Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XI- The Serbian Empire Takes Over and Saves a Dying Byzantium in the 14th 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 13th and 14th Centuries AD. This story will begin with real events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter X- 13th Century

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Welcome to the 11th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger, the second to the last in this 12-part series! Last time in chapter X, we went over the major turning point of the disastrous 4th Crusade in 1204 which began the end for the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire followed by the 57-year period of the Byzantine Empire temporarily disappearing and turning into the Empire of Nicaea with Constantinople falling under the rule of the Latin Empire, the possible what if of the powerful 2nd Bulgarian Empire taking over Constantinople from the Latins before the Byzantines do, as well as Byzantium as the Empire of Nicaea eventually recovering Constantinople before they actually did in real history, which was in 1261. Again, as these chapters in this alternate history series are not continuous with each other in plot, this chapter will begin with what actually happened in real history, therefore the events from the previous chapter including the 2nd Bulgarian Empire taking over Constantinople in 1235 from the Latins, the Byzantines of Nicaea eventually taking it back in 1248, and the Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty still continuing and ruling from Constantinople rather than being overthrown by the Palaiologos Dynasty would not happen, instead we will start this chapter off with the Palaiologos Dynasty succeeding in taking over the empire and Michael VIII Palaiologos becoming emperor after taking back Constantinople by surprise from the Latins in 1261, afterwards taking over the throne by deposing and blinding the last Laskaris-Vatatzes Emperor of Nicaea, the young John IV.

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, founded by Michael VIII in 1261

After recovering Constantinople from the Latins and restoring the Byzantine Empire, Michael VIII vowed to put the empire back together and once again make it a major power, but at the end he only did what he could as the damage done by the army of the 4th Crusade back in 1204 when sacking and capturing Constantinople was beyond repair. The Byzantine Empire back on the map after 1261 now may have been restored as a functioning state but from here on, it would no longer be a major power of the medieval world like it was in the 12th century as discussed in chapter IX of this series before everything turned around in 1204, instead the post-1261 Byzantium despite still being called an “empire” would just be more or less a regional power in the Balkans together with their two neighbors to the north, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire and Serbian Kingdom, therefore making Byzantium one of the 3 kingdoms of the Balkans wherein all 3 will be in constant interaction with each other in the next century to come, the 14th century. Michael VIII would then be a rather controversial ruler as despite his iron fist rule, using dirty tactics to keep himself in power, and betraying his people by submitting his empire and its faith to the Catholic Church, he was still successful in keeping his empire together, restoring lands that they had lost to the Latins and other Byzantine Greek breakaway states like Epirus, and most of all using the smartest weapon of diplomacy by making alliances with powers near and far from them even it may have seemed unpopular. Though his reign was one of constant stress, Michael VIII still kept his restored empire strong but at the end, he also indirectly caused the gradual collapse of his empire as for one his policy of wanting to submit his empire’s faith to the pope caused great division among his people and more significantly, all the funds he spent on fighting wars in the west left Asia Minor, once the heartland of the Byzantine Empire neglected and undefended, which would therefore result in the rise of new Turkish powers in Asia Minor slowly taking over Byzantine land. Now back in chapter VIII of this series set in the 11th century, the Turks being the massive Seljuk Empire had been introduced as Byzantium’s new traditional enemy and although in the following 2 centuries that they had settled in and occupied Asia Minor itself becoming the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, they had turned out to be not so much a threat to the Byzantines, however in the 13th century the new powerful empire of the Mongols from the far east suddenly became a major threat and therefore had invaded Seljuk Asia Minor resulting in the dissolution of the Seljuk state there forcing many Turks to flee further west due to Mongol pressure in the east. With the power of the Seljuk Sultanate weakening due to the Mongol invasions, the Turks of Asia Minor seeing that their sultan could no longer protect them decided to break away and establish their own small states known as Beyliks in different parts of Asia Minor once under the Seljuks and the Byzantines before them. Following his death in 1282, Michael VIII was succeeded by his son Andronikos II Palaiologos who may have not been a worthy emperor but at least he turned to the worsening situation in Asia Minor which his father had indirectly caused and neglected, and though it seemed that most of these Turkish states or Beyliks in Asia Minor did not seem too much to be a threat, as most just wanted to rule their own small corner in Asia Minor, one of them which was located in Northwest Asia Minor right next to the Byzantine border ruled by the mysterious yet ambitious warlord Osman had the objective to permanently stay in Asia Minor, unite the other Beyliks, and establish an empire, and this exactly happened in 1299 at the turn of the century, and this Beylik of Osman would from this point on become the Ottoman Empire ruled for several centuries to come by the descendants of Osman.

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Flag of the Ottoman Beylik, future Ottoman Empire

At the beginning of the 14th century, the state of Osman that would later become the Ottoman Empire had already began invading the last remains of Byzantine territory in Asia Minor at the worst time possible as here, the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II had just disbanded the army and fleet as a way to save on funds, instead relying on foreign mercenaries rather than investing on a standing army. When disbanding the army at the worst time possible, Andronikos II responded to the new threat of Osman’s Turks in Asia Minor by hiring a strong but untrustworthy army of Catalan mercenaries which at the end resulted in an even more devastating disaster for the Byzantines when these mercenaries turned on them when being not content with their pay, thus creating further damage by pillaging the Byzantine countryside of Thrace. The economic crisis and starvation in Byzantium caused by Andronikos II’s weak rule and decision making would later lead to Andronikos II himself being overthrown in 1328 by his grandson after a 7-year civil war, and now the grandson Andronikos III Palaiologos as the new emperor would once again vow to turn all the setbacks his grandfather caused and again restore what was left of Byzantium to its old glory. With a strong and energetic emperor again in power which was Andonikos III, the Byzantines would undergo another revival period, except this time only to become a dominant power in Greece even taking back the rebel breakaway Despotate of Epirus but at the end, Andronikos III still failed to stop the Ottomans from taking over all of Byzantine Asia Minor. At the same as Andronikos III was doing his best to revive the power of Byzantium, both Serbia and Bulgaria to the north were also expanding in power and Serbia here in particular was ruled by a king equally ambitious and energetic as Andronikos III which was Stefan IV Uros Dusan who had a vision to turn the Serbian Kingdom into an empire the way Byzantium was. The Byzantines again would unfortunately face another great tragedy with the sudden death of Andronikos III in 1341 at a relatively young age and the worst part here was that he did not name an heir, therefore leading to another civil war to erupt in Byzantium, this time between the late emperor’s wife Anna of Savoy backing their young son John V Palaiologos and Andronikos III’s closest friend and general John Kantakouzenos who believed that he was promised the throne. The civil war which involved Serbia, Bulgaria, and even the Ottomans in Asia Minor now ruled by Osman’s son Orhan was then the breaking point for Byzantium which resulted in Byzantium weakened once more with its end already inevitable, but this civil war too benefited the Serbians as by taking advantage of the civil war, Dusan succeeded in taking a large percent of Byzantine territory including Thessaly and Epirus allowing him to call himself a “Byzantine emperor” despite the Byzantine Empire still being around, while at the same time this civil war also benefited the Ottomans in Asia Minor allowing them for the first time to cross into Europe as a result of assisting the side of John Kantakouzenos.

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Seal of the Serbian Empire, founded by Stefan IV Dusan in 1346

The 1340s too would see Byzantium facing a double disaster, as not only were they damaged by a deadly civil war, but in 1347 the plague of Black Death that would also spread to the rest of Europe and the known world had also arrived in the decaying Byzantium to further devastate it, while Serbia to the north under Dusan was not much affected by it which allowed them to further grow their empire. Now, one major possibility at this time is of Dusan now being the first Serbian emperor taking over Byzantium to save it from falling apart considering that Byzantium was already weakened by Black Death and the civil war, and true enough Dusan did in fact have ambitions to take over Byzantium, but at the end he never did due to his unexpected death in 1355 and lack of a navy to transport his troops. In real history, the death of the Serbian emperor Dusan in 1355 also marked the end for the short-lived Serbian Empire and not too long after, the once powerful Serbian Empire of Dusan that controlled most of the Balkans dissolved into various divided states ruled by different Serbian generals and nobles, thus the weakening and decentralization of Serbia would eventually result in their defeat by the Ottomans in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo. Now, it seems like a very unlikely what if scenario in history for Dusan to take over the Byzantine Empire and replace its Greek identity with a Serbian one, but Dusan if actually did manage to take over the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople itself with the help of a Venetian fleet, could this actually result in saving Byzantium from decaying thus reversing the Ottoman expansion into the Balkans? 

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this story is set in the 13th and 14th centuries, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

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Map of the restored Byzantine Empire (yellow), after 1261
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Map of the Balkans in the 14th century- Byzantine Empire (purple with eagle), Ottomans (green with crescents), Serbian Empire (gray with eagle), Bulgarian Empire (red with lion)

Now the 14th century where the Byzantine Empire already reaches 1000 years of existence but also the 2nd to the last century of its existence wherein the main part of this chapter is set in is often overlooked and skipped in most history books as well as videos, and podcasts featuring the history of Byzantium being seen as an insignificant part of Byzantine history. At this point, the empire has already been so severely reduced that there is not much to discuss about anymore, that mainstream history media in fact when getting to the late Byzantine Empire only discusses the temporary fall of Byzantium to the 4th Crusade in 1204 and its restoration in 1261, afterwards skipping more than 150 years of history and important characters already going to where the empire falls to the Ottomans in 1453. True enough, I don’t really find the 14th century history of Byzantium that interesting or fascinating, although it does have some eventful moments as in fact most of the happening in the 14th century is no longer in Byzantium which had already been so reduced in size and power but more in the Balkans and even more so in the rest of Europe as the 14th century true enough saw a lot of happening in the rest of Europe including the Hundred-Years’-War between England and France and a lot more as we now enter the late Middle Ages. In Byzantium, most of the excitement no longer has to do much with the empire itself but with what is going on around them such as the rise of the Serbian and Ottoman Empires wherein the now weakened Byzantium is caught in the middle of it. When it comes to the story of the Byzantines in the 14th century as we go deep into the late Byzantine era, most it is disappointing and if not even depressing with all their civil wars, defeats, social and economic problems, religious schism, blinding, court intrigue, and the plague of Black Death, and though a lot of these stories of civil wars and court intrigues puts a lot of color into the history of Byzantium, here in the 14th century it just happens too much that it all becomes too tiring, which is what I mentioned before in the article I made on ranking the 12 centuries in Byzantine history from best to worst, and this is why I put the 14th century this chapter will be set in as my second to the least favorite. On the other hand, the 14th century too had some interesting moments and interesting characters as well which will have a major part in this story, such as the last strong and visionary Byzantine emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341), his wife the power hungry empress Anna of Savoy, the ambitious general and later Byzantine emperor John Kantakouzenos, the Serbian king turned emperor Stefan IV Dusan, the equally powerful tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire Ivan Alexander, and the rulers of the new Ottoman Emirate which later on would become the Ottoman Empire. This chapter too will be the first time in this series that the Ottoman Turks would first be part of the story, and though the Turks being the Seljuks had already been a major part in this series ever since chapter VIII when discussing the crucial Battle of Manzikert in 1071 which began the Turkish expansion into Byzantine Asia Minor, it is only here when the Turks that will be the ones to bring the end of the Byzantine Empire which here are the Ottomans will first appear, as true enough the Ottomans which ended Byzantium in 1453 by besieging Constantinople only became an existing power just 150 years prior to it. Aside from the Ottomans, the Serbians too will have a major part in this story as the what if here is that if the Serbians took over Byzantium when it was at its weakest, then possibly the bigger threat being the Ottomans could have been stopped considering that Serbia had a  more powerful army and under the reign of Dusan the first Serbian emperor (1346-1355), Serbia basically controlled almost the entire Balkans, except for Bulgaria which was their ally who will also have a major part in the story. In addition, the well-known plague of Black Death which struck Byzantium and the Balkans in 1347 before reaching the rest of Europe will also play a major part in this chapter as this also escalated the fall of Byzantium, and with Black Death having a part here, this is the second time this series and the history of Byzantium faced a major pandemic, with the first one being the Plague of Justinian in 542 which was a big part of chapter III of this series, and like Black Death here was also a bubonic plague.

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Logo of my channel- No Budget Films

At the same time as well, this chapter will also feature a part in Byzantine history which I had made a major Lego film on last year for my Youtube channel No Budget Films which was the Sicilian Vespers in 1282 as well as a short Lego film featuring the civil war between Andronikos II and Andronikos III from 1321 to 1328, and currently for my channel as well, I am producing and narrating an audio epic series entitled The Last Roman Dynasty referring to the Palaiologos Dynasty which takes place where this chapter is set in, beginning with the restoration of Byzantium in 1261 and ending with its fall in 1453, and as of now I have already made 6 episodes wherein currently I have reached already the end of the 14th century. Now all the 6 episodes of this series I made so far set in the era of this chapter will be linked below.   

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Map of the spread of Black Death across Europe, 1347-1351

Links to The Last Roman Dynasty Audio Epic series, from No Budget Films:

Part I (1261-1274)

Part II (1274-1282)

Part III (1283-1320)

Part IV (1320-1341)

Part V (1341-1354)

Part VI (1355-1391)


Though this chapter focuses on 14th century Byzantium, it will start off right when the Byzantine Empire is restored in 1261 after 57 years of Constantinople occupied by the Latins of the 4th Crusade as a way to set the stage for what is to come in the 14th century, most particularly the decline and twilight of the Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologos Dynasty as well as the empire’s new identity as a culturally Greek kingdom which was established in the 57 years Byzantium was in exile as the Empire of Nicaea.

