Constantine V too would not have much longer to live.          

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Diagram of Byzantine Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex with the Hagia Sophia and Hippodrome
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Interior of the Hagia Sophia

Back in 800, the conversation between Irene and Nikephoros was already lasting until night and before they could call it a day, Irene proceeded to talk about her life as Leo IV’s Augusta or empress. Back in 768, a year before Irene came to Constantinople, the Bulgarians in the north got a new ruler or Khan which was Telerig and years later in 775, he successfully made Constantine V who was still alive reveal the names of his agents in Bulgaria and when finding about their identities, Telerig had them all executed which made Constantine V even more angry that he decided to again make preparations for another campaign against the Bulgars to the north.

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Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople, burial site of the Byzantine emperors

Before he could march on Bulgaria though, Constantine V while away from Constantinople in Thrace fell ill with a fever and on September 14 of 775, he died at 57, afterwards buried at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, the burial site of all the emperors since the empire’s founder Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337). Following the death of Constantine V, his son Leo IV immediately succeeded to throne without any difficulty as he was already made his father’s co-emperor since he was only a year old in 751, and Irene already being married to him immediately became the empress without any coronation ceremony as she was already crowned at the day of her wedding in 769. In 775 however, Leo IV at only 25 was already obviously in bad health suffering from tuberculosis and his condition disabled him from being a strong ruler in making critical decisions, therefore it was up to his 23-year-old wife Irene who was more able in body and mind to do them for him, and one of Leo IV’s first acts done under Irene’s influence- in this story’s case- was to banish all of Leo’s 5 half-brothers as well as their mother Empress Eudokia in 776 as Irene saw them all as a potential threat.

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Emperor Leo IV the Khazar (r. 775-780), first husband of Irene, art by Androklos

This incident that led to the banishing of Leo’s 5 half-brothers happened when Leo in 776 held a ceremony in the palace wherein he announced to his generals and palace officials that he was sick and did not have long enough to live, and so here he proclaimed his 5-year-old son Constantine as his co-emperor, but the half-brothers were enraged and seeing Leo’s illness as a sign that one of them should soon enough take over the throne, the most ambitious of the 5 being the eldest one Nikephoros Caesar as well as the second brother Christopher the other Caesar hatched a plot to get one of them to succeed Leo. Leo shortly after discovered their plot but with his kindheartedness and relaxed personality, he instead chose to spare his 5 half-brothers and just banish them from the palace and strip off their titles forcing them live in the outskirts of Constantinople, though the conspirators from the palace staff that helped in their plot were banished to the cold and remote Byzantine colony of Cherson in what is now the Crimea (Ukraine), north of the Black Sea. Irene however thought of punishing her brothers-in-law more severely but since they were only teenagers without much ability in running an empire, she chose to go with her husband’s decision, but deep inside Irene really wanted to act on them with force as she felt constantly annoyed with how they treated her, which was that in this story’s case, these brothers being quite unruly and unsophisticated lusted after Irene’s beauty and always attempted to seduce her, but she being smarter than them always avoided them at all times and when banishing them far away, she could get rid of them for good; and with the half-brothers only banished from the palace, this would only be their first attempted coup in taking the throne.

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Emperor Leo IV (left) with his son and co-emperor Constantine VI (right)

Now Leo IV on the other hand being close to his Iconoclast extremist father was also raised to be an Iconoclast, although he was not an extremist as his marriage to Irene in this story’s case somewhat changed his worldview and although he did not believe in the use of icons, he at least tolerated it that his people believed in them as at the end it was only in the army where the hardline Iconoclasts lay and it was only mostly women, monks, and nuns that were strongly for the use of icons, while most of the population again according to History of Byzantium podcast did not really care if icons were legal or not. In his reign, Leo IV undid most of his grandfather’s and father’s extreme Iconoclast policies though not fully getting rid of Iconoclasm, instead only making it more moderate that he put an end to his father’s persecutions of Iconodules, though like his father he sometimes had some Iconodule members in the imperial court fired or whipped only if they publicly showed icon veneration, but on the other hand he no longer continued having soldiers raid monasteries, arrest monks, and confiscate icons like his father did, and instead he returned the monks his father banished back to their monasteries, thus the dystopian era of Iconoclasm was slowly dying down. Leo IV though did not really care about the whole point on breaking icons as he soon saw it was useless and only dividing the empire’s people, and with his failing health too he was more worried about it, and falling for Irene’s beauty here in this story, he listened to her on her opinions on how to deal with the issue on the icons. On the other hand, Leo and Irene would not have any more children aside from Constantine as Leo’s health condition made it hard for him to be with Irene often, as she too did not want to be around too much with a sick husband who was constantly coughing.

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Khan Kardam of the Bulgars (r. 777-803)

When it came to ruling the empire though, there was not much significance in Leo IV’s reign except with one incident in 777 when the Bulgarian khan Telerig was ousted from the throne by the new khan Kardam making Telerig flee to Constantinople where Leo welcomed him, gave him the rank of patrician, and had him baptized as a Christian as here the Bulgars were still Pagan, though Telerig died later that year; and in 778 Leo despite his bad health decided to launch a campaign against the Abbasid Arabs in Syria as fighting a war was part of his bucket list before his death. The invasion Leo launched in 778 was a large one consisting of the armies of the Anatolic, Armeniac, Opsikion, Bucellarian, and Thracesian Themes all led by their own generals or Strategoi (singular: Strategos) and at the end, this campaign was successful in killing a large number of Arabs, winning a number of victories, taking back a large amount of spoils of war, and relocating a number of Syrian Christians to Thrace just as Constantine V did before, and the emperor at least got the honor of leading his men in battle.

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Emperor Leo IV the Khazar of Byzantium (r. 775-780), art by Byzantine Tales

Later in 778, a triumphal procession in Constantinople was held for Leo IV and all the 5 generals who survived where all the spoils of war and Arab captives were paraded, though in the next year (779) the Abbasids struck back invading Eastern Asia Minor but Leo’s army again successfully won repelling the invasion. In 780, Leo IV decided to this time launch a campaign on Bulgaria against its new ruler Kardam but before he could even start, his health grew worse that in this story’s case Irene persuaded him to give up on it and rest, and on September 8 of that year, Leo IV the Khazar died at only 30 from an extreme fever caused by his tuberculosis being the last effective ruler of his dynasty, the Isaurian Dynasty as his son Constantine VI at only 9 succeeded to the throne with his mother Irene as his full-time regent in which she will be for most of Constantine VI’s reign. Leo IV may have ruled for too short, but despite only 5 years of ruling, he was an able ruler considering that he suffered from chronic tuberculosis, although Leo IV’s reign is often called the epilogue to that of his father Constantine V’s long reign. Irene ends her story here in 780 when she came to power already as the effective empress-regent for her son, and here back to the setting in 800 she called it a day saying goodbye to the Logothete Nikephoros as Nikephoros returned to his house and Irene would return to her bedchamber which was not the empress’ room but the emperor’s as with no male emperor currently reigning, she was free to occupy it.