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Palaiologos Dynasty coat of arms

This chapter will start off with the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282) who in the previous chapter was a major character, but for this one we will be looking at his reign in real history seeing the last time Byzantium would be a strong and active power but his reign also sets the stage for what is to come in the 14th century as with his attention being focused on the west too much, it allowed Byzantine rule in Asia Minor which was once their heartland to collapse thus allowing the new independent Turkish Beyliks to rise, while Michael VIII in his reign had also done the controversial act of attempting to submit his empire’s faith to the pope which received great opposition from his proud Orthodox people, and though this act of union never really succeeded, it still set a new standard for the emperors succeeding him as many other rulers which were Michael VIII’s descendants too had considered submitting Byzantium to the Western Catholic Church to end the age old great schism between them and to also seek military support from the more powerful western Catholic powers, as the power of Byzantium had already faded away. Now, in this chapter the ironic thing but now the reality for Byzantium would be that they would be the ones asking for support from the west unlike how it was not too long ago wherein it was the other way around with Byzantium as the dominant power that other powers around them bowed down to. The great shift of circumstances for the Byzantine Empire from being a major power to becoming a weakened one gradually declining was the sack of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204 thus making it seem like a miracle that the Byzantine Empire still returned after 57 years even if it just returned as a shadow of its former self, as the Byzantium after 1261 would no longer be like it was in the previous centuries with a powerful professional army, advanced technology and extravagant court life, and territory covering the entire Asia Minor and the Balkans, instead it was reduced to basically a small Greek kingdom with an army mostly made of mercenaries, although on the positive side, the late Byzantine era after 1261 saw a period of growth in arts and culture which was known as the “Palaiologan Renaissance” named after the ruling dynasty and it was here when Greek culture flourished in the remains of the empire. As Byzantium downsizes in this chapter’s setting, the world of this chapter will also be downsized being now mostly limited to the Byzantines and their neighbors being the Serbians, Bulgarians, and Ottomans and occasionally the Italian maritime republics of Venice and Genoa too as they both played a part in the decline of Byzantium due to the Byzantines asking for either of them for an alliance countless times which resulted in either Venice or Genoa gaining more as in return for their support especially in providing a navy and troops, Byzantium had to cede what was left of their Aegean islands to either of them. What would then really define the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century would be weak and ineffective leadership as seen in the over 40 year reign of Andronikos II (1282-1328) although at least there was still some hope with his successor Andronikos III (1328-1341) whose reign would be one of Byzantine history’s last bright spots, but following his sudden death the same kind of instability would return to Byzantium with a devastating civil war, but apart from all the weak leadership, civil wars, and Black Death that would further weaken Byzantium, another major factor that weakened Byzantium was the age old cancer of religious schism and here in the 14th century it would be again on the question of submitting the Byzantine Orthodox Church to the pope for Church unity which may seem like a good and practical solution to solve Byzantium’s problems by getting the support of the now more powerful west though it was strongly opposed by the Byzantine people as back in 1204 they have seen the horrors of the Catholic westerners when they sacked Constantinople, therefore making the Orthodox Byzantine people strongly object Church unity with the people that wronged them. This story’s climax would then take place in the 1341-1347 Byzantine civil war which would not only be a succession war but one that totally shows how Byzantine society had already become so divided especially over social, political, and religious issues, but even worse was that it was fought at such a bad time as the Ottomans from Asia Minor were already a major threat to the Byzantines. This civil war at the end would then only further harm the existence of Byzantium allowing them to be an easy target for the now expanding Ottomans to the point that nothing could be done to stop the Ottomans which in fact would in real history end the Byzantine Empire in 1453.

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Stefan IV Uros Dusan, Emperor of Serbia (r. 1346-1355)

For this story however, I would consider that it could be the newly formed Serbian Empire of Stefan IV Dusan that could for better or for worse save Byzantium by expelling the Ottomans the moment they arrived in Europe even if it would mean that the remains of Byzantium would be absorbed into the Serbian Empire, thus this chapter’s climax set in 1352 would be another bizarre one just like in the previous chapter wherein the Bulgarians took over Constantinople. This chapter would then follow the same kind of what if like in the previous one wherein a foreign power would conquer Byzantium, which in the last one was Bulgaria under their tsar Ivan Asen II and for this one it would be Serbia under Stefan IV Dusan, although this time the Serbians despite being a foreign power would have a greater purpose to conquer Byzantium and this would not be to end its existence but to revive the power of Byzantium by joining it with Serbia as one empire, as after all Stefan IV Dusan in 1346 had not only called himself a “Serbian emperor” or “tsar” but “Emperor of the Serbs and Romans” with the part on the Romans referring to the Byzantines, and as an emperor Dusan patterned himself as a Byzantine ruler making him be Serbia’s version of the most influential Byzantine emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) as Dusan like Justinian I had also made a strong bureaucratic system and a codification of laws for Serbia. Now, at first it may be hard to imagine or unheard of for Serbia in the 14th century to take over the Byzantine Empire, but at the end the outcome would turn to be very surprising. Before beginning, I would also like to thank the Youtube channel Eastern Roman History for providing some good amount of information for this very obscure part of Byzantine history, while I would also like to thank the artists (Wlayko111, TheGreyStallion, Doqida, Androklos, Borivoje Mikic, Ediacar, FaisalHashemi, and JustinianustheGreat) whose works will be featured here in order to guide you viewers through the 14th century.

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Map of Stefan IV Dusan’s Serbian Empire at its greatest extent (dark green)

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter X- The 2nd Bulgarian Empire Captures Constantinople from the Latins in 1235

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- Justinian I the Great Saves his Empire from the Plague

Ranking the 12 Centuries of Byzantine History (My Personal Best to Least)

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

The Story of 3 Plagues Across the Centuries

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople

War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic- Everything About the Film


 

The Leading Characters:

Andronikos III Palaiologos- Byzantine emperor (1328-1341)

Anna of Savoy- Byzantine empress, wife of Andronikos III

Stefan Uros IV Dusan- King and later Emperor of Serbia (1331-1355)

John VI Kantakouzenos- Usurping Byzantine emperor

John V Palaiologos- Byzantine emperor, son and successor of Andronikos III

Orhan- Sultan of the Ottoman Turks (1324-1362)

Ivan Alexander- Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1331-1371)

Umur Bey- Bey of the Turkish Beylik of Aydin

Alexios Apokaukos- Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire

Matthew Kantakouzenos- Byzantine general and son of John VI

Suleiman Pasha- Turkish general and son of Sultan Orhan

Stefan Uros V- Emperor of Serbia, son and successor of Dusan 

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Byzantine art recreated- Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) and his wife Empress Anna of Savoy, art by myself

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Serbians (light blue), Ottomans and other Turks (dark orange), Bulgarians (green)


Prologue- The Restoration of Byzantium and Reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282)  

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On July 25, 1261 the 57-year rule of the Latin Empire that began in 1204 when the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople and brought the Byzantine Empire to its knees had ended when an army of only 800 Byzantines from the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea in Asia Minor took Constantinople back from the Latins by surprise in only one night. The Latin Empire of Constantinople however was already doomed to extinction as in the previous years, the Byzantines of Nicaea under their strong military emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) had already surrounded the Latins to Constantinople by recapturing most of Northern Greece and Thrace making it seem like Constantinople could have already been recaptured.

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Seal of the Latin Empire, established in 1204, died in 1261

The rest of the details on how Constantinople was taken back by the Byzantines of Nicaea had already been discussed in the previous chapter of this series, but to put it short Constantinople was recaptured in only one night wherein the outnumbered and overwhelmed remaining Latin forces as well as the last Latin emperor Baldwin II Courtenay fled Constantinople by sea using Venetian ships before the Byzantine troops burned down the Venetian warehouses as a way to make the escape of the Latins more difficult. Now the exiled Byzantine state of the Empire of Nicaea in which its capital was the ancient and rich city of Nicaea along a lake less than a day away from Constantinople at this point was ruled by the child emperor John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes who succeeded his father Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes (r. 1254-1258), the son of John III Vatatzesin 1258 following Theodore II’s sudden death, although since John IV was only a boy, the one actually running the empire was his co-emperor, the ambitious general Michael Palaiologos who schemed his way into power being actually the arch-rival of John IV’s father, and it was Michael who really masterminded the entire reconquest of Constantinople.

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Michael VIII Palaiologos enters Constantinople in triumph, 1261

3 weeks after the Byzantines took back Constantinople, the 38-year-old Michael Palaiologos himself went to it being the first time he ever saw the Byzantine capital and here the Byzantine Empire that disappeared for 57 years came back into existence as he was crowned as Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos at the Hagia Sophia which had been left in ruin and turned into a Catholic church by the Crusaders after 1204, but with the Byzantines regaining the city, the Hagia Sophia once again became an Orthodox church. Immediately after being crowned, Michael VIII saw for himself the damage the Latins had done to Constantinople which they never even bothered to repair even when holding Constantinople for 57 years, therefore in 1261 Michael VIII still saw buildings in ruins and rubble in the ground that had been there since 1204, homeless people everywhere as a result of their homes destroyed by the Crusader attack of 1204, and the worst part was that the population of the city dropped to only 35,000 compared to how it was before 1204 when it had about 100,000 as many fled the city to Nicaea, Bulgaria, and the other Byzantine breakaway states after the Latins took over in 1204.

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1261-1282), painting by myself

Michael VIII then began his rule doing all he could to restore all the damage the 4th Crusade had inflicted on Constantinople and so he quickly ordered the restoration of the city’s ruined buildings while he also had a large number of churches, hospitals, markets, baths, and learning centers rebuilt although most of the artistic restoration was done under the care of Michael’s artistic wife Empress Theodora, but what Michael repaired himself was the sea wall along the Golden Horn destroyed by the Crusaders’ attack if you remember from the previous chapter, while he also made it an objective to repopulate Constantinople by having the people of Nicaea and other parts of the empire in Asia Minor relocate back to Constantinople. Though Michael VIII had already taken back Constantinople, there was still one immediate threat to him and his rule which was the boy emperor John IV who was still reigning in Nicaea and so at the end of 1261, Michael VIII decided to get rid of John IV by sending one of his agents to Nicaea and blind his young co-emperor.

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John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes (r. 1258-1261), blinded by Michael VIII

The 11-year-old John IV was then blinded and sent to one of Michael’s family’s castles along the Marmara coast of Asia Minor to be imprisoned for life making him forever unfit to rule, thus Michael VIII was the sole ruler of the empire and after all the blinding of the young emperor John IV was to secure the succession of Michael VIII’s infant son Andronikos Palaiologos to prevent challengers to his rule since Andronikos had already been crowned as his father’s co-emperor, as Michael did indeed want to establish his own dynasty. In 1262, the next thing Michael VIII needed to do to get the Byzantine Empire back on the map was to have its restoration be recognized by the other kingdoms of Europe including the pope, however Michael VIII’s Byzantine reconquest and restoration was not immediately recognized by many rulers of Europe, although the most powerful ruler of Europe at this time which was the King of France Louis IX did in fact recognize Michael VIII’s restored Byzantium which then gave it as much legitimacy as it needed.

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Michael VIII Palaiologos, restorer of Constantinople, art by Ediacar

In the meantime, the other two major Byzantine successor states formed after 1204 which included the Empire of Trebizond in the far eastern corner of Asia Minor along the Black Sea and the Despotate of Epirus in Western Greece too did not recognize the restoration of Byzantium, and when Michael VIII sent word to both of them to unite with the restored Byzantium, both refused to do so as Trebizond was happy with their maritime empire in the Black Sea while the ruler or Despot of Epirus Michael II Angelos who was a bitter enemy of Michael VIII still did not give up his claim on Constantinople.

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Byzantine-Genoese alliance flag

At the same time too, Michael VIII before the reconquest of Constantinople had sealed a permanent alliance with the Italian maritime Republic of Genoa and in return for Genoa’s support in providing the restored Byzantium with a navy, Michael VIII formally gave the Galata Quarter of Constantinople to Genoa, although this alliance with Genoa would also come at a great price as the Byzantines would now have to pay 87% of their revenue made from customs from ships passing the Bosporus strait where their capital is to Genoa, therefore making Byzantium no longer as rich as they were before. Meanwhile, despite Constantinople being taken back by the Byzantines and the Latin Empire fading away, the other Latin states formed by the leaders of the 4th Crusade after 1204 in what was once Byzantine Greece were still around which included the Duchy of Athens, the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean, and the Principality of Achaea in the Peloponnese Peninsula of Southern Greece, while Crete and many other islands were still under the rule of the Republic of Venice.

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Seal of the Latin Principality of Achaea in Greece

In 1263, Michael VIII sent an army of 15,000 Byzantines as well as 5,000 Seljuk Turkish mercenaries to the Peloponnese to conquer the entire Principality of Achaea back for Byzantium as back in 1259, Michael VIII’s forces had already defeated the forces of the Latin Prince of Achaea William II Villehardouin who had been imprisoned but soon after escaped and returned to the Peloponnese also known as the Morea. The Byzantine expedition to recapture the Morea from the Latins began in failure as the Byzantines forces and their allies were ambushed by the Latins of Achaea while the Seljuk mercenaries after not receiving their pay defected to the Latins causing further defeat for the Byzantines.

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Byzantine army mixed units in the 1263 Peloponnese campaign

At the end, the Byzantines only succeeded in taking back the southeast corner of the Morea (Peloponnese) which was the region of Laconia where the Ancient Greek city of Sparta was, though here the Byzantines would establish a new city around the castle of Prince William II found on the slopes of the mountain beside Ancient Sparta, and this new city would be Mystras, later an important learning and cultural center in the late Byzantine era. At the same time too as the Peloponnese campaign in 1263, the Genoese fleet being Michael VIII’s ally was defeated by a much smaller Venetian fleet in the Aegean and facing this kind of humiliation of being defeated by a smaller fleet in a surprise attack, Michael VIII decided to end his alliance with Genoa despite just beginning it 2 years ago, as he felt Genoa was weak therefore Michael turned to Venice instead as an ally believing them to be stronger, despite Venice being the one that brought the army of the 4th Crusade to attack Constantinople in 1204.

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Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium

With more challenges to face ahead of him, Michael VIII decided to make alliances with some of the most unlikely powers of the time and this included the new Mamluk Sultanate that was founded by Turkic slaves that overthrew the Ayyubid Sultanate back in 1250, thus taking over Egypt and Syria and later on taking over the Levant’s last Crusader state of Acre too, while the other power Michael VIII signed an alliance with was no other than the biggest threat to the world which were the Mongols. Now, what made Michael VIII consider making an alliance with the Mongols was that in 1265 the Mongols from the Golden Horde (the Mongol state in Russia) led by their general Nogai Khan went as far as to Byzantine Thrace to raid it wherein Michael himself led the army to confront them but failed to stop them, as after his officers fled out of terror, Michael barely escaped with his life back to Constantinople and so to settle the threat of the deadly Mongol warlord Nogai Khan, Michael had to marry off his illegitimate daughter Euphrosyne to Nogai while to further conclude peace with the Mongols, Michael also married off his other illegitimate daughter Maria who was Euphrosyne’s sister to the Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate of Persia Abaqa Khan.

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Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily since 1266

The biggest challenger to Michael VIII’s rule however came from the west and this came into the picture in 1266 being Charles of Anjou of the Capetian Dynasty of France, the youngest brother of King Louis IX of France, and in 1266 the ambitious Charles envisioning a Mediterranean empire and having the support of the pope invaded Southern Italy defeated and even killed the German ruler of Southern Italy and Sicily Manfred Hohenstaufen at the Battle of Benevento, and when taking over Southern Italy, Charles made his ambitions to take over Byzantium itself clear and from here on, Charles would be Michael VIII’s biggest problem. In 1267, Charles of Anjou made an alliance with all of Michael VIII’s enemies which were the former Latin Emperor of Constantinople Baldwin II, the Prince of Achaea William II, the Despot of Epirus Michael II, and the pope Clement IV to take back Constantinople and restore the Latin Empire as a much more powerful state compared to what it was before which is why it died out so easily.

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King Louis IX of France (r. 1226-1270)

In 1268, Michael VIII would experience some relief when his major enemy Despot Michael II of Epirus died which weakened Epirus as he divided his lands among his sons Nikephoros I Angelos who inherited Epirus and John Angelos who inherited Thessaly, but Michael VIII too would face another challenge in 1268 as here Charles of Anjou managed to take over all of Sicily which he made as his base in order to launch a naval invasion of Byzantium. Charles however could not really carry out his ambition to invade Byzantium as his older and more powerful brother King Louis IX of France was keeping an eye on him, and wanting to maintain friendly relations with Byzantium, Louis IX would not allow his younger brother to do what he wanted most, instead Louis asked for troops from Charles for his Crusade against the Muslims in Tunisia which deprived Charles of troops for invading Byzantium. Unfortunately, in 1270 Louis IX died of a plague in Tunisia when leading the 8th Crusade there- therefore becoming St. Louis after his death- and from here on there would be nothing to stop Charles anymore from invading Byzantium.

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The 1261 Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople, art by FaisalHashemi
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Coronation of Michael VIII Palaiologos in the Hagia Sophia, 1261
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Michael VIII Palaiologos Lego figure
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Charles of Anjou defeats the forces of Manfred Hohenstaufen at the Battle of Benevento, 1266
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Map of the restored Byzantine Empire (purple) by 1265
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Map of the Mongol Empire’s 4 Divisions in the late 13th century

Meanwhile in Asia Minor, due to Mongol raids from the east over the past years, the Seljuk Sultanate there that had been around since the late 11th century began to disintegrate and with the central power of the Seljuk state crumbling away, their Turkish subjects fled further west into Asia Minor wherein they would begin establishing their own feudal states there known as Beyliks ruled by different warlords or Beys to further protect their people seeing that the Seljuk sultan could no longer protect them from external threats such as the Mongols. These Turkish Beyliks that broke away from the Seljuk Empire would then soon enough easily settle in Asia Minor taking over a number of Byzantine cities meeting little resistance from the Byzantine forces as Michael VIII reassigned most of the armies in Asia Minor to Greece to fight against the remaining Latin states there as well as against Epirus. Now seeing that Charles of Anjou as the King of Sicily was more and more posing a threat to the restored Byzantium, Michael VIII decided to turn to the most unpopular but practical solution to stop Charles from invading, which was submitting the Byzantine Orthodox Church to the pope, thus reuniting both Churches that had been at a permanently split since the Great Schism of 1054- if you remember from chapter VIII of this series- and apparently in 1272 a council was being held in Lyon, France with talks to reunite both Eastern and Western Churches.

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Council of Lyon, 1272-1274

In 1274, Byzantine envoys travelled to Lyon presenting to the pope Gregory X a letter of consent from Michael VIII to submit the Byzantine church to the pope and after reading all letters, the Byzantine Orthodox and Latin Catholic Churches were once again united. Michael VIII then came to think that submitting to the pope was nothing more but a practical solution as with Charles being Catholic and Michael and his empire becoming Catholic as well, there would be no reason for Charles to attack Byzantium anymore, and to fully legitimize his empire’s conversion to Catholicism, Michael had the Hagia Sophia which back in 1261 he turned back to an Orthodox church be returned to a Catholic church again as it was under the Latins. The Byzantine people however strongly opposed Michael VIII’s Church union as they were proud of their Orthodox faith not wanting to submit to the faith of the Latins that had wronged them before by sacking Constantinople, thus when hearing that Michael VIII submitted to the pope, the people of Constantinople and the rest of the empire rioted. Michael VIII, once seen as the hero of the Byzantine people for taking back Constantinople from the Latins now drastically lost all his popularity becoming his people’s worst enemy as they believed he had betrayed them, as after all he took back Constantinople from the Latins but then at the end only chose to bow down to his enemy, the Latins by submitting to their religion.

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Michael VIII Palaiologos

Now to make it look like he really accepted the pope’s authority, Michael VIII had to respond to opposition against rule, especially opposition against his policy of Church unity with such brutality thus Michael VIII viciously persecuted all those that spoke either against him, the pope, the newly appointed pro-Catholic Patriarch of Constantinople John XI, or generally against the Church union which then gave Michael the reputation of a tyrant emperor as he ended up jailing thousands of those who opposed him and the union, while imperial officials as well as monks were punished by all kinds of methods from exile to blinding if they opposed this policy, and by the point the prisons became too filled up as more and more kept opposing the Church union, Michael had to go as far as issuing a death penalty for those who simply just read or possessed documents directed against him. Due to Michael’s harsh treatment to opposition against him and his unionist policies, many Byzantine Greeks in Asia Minor including nobles who still preferred to be ruled by the former Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty anyway rather than Michael VIII defected to the newly formed Turkish Beyliks. Those who opposed Michael VIII in Greece fled to the rebel Byzantine states of Epirus and Thessaly as their respective rulers the brothers Nikephoros I and John Angelos saw themselves as defenders of Orthodoxy in direct opposition to Michael VIII, even if both brothers still swore loyalty to Charles of Anjou, while at the same time Michael’s older sister Irene who he grew up very close to had also turned against him as being proudly Orthodox, she was disgusted with her brother’s submission to Catholicism.

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Charles of Anjou’s coat of arms

In the meantime, the last Latin emperor Baldwin II died in Italy in 1273 while back in Byzantium, Michael VIII renewed his alliance with Genoa as Venice chose to ally with Charles of Anjou instead, and while Michael was trying to consolidate the Catholic faith in his empire, he was also still busy in securing Byzantine rule over Greece by campaigning against the Latin Duchy of Athens and the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean. Sometime in 1275 the Duchy of Athens allied with John Angelos’ Thessaly defeated the Byzantines in battle, but later that year after a brave Byzantine counter-attack led by Michael VIII’s younger brother John Palaiologos, the Byzantines won a decisive victory over the remaining Latins at the naval Battle of Demetrias which secured Byzantine dominance over the Aegean once more, though John would retire from military service after this.

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Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185

In 1277 on the other hand, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire to the north of Byzantium after being devastated by Mongol raids from the north fell into civil war when Bulgarian peasants feeling that their ruler or tsar Konstantin Tih who ruled for 20 years was useless in protecting them from the Mongol raids rose up against him in favor of a charismatic peasant leader named Ivaylo– nicknamed “the cabbage”- who later managed to defeat the Bulgarian imperial forces and kill the tsar in battle, thus making the peasant Ivaylo become the new Bulgarian tsar.

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Ivaylo, peasant uprising leader and Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1278-1279)

Using the chaos in Bulgaria to his advantage, Michael VIII reconquered some of Southern Bulgaria for Byzantium while also backing a Bulgarian claimant which was his son-in-law Ivan Asen III, the grandson of last chapter’s great and powerful Bulgarian tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241), although the plan to put Ivan Asen III in the Bulgarian throne shortly after failed but Michael VIII being an ally of Nogai Khan of the Golden Horde who was Bulgaria’s northern neighbor further weakened Bulgaria by asking Nogai who was now Michael’s son-in-law to invade Bulgaria from the north, and as a result of this the incompetent peasant emperor Ivaylo lost his throne in 1279 to the Bulgaria noble or boyar George Terter I.

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Nogai Khan, Mongol general of the Golden Horde, son-in-law of Michael VIII

Ivaylo then had no choice but to flee to Nogai Khan in Russia to submit to him, however Nogai when receiving Ivaylo in 1280 killed Ivaylo claiming he did in the name of his father-in-law Michael VIII. In the meantime, the King of Sicily Charles of Anjou still did not take Michael VIII’s submission to the pope seriously and so in 1280, Charles sent an army to invade Byzantine Albania which succeeded in capturing the fortress of Berat, but in 1281 a Byzantine army led by the general Michael Tarchaneiotes drove off Charles’ French army and recovered Berat even capturing Charles’ French general Hugh Sully who was taken to Constantinople as a prisoner. In 1281 as well, a new pope was elected which was Martin IV, a Frenchman who was blindly loyal to Charles and so he saw Michael’s Church union policy as fake thus making him authorize Charles’ invasion of Byzantium while excommunicating Michael as well.

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Kingdom of Aragon flag

In 1282, now having limited resources to stop Charles’ invasion of Byzantium, Michael VIII had to again turn to what he was best at doing which was diplomacy and so he turned to an alliance with a distant kingdom which was Aragon in Spain, as Michael knew that its king Peter III was like him also an enemy of Charles of Anjou. Michael VIII here however could not really send a Byzantine army to stop Charles’ invasion as by 1282, the Serbian Kingdom to the north just got a new king which was Stefan Uros II Milutin of the Nemanjic Dynasty who also strongly opposed Michael’s Church union policy and when coming into power, Milutin saw himself as the opposition leader against Michael VIII in the Balkans as well as the defender of Orthodoxy.

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Peter III, King of Aragon (r. 1276-1285)

Now, the Byzantine army here in 1282 was no longer as powerful as it was back in the 12th century, therefore it did not have enough power to do an actual invasion of Sicily to prevent Charles’ invasion, so instead Michael VIII had to turn to Peter III of Aragon to invade Sicily and when taking the island swear allegiance to Byzantium. At the same time too, Michael VIII knew that the locals in Sicily were unhappy being under French rule as Charles brutally taxed them while his soldiers mistreated the local Sicilians that some Sicilians turned to brutally murdering French people in Sicily whether they were soldiers or civilians, and using the discontent of the Sicilian people to his advantage, Michael VIII sent money to pay off the local lords of Sicily to lead their people in rebellion against their French overlords.

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Uprising of the Sicilian Vespers, 1282

On Easter Sunday of 1282, the people of the city of Palermo in Sicily suddenly broke out in riot declaring their intention to overthrow their French overlords in which this event would be known as the “Sicilian Vespers”, and soon enough this riot escalated into violence when the locals killed off the French garrison of Palermo and as the year progressed, this local rebellion turned into a full-scale war which did in fact succeed in driving the French away from Sicily when Peter III of Aragon and his forces arrived. By the end of 1282, the Spanish Aragonese took over Sicily and promised to rule over the local population better than the French did, while Charles though still having Southern Italy was no longer a threat to the Byzantines and 3 years later in 1285, he died and thus the returning threat from the west to restore the Latin Empire had vanished.

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Fresco of Michael VIII Palaiologos

Back in December of 1282, Michael VIII Palaiologos too had died in a farm in Thrace at the age of 59, and though being an energetic, ambitious, and capable ruler while also an “evil genius” that put the Byzantine Empire back together as a functioning state, he also had the negative legacy of neglecting Asia Minor as by the time of his death, most of Byzantine territory there had slipped away to the rule of the Turkish Beyliks, and worse for him was that he died hated by his own people and following his death, the Orthodox Church which was again back in power refused to give Michael VIII a proper burial despite him being the man who took back Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, as they saw him as a traitor and heretic for submitting to the pope. Michael VIII after his death was then succeeded by his eldest son Andronikos II Palaiologos who then buried his father in secret at the dead of night outside Constantinople.