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Cataphract cavalry, elite army of the Byzantine Themes
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Byzantine Cataphracts battle Arabs in Asia Minor

Watch this to learn more about Leo IV’s reign (Eastern Roman History).


The Background Part II- Irene as the Empress-Regent          

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In the year 800, a few days after Irene’s meeting with the new finance minister or Logothete Nikephoros at the Boukoleon Palace, Irene in a gold and purple imperial robe headed to the polo field of the Great Palace where she saw her advisor, the eunuch Aetios playing a game of Tzykanion or Polo, who after seeing Irene stopped and rushed to her reporting about his rival eunuch Staurakios, Irene’s most trusted person before, and here Aetios brought some sad news though happy for him which was that some weeks earlier on June 3 of that year, Staurakios had died from sickness in Cappadocia when raising an army to rebel against Irene and take over the throne despite being a eunuch, although Staurakios seeing that Irene took the throne even if she was a woman thought he could too even as a eunuch.

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Byzantine eunuchs

Irene as the empress put most of her trust into the eunuchs as they were the people she was most acquainted with ever since she arrived in Constantinople back in 769, and eunuchs too being males without reproductive organs were the only men allowed into the women’s quarters as they could not do anything to a woman, and though they had no ability to become emperor, they still had the power to influence one. However when Irene fell ill in 799, both eunuchs being the younger one Aetios’ and older one Staurakios’ rivalry intensified, and the reason for their rivalry was that the old-timer Staurakios felt threatened by the growing influence of the younger Aetios, but the rivalry had also something to do with the succession as Irene with her husband having died years ago and her son blinded and sent to a monastery being unable to rule again had no heir, and she too did not want to remarry or adopt a son as she could also see them as a rival to her power, so without a named successor both eunuchs plotted to make each of their male relatives the next emperor, but neither of their plans succeeded. After Irene recovered a year earlier, she summoned both Aetios and Staurakios to a council to hear both sides of the story and at the end, she just dismissed Staurakios at least with an apology except doing nothing severe to him but only decreasing his power, but feeling insulted Staurakios headed over to Cappadocia to raise an army with the support of the Anatolic Theme’s Strategos which was the empire’s most powerful general against both Aetios and Irene but in June of this year (800), again after getting an illness that caused him to cough out blood, Staurakios died and his rebellion failed. Irene felt disappointed here as Staurakios was someone she put a lot of trust into and all of sudden after feeling cheated despite not being removed from his position, he rebelled, though to tell more about Staurakios, Irene here told Aetios the full story that Staurakios was indeed a loyal official, general, and chef who Irene knew ever since she got to Constantinople, and it was in 780 when she came to power as her son’s regent when the eunuch Staurakios also rose in influence.           

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Tzykanion, Byzantine polo, art by Amelianvs

20 years earlier in 780, after Leo IV died, his son with Irene Constantine VI became emperor at only 9, therefore the task was left to Irene to rule as the effective ruler of the empire as Constantine VI was too young to make his own decisions, though following Leo IV’s death Irene came up with rumors that he died by putting on the crown of the former Byzantine emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) which gave him a curse causing him his death, as a way to explain why their emperor died too soon. Staurakios who in this story taught Irene the proper dining etiquette, introduced her to a number of cuisines including Byzantine, Arabic, Persian, and Frankish, turned Irene from a country girl to a sophisticated imperial woman, and helped secure her position as the empress-regent as a big percent of the army, mostly being the elite guard force or Tagmata opposed Irene as not only was she a woman but a supporter of the icons whereas most of the army were still extreme Iconoclasts undyingly loyal to the late Constantine V.

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Byzantine Tagmata, imperial guard unit

The soldiers of the Tagmata refusing to answer to Irene and Constantine VI wanted a son of Constantine V on the throne, and the perfect choice was the Caesar Nikephoros, the most ambitious of Constantine V’s 5 sons with Eudokia that were banished from the palace 4 years earlier, and although Nikephoros was never really a strong Iconoclast, he did have some imperial ambitions and so here in 780 he was proclaimed emperor by the Tagmata army in honor of their hero Constantine V, although just a month after the plot was hatched, Irene discovered it and had the conspiracy leaders exiled and Nikephoros and his 4 younger brothers made priests as a way to prevent them from taking the throne as priests and monks were also unqualified to rule. To confirm to the people that Nikephoros Caesar and his 4 brothers were made into priests, Irene had them perform the communion service at the Christmas Day Mass of 780 at the Hagia Sophia, and here the 25-year-old Nikephoros who was tall and muscular in appearance with large and dark curly hair, pale skin, and a long nose looked the most humiliated being forced to give communion to the people at the Mass. In 781 then, Staurakios was appointed by Irene as the empire’s foreign minister or Logothetes tou Dromou as Irene trusted eunuchs above all as her ministers and generals, as the rest were still loyal to the late Constantine V and therefore strong Iconoclasts and as for Staurakios, the contemporary historian Theophanes the Confessor (758-817) would call him “the foremost man of his day and in charge of everything” as if Irene was the power behind Constantine VI, then Staurakios was the power behind her. It was also in 781 when the Frankish king Charles I, later known as Charlemagne who had ruled the Frankish Kingdom since 768 first came into the Byzantine scene when Irene considered making an alliance with him by marrying her son Constantine VI to Charlemagne’s 6-year-old daughter Rotrude, known as Erythro by the Byzantine Greeks and Irene herself even sent Byzantine scholars to the Frankish Kingdom to educate the young Rotrude in the Greek language and Byzantine customs. In 782 meanwhile, the war between the Byzantines and their eastern neighbor the Arab Abbasid Caliphate would resume when the caliph Al-Mahdi launched an invasion on Byzantine Asia Minor with an army of 100,000 men led by his son Harun al-Rashid as payback for their defeat to the Byzantines under Leo IV back in 778 and 779, and this totally shocked Irene but still acting strong, she had the armies of the Themes in Asia Minor counter-attack, except things only got worse when the Strategos of the Bucellarian Theme (located in Northwest Asia Minor) Tatzates defected to the Abbasids, thus the Byzantines despite having a strong army with the elite Cataphract cavalry was defeated, although Tatzates still suggested to Harun to make negotiations with the Byzantines. Imperial envoys from Constantinople including Staurakios would meet up with Harun in Asia Minor where they would be captured by Harun’s Arab forces while Harun only agreed to release them if Irene was to pay off the Abbasids a tribute of 70,000 gold dinars and 10,000 silk garments a year for the next 3 years, and not wanting any trouble Irene agreed to it. Irene however was deeply humiliated with her defeat to the Arabs, and so to make up for it in order to gain back her popularity, in the next year (783) she sent Staurakios to command an army to campaign in Greece against the Slavic tribes that had settled there for almost 2 centuries. Staurakios marched into Greece by land from Constantinople passing through Thrace heading east to Macedonia, then south to Thessaly, and finally to the Peloponnese in Southern Greece where at the end of the year he managed to take back a large amount of territory from the Slavs and in early 784 when returning to Constantinople, the victorious eunuch general Staurakios was awarded with a triumph. Now satisfied with reconquering most of Greece in 784, Irene returned to consolidating her rule and even though only the empress-regent for her son, she put her image on the right side of the coins even if that space was reserved for the emperor which was where her son was supposed to be, but instead Constantine VI was only put on the left, as Irene wanted to show that she was actually the one really wielding power, and now being the one wielding real power Irene at this time had made the achievement of creating a new army unit known as the Vigla which was a division of the Tagmata.