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Byzantine victory over the Latins at the Battle of Demetrias, 1275
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Ivaylo’s peasant rebellion in Bulgaria, 1277
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Territories of Charles of Anjou’s empire (blue)
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The Sicilian Vespers Rebellion, 1282
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Map of Sicily under Aragon after 1282, Southern Italy remains under French rule
Watch War of the Sicilian Vespers (2020) by No Budget Films to see the Sicilian Vespers story with the Byzantine story involved in Lego

The Reign of Andronikos II Palaiologos and Decline of Byzantium (1282-1320)           

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Though Michael VIII Palaiologos had a strong rule which put the Byzantine Empire back together again, he died leaving his son Andronikos II to inherit so many external problems, although on the positive side Constantinople was repopulated by a lot going from 35,000 to 70,000 by the time of Michael’s death. Rather than mourning for the death of Michael VIII, the proud Orthodox Byzantine people cheered that their traitor heretic emperor had died, cheering at the coronation of their new emperor Andronikos II as well, as Andronikos unlike his father was strongly Orthodox and was only forced to support his father’s unionist policy when his father was still alive, however unlike his father who was a strong yet ruthless military and diplomatic genius emperor, Andronikos II was a weak and soft intellectual and artist very much like his mother.

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Andronikos II Palaiologos Lego figure

Andronikos II then began his reign by cancelling his father’s infamous Church union with the pope and restoring the Hagia Sophia to an Orthodox church once again, which then stopped the Orthodox Byzantine breakaway states of Epirus and Thessaly from being a threat, although Andronikos II now had to face the external problems created during his father’s reign despite the Western threat of Charles of Anjou now out of the way after Byzantium’s ally the Aragonese took over Sicily. First of all, the biggest threat to Andronikos II came from the north which was Stefan Uros II Milutin of Serbia who was still intent in invading Byzantine territory in the Balkans, and despite his enemy Michael VIII already dead that in 1282 Milutin did in fact capture the city of Skopje from Byzantium making it Serbia’s new capital, but the bigger threat to Andronikos II was still the expanding Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor which were left unchecked as his father pulled out troops from there to fight wars in Greece and the Balkans.

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Stefan Uros II Milutin, King of Serbia (r. 1282-1321)

Another problem Andronikos II inherited was an empty treasury as his father spent it all on his wars and in bribing the local lords of Sicily to rise up against Charles of Anjou, and so to fill up the treasury once again, Andronikos II had no choice but to raise taxes, reduce tax exemptions, devalue the currency which was the standard gold coin the Hyperpyron created by Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), and worse of all dismantle the Byzantine fleet of only 80 ships to sell of their parts to raise funds. In addition, Andronikos II seeing that it was too expensive to maintain a professional army had no choice but to disband it and instead rely on hiring foreign mercenaries to fight his wars as well as relying on either Venice or Genoa for a fleet.

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Andronikos II Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1282-1328), son of Michael VIII

Just like his father who used diplomacy to solve some problems especially if it had to do with foreign powers, Andronikos II in 1284 following the death of his first wife married the 10-year-old Italian Yolande of Montferrat as a way to put an end to the claim of the small Northern Italian state of Montferrat over Thessaloniki as if you remember from the previous chapter, it was the Lord of Montferrat that took over Thessaloniki after Byzantium was divided in 1204 before Thessaloniki fell under Epirus and then to the Byzantines of Nicaea, and this marriage true enough put an end to Montferrat’s claim. In 1290, Andronikos II released John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes, the boy emperor Michael VIII had blinded back in 1261 from 29 years of castle arrest who then came out from arrest already as a middle-aged man, although Andronikos II still apologized to John IV for his father blinding him, although being already blind John had no more claim to throne but John was still allowed to retire peacefully in Constantinople where he would die many years later in 1305 at the age of 55. With the threat of the Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor increasing now that the Turks were increasingly capturing Byzantine cities in the Meander Valley including Philadelphia, Andronikos II sent his young nephew the general Alexios Philanthropenos to lead the campaign and recover what was lost in Asia Minor to the Turks in 1293 while also appointing Alexios as the commander or Doux of Asia. Alexios despite having limited men in his campaign turned out to successfully take care of the threat of the Turks in Asia Minor by scoring a number of victories against them in the Meander Valley between 1294 and 1295, even recovering cities the Byzantines had recently just lost, while taking a large number of Turkish prisoners as slaves too, that Turkish prisoners in fact became much cheaper to buy than sheep. Alexios’ victories however made him highly popular among the troubled people of Asia Minor that in 1295 they chose to recognize him as emperor rather than the reigning Andronikos II who they felt was too distant and oblivious to their sufferings, thus Alexios in order to save the empire especially Asia Minor from falling apart usurped power and seeing this as treason, Andronikos II had his nephew Alexios blinded, while Alexios accepted this fate anyway to prove he was still loyal to his emperor.

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Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos

The blinding of Alexios however turned out to be a terrible decision as without Alexios around anymore to command his troops in Asia Minor, there would be no more strong general left to stop the growing power of Turks and true enough with Alexios gone, the threat of the Turks returned; now if you are interested about the general Alexios Philanthropenos who could have saved Byzantium at this time from the threat of the Turks in Asia Minor, you can read the book The Usurper by Emanuele Rizzardi which I am currently reading now and is exactly about Alexios Philanthropenos and his campaigns in Asia Minor. Aside from the threat of the Turks in Asia Minor returning following the blinding of Alexios Philanthropenos, Andronikos II was again threatened in the north by Serbia, as it this point Serbia’s economic power had grown rapidly under King Milutin thanks to his development of silver mining in Serbia which therefore brought in more funds to raise a much larger army for Serbia that would be no match against the Byzantines. Seeing there was no solution to stop Serbia’s expansion except for diplomacy, Andronikos II in 1298 was forced to marry off his 5-year-old daughter with Yolande Simonis to the 45-year-old Serbian king Milutin, as well as to cede a large portion of Byzantine Macedonia such as the city of Ohrid to Serbia, which was then a success as Serbia would no longer pose a threat to Byzantium, and with this marriage Milutin and Andronikos II even became allies.

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Osman Bey, founder of the future Ottoman Empire, art by Doqida

The much larger threat to Andronikos II’s Byzantium however was from the east, and this was the rising Turkish Beylik of the rather mysterious Turkish warlord Osman, son of Ertugrul who unlike the other Turkish Beyliks were not that ambitious only wanting their small corners to rule as their own in Asia Minor, was highly ambitious as for Osman and his people there was no more going back to the east due to the pressure of the Mongols which forced them to migrate west, therefore they decided that they were to stay in Asia Minor to conquer the remaining Byzantine lands seeing the Byzantines as their weakest enemy. According to legend, Osman had a dream seeing his descendants rule the world and to make this a reality, Osman in 1299 made his intention to expand west and conquer Byzantine lands by declaring Jihad which then gave his people a purpose to fight the Byzantines and expand and to unite the other Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor as well under him in the name of Islam.            

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (pink) by 1300, art by TheGreyStallion

Right before the turn of the 14th century, the Turkish bey Osman solidified his rule establishing what would be known as the Ottoman Empire named after him and in 1300, Osman already began attacking the last of the Byzantine territories in Northwest Asia Minor, soon enough laying siege to the city of Nicomedia which was very close to Constantinople.

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Michael IX Palaiologos, Byzantine co-emperor, son of Andronikos II

In response to the first wave of Osman’s attacks, Andronikos II sent his son and co-emperor Michael IX Palaiologos who was at this point already a skilled general to counter-attack Osman’s Turks, but Michael IX’s army of only 2,000 with most being Alan mercenaries suffered a crushing defeat to Osman’s 5,000 army mostly consisting of cavalry at the Battle of Bapheus in 1302 located between the cities of Nicaea and Nicomedia, and though neither of the cities fell, Osman’s Turks still seized a large amount of territory in that area. With a large and powerful professional army of Cataphract cavalry soldiers and the elite Varangian Guards no longer around anymore, Andronikos II here in 1302 had to turn to hiring a large army of foreign mercenaries, and here he decided to revive the alliance his father made with Aragon 20 years earlier before his death, thus Andronikos II hired from the Kingdom of Aragon and army of 6,500 Catalan mercenaries known as Almogavars (originating from Southern France and Northern Spain) which were light infantry soldiers, and since they not only proved successful in fighting the French and driving them away from Sicily 20 years ago in the War of the Sicilian Vespers, they in the past decades were successful in fighting the Moors in Spain that by the end of the 13th century, the Christian kingdoms of Spain such as Castile and Aragon had already contained the Moors to their last holdout in Southern Spain which was Granada.

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Grand Catalan Company coat of arms

Since the primary enemy of the Byzantines here being the Turks were Muslims, Andronikos II believed the Catalans having experience fighting Muslims in Spain and succeeding could achieve the same results when battling the Turks in Asia Minor. Later on, in 1302 the 6,500 army of Catalan mercenaries known as the Grand Catalan Company arrived in Constantinople led by the sketchy Italian general Roger de Flor, a former pirate and Templar knight and already when arriving, the company’s general Roger demanded a lot from Andronikos II while the mercenaries turned out to be drunk troublemakers by starting a fight with the Genoese merchants in the Genoese held Galata Quarter.

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Grand Catalan Company army in Asia Minor

To avoid further trouble from the Catalans and to make them carry out their job, Andronikos II had them quickly ferried across the Bosporus into Asia Minor to battle the Turks, and in 1303 the Catalans under the command of Roger de Flor true enough scored a number of victories against Osman’s Ottoman Turks and later on against the other Turkish Beyliks in the south, however his victories made Roger arrogant that he even thought of establishing his own independent state in Asia Minor as he already went as far as to treat the Byzantine locals there as his subjects. In the meantime, after a short period of a succession crisis in the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, a new tsar came to the Bulgarian throne in 1300 which was Theodore Svetoslav, the son of Tsar George Terter I and in 1303 as well, Theodore began launching an invasion of Byzantine Thrace, thus the co-emperor Michael IX was sent north with the main Byzantine army to stop the Bulgarian raids while his father Andronikos II recalled Roger de Flor to Constantinople to prove his loyalty, but back in Constantinople Roger demanded for more pay to continue his fight as well as to be promoted to the rank of Caesar and Andronikos complied to it.

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Theodore Svetoslav, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (r. 1300-1322)

Meanwhile, Michael IX succeeded in repelling the Bulgarians in Thrace but at the Battle of Skafida in 1304, the Byzantines lost to the Bulgarians after crowding up on a bridge and with the combined weight of the Byzantine cavalry, the bridge collapsed drowning many of them, although Michael IX still escaped alive but his father had to sell of his jewelry to pay tribute to Theodore Svetoslav of Bulgaria in order to conclude a truce. Michael IX however began envying Roger de Flor for winning victories in Asia Minor while Michael was losing battles and so together with his father, they conspired to get rid of the troublemaker Roger, and in 1305 by Michael IX’s orders, Roger was assassinated at a feast in Adrianople by Michael’s Alan mercenaries.

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Roger de Flor, general of the Grand Catalan Company, assassinated in 1305

The assassination of Roger de Flor however only severed the alliance between Byzantium and the Catalans leading to a Byzantine-Catalan War, and so the Catalans with their Turkish prisoners from Asia Minor that they made into their allies decided to turn on the Byzantines avenging the death of their general Roger de Flor who they saw as an inspiring figure, thus the Catalans savagely turned to pillaging the Byzantine countryside of Thrace and later Macedonia to the point of burning it into a desert. In response to the betrayal of the Catalans that now endlessly pillaged Thrace, the co-emperor Michael IX in 1305 led a large army to counter-attack the now rogue Catalans but at the Battle of Apros in Thrace, the Catalans charged at Michael’s army with such fury that Michael’s Alan mercenaries fled in fear leading to a Catalan victory and Michael IX almost killed.

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Mercenary army of the Grand Catalan Company

The Catalans now defeating Michael IX’s forces had nothing stopping them anymore and so they continued their pillaging that even the monasteries of Mt. Athos in Macedonia, a very sacred site for the Byzantines were pillaged and burned by the Catalans, and soon enough even Thessaloniki was besieged by the Catalans although unsuccessfully due to its strong walls. The attack of Catalans then would be the worst tragedy the Byzantines would face since the Sack of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204 and again this one would be a tragedy caused by a Latin army, but the worst part was that with the betrayal of the Catalans, the Turks of Asia Minor which were thought to have been defeated by the Catalans became a threat again. Having no more troops to stop the Turks in Asia Minor, Andronikos II turned to allying with the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia to attack them from the east, but at the end this alliance still resulted in nothing, thus all of Byzantine Asia Minor was already doomed to fall to the Turks.

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Coat of Arms of the Palaiologos branch in Montferrat, Italy since 1306

Meanwhile in 1306, Andronikos II’s son Theodore with his second wife Yolande was sent to his mother’s homeland of Montferrat in the region of Piedmont to be its ruler as Theodore’s uncle which was Yolande’s brother died without an heir, and being the closest male relative Theodore traveled to Montferrat to rule it, thus from here on a member of the Palaiologos Dynasty would rule a small feudal state in Italy, although Theodore and his descendants would give up their Byzantine Greek heritage and rule as Italian feudal lords. Back in Greece, the Catalans by 1308 stopped their mindless pillaging when travelling south to the still surviving Latin Duchy of Athens when they were hired by the French Duke of Athens to fight against the breakaway Byzantine Despotate of Epirus, but when again not receiving their pay the Catalans betrayed and killed the duke and in 1311 the Catalan mercenaries themselves took over the Duchy of Athens now adding it as well as the region of Attica surrounding Athens as part of the Kingdom of Aragon which here included mainland Aragon in Spain, Southern Italy, Sicily, and now Athens.

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Osman Bey, sultan since 1308

Also, in 1308 the Seljuk Sultanate in Asia Minor finally dissolved after being around for more than 200 years since the late 11th century as their last sultan died without an heir, and with the Seljuk bloodline dying out, Osman inherited the title of Sultan, though not the remaining lands of the Seljuks in Central Asia Minor. In 1314, Michael IX led one more brave charge against the remaining Catalans and their Turkish allies in Thrace but once again, his Alan mercenaries deserted him, and now being tired of defeats Michael IX chose to retire for good from military service to live in Thessaloniki, while at the same time his stepmother who was Andronikos II’s wife Yolande was constantly scheming to get Michael IX away by constantly pressuring Andronikos make one of his sons with her as his successor, but fortunately for Andronikos and his son Michael, Yolande had died in 1317.

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Byzantine art recreated- Chrysobull of Andronikos II (left) presenting the document to Christ (right), art by myself

Over in Serbia, its king Milutin who was still alive in 1314 was at a conflict with his son Stefan Decanski, although with Milutin put down his son’s rebellion sending Decanski to Andronikos II’s court in Constantinople to be blinded, however Decanski was never actually blinded and in Constantinople his 6-year-old son Stefan Dusan who would be Serbia’s future king would learn Byzantine administration here which he would turn out to admire. In 1320, Stefan Decanski together with his son Dusan were allowed by Milutin to return to Serbia after Decanski wrote multiple letters over the past 6 years to persuade his father to pardon him. In the meantime, most of the major Byzantine cities of Western Asia Minor fell to the Turkish Beyliks such as Smyrna which fell to the Beylik of Aydin in 1310, while in 1309 the Byzantine held Island of Rhodes had fallen to the Crusader Knights of St. John now becoming the Knights of Rhodes after being driven away from the Levant by the Mamluks. In Constantinople, the emperor Andronikos II decided he could not do anything to save his empire anymore and so he just basically used funds to instead build lavish churches and monasteries only for the imperial family and while due to the pillaging of the Catalans, his people were starving and prices grew higher and higher with the shortage of food cause by it that no one could afford anything anymore.

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Grand Catalan Company arrives in Constantinople, 1302
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Byzantine army defeated by the Bulgarians at the Battle of Skafida, 1304
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All lands under the Kingdom of Aragon (yellow), Athens added in 1311
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Map of the different Turkish Beyliks of Asia Minor following the dissolution of the Seljuk Sultanate in 1308

The 1321-1328 Civil War and the Reign of Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328-1341)           

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As the Byzantine Empire was falling apart with the last remains of Asia Minor slipping away to various Turkish Beyliks including Osman’s and its treasury almost bankrupt, the old Andronikos II continued to rule incompetently allowing his officials to be corrupt.

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Theodore Metochites, Byzantine politician and friend of Andronikos II

In these hard times for the empire, one particular imperial official which was Andronikos II’s friend and imperial advisor or Mesazon Theodore Metochites who was also a patron of the arts in fact even tortured people to pay up their taxes which he used to renovate the 6th century Church of Chora near Constantinople’s walls only to be used as his personal church and monastery, although it still holds some of the finest Byzantine style frescos of the Palaiologan Renaissance, which took place in this period as a kind of artistic Renaissance in Byzantium where humans mostly being religious figures depicted in frescos appeared to have more life and movement while architectural backgrounds too were introduced to frescos and mosaics, as prior to this Byzantine paintings basically just had a plain background making the subjects seem like they were floating in space, and here the frescos of Chora show one of the finest examples of this era’s art. Now, while it all seemed like there was no more hope for Byzantium as the empire and its people were suffering and only the nobility was prospering as seen with all their art and construction projects of churches and monasteries, only a miracle could save Byzantium from corruption and decay in the form of a strong leader who would usurp power and overthrow the incompetent Andronikos II and his corrupt court. This hero who would save Byzantium however would be a very unlikely one and this was another Andronikos Palaiologos, who was in fact Andronikos II’s grandson and son of the co-emperor Michael IX, and even more ironically the grandson Andronikos who was born in 1297 shared the same birthday as his grandfather the emperor who was born back in 1259, which was March 25. However, it is only fate that would turn the young Andronikos into this hero that would save the empire from falling apart as here in 1320, the young Andronikos was the stereotypical rich, popular, and arrogant young man addicted to partying, drinking, gambling, and women but in only one night, everything would change for the young “bad-boy” Andronikos. In this one night, Andronikos after losing a bet when gambling returned home with his younger brother Manuel forgetting to pay up his debts to the man he lost to, which was the father of one of Andronikos’ lovers, and so when walking back home, this man who Andronikos lost to suddenly had his guards placed above the roofs of Constantinople ordering them to kill Andronikos by firing arrows at him. Andronikos however immediately noticed the thugs were after him and so he ran quickly and turned into a street where they could no longer spot him, however his brother Manuel missed the turn and the thugs mistaking him for Andronikos shot Manuel with their arrows killing him. The young Andronikos however was devastated about his brother’s death that was not meant to happen, but when their father the retired co-emperor Michael IX who was in Thessaloniki got news of his son Manuel’s death, he suffered a heart attack and died as by this point, all the defeats he faced in battle made his mental health slowly deteriorate to the point that another misfortune could cause his death.

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Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos as an old man

The emperor Andronikos II on the other hand was enraged when hearing of his grandson Manuel’s death, and not knowing the entire circumstances behind Manuel’s death, Andronikos II immediately blamed his eldest grandson Andronikos who he believed was a good for nothing drunk for ordering his brother’s death, thus Andonikos II quickly decided to disinherit his grandson Andronikos and remove him from the line of succession, instead replacing him with Andronikos II’s son Theodore who here was already the Lord of Montferrat in Italy. The young Andronikos however did not respond well to being disinherited by his grandfather, and so in Easter of 1321 the grandson Andronikos fled Constantinople to Adrianople with his best friend the young aristocrat John Kantakouzenos to raise an army declaring civil war against his grandfather, thus this is where everything turned around for young Andronikos. Here in Adrianople, a large number of the empire’s young men volunteered to join his cause as Andronikos promised that if he takes over the empire from his grandfather, he will reorganize the empire and bring forth a brighter future for Byzantium, thus what may have first seemed to be a selfish act which was that of Andronikos wanting to take the throne for himself after being disowned by his grandfather became a radical movement to save the empire from destroying itself through corruption and neglect very much present in the current administration of Andronikos II.

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The grandson Andronikos declares civil war against his grandfather Andronikos II in Adrianople, 1321

The army of the grandson Andronikos then immediately marched to Constantinople to overthrow his grandfather and at their arrival outside the Walls of Constantinople, Andronikos II was overwhelmed with its size and determination to overthrow him, and instead of fighting them back or surrendering, Andronikos II did the cowardly thing of not putting up a fight and agreeing to simply just make his grandson his co-emperor and split the empire between both of them with the grandfather ruling Constantinople and the last territories in Asia Minor and the grandson ruling Byzantine Thrace and Macedonia. The agreement between grandfather and grandson however did not last as in the following year 1322, Andronikos II’s corrupt advisors convinced him to resume the civil war with his grandson, however the moment the grandson Andronikos seized the suburbs of Constantinople, his grandfather once again asked for a truce, thus the conflict was once again at a halt.

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Stefan Uros III Decanski, King of Serbia (r. 1322-1331), son of Stefan II Milutin

Meanwhile, as the weakened and impoverished Byzantium was at a civil war, over in the Kingdom of Serbia their king Stefan Uros II Milutin died in 1321 after ruling for almost 40 years and in the following 1322 he was eventually succeeded by his son Stefan Decanski becoming King Stefan Uros III, who had already reconciled with father after both were in conflict with each other in the previous decade. In the 2nd Bulgarian Empire on the other hand, their tsar Theodore Svetoslav died in 1322 and was succeeded by his young son George Terter II but just a year later in 1323 George II died childless, thus he was succeeded as the Bulgarian tsar by his distant cousin Michael Shishman who when becoming tsar became known as Michael Asen III to emphasize his relation to the Asen Dynasty that founded the 2nd Bulgarian Empire back in 1185. By around 1324 as the exact year remains unclear, Osman the founder of the Ottoman Dynasty and now its sultan now ruling over much of Northwest Asia Minor died at an old age and was succeeded by his son Orhan who like his father was also an ambitious warrior that wanted to expand their lands.

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Fresco of Emperor Andronikos II (left) and his grandson and co-emperor Andronikos (right)

Back in Byzantium, Andronikos II in 1325 formally crowned his grandson Andronikos as his co-emperor the same way Andronikos II crowned his son and young Andronikos’ father the late Michael IX many years ago, and due to the civil war, Byzantium ran out of peasants to work the field with many being recruited to the army of either the grandfather or grandson, and it is for this reason why the Byzantines no longer had a professional army by this point resorting to them hiring mercenaries, as many of the rich landowners of the countryside refused to let the peasants be recruited in the army as no one would be left anymore to farm the land.

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Savoy coat of arms

In 1326, the grandson Andronikos was married to the young Italian noblewoman Anna of Savoy, the daughter of Amadeus V who was the Count of Savoy, a small state in Northern Italy which just like Montferrat was also in the region of Piedmont. Eventually, mistrust between the grandfather and grandson Andronikos would erupt again when both turned to different allies as the grandfather Andronikos II turned to his traditional ally which was Serbia here under the rule of Stefan III Decanski while the grandson Andronikos instead preferred an alliance with Bulgaria, and so in 1327 the civil war resumed to a more intense level as this time it involved the armies of both Balkan powers Serbia and Bulgaria fighting each other in Byzantine Macedonia backing either side of the civil war. The side of the grandson supported by Bulgaria soon enough was on the winning side and in early 1328 the city of Thessaloniki surrendered to and declared their support for the grandson, thus the victorious grandson and his best friend and now general John Kantakouzenos marched west to take over Constantinople itself. In May of 1328, the grandson Andronikos and John with only a small army bribed the guards at Constantinople’s walls and when successfully doing so, they stormed into the imperial Blachernae Palace where they forced the 69-year-old Andronikos II surrender.

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Icon of Andronikos II Palaiologos, abdicated in 1328

Seeing his end was inevitable, the old and tired Andronikos II surrendered and abdicated, and thus he was put in chains and arrested, afterwards being forced to retire to where he really belonged to as a religious intellectual, which was a monastery in Constantinople wherein he would spend the rest of his days. The incompetent 46-year reign of Andronikos II thus ended with the undeserving emperor sent to monastery arrest while his friend the corrupt Theodore Metochites too was forced into monastery arrest ironically in the same Monastery of Chora which he had built, and here in 1328 began what would be a new age of revival for Byzantium under the grandson Andronikos becoming emperor or Basileus Andronikos III Palaiologos.          

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Mosaics in the style of the Palaiologan Renaissance with architectural backgrounds behind in the Church of Chora, Constantinople
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Fresco in the more realistic Palaiologan Renaissance style in the Church of Chora, Constantinople
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Byzantium (purple) and the rest of the Balkans in the early 14th century
Watch The Imperial Epilogue (2020) by No Budget Films to see the 1321-1328 Byzantine Civil War in Lego

Becoming the sole ruler of the Byzantine Empire in 1328 at the age of 31, Andronikos III gave up his excessive lifestyle as a young man to become a strong and energetic emperor the way his great-grandfather Michael VIII was for the good of the empire in order to put it all back together again. As Andronikos III became emperor, he appointed his closest friend John Kantakouzenos who helped him win the civil war as the empire’s grand general or Megas Domestikos and just shortly after the beginning of his reign, Andronikos III and John put their funds into restoring the Byzantine fleet which Andronikos II decades ago had disbanded and sold for parts.

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Orhan, Sultan of the Ottomans (r. 1324-1362), son and successor of Osman

In the meantime, the previous civil war between Andronikos II and Andronikos III again exposed the last remains of Byzantine Asia Minor to Ottoman raids led by their sultan Orhan, thus the important Byzantine city of Prusa fell to the Ottomans in 1326 becoming the new capital of the Ottoman Turks renamed Bursa, then following it both cities of Nicaea and Nicomedia being the last important Byzantine cities there were besieged by Orhan. To relieve both Nicaea and Nicomedia from being under siege by the Ottomans, Andronikos III and John in 1329 led their troops into Asia Minor to expel Orhan’s Ottoman Turks, thus both forces met at the Battle of Pelekanon, which started off successful for the Byzantines until Andronikos III himself was wounded forcing him and John to flee the battle. At the end of the day, the Byzantine forces suffered a crushing defeat to the Ottomans as most of the Byzantine troops panicked thinking their emperor had been killed, although despite losing Andronikos escaped to safety and when recovering from his wounds, he asked his closest friend John to be his co-emperor if ever Andronikos would die any time soon from his wound, John however refused the offer believing it to be too much for him.

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Andronikos III Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor since 1328, grandson of Andronikos II, art by myself

Although facing a major defeat to the Ottomans in battle, Andronikos III managed to score a few successes later on in 1329 by recovering the Aegean island of Chios from the Latins who since 1204 were still holding on to it after a short naval battle. Seeing that the Serbian kingdom under Stefan III Decanski was a growing threat, Andronikos III continued his alliance with the Bulgarian tsar Michael III planning a joint invasion of Serbia, which however only resulted in a major defeat for the Bulgarians against the Serbian forces at the Battle of Velbazhd in today’s Bulgaria where the Bulgarian tsar Michael III was in fact killed, and here the young Serbian prince Stefan Dusan, son of Stefan III proved his ability and fearlessness in battle. Due to the defeat of the Bulgarians to the Serbians, Andronikos III in 1330 turned against his ally Bulgaria by invading Bulgarian territory in Thrace seeing that Bulgaria was after all vulnerable after suffering a major defeat in battle. On the other hand, Andronikos III had the luck of being emperor in the year 1330, which was the 1000th year anniversary of the founding of Constantinople and therefore the Byzantine Empire itself by Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) in 330, thus making Andronikos III the only millennial Byzantine emperor in Byzantine history, however due to the lack of funds Byzantium had at this point combined with the wars they were fighting, there were no spectacular celebrations held in Constantinople in 1330, its 1000th year.