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Patriarch Tarasios of Constantinople, appointed by Irene in 784

Irene then would turn to the more serious issue of Iconoclasm and how to end it, as in her husband’s reign it had already been dying down and now running the empire, she wanted to achieve the legacy of ending Iconoclasm but it was such a challenge as most of the army was still for it, and the policy had been already in effect for more than 50 years and so for Irene, she would only have to wait for the right moment to put an end to it, and luckily in 784 too, the Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople Paul IV who Leo IV appointed in 780 had died. When selecting a new candidate for patriarch, Irene as usual when it came to appointing people loyal to her chose her loyal secretary and fellow Iconophile Tarasios as the new Patriarch of Constantinople who despite having no background as a priest and being rather oblivious at most times was a skilled scholar especially in philosophy and theology and after being ordained, he became patriarch and would work to restore icons. In 785, Irene wrote a letter to Pope Hadrian I in Rome signed both by her and her son Constantine VI which was to approve a council aimed to undo all the Iconoclast policies by Leo III and Constantine V before them and return to the old ways of venerating icons, and in return the pope approved of it if both mother and son were to follow his spiritual guidance.       

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Army of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate

Back in the present setting of 800, Irene after her discussion with Aetios in the polo field headed to one of the storage rooms in the palace alone where she saw an old coin of her with her son with her on the right side, as well as a coin of her late husband Leo IV with their son on the obverse and on the reverse were the images of Leo IV’s father Constantine V and grandfather Leo III who founded the dynasty and since this coin was minted in the Iconoclast period, no religious images such as of Christ were to be seen and instead images of the imperial family were put but with Iconoclasm over in Irene’s time, religious images returned to imperial coins.

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Coin of Irene and Constantine VI with Irene on the right

Another thing Irene found in the storage room was a document signed in the council of 787 that restored the use of icons. Now back to 786, Irene together with Patriarch Tarasios made their first attempt to end Iconoclasm by holding a Church Council at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, the burial site of the emperors but before the negotiations even started, the Iconoclast soldiers of the Tagmata force, most of them having served Constantine V were still at it and attacked the church by firing arrows at it in honor of the late Constantine V and being too distracted, Irene decided to not push through with it, and so the council was disbanded leaving the soldiers to lift their siege on the church. Irene however was still intent to hold a council and in order to do it safely, she decided to hold it in the next year in the city of Nicaea right across the Sea of Marmara from Constantinople and to keep the Iconoclast soldiers distracted in order to peacefully hold the council, she sent them to all corners of the empire to defend it including to the eastern border to fight off the Abbasids.

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2nd Council of Nicaea in 787, Irene and Constantine VI leading it

On September 24 of 787, the Second Council of Nicaea was held with Irene together with Patriarch Tarasios and Emperor Constantine VI as well as 365 bishops and 136 priests and monks in attendance, and the council was made to discuss the restoration of religious icons held in the Hagia Sophia of Nicaea which was also its senate hall and was the same place where the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I held the First Church Council in 325 that set the official creed for Christianity. At the end, all agreed that icons were to be restored and legalized once again, coming up with the statement that Christ had been seen on earth as a human, therefore he can be pictured. The final meeting was then held back in the Magnaura or Great Hall of the imperial palace in Constantinople on October 13 of 787 where the declaration to restore icons was signed by both Irene and Constantine VI, although Irene as usual of her signed it first to assert her authority, but no matter who signed first, the period of Iconoclasm ended right here and from here on, icons were to be restored all across the empire, although Iconoclasm was still around with the soldiers still loyal to Constantine V still in their posts. It also happened that in 787 Constantine VI turned 16 and at that age, the emperor was already expected to rule alone but, in this case, Irene never trained him to be an emperor as she still wanted to continue ruling for him, as after she got a taste of power she never wanted to let go of it.         

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End of Iconoclasm at the 2nd Council of Nicaea, 787
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Coin of Emperors Leo IV and Constantine VI (left) and of Leo III and Constantine V (right)
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Empress Irene restores icons, art by Ediacar

Irene back in 800 remembering holding the last meeting of the council at the Magnaura of the palace returned there to see it once again while it was not being used for the meantime, and when stepping foot there again she remembered another incident that happened there in 788 which was the first ever imperial bride-show in Byzantine history organized by Irene for her son Constantine VI wherein he was to choose his bride. Though before this bride-show, Constantine VI was still engaged to the King of the Franks Charlemagne’s daughter Rotrude except that here in 787 Irene feared that if her son married Rotrude then Charlemagne would attempt to claim the Byzantine throne so to avoid that possibility, Irene cancelled the engagement against her son’s wishes, though this only enraged Charlemagne using this as an excuse to invade and attack Byzantine territory in Southern Italy as well as the Istrian Peninsula (Northeast Italy) in 788.