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Ivan Stefan, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (r. 1330-1331)

Over in Bulgaria meanwhile, with their tsar Michael III killed in battle his son Ivan Stefan succeeded him but only stayed in power for a year as due to his failure in stopping the Byzantine invasion in the south, Ivan Stefan lost a lot of his popularity and support, thus in 1331 Ivan Stefan was overthrown by his cousin the Bulgarian Despot of Lovech Ivan Alexander who then took over as the new Bulgarian tsar forcing Ivan Stefan to eventually flee to Italy, and Bulgaria’s new ruler Ivan Alexander would later turn out to be another one of Bulgaria’s greatest tsars. In Serbia on the other hand, despite their king Stefan III Decanski contributing to their victory over the Bulgarians at the Battle of Velbazhd, most of the nobility were discontented with his policies, thus they plotted to overthrow him in favor of his son Stefan Dusan who they saw as a more popular figure and so in 1331 after Dusan was proclaimed King of Serbia, his father was overthrown and later that year the deposed Stefan Decanski who fled was eventually captured by the army who switched their support to his son, thus Decaski was imprisoned and afterwards strangled to death by his son’s orders, and now Stefan IV Dusan at 23 became the King of Serbia. It also happened that in 1331, the Ottoman sultan Orhan finally managed to capture Nicaea from the Byzantines at least sparing its people by ordering them to evacuate, but from here on the city of Nicaea would never again be under Byzantine hands, while in the north now that Bulgaria once again had a strong ruler being Ivan Alexander, the gains Andronikos III made in Thrace were taken back by Bulgaria. In the following year 1332, Andronikos III decided to invade Bulgaria in retaliation for the Bulgarians invading Andronikos III’s newly gained lands in Thrace, and while preparing for his campaign against Bulgaria, Andronikos’s wife Anna of Savoy gave birth to their son in the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace, and this son was named John after Andronikos’ closest friend and general John Kantakouzenos who was with him in this campaign too. It also happened in 1332 that the former emperor and Andronikos III’s grandfather Andronikos II finally died as a monk after 4 years of monastery arrest in Constantinople at the age of 72.

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Ivan Alexander, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire since 1331

Confident of victory, Andronikos III led his troops against the Bulgarians in 1332 but here he was defeated by the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander at the Battle of Rusokastro as Andronikos’s forces of only 3,000 were outnumbered by Ivan Alexander’s army of 11,000. Due to his defeat to the Bulgarians, Andronikos III had to formally cede what Ivan Alexander captured in Thrace to Bulgaria while Andronikos too had to marry off his young daughter Maria to Ivan Alexander’s young son Michael, and in 1332 as well both Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria and Stefan IV Dusan of Serbia sealed an alliance together after Dusan married Ivan Alexander’s sister Helena, which would then make the Serbian kingdom and 2nd Bulgarian Empire have a lasting and unbroken alliance. Andronikos III after losing Nicaea did not want Nicomedia to its north to suffer the same fate of falling to the Ottomans, and so Andronikos agreed to pay tribute to their sultan Orhan, though Andronikos too had accepted an invitation to join a military alliance that consisted of the Papacy, France, Venice, and the Kinghts of Rhodes to combat the Turkish pirates in the Aegean as these powers too in fact recognized the rule of Andronikos III as he proved to be a competent ruler, and here Andronikos was to provide a large percent of ships to assist these other powers.

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Ibn Battuta, North African explorer, visited Constantinople in 1332

Another highlight of Andronikos III’s reign was that later in 1332, the famous North African explorer Ibn Battuta travelled Constantinople as part of one of his many adventures that would take him to the distant parts of Africa and far east Asia, and although no Byzantine sources ever mentioned the meeting of Ibn Battuta and the emperor, Ibn Battuta in his memoirs mentions meeting Andronikos III in Constantinople. In 1333, Stephen Gabrielopoulos the ruler of Thessaly which had been its own state since 1268 after breaking away from the breakaway rebel state of the Despotate of Epirus had died without an heir, and with a succession crisis breaking out in Thessaly, Andronikos III taking advantage of the situation sent an army to invade Thessaly before the Despotate of Epirus could beat him, and at the end Andronikos III’s army achieved a great success when putting the entire region of Thessaly back under Byzantine imperial control, and by having Thessaly which had a large population and fertile land, the Byzantine revenue would grow again. In 1334, a traitor in the Byzantine army named Syrgiannes deserted to the Serbians and in Serbia he convinced their king Dusan to invade Byzantine Thessaly, however Andronikos III immediately got word of this and immediately marched to confront Dusan, but before facing off the Serbians in battle, Andronikos III had one of his commanders named Sphrantzes infiltrate the Serbian camp and kill Syrgiannes.

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Stefan Uros IV Dusan, King of Serbia since 1331, son of Stefan III Decanski

With the traitor Syrgiannes assassinated, Andronikos III and Dusan concluded a peace treaty, as Dusan here did not yet have any intention to invade Byzantium, but to formally conclude peace Andronikos III had to give up the city of Kastoria in Byzantine Macedonia to the Serbian kingdom. After settling peace with Serbia, Andronikos III managed to reclaim the last Latin held city of Asia Minor which was Phocaea as well as the island of Lesbos from the Latins, and a lot of this success was due to Andronikos making an additional alliance with Umur Bey, the Turkish Bey of Aydin who at this point was building for his state a powerful navy. The Ottomans however still ended up breaking their truce with Andronikos III who offered to pay them annual tribute and in 1337, their sultan Orhan deciding that he no longer wanted to accept tribute laid siege to Nicomedia again and successfully captured it, thus here marks the complete end of Byzantine rule in Asia Minor, which had been Byzantium’s heartland for about 7 centuries now.

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Emperor Andronikos III and his wife Empress Anna of Savoy
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Serbian army defeats the Bulgarians at the Battle of Velbazhd in 1330, art by Borivoje Mikic
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Bulgarians defeat the Byzantines at the Battle of Rusokastro, 1332

       

Realizing that nothing much could be done anymore to restore Byzantine rule over Asia Minor, Andronikos III instead turned to focusing on Greece considering making it the new Byzantine heartland as he previously had already expanded Byzantine territory south by putting Thessaly back into Byzantine hands, and so in 1337 Andronikos III would do what he would be most remembered for, which was the conquest of the Despotate of Epirus itself. Lucky enough for the main Byzantine Empire, the Despotate of Epirus that had been an independent Byzantine state since Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204 had fallen into disorder as here in 1337 as well, the Italian descended Despot of Epirus John II Orsini was poisoned by his wife which made the wife the regent for their son the new Despot of Epirus Nikephoros II Orsini, and with this chaos Albanian tribesmen to their north raided and began occupying the territory of Epirus in Western Greece.

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Andronikos III Palaiologos, art by Androklos

Taking advantage of the situation in Epirus rather than recovering Nicomedia from the Ottomans, Andronikos III together with John Kantakouzenos led their armies consisting of their Turkish allies from the Beylik of Aydin marching them west to invade Epirus itself in 1337, and after expelling the raiding Albanian tribesmen with such brutality and capturing Epirus’ capital Arta, the entire Despotate of Epirus was practically back again under Byzantine hands for the meantime as when Andronikos and John left leaving their troops behind to secure Epirus, the people of Epirus rebelled against being under Byzantine occupation. With the Epirote locals rebelling, Andronikos III and John in 1338 rushed back to Epirus to put the rebellion down and to do this, they deposed the young Despot of Epirus Nikephoros II sending him to Constantinople despite his mother attempting to negotiate to still keep him in power as a Byzantine vassal, while the people of Epirus too chose to submit to Andronikos III or else be brutally massacred by them like how the Albanian tribesmen were the previous year. Andronikos III however refused these terms as if Nikephoros II were still a vassal, Epirus would still not be completely under direct Byzantine control, thus Nikephoros II was sent to Constantinople as a hostage while in his place a Byzantine governor was instead appointed to be in charge of Epirus, therefore ending the existence of the Despotate of Epirus which now was fully annexed back to the Byzantine Empire. With all the wars and conquests taken care off, Andronikos III now turned to settling political issues in his empire as well as in strengthening their ties to the other powers of Europe and so in 1339, Andronikos III considered a Church Council to discuss terms about Church unity with the Catholic Church like his great-grandfather Michael VIII did, however this said council never came to happen.

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Fresco of John Kantakouzenos as Megas Domestikos of Andronikos III

Andronikos III however was more concerned in military conquests than politics while John was the one more concerned with reforming the government and now with both the entire provinces of Thessaly and Epirus under direct Byzantine rule again, Andronikos began laying his out plans for future campaigns to reconquer the rest of Greece including the Duchy of Athens that fell under the Catalans and the still surviving Latin Principality of Achaea in the Peloponnese in order to connect the far-flung Byzantine territory of the Morea by land to the main empire itself. With Andronikos III’s military campaigns finished off for now, he would also do one of the greatest reforms of the 14th century as the empire was now at peace, and this would be a complete reform of Byzantium’s justice system that had decayed into corruption becoming bribe based during Andronikos II’s 46-year reign, although most of this judicial reform was carried out by John Kantakouzenos.

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Andronikos III Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1328-1341)

Andronikos III and John basically carried out this new reform on the justice system by replacing the disorganized old system of many judges with 4 “Universal Justices” with 2 being Church officials and 2 being government officials based in Constantinople as to make things fair, there had to be an equal number of judges to settle two different kinds of issues as people would have issues either concerning religious or political matters. To make the Universal Justices more approachable not only in Constantinople but in other parts of the empire, Andronikos III appointed an additional 4 Universal Justices in Thessaloniki and another 4 in the Morea. The Universal Justices however had turned out to not all be completely free of corruption as soon enough, a total of 3 of these Universal Justices were found guilty of corruption and accepting bribes, and to solve this issue Andronikos III simply fired these 3 corrupt justices and replaced them with new ones that were not corrupt. Though Byzantium was once again a strong and stable state thanks to the energetic rule of Andronikos III as well as his reforms, the age-old cancer of religious schism that weakened the Byzantine state still remained unsolved as in the latter part of Andronikos III’s reign, a new religious teaching which later became a controversy broke out, and this new teaching was known as Hesychasm and the one to first introduce it during Andronikos III’s reign was Gregory Palamas, a Byzantine monk from Mt. Athos whose new teaching was a kind of mystical practice that only required chanting a single sentence multiple times as a way to meditate, zone out, and get closer to God. Many of Byzantium’s aristocrats true enough supported this new meditation teaching, however this teaching was opposed by the Italian theologian Barlaam of Calabria, and to settle this controversy Andronikos III in 1341 held a council at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople but at the end, when he could not rule whether Gregory or Barlaam’s side was right, the issue remained unresolved.

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The Byzantine Empire (orange) during Andronikos III’s reign
Watch this video from Eastern Roman History to learn more about Byzantium’s last great revival under Andronikos III

The Climax Part I- The Civil War of 1341-1347            

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With the capable and ambitious Andronikos III Palaiologos running the empire, it may have seemed that everything was once again going well for the Byzantines especially now that they once again had the rich provinces of Thessaly and Epirus, which once again brought revenue to the empire. However, this short-lived age of prosperity and stability the Byzantine Empire was having unfortunately did not last long, as here in June of 1341 just 4 days after Andronikos held the Church council in the Hagia Sophia to discuss the new Hesychast controversy which still remained unresolved, he caught a fever and suddenly died at the relatively young age of 44 after a reign of 13 years. Despite ruling strongly and energetically, Andronikos III did in fact suffer from chronic malaria, and little did he know that this would cause his untimely death, and no matter how effectively he ran the empire, he made one fatal mistake which was that he never named his successor believing he would still continue to rule for much longer. Andronikos III luckily enough had a son John who following Andronikos’ death became Emperor John V Palaiologos, however John was only 9-years-old and was never even proclaimed by his father as co-emperor, therefore making his succession a disputed one as the grand general John Kantakouzenos too had a claim to the throne as Andronikos at one point considered making him his co-emperor.

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Empress Anna of Savoy, wife of Andronikos III and Regent of the Empire following his death in 1341, art by myself

However, by custom an underaged ruler was to immediately succeed his father and rule under the regency of his mother if his mother were still alive, and this was exactly the case here as Andronikos III’s wife Empress Anna of Savoy was still alive and following the death of her husband she immediately assumed control of the empire as her son’s regent. John Kantakouzenos who despite not wanting to accept the role of co-emperor before now accepted it as he believed he was the more competent one to run the empire and carry out the good work of Andronikos III which he failed to finish due to his sudden death. Shortly after Andronikos III’s death, John rushed to the Byzantine Senate in Constantinople asking them to approve his claim as regent for Andronikos III’s young son John V saying that he had every right to do it being the late emperor’s most trusted general, and before the senate was about to rule that John was to be the empire’s regent the Patriarch of Constantinople John XIV Kalekas stormed in showing a letter of proof that the late emperor named him the patriarch as the guardian of Andronikos III’s son in case Andronikos died, however the letter the patriarch showed was forged. The senate however at the end still ruled that John Kantakouzenos was to be the empire’s regent though not co-emperor but little did he know that there was already a faction that rose up to oppose him as regent of the empire and this faction was led by the empress Anna of Savoy, the patriarch John XIV, and the wealthy and influential politician Alexios Apokaukos who was previously a secretary of Andronikos III and at this point possibly the richest man in the empire now with the tile of Megas Doux. Now it already seemed that in just something like a second after Andronikos III died, everything began to already fall apart for Byzantium as with a strong ruler dead, Byzantium’s neighbors took advantage of the situation by raiding into Byzantine territory, thus here King Stefan IV Dusan of Serbia in 1341 launched raids into Byzantine Macedonia, Tsar Ivan Alexander continued raiding into Byzantine Thrace, and Turkish pirates from the Beylik of Sarukhan in Western Asia Minor went as far as to raiding the Aegean coast of Thrace. When hearing that the empire’s borders were in danger, John Kantakouzenos left Constantinople to expel them and in so little time he managed to drive away the Bulgarian and Serbian armies as well as the Turkish pirate fleet, but the moment he left Constantinople the empress Anna with support from the ordinary people of Constantinople as well as the patriarch and Alexios Apokaukos declared Kantakouzenos a public enemy while officially crowning the young John V as emperor, thus beginning another tragedy of a civil war for Byzantium right when everything seemed to be so going well for them.