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Emperor Constantine VI (r. 780-797), son of Irene and Leo IV

With the engagement broken off, Irene organized a bride-show in the Magnaura of the imperial palace wherein several daughters of noble families from across the empire were brought there and the imperial heir was to choose one of them to be his wife, instead here the teenage Constantine had no say and instead Irene chose the bride for him which was the pious and plain looking Maria of Amnia, a Greek from Central Asia Minor and the reason for this- in this story’s case- was that Irene wanted her son to still think she was the most beautiful person to him. Constantine VI however totally resented not being able to choose his wife, but he still married Maria out of respect for his mother but because of not being able to make his own choice even in choosing his wife, this is when the bitter conflict between Constantine VI and his mother would begin and from here on, Constantine would never want to follow his mother’s advice and would even distance himself from her. By 790 with Irene still never wanting to let go of power, Constantine VI at 19 came up with a plot and here betraying his cause of restoring icons as to gain a big support base, he sided with the still Iconoclasts in the army who hated Irene, and the aim of their conspiracy was to banish Irene to the still Byzantine-held Sicily and have all her ministers including Staurakios banished. Irene however learned about the plot before it came to full effect and to punish Constantine for plotting against her, his own mother, she put him under arrest in his room in the imperial palace and his conspirators either arrested and turned into monks. Some months later though, civil war was about to erupt between the forces loyal to Irene and those loyal to her son, and the majority of them from Asia Minor was loyal to Constantine VI proving they could defeat the forces of the European side of the empire loyal to Irene, and so here later in 790 the army of the Armeniac Theme rebelled proclaiming Constantine VI as the sole emperor and fearing the possibility of civil war, Irene released her son to please the troops loyal to him. Though when being released, Constantine VI was still against his mother and so to get back at her for putting him in room arrest, he in return had her placed under house arrest at the Palace of Eleutherius outside Constantinople which she had built, while a number of her ministers were banished to the far corners of the empire and Staurakios was at first whipped in public and then exiled to the Armeniac Theme. Constantine VI now was fully in charge of the empire and highly popular, except by having no proper training to run an empire from his mother and her officials, he proved to be weak in decision making, easily persuaded, could not think for himself, and the worst part was that he soon lost a lot of allies when he showed that he was not really a real Iconoclast and only used it as a way to gain support.

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Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate (786-809)

In 791, the new Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid who back in 782 attacked Byzantine Asia Minor, after coming to power over the Abbasid Caliphate in 786 launched another attack into Byzantine Asia Minor, and here the Abbasid Arabs won a victory over the Byzantine forces, thus Constantine VI’s incompetence in ruling the empire was exposed especially when he agreed to pay heavy tribute to the Abbasids. Now Harun al-Rashid on the other hand happens to be one of the most renowned Arab leaders that the famous story Arabian Nights features him as one of its leading characters. As for Constantine VI still wanting to prove he was not overall incapable in leading the empire, in the following year (792), he personally launched a campaign against the Bulgars in the north leading the army in battle himself, although the Bulgar khan Kardam here already knew the Byzantine army was weak hearing of their defeat to the Arabs the previous year and so he used this to his advantage. Constantine VI unsurprisingly headed off to battle with his troops poorly prepared, and with him not knowing about the landscape of the battlefield lost here at the Battle of Marcellae, in which was the exact same place his grandfather Constantine V defeated the Bulgars back in 756. The Battle of Marcellae here in 792 then ended with a significant part of the Byzantine army destroyed, most of the Byzantines’ valuables and coins as well as horses seized by the Bulgars, and even the emperor’s tent captured by Kardam whereas Constantine VI fled to save his life returning back to Constantinople. Following his defeat, Constantine VI even lost more allies that he had no choice but to release his mother Irene from palace arrest and return her to power as his empress-regent and by doing this, the Iconoclast troops especially the Tagmata saw this as Constantine’s complete betrayal of them that later on in 792, the Tagmata dragged Constantine’s uncle Nikephoros now a priest out of the monastery he was sent to and proclaimed him for the 3rd time as emperor, though this time he no longer had any intentions of being emperor and had nothing against Constantine VI and so did his younger brothers. When hearing of this plot against him, Constantine VI had his uncle Nikephoros brutally blinded even if he had no intention to rebel while for the other uncles Christopher, Niketas, Eudokimos, and Anthimos, Constantine only had their tongues cut out even if they were completely innocent as here in this story, Constantine found his uncles to be nothing but very loud and annoying anyway, and afterwards, they were all imprisoned in a monastery outside Constantinople. With Irene restored to power, she also restored her exiled ministers including Staurakios back to their positions while here the eunuch Aetios would come into the picture already rising to prominence in the imperial court.

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Byzantine imperial bride show for Constantine VI with Irene behind him, 788
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Bulgar army at the Battle of Marcellae, 792

Watch this to learn more about Constantine VI’s reign (Thersites the Historian).


The Background Part III- Irene’s rise to Sole Empress          

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In the present setting, time had already gone by and here it was already early in the year 801 with Irene still as sole empress while Tarasios who was appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople back in 784 was still the reigning patriarch. On this winter day in 801, a function was to be held later that night wherein ambassadors from the Frankish Kingdom were to come over to Constantinople to bring in some news, and Irene here was anxious of it. Irene though was also thinking of what to wear for the event and what she had in mind was something quite unusual and this dress of hers was in her dressing room in the palace and as she headed there, she met up with her old friend and sister-in-law Anthousa, Leo IV’s twin sister who was now 51 here but just like Irene, she still looked like she hadn’t aged too.

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Anthousa, twin sister of Leo IV, sister-in-law of Irene

Now Anthousa had not appeared in quite a long time, but in the past when Irene was empress-regent for her son, she asked Anthousa a number of times to be her co-regent but Anthousa refused as she was a simple ascetic woman who chose to live a simple life. In real history, Anthousa spent most of her life as a nun but in this story’s case, she lived half the year every year as a nun in a nunnery and the other half in the imperial palace. Anthousa like all women in her Iconoclast family was devoted to religious icons and in rebellion against her father Constantine V many years ago who asked her to marry, she instead refused and chose a monastic life in which she would live half the year. Just like her twin brother Leo IV, Anthousa also had strong Oriental features such as small gray eyes, and like Leo she had brown hair and pale skin but was much taller compared to Leo, though despite living an ascetic life, in the palace she wore the silk palace dresses worn by imperial princesses but beneath it, she wore an uncomfortable hair-shirt which was a vest made up of irritating animal hair worn for repentance purposes, which reflected her vow of simplicity and here she was wearing just that beneath her outfit. Irene on the other hand was the opposite and loved wearing elaborate dresses which was something she adapted to all these years in the palace and right here as she was going to be all dressed up, Anthousa who was also her personal assistant was to fix her hair and help her dress up. When Irene put on a white silk dressing robe as Anthousa was to fix her hair, Irene would continue telling her story on how she became the sole empress, and it was here in 792 when she was restored to power by her son when she asked Anthousa to be her co-regent, but Anthousa refused.

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Inside Constantinople’s Great Palace

          

In 792, despite Irene coming back to power, Constantine VI still asserted himself as the effective emperor, though Irene was still more popular here and she would do all it took to make her son fail in order to fully get him out of the way and this included, in this story’s case, encouraging him to brutally suppress a revolt in the Armeniac Theme wherein Constantine had the rebellious general there Alexios Mosele blinded, and out of his own cruelty he massacred a large number of the rebellious population in the Theme, thus the people of this Theme who had strongly supported him became his biggest enemy. Constantine VI though with his wife Maria of Amnia back in 790 had a daughter named Euphrosyne, thus making Irene a grandmother at 38, although with his wife Constantine failed to produce sons and in 794 when getting tired of his boring wife, he chose to divorce her which was an illegal act, although Patriarch Tarasios ignored it and the divorce happened, but it created a lot of controversy as it was against Church Law making many monks turn on Constantine VI and side with Irene. Constantine VI later in 795 would marry his long-time mistress Theodote who was a Greek beauty, though this would even make the tensions between him and his mother even stronger, and here with the monks supporting Irene because of her devotion to icons, her support base was even stronger than that of her sons’.

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Empress Irene and her son Constantine VI

In 795 as well, Constantine VI launched another campaign against the Bulgars in which he was successful at this time, although no one cheered for him in the empire as he was rapidly losing his popularity. In 797, Constantine VI resumed his campaigns in the east as Caliph Harun al-Rashid continued raiding into Asia Minor again but before even going that far as when Constantine was at the baths in the city of Prusa in the Opsikion Theme right across the Marmara Sea from Thrace, he received fake news that the caliph withdrew his forces before he even began the war, although it was only Irene who came up with this as a way to get her son back to the capital, and so Constantine returned to the capital, however when returning he just realized literally everyone turned on him that people threw stones at him and shouted insults at him calling him “loser” and “idiot”. Constantine then decided to flee Constantinople when seeing everyone was against him but when reaching the dock at the Bosporus, the elite Vigla guards of the Tagmata had already been bribed by Irene, therefore they seized Constantine, beat him up, chained him, and dragged him to the imperial palace. Here on August 17 of 797, the unconscious Constantine VI woke up in the exact same purple room he was born in 26 years ago in 771 where he was met by his very enraged mother who was tired of having to deal with her incompetent and cowardly son and ruling with him, and thinking imprisoning or exiling him was not enough as someone would again return him to power one day, Irene would instead commit one of the most brutal acts in Byzantine history, and the dark and creepy purple room where he was born in 26 years ago was the last thing Constantine would see as here, the brutal emperor was brutally blinded by a court eunuch which in this story’s case was Aetios acting on Irene’s orders. Some sources including Robin Pierson in the History of Byzantium Podcast say that with the blinding being so brutal, Constantine VI would die shortly after, although this story would go with the version that after his blinding, Constantine VI was sent by ship just to one of the islands in the Marmara Sea known as the Princes’ Islands just a few kilometers from Constantinople to be put in monastery arrest for the rest of his life dying years later. Just right after Constantine VI was blinded, an unnatural natural event took place in Constantinople which was a solar eclipse and here for 17 days straight, the sky turned black although right here as Justinianus put it, Irene did not feel any sense of guilt at all and instead totally felt like she did not care while the rest of Constantinople’s people saw this solar eclipse as an act of God punishing Irene for blinding her son, and although Constantine VI was hated, the people still found what Irene did to him a bit too much.  

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Meme of Irene blinding Constantine VI, 797

           

Back in 801 as Anthousa continued doing Irene’s hair, Irene recalled this solar eclipse that began her reign as the sole empress in 797 and even though she was already the sole empress, she was not fully secure and popular as everyone knew she blinded her son, and even for the Byzantine society that was so used to all this violence and blinding, they could not accept the fact of a mother blinding her son for her own gain, although Irene only saw it as necessary as her son was ruining the empire anyway with his brutality and incompetence. Irene’s first act as the sole empress was to compensate for this vile act to make herself more loved again, and to do this she had to do something no Byzantine ruler would do which was to cut taxes for the people of Constantinople in half as well as to lower the taxes for imports and exports, though for the nobility most saw this as an act of weakness shown by Irene, as a strong emperor would always think of increasing taxes. The people of the empire meanwhile were not as surprised with Irene as the sole empress as ever since the early days in the 5th century, the Byzantine Empire had moments of being ruled by a strong woman figure behind her husband, son, or brother, but Irene was the first one to rule alone not as a regent but as an empress with full imperial power. In the history of Byzantium, the empire had seen everyone from aristocratic or low-born generals, to palace officials, common soldiers, even a tribal chieftain from the mountains of Isauria, and a low-ranking tax official become emperor, but here it was unusual as it was the first time a woman who was not even from the ruling dynasty but instead only married to it that became the ruler of the empire.

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Coin of Empress Irene colored, art by GeoffreyLi

On the other hand, with Irene being a woman, a portion of the army in Asia Minor in 797 rebelled and for the 4th time chose to elevate the Caesar Nikephoros despite having been blinded back in 792 as emperor. Irene discovering another plot to make her brother-in-law Nikephoros emperor again acted quick and had Nikephoros’ 4 younger brothers blinded too, and then had them all moved to Athens to get them further away where Irene’s surviving family members there would watch over them. However, in 799 another plot made by the army in Greece which was that of the Hellas Theme again chose to proclaim Nikephoros as emperor now for the 5th time and when hearing about this, Irene had all 5 brothers moved out of Athens to one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara near Constantinople- though not the one Constantine VI was in- to keep them under closer watch. At the same time, the threat of the Abbasid Arabs was still at large in the east and Irene not wanting to continue conflicts with them as there was so much in her mind, chose to pay tribute again to Caliph Harun al-Rashid, which was an amount even bigger than what her son had to pay before. Irene then moved on to talking about her illness just 2 years earlier wherein Staurakios and Aetios used it to have a power struggle between themselves but Irene on the other hand in this story’s case, when getting this illness would start feeling some guilt for blinding her son, seeing the illness as a punishment from God for doing just that. Here in 801, Irene was now feeling guilty for the blinding but with a big function that was to happen later that day, Irene had to hide her emotions, which was something she learned when being trained in the proper court etiquette many years ago. With Irene’s hair now completed styled in a way with her long wavy hair put down in an orderly way, she still remained seated as Anthousa who was to dress her up picked up the dress for Irene which was just hanging.