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Alexios Apokaukos, Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire

Now, the one to actually blame for bringing the empire down when it all seemed like everything was going well was Alexios Apokaukos and basically only for the petty reason that he hated John Kantakouzenos for being part of the old landed aristocracy as Alexios despite being rich was born a commoner, therefore he believed that aristocrats like John had no reason to be wealthy except by blood. Now that John Kantakouzenos was declared a public enemy by the empress, his relatives as well as the wealthy aristocrats that supported him were forced to leave Constantinople otherwise be imprisoned and have all their property confiscated by the empress. When Kantakouzenos arrived in the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace, his relatives and supporters were already there awaiting him after they were forced out of Constantinople and to save his reputation, they proclaimed him co-emperor against the regency of the empress and Alexios Apokaukos. Now unlike the civil war of 1321-1328 between Andronikos III and his grandfather Andronikos II which was a smaller conflict that was basically a revolution to overthrow an old and corrupt regime, this one beginning in 1341 was to be a much a larger and more devastating conflict that had deeper issues involved including those regarding society and religion.

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Hesychasm, a religious teaching supported by the 14th century Byzantine aristocracy

In this conflict, Byzantium was split between the old landed aristocracy where John Kantakouzenos came from and their faction that backed John stood for more conservative and traditional Byzantine values which included Gregory Palamas’ Hesychast teaching which they saw as a sacred and mystical tradition, while the other faction in this conflict which backed the regency of the empress, patriarch, and Alexios consisted of the common people of the empire as well as merchants who stood for more progressive values and commerce including maintaining diplomatic ties with the Italian republics of Venice and Genoa, as well as Church Unity believing this new Hesychast teaching as heretical making them move more and more away from achieving Church unity. At the same time, the conservative and even racist aristocracy that backed John Kantakouzenos also distrusted the empress for being a Western Latin as she was Italian and in fact still Catholic as she never really converted to Orthodoxy when marrying Andronikos III, while they had also distrusted her son John V as emperor as not only was he a child but a half-Italian who was educated to have more Western European than Byzantine values, and ironically here at this point the world went the other way around with west seeming to be more progressive and Byzantium the one to be seen as more backwards. However, this conflict would begin with things going in favor for the faction of the empress as majority of the population being commoners backed the empress and regency and so did a lot of provincial governors while only Thessaloniki where most of the aristocrats lived as well as an independent Serbian magnate in Thrace named Hrelja backed Kantakouzenos. In early 1342, John Kantakouzenos together with his ally Hrelja marched to Thessaloniki to reinforce it with troops and defend it against the army of the regency but when arriving it was too late as an anti-aristocratic faction known as the zealots kicked out the aristocrats and took over the city in the name of the regency and the young emperor John V. As John and Hrelja were about to lay siege to Thessaloniki, the fleet of the regency sent by Alexios Apokaukos arrived forcing both of them to lift the siege and flee north, but John was still intent to continue the war despite lacking armies and so he decided to go to Serbia itself to seal a military alliance with their king Dusan, however on the way to Serbia Hrelja deserted John as Hrelja never really wanted to help John’s cause but instead to only gain some lands for himself with John’s help.

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Personal flag of King Stefan IV Dusan of Serbia

John Kantakouzenos in 1342 eventually arrived in Serbia to meet their king Dusan himself and at first Dusan was reluctant to help as here he was too busy growing the power of Serbia but when finding out that he could gain lands in Northern Greece by helping John, Dusan agreed and so together with John they launched an invasion of Byzantine Greece. John Kantakouzenos here would then end up betraying the memory of his late friend Andronikos III as here John desperately agreed to hand over to Serbia all the lands they conquered in Greece despite John and Andronikos III previously working so hard to put them back to Byzantine rule. Now with their alliance sealed, John assisted by an army of Serbian knights took over parts of Western Greece from the regency’s forces, but it was Dusan who was more successful here as he was able to capture all of Byzantine West Macedonia and parts of Albania. Worried about John Kantakouzenos’ progress, the empress wrote to Dusan to turn on John and send him to her in chains but Dusan refused believing that by being allied with John, he could gain a lot. Soon enough, both provinces of Epirus and Thessaly accepted the authority of John, although John’s base Didymoteicho soon enough was blockaded by the regency’s army which made John’s wife Irene who was there turn to asking for assistance from the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander and in return, Ivan Alexander sent an army to drive away the regency’s forces, and though the Bulgarians succeeded in doing so but not in capturing Didymoteicho which was after all part of their tsar’s plan. Rather than capturing Didymoteicho, the Bulgarian army instead turned to pillaging the farms around it despite their tsar not ordering them to do so.

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Alexios Apokaukos (center) and the Byzantine regency army
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Byzantine Thessaloniki, taken over by the ant-aristocratic Zealots in 1342
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Army of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire
Watch this video from Jabzy to see a summary of the 1341-1347 Byzantine Civil War

          

When hearing that the surrounding area of his base city Didymoteicho was under attack by the Bulgarians that turned against them, John Kantakouzenos who was still in Macedonia revived his old alliance with the Turkish Bey of Aydin Umur Bey who now had built for his Beylik a powerful fleet.

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2nd Bulgarian Empire army, 14th century

In early 1343, Umur Bey after being asked for assistance by John gathered his fleet and sailed from Southwest Asia Minor up to Thrace, where they sailed up the Evros River, arrived outside Didymoteicho and expelled the pillaging Bulgarians, and after doing their part the Turks of Umur Bey returned to their Beylik in Asia Minor. John Kantakouzenos in 1343 however began to fall out with his ally Stefan IV Dusan as when they both were laying siege to the city of Berroia in Macedonia held by the regency’s forces, John after his and Dusan’s forces succeeded demanded the garrison there to surrender the city to him and not to Dusan, which made Dusan furious especially since he was in this war to gain cities in Byzantine Macedonia. Feeling insulted and betrayed by John, Dusan here abandoned his alliance with John at once making John his mortal enemy and instead Dusan declared his support for the empress and regency as he believed they were easier to manipulate.

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Umur Bey of Aydin (r. 1334-1348), ally of John Kantakouzenos

Despite losing his alliance with Dusan, John still continued his attempt to besiege Thessaloniki and take it from the pro-regency zealots and lucky enough for him, his Turkish ally Umur Bey and his fleet came to his aid here and as John besieged Thessaloniki by land, the Turks with their fleet attacked from the sea. However, right when they laid siege to Thessaloniki, the regency’s fleet led by Alexios Apokaukos once again arrived coming to the rescue of Thessaloniki, but this time the massive size of Umur Bey’s fleet managed to scare Alexios forcing him to retreat from Thessaloniki, though at the end John still failed to capture Thessaloniki. John Kantakouzenos and Umur Bey then abandoned Thessaloniki and marched east into Thrace where a number of towns and cities switched to John’s faction, though in Macedonia Dusan was still left to freely capture towns and cities and so by this point, all of Byzantine Macedonia except for Thessaloniki fell under the rule of Dusan’s Serbia.

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Turkish army of Umur Bey, 14th century

As John and his Turkish allied army led by Umur Bey progressed through Thrace, the Turks burned and looted the countryside as a way to weaken Constantinople’s economy as its grain supply came from Thrace, and this pillaging was part of the plan to ruin the position of the empress in Constantinople. The empress Anna of Savoy meanwhile was now in dangerous position as the pillaging of Thrace caused starvation in Constantinople and with so much funds spent for the war, the empress now had no choice but to pawn the empire’s crown jewels to the Republic of Venice to raise funds, and desperately wanting military assistance from the west, Anna did exactly what her great-grandfather-in-law Michael VIII Palaiologos did many years ago which was to consider submitting the Byzantine Church to the pope. Anna still being Catholic at heart then wrote to the pope that she will submit herself, her son the young emperor John V, the patriarch John XIV, and Alexios Apokaukos to the pope’s authority and to enforce this Church unity she also agreed to do what Michael VIII did back then which was to persecute all those who opposed the Church unity, especially those who practiced the Hesychast teaching which the pope and the Western Church totally saw as heretical and nonsense.

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Tsar Ivan Alexander of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (r. 1331-1371)

In 1344, the empress Anna then concluded an additional alliance with Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria as Ivan Alexander too just like Dusan never really cared about which side he supported as long as it benefited him, and although Ivan Alexander was given the city of Philippopolis by the Byzantines in exchange to help the empress’ side, Ivan Alexander was not of so much help. At the same time, the independent Bulgarian bandit leader Momchil in the Rhodope Mountains of Thrace who previously supported John Kantakouzenos’ faction defected to the empress’ faction and in early 1345, John Kantakouzenos together with Umur Bey leading their respective forces clashed with Momchil and his forces in the Rhodope Mountains defeating Momchil’s forces and even killing Momchil himself. John however grew tired of all the battles and so after this victory, he attempted to negotiate with the empress to stop the war by sending Franciscan monks to Constantinople to deliver his proposal to the empress, but when arriving in Constantinople the monks were arrogantly stopped by Alexios Apokaukos who now here was busy building a new prison to house all those who opposed the regency most of which being John’s relatives and supporters. The turning point in the civil war then came here in 1345 as when Alexios here was inspecting the prison he just built wherein he now locked up a number of political prisoners, he was suddenly lynched to death by these prisoners who claimed they did it in the name of John Kantakouzenos, thus with the death of Alexios the side of the regency fell apart now that there was no more strong man to lead them.

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Byzantine army in the 1341-1347 Civil War

The death of Alexios then gave John Kantakouzenos the opportunity to march to Constantinople and take over it but before he was able to do so, his ally Umur Bey got word that the pope launched a Crusade against his Beylik to punish him for attacking Christian ships in the Aegean. As part of this Crusade against Umur’s Beylik of Aydin, the Hospitaller Knights and the fleet of the Republic of Venice attacked Umur’s territory forcing Umur in 1345 to rush back to defend his territory, leaving John alone once again. Desperate for an ally once more, John had no more choice but to turn to the most despised man by the Byzantines which was the Ottoman sultan Orhan who had for the longest time remained silent but had now possibly became the most powerful Turkish ruler of Asia Minor after he captured the last remains of Byzantine territory there.    

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A ship from Umur Bey of Aydin’s Turkish fleet
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The Crusade against Umur Bey of Aydin
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Byzantine army units of the 1341-1347 Palaiologos Civil War

          

The one who had been benefitting most in this pointless civil war the Byzantines had was neither the empress Anna of Savoy and the Palaiologos faction nor John Kantakouzenos and his faction but the Serbian king Stefan IV Dusan who after his alliance with John was severed became John’s most bitter enemy and when agreeing to help the empress’ side did not really help them but instead only did to his own benefit.

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Coat of Arms of Serbia’s Nemanjic Dynasty, Dusan’s dynasty

In 1345, Dusan managed to capture the last Byzantine held city in Macedonia which was Serres which stubbornly resisted Dusan’s siege, but with Serres falling into Serbian hands, all of Byzantine Macedonia was annexed to the Serbian Kingdom except for Thessaloniki which was left as a lone Byzantine city surrounded in a “Serbian sea”. With the city of Serres as well as all of Byzantine Macedonia falling to Dusan’s control, Dusan began to no longer call himself “king” but “Emperor of the Serbs, Romans (Greeks), and Albanians”, although in the Orthodox world which included Serbia, a ruler could not call himself emperor unless he was crowned by a patriarch, and so Dusan here having enough power to do so, he elevated the Serbian Archbishopric into the status of a Patriarchate making the Serbian archbishop into the first Patriarch of Serbia. The special day for Dusan then came in April of 1346 and this was when the unusually tall and strong King Stefan IV Uros Dusan Nemanjic who at 38 had long dark brown hair and large brown eyes was formally crowned by his newly appointed Patriarch of Serbia Joanikije as the first Emperor of Serbia with the Kingdom of Serbia was transformed into the Serbian Empire, and now Dusan would no longer rule as king but as “tsar” (emperor).

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Emperor (Tsar) Stefan Uros IV Dusan of Serbia, crowned as emperor in 1346

Dusan’s status as emperor was then recognized by the Archbishop of Ohrid, the Patriarch of Bulgaria, and his brother-in-law and ally Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria, and as Serbia’s first emperor Dusan gave his son Stefan Uros V the title of “King of Serbia” giving him rule over the original Serbian provinces known as “royal lands” before they expanded, while the newly conquered territories of Serbia in Macedonia and Albania were now known as “imperial lands” which were under Dusan’s direct control. Immediately after becoming emperor, Dusan already acted the way a Byzantine emperor did as not only did he wear the purple robes reserved for Byzantine emperors, but he also granted titles to his relatives and close generals, and most of these titles that he was granting were in fact those used in the Byzantium such as Despotes and Sebastokrator. At this point, it seemed that Serbia has gone such a long way as less than 200 years ago, when the Serbian state was founded by Dusan’s ancestor Stefan Nemanja (r. 1166-1196) the first Grand Prince of Serbia- who if you recall had a major role in chapter IX of this series- was just a relatively small principality in the Balkans. Back in Byzantium, John Kantakouzenos who now got military support from the Ottoman sultan Orhan who provided him with troops was now at the winning side of the civil war, and just a month after Dusan’s coronation as emperor, John having enough confidence had himself crowned as the senior emperor of Byzantium John VI Kantakouzenos in Adrianople.