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Irene in the purple dress, front view, art by myself

The dress Irene was going to wear was something unusual for the conservative Byzantines as it showed a lot of skin completely exposing her shoulders and upper chest, though in length it extended all the way to the floor, and this purple silk dress lined with gold was to be wrapped around her body wherein the dress itself went from the top of her bust down to her feet. As Irene stood and removed her dressing robe dressing down to her underwear- the same type mentioned earlier- Anthousa here did the job of wrapping the dress around Irene’s body as the cloth that was basically the dress was too heavy for one person to do the job of dressing up. Here, Irene started with holding the long cloth over her skin at her stomach area while Anthousa began wrapping it around Irene’s body passing through the back heading upwards and coming back to the front again wherein the cloth was wrapped over her bust, and then wrapped to the back again where the dress would basically spiral around her body ending back at her feet again.

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Irene in the purple dress, back view, art by myself

To keep the dress in place so that it wouldn’t slip out considering that the dress itself was basically a large piece of cloth with no buttons or zippers to hold it up, Irene put a silver jewelled belt around her waist while Anthousa pinned the back of Irene’s dress with a pin, which also pinned her underwear for her chest to the dress in order to conceal it, as the back part of Irene’s dress exposed more skin at her back below the level of her chest underwear. In addition as a way to show her true shape of body, Irene had this dress wrapped tightly around her body, and when fully done she pushed her bust up a bit by tightening the top of her dress to show its full form as well before putting on the rest of her jewellery. Now this revealing purple wrap-around strapless silk dress had already appeared in the universe of this Byzantine Alternate History series in chapter III worn by the 6th century empress Theodora (527-548) and her successor empress Sophia (565-578), and as for Irene in the universe of this fan fiction series, when discovering old documents from the 6th century, she decided to replicate this dress with the exact same style, although no one really saw her in it except for her late husband Leo IV once when he was emperor between 775 and 780 and her son Constantine VI as Irene always tried to make herself look attractive in front of them. As the end result, Irene at 48 still looked exceptionally attractive in figure wearing this, and all prepared for the function that night wherein it would be the first time she would be seen wearing it in public.          

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Empress Irene in the purple silk dress, art by Powee Celdran

After Irene got all dressed, the function at the Magnaura of the Imperial Palace began, and the important guests included Irene’s loyalists Aetios, Anthousa, Nikephoros the Logothete, the patriarch Tarasios, and Irene’s cousin Theophano Sarantapechaina all the way from Athens, a woman who looked much like Irene except younger and a bit on the fat side though still attractive with thick long hair and brown eyes. Theophano of Athens was indeed a real historical character who became empress later on, though it was only said she was a relative of Irene, however in this story’s case Theophano would be Irene’s younger first cousin and the daughter of her uncle Constantine who here was the current Strategos of the Hellas Theme. Of course, in this function there was sophisticated food and cocktails as well as wines from Greece and Asia Minor, though when seeing Irene enter, some people were shocked to see how much of her bare skin was exposed when wearing that dress but others were in awe seeing how attractive she still was even at 48, but on the other hand the dress was very comfortable and soft for Irene despite it being loose and unstable as it was basically just a large piece of cloth wrapped around her body. The main purpose of this function however was that everyone was here to receive word from Charlemagne’s Frankish Kingdom in Western Europe, although news did not come from Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen but from Rome itself, which now had been independent from the Byzantine Empire since 754 and put under the Papal States ruled by the pope, though under the protection of the Frankish Kingdom.

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Frankish Empire fashion

The Frankish ambassadors were already right here in the palace looking very distinct with their unkempt blonde hair and beards while dressed in wool tunics and cloaks with at least some gold trimmings, except their attire was not as sophisticated like the silks the Byzantines here were wearing. When meeting Irene, the ambassadors already told her the headline of their report in Latin, which Irene here in this story knew a bit of, though when hearing it she seemed to dread it, and afterwards she announced it to everyone in Greek. The dreadful news now that Irene announced to everyone here was that on Christmas Day of the previous year (800), the pope in Rome Leo III– not to be confused with Emperor Leo III the Isaurian- crowned the King of the Franks Charlemagne “Roman emperor” or Augustus for his valor and dedication to the Church of Rome, and even though his title of “Roman emperor” was only honorary, he still had an empire a lot larger and more powerful than that of the Byzantines. The people in the room were deeply offended hearing this while both Aetios and Nikephoros the Logothete even shouted out here “How dare he! He has no claim to our empire, he even has no trace of Roman origins!”, though Irene remembering her court training did not react in such a way, instead she only remained still and thought of what the news could mean, but instead she only remembered Charlemagne as the man whose daughter her son was supposed to marry in the 780s. For the Byzantines meanwhile, hearing of a Germanic Frankish barbarian in the west which was Charlemagne who had no trace of Roman origins was insulting and had hurt their pride as the Byzantine Empire being the Eastern Roman Empire was the legitimate Roman Empire that in fact in their time they even called themselves that, basically Romania meaning “Roman Land”, and them as people of their empire called themselves Romaioi in Greek meaning “Romans”, while the name for them “Byzantines” which these alternate history stories use was in fact only a 16th century invention used only after the Byzantine Empire was gone. If you also remember back in chapters I and II of this alternate history series respectively set in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Byzantines or Eastern Romans were still referred to as “Romans”, though after the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476, by chapter III of this series, the Eastern Romans were already referred to as “Byzantines”. The Byzantines of Constantinople had every right to be the legitimate Roman Empire as their city was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great in 330 as the empire’s new capital, the eastern half of the empire based in Constantinople too was the superior empire over the western half after the old Roman Empire was divided in 395 following the death of Emperor Theodosius I the Great (r. 379-395), and after the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna was dissolved in 476 the east was the only surviving Roman Empire whereas the west fell to several barbarian kingdoms. Now back in this function in the palace, after hearing the news of Charlemagne’s coronation as “Roman emperor”, the people attending feeling the pride of their empire being insulted all left leaving only Irene and her cousin Theophano in the room before both went back to their quarters in the palace. Irene though was deeply angered inside as in the entire history of Byzantium, foreign rulers especially from the west would get the approval of the Byzantine emperor to rule their own lands, but now everything changed with Charlemagne not only not getting Byzantine approval to be crowned but to be crowned as a “Roman emperor” when there was still in fact a Roman Empire (Byzantium), and this could have been because for one the pope who crowned him was no longer answering to the Byzantine Empire after all these years of conflict with them and Iconoclasm, and also because Irene was a woman therefore she could not be accepted as a Roman emperor by Charlemagne and the pope, therefore times had totally changed.   