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Theodora Kantakouzene, daughter of John Kantakouzenos and wife of Orhan

To fully seal his alliance with Orhan, John VI then married off his daughter Theodora who was only 14 to Sultan Orhan who was already in his 60s at a lavish ceremony in the port town of Selymbria outside Constantinople, thus here Orhan himself would cross over to Europe making this the first time an Ottoman ruler would so, although Theodora would end up just being one of Orhan’s wives in his Harem in the Ottoman capital Bursa in Asia Minor. Meanwhile in Constantinople, a part of the Hagia Sophia’s ceiling collapsed which the empress Anna of Savoy and her son John V saw as a bad sign believing that there was no more chance they could win against John VI in the civil war, and true enough shortly after his coronation and the marriage of his daughter Theodora to Orhan, John VI and his forces including Ottoman allied troops provided by Orhan arrived outside Constantinople’s walls, but rather than storming into the city they would camp outside it for months as John VI still being proudly Byzantine did not want the Ottomans to storm into their capital and pillage it.

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John VI Kantakouzenos, Senior Byzantine emperor since 1346

As the months passed, the population of Constantinople began to starve due to being blockaded but the empress still confident of her position had not conceded yet that she in fact tried to assassinate John VI twice in which both attempts failed. In early 1347, the empress’ faction now lost all support as the patriarch John XIV who was their loyal ally was deposed by the Kantakouzenos supporters and in the night of the same day the patriarch was deposed, John VI’s supporters tired of being blockaded opened the gates of Constantinople letting their emperor John VI and his forces except for their Ottoman allies to storm into Constantinople surrounding the Blachernae Palace where the empress and her son the young emperor John V were. In this story’s case to add some more detail to the scenario, as the 41-year-old empress Anna was at her bath still refusing to surrender, John VI’s forces had already stormed the Blachernae Palace demanding her to surrender at once, and here the now 14-year-old John V rushed to his mother who was still at her bath convincing her to surrender peacefully as nothing could be done anymore. The empress then immediately got out of her bath even if she was still soaking and after just covering herself up with a towel, she rushed out, but at least she had enough time to put on her nightgown before John VI would confront her and her son. The empress Anna of Savoy, her son John V, and the usurper John VI Kantakouzenos then confronted each other at the imperial Blachernae Palace’s main hall at the dead of night with the empress and her son in their sleeping outfits and John VI formally dressed in purple imperial robes, although surprisingly they all came to a peaceful agreement wherein it was agreed that John VI from here on would rule as Byzantium’s senior emperor for the next 10 years, and following this both John V Palaiologos and John VI Kantakouzenos would rule as equals, while the empress mother was to remain unharmed in Cosntantinople but still forced to stay out of politics.

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John V Palaiologos as a young man, Byzantine emperor since 1341, son of Andronikos III and Anna of Savoy, art by JustinianustheGreat

To unite both Palaiologos and Kantakouzenos families however, John VI had to marry off his younger daughter Helena to John V who was just a year older than her unlike Helena’s sister Theodora who had to marry a much older man. With everything settled down, John VI was then formally crowned as senior emperor by the new patriarch, though not at the Hagia Sophia but at the church of the imperial palace, and now it looks like Byzantine history had totally repeated itself wherein a usurping general becomes senior emperor and the rightful emperor is demoted while also the demoted emperor was forced to marry the usurper’s daughter to legitimize the usurper’ claim, as if you remember from chapter VII of this series set in the 10th century the exact same thing happened, as back then in 920 the usurping general Romanos I Lekepenos who like John VI here demoted the rightful emperor which was John V who back then in 920 was Constantine VII of the Macedonian Dynasty, and John VI like Romanos I back then sidelined the rightful emperor’s mother and legitimized his claim by marrying off his daughter to the rightful emperor, and ironically both the daughter of Romanos I back then and of John VI here was named Helena.

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Kantakouzenos family coat of arms

Though both John VI and John V stayed in power, things were not yet fully resolved as mistrust still continued with both factions where the supporters of John V and his mother still believed John VI would one day completely remove John V from power and possibly even blind him while those who supported the Kantakouzenos faction wanted John V finished off for good not wanting John VI to share power with anyone. The one here who resented the young John V most was John VI’s son Matthew Kantakouzenos who resented his new brother-in-law John V believing that his father preferred John V more as John VI allowed John V to be his co-emperor rather than giving the position to Matthew, instead Matthew was only given some land in Thrace to rule. Though John VI was already the senior emperor, it did not mean much as first of all the crown placed on his head was no longer the original pure gold one as it had been pawned by the empress to Venice, instead he was crowned with a cheaper gold crown, and in his coronation dinner, the food was no longer served in expensive gold and silver plates but in ceramic ones as the empress had to sell these gold and silver plates off too in order to continue the civil war even if her side lost at the end.

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Coronation of Dusan as Emperor of Serbia in Skopje, 1346
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Blachernae Palace, Imperial Residence of Constantinople
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The Land Walls of Constantinople, art by myself

 

The Climax Part II- Black Death and Dusan’s Conquest of Byzantium (1347-1355)         

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The moment John VI Kantakouzenos became senior emperor of Byzantium, everything would turn around for them as here in 1347, Byzantium now already weakened from the civil war was to face a double disaster, the first being the civil war of course but what was to follow it was even worse. This new disaster that would further bring Byzantium to its knees was the plague of Black Death or also known as the “Bubonic Plague” which was said to have originated in the steppes of Central Asia as a result of climate change that had dried up the grasslands there forcing rodents there to flee bringing the pests with them, and apparently this plague had already spread across India and China in the early 1340s, though in 1347 this plague would first arrive in Europe through Genoese ships coming from their trading port of Theodosia (also known as Kaffa) in the Crimea, in which the people there had already been infected as previously the Mongol army of the Golden Horde besieged it by catapulting bodies of those who had died from this plague. Now one of the first ports these Genoese ships carrying the plague rats was Constantinople and here in 1347, just shortly after John VI became senior emperor, people began falling ill and dying. Among the many in Constantinople who died from the plague of Black Death was the emperor John VI’s youngest son Andronikos who was only a young child as children were in fact the most vulnerable to the plague given the high child mortality rate back then. Though nothing much is recorded about the Black Death hitting Byzantium, Byzantine historians of this time such as Nikephoros Gregoras (1295-1360) and John VI himself who would write about it later on describing the symptoms of the plague which included swelling occurring all over peoples’ bodies as a result of the flea bites, followed by fever, vomiting of blood, hallucinations, and death occurring 2-7 days after contracting the plague.

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Aftermath of the Plague of Justinian, 542

Of course, this was not the first time the Byzantines faced this kind of pandemic being a Bubonic Plague as 800 years earlier, this exact same plague happened which was the Plague of Justinian in 542 if you recall from chapter III of this series wherein the emperor Justinian I the Great himself was a victim of the plague but survived it, and just like 800 years ago, the plague of Black Death in 1347 killed thousands each day at the end killing off 2/3 of Constantinople population regardless of age, gender, or social class. The plague too had hit the other parts of what remained of the empire such as the cities of Thessaloniki and Adrianople despite not so much being recorded about the plague such as the death toll in those parts, although the region of the Morea in Southern Greece was not as much affected due to its remoteness.

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Black Death in Byzantium, 1347

The Byzantines however despite the state of ruin their empire was in had a tradition of advanced medical practice as they had operational hospitals such as the Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople and experienced doctors, although this was still not enough to stop the high death toll, while most people without modern science existing still did not know what was the cause of this plague, and monks and nuns were the ones who were most at risk in getting the plague and dying as they were the ones taking care of the patients.

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A Black Death patient being treated

The one that would be hit worse by the plague however would be the kingdoms of Western Europe, although since this story mainly focuses on Byzantium and the world around them, I would not go too much in detail discussing about how the plague spread across the rest of Europe and how people reacted to it, but to put it short the rest of Europe was hit much worse that thousands kept dying each day to the point that there were no longer enough coffins and even spaces to bury the dead that those who died from the plague had to be dumped in rivers which even made things worse by contaminating the rivers which people drank from.

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Black Death plague doctor in Western Europe

People in the west even at this point still being more superstitious than the Byzantines came up with all kinds of absurd cures including whipping themselves and burning Jews alive who they suspected of starting the plague. The plague would go on for the next 4 years across Europe going as far as to Scotland, Scandinavia, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, while North Africa and the Middle East were badly hit as well, although at the end the most affected were the port cities as they were part of the main shipping routes, and by 1351 the Black Death killed off 75-80% of the population of France and Spain combined, 40% of Egypt’s, and 20% of England and Germany’s. The biggest change caused by Black Death was the dissolution of the centuries old feudal system in Europe as with countless peasants dying, peasants became of such high value that they would no longer be forced to farm the lands of their feudal lords but would instead be travelling across Europe to places where they were in demand especially in parts where almost the entire peasant population was wiped out. The ones less affected by the Plague of Black Death on the other hand were the Ottomans in Asia Minor and Dusan’s Serbian Empire, although Ivan Alexander’s Bulgaria too was affected by the plague. With the plague wiping out most of the Byzantine soldiers in Thessaly and Epirus, Dusan in 1348 considering that the plague hardly affected his empire used the situation in Byzantium to his advantage and marched south conquering both Thessaly and Epirus in one swift campaign, and after taking these provinces Dusan appointed his brother Simeon Uros as the governor of Epirus, his general Preljub as the governor of Thessaly, and his other general Vojin as the governor of Macedonia which Dusan conquered prior to becoming emperor.

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Cartoon map of Dusan’s Serbian Empire

With both Thessaly and Epirus under the Serbian Empire, Stefan IV Dusan was now the undisputed most powerful man of the Balkans with an empire stretching north to south from the Danube River to the Gulf of Corinth in Greece, and west to east from the Adriatic and Ionian Seas to the Aegean Sea and as emperor, he led Serbia into a golden age making it equivalent to what Byzantium was in imperial power and culture, and Dusan to promote his power and influence in 1349 began a codification of laws for Serbia known as Dusan’s Code, just as Byzantium’s most influential emperor Justinian I the Great 800 years earlier did making the Corpus Juris Civilis, and quite coincidentally Serbia’s capital of Skopje where Dusan resided was very close to the now ruined town Justinian I was born in 482 as the peasant Flavius Petrus Sabbatius.

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A page from Dusan’s Code of Laws

Now that Dusan had conquered both Thessaly and Epirus which was followed by his conquest of the Chalcidice Peninsula from the Byzantines, Dusan began to plan out his ultimate goal of conquering Constantinople which was historically true, but the only problem here was that Serbia did not have a fleet large and strong enough do so, therefore Dusan would have to make an alliance with the Republic of Venice to provide him a fleet. In the meantime, John VI Kantakouzenos in 1348 was deeply saddened at the death of his old ally and friend Umur Bey who had been killed in battle against the Venetian fleet and Knights of Rhodes in their Crusade against him, but the even worse part for John VI was that his empire was in serious financial straits as a result of first the civil war and then Black Death which by killing off more than half of Constantinople’s population and a lot of the empire’s as a whole, the imperial revenue had dried out now that there were less people to pay taxes, and the worst part here was Genoa as considering that Byzantium chose to ally with them to recover Constantinople from the Latins back in 1261, Genoa ended up benefitting more as 87% of revenue made from ships passing through the Bosporus were to go to Genoa instead of Byzantium. Needing more revenue for Byzantium in order for it to survive especially since they only earned 13% from customs, John VI in 1349 decided to regain full control of the customs by discontinuing in paying Genoa 87% of it, but at the end this only provoked a small war between Byzantium and Genoa. Being provoked by John VI wanting to cancel their agreement, the Genoese in Constantinople set fire to the ships Andronikos III had previously restored thus again depriving the Byzantines of fleet, but in retaliation Byzantine soldiers in Constantinople set fire to the Genoese held Galata Quarter burning their warehouses as well. At the end, a peace agreement was again settled between Byzantium and Genoa wherein the Genoese agreed to never cause harm to the Byzantines again as long as the Byzantines leave them alone forever in Galata.

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Postcard of Emperor Dusan in battle

In 1350, as Dusan marched northwest to campaign against the Bosnian Principality which he intended to conquer and annex to Serbia, John VI taking advantage of the absence of Serbian troops in Macedonia who left to join Dusan’s campaign marched to Macedonia to take it back for Byzantium, and true enough John VI was able to take back the cities of Berroia and Vodena from the Serbians. Following his successes, John VI proceeded to Thessaloniki and at this point the anti-aristocratic zealots that held it since 1342 lost influence and control of the city, therefore welcoming John VI in with open arms accepting him as their emperor, while John VI as well had his loyalist Patriarch of Constantinople Kallistos excommunicate Dusan out of revenge. Dusan after finishing his campaign against Bosnia which did not result in much success anyway returned to Macedonia taking back the lands John VI had just reconquered for the Byzantines, again leaving Thessaloniki surrounded by a sea of Serbian territory.          

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Map and timeline of the Black Death across Europe
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Mongol siege of the Port of Theodosia (Kaffa) in the Crimea, origins of Black Death
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The Plague of Black Death
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Death toll of Black Death
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Dusan’s Serbian Empire by 1348- Original “Royal” Lands (light purple) and newly annexed “Imperial” Lands (dark purple)

Watch this to learn more about Black Death in Byzantium (Eastern Roman History).

Though it never came to happen in real history, in this story’s case the Republic of Venice in 1351 would finally decide in agreeing to provide Dusan with a fleet as here Venice and Genoa were at war with each other again, and with Genoa and Byzantium allies again, Venice now had a reason to attack Constantinople while Dusan here only exploited this conflict to his advantage. In real history, the Venetians although being in good terms with Dusan’s Serbia did not agree to an alliance to take Constantinople as Venice did not want to be obliged to Serbia, but here Venice would not only want to join Dusan’s cause as they were at war with Genoa, but they had been inspired by Dusan’s war against the Bosnians and against John VI’s Byzantium, thus in 1351 Dusan and Venice would formally conclude an alliance in which Venice would take over the Galata