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Magnaura of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace, art by Byzantine Tales

Watch this to learn more about Irene’s reign (Thersites the Historian).


The Climax Part I- Charlemagne and Irene’s Marriage        

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In the year 800 as the 9th century opens, the world looked all different compared to what it was in the previous 3 centuries as here in the western part of the world, a massive empire covered what is now all of France except the northwest peninsula of Brittany which was only a vassal state of it, almost all of what is now Germany, as well as Austria, Northern Italy, and Northern Spain and this empire was the Frankish Empire (Carolingian Empire) of Charlemagne. The Middle East as well as North Africa and all the way east up to Central Asia and what is now Pakistan was under the Arab Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad now in a golden age under Caliph Harun al-Rashid, although most of Spain which was under the rule of Islam did not fall under the new Abbasid Caliphate but rather still remained a remnant state of the old Umayyad Caliphate known as the Umayyad Emirate based in the city of Cordoba. In the far east meanwhile, China was under the Tang Dynasty which ruled it for already almost 2 centuries and was still strongly ruling the land. In the middle of this all was no other than Irene’s Byzantine Empire and compared to the 3 other major empires of this age which was that of Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate, and the Tang Chinese Empire, Byzantium looked the weakest, most battered, and most bankrupt out of all of them and because of the current state the Byzantine Empire was in, Charlemagne thought that with the size and power of his empire, he also had every right to be the rightful Roman emperor, even if he was a Frank and so were his people, and his only connection to Imperial Rome being that he and his people were Catholic Christians in which the faith dates back to the time of the old Roman Empire made the empire’s official religion- back when it was still one with the Orthodox faith- in 381 at the Council of Constantinople led by Emperor Theodosius I.

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Clovis I, King of the Franks (r. 481-511)

Now if you remember, the Frankish Kingdom was first mentioned in chapter II of this series as well as in chapter III when it was founded by King Clovis I in 481 using the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire to his advantage in taking over what was once Roman Gaul beginning in the north and in a quick amount of time he consolidated his rule and that of his Germanic Frankish people over Gaul (France) by crushing the last Roman remnant state there known as the Kingdom of Soissons in 486, and in 507 defeating the Kingdom of the Visigoths that had occupied Southern Gaul forcing the Visigoths to flee south to Spain and thus the Franks consolidated their rule over Gaul which under them became Frankia. Clovis I died in 511 establishing the Merovingian Dynasty of the Franks which lasted for more than 2 centuries ending in 751 when the last Merovingian Frankish king Childeric III was deposed and thus rule over the kingdom known as Frankia was passed on to Pepin I (r. 751-768), Charlemagne’s father who was also known for recognizing Rome as independent from Byzantium making it the Papal States.

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Charles Martel battles the Umayyads at Tours, 732

Meanwhile Charlemagne’s grandfather who was his father Pepin’s father was the famous Frankish general Charles Martel, who if you recall from the last chapter defeated an invading force of the Umayyad Arabs from Spain that had invaded Frankia at the Battle of Tours in 732, and Charlemagne whose real name was Charles was named after this grandfather. Charlemagne or Charles I then was born in 742 though his place of birth is unknown, except some say it was either Aachen in Germany or Liege in Belgium. With the death of his father Pepin I in 768, Charles succeeded as ruler of the Frankish Kingdom together with his younger brother Carloman I as co-rulers except both were at odds with each other and when Carloman suddenly died in 771, Charles took over the entire Frankish Kingdom. As the Frankish king, Charles I’s mission was to unite all Germanic people into one empire, and doing this required a lot of military campaigns and conquests and Charles himself was a talented military leader and warrior.

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Seal of the Lombard Kingdom of Italy, conquered by Charlemagne in 774

Earlier on in his reign, Charles I had fully conquered the Lombard Kingdom in Italy in 774 that had been there since 568 which had been a major threat to the pope in Rome for years and with this conquest, all of Northern Italy fell under the rule of the Franks, and at the same time the pope in Rome saw Charles and the Franks as a new ally they could trust as they got rid of the Lombards for them and unlike the Byzantines who the pope saw as untrustworthy and destroyers of sacred icons, they saw the Franks in the opposite way as respectful and trustworthy Christians despite being warlike and greedy people. At the same time as his conquest of the Lombards in Italy, Charles I was also busy with his wars against the still Pagan Saxon people of Northern Germany which would go on for 3 long decades beginning 772, and when Irene considered her son Constantine VI marrying Charles’ daughter Rotrude in 781, Charles actually could not really focus on this diplomatic move more because he was too busy with his war against the Saxons.

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Seal of the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne

At the same time too, Charles had launched campaigns in the east against the still surviving Avar Khanate in Central Europe that had been a threat to the Byzantines back in the 7th century, and as part of his campaigns in the east and south, he put what is now Austria and Bavaria under his rule. Charles too had campaigned in Northern Spain preventing the advance of the Umayyad Emirate there and in the process, he created a number of small states in the Pyrenees Mountains bordering what is now France and Spain known as the “Spanish Marches”, and one of these states created here still exists today as the small country of Andorra. For all his successful conquests which was also aimed at converting the still Pagan people he conquered like the Saxons and for giving a generous amount of money to the Church, Pope Leo III in Rome decided to crown Charles becoming known now as Charlemagne or “Charles the Great” (Carolus Magnus in Latin) as an emperor equivalent to what would be a Roman emperor in authority, although the pope’s main intention- in this story’s case- to do this was to assert the power of the west as the dominant empire over the weakened Byzantines which was ruled by a woman, therefore seeing that the position of the Roman emperor that was seen here as the ruler and protector of the civilized world was vacant.

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Pope Leo III, crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800

Now the Franks here had stuck to a 3-century old succession law known as Salic Law (Lex Salica in Latin) dating all the way back to 500 made by their first king Clovis I where a major statement of it says “But of Salic land no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman: but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex”, literally meaning women were excluded from inheriting land to rule over it, and although this law was the law over the Frankish lands and serves as a basis to modern European law, it did not apply in the Byzantine Empire. Charlemagne on the other hand never really made a claim to the Eastern Roman Empire, and in fact Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard (775-840) who knew Charlemagne in person says that Charlemagne was surprised when the pope decided to crown him as an emperor for there has been no ruler in the western world that held the title of “emperor” or more particularly “Augustus” since the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus who was deposed in 476 while the rest of the barbarian rulers after him only used the title of “king”, although another interesting fact about Charlemagne being crowned as an Augustus was that the pope saw him as the only Augustus for the rulers of Byzantium even stopped using this title since the reign of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610-641), and instead used the Greek word for emperor “Basileus”. The Franks meanwhile despite originally being Germanic barbarians saw themselves as the most civilized of the Germanic people and the cultural successors of Imperial Rome even if their peoples’ DNA was not Roman or Italian but Germanic, and it could also be for this reason why Charlemagne being a Frank was crowned as a Roman emperor in 800. Now having been crowned as a Roman emperor, Charlemagne had to make sure he did his part in it which meant that in his capital of Aachen, he constructed impressive buildings such as his imperial palace and the cathedral in Romanesque architecture, as well as the baths as the city was built in natural springs, but also, he improved arts and culture adopting the Byzantine style of mosaics for his buildings and their lavish fashion as well after learning about the lavish Byzantine world from ambassadors he sent there.

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Carolingian Minuscule

In addition, he styled Aachen to look like the former Byzantine capital of Italy which was Ravenna, and to promote arts and culture in his empire to make it match that of Byzantium, he spent a lot of money on academies and teachers, and also he would set a standard writing for the Latin alphabet known as the Carolingian Minuscule, and overall his project in promoting art and culture for his empire would be forever remembered as the “Carolingian Renaissance”, Carolingian coming from his name Charles as well as his dynasty named after Charles Martel, his grandfather.   

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Expansion of the Frankish Empire from Clovis I to Charlemagne (481-814)
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Charlemagne’s Frankish army battle the Saxons in Germany
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Charlemagne’s Imperial Palace Complex, Aachen
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Charlemagne crowned by Pope Leo III in Rome, 800

       

Back in Constantinople, Irene when hearing all about Charlemagne’s achievements in the west which was not only in conquests but in introducing a cultural Renaissance in the forsaken lands of Western Europe that slipped out of Roman control for more than 3 centuries which included even issuing laws called Capitularies in the style of the Roman emperors was impressed. On the other hand- in this story’s case- Irene also felt a sense of insecurity that someone in the west who was not even a Roman but a Germanic Frank was achieving the same kind of successes the Roman (and Byzantine emperors) did, and not wanting to feel left out, Irene thought of coming up with a solution to join the two empires together back into one single Roman Empire again like it was before 395, and if Irene almost attempted at doing this before by considering marrying her son Constantine VI to Charlemagne’s daughter Rotrude, she this time thought of doing it again but instead it would be her turn to marry Charlemagne himself, as Irene for over 20 years now was a widow and Charlemagne too was a widower whose wife Fastrada died back in 794.

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Charlemagne crowned by Pope Leo III, 800

Now history is never really clear if Charlemagne proposed to Irene to marry her but the same contemporary Byzantine source of Irene’s time, Theophanes the Confessor says Irene considered marrying Charlemagne for political reasons, but this scheme was immediately frustrated by her powerful eunuch advisor Aetios. In this story’s case, Irene here mid 802 after receiving a letter from Charlemagne who was asking to marry her as a way to unite their empires and save her empire from falling apart and being bankrupt considered the offer as she knew Charlemagne’s empire being larger was also richer, while Charlemagne also saw this marriage as necessary as he did not also want his empire to be in conflict with another Roman Empire, so it was better that two empires would stand stronger as one. Here in this story, Aetios would be first to discover Irene’s objective to marry Charlemagne and unite their empires and immediately he objected to it, not because he was loyal to Irene and did not want to see the empire fall to the hands of a foreign barbarian, but rather it was for Aetios’ own gain as deep inside, he was actually conspiring to take over the throne if Irene were to die, although being a eunuch he could not rule the empire alone but rather rule through his brother Leo who was to be his puppet and in 802, Aetios being the prime minister of Irene’s Byzantine Empire had appointed Leo as the Strategos of not one but two Themes which were Thrace and Macedonia, therefore making him more powerful than a Strategos which in title was a Monostrategos.

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Coin of Charlemagne as a Roman emperor

Irene meanwhile also had mixed feelings as she never met Charlemagne personally and therefore did not know what he entirely looked like except through his coins, but more than that did not know a thing about his personality whether he would be a lazy and useless husband or an abusive and over-controlling one, but she did know that he was only 10 years older than her which was not much of a big issue and at the end, this marriage was only to be for political reasons as she never intended to move to his capital of Aachen anyway or to sleep with him. For this story, Justinianus says Irene despite marrying Charlemagne soon would have never planned to move to Aachen as she was a proud Byzantine. At the same time as Irene was pondering the thought of marrying Charlemagne in her study in the Great Palace, an old man wearing the imperial purple cloak or Chlamys and a crown suddenly appeared out of thin air and this old man happened to be the ghost of no other than the legendary 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565).

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

Irene here was both shocked and in awe of seeing her imperial idol, the great emperor a lot of rulers after him from all over the known world looked up to, but Justinian I’s ghost was disgusted seeing the current situation the Byzantine Empire was in, not because it was ruled alone by a woman but because of how much all the lands he worked so hard on to conquer in his reign especially in the west was all lost, and that toxic schemes and infighting became the new normal especially with Irene’s eunuchs Aetios and the late Staurakios before. Irene then told Justinian’s ghost that she only wants to do the right thing which she sees with her proposed marriage to Charlemagne as this was to get back all the lands in the west they had lost and in fact gain even more than what they had in Justinian’s time, but the ghost told her that she must be careful with what she wishes for when marrying Charlemagne as he is not a Roman but a barbarian and Justinian definitely was someone who resented barbarian rule. Justinian however came to agree with Irene’s proposal hearing from her that Charlemagne even as a barbarian wanted to get rid of the Dark Ages brought about by barbarian invasions, but the one advice Justinian’s ghost gave to Irene as Justinianus put it was that Irene should not trust everyone in her path like she always did before especially with her eunuchs which got her into trouble many times, and therefore when marrying Charlemagne she should not be submissive to him, but to be able to solve problems by herself to still prove that she is still in charge of their empire. As Justinian’s ghost vanished, Irene picked up her pen and wrote a letter to Charlemagne asking him to come to Constantinople wherein the Byzantine army would let him through all the way to the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople, and at the same time Irene also sent letters to all the military commanders in the empire to grant Charlemagne access as he passes through with his horse coming from the northwest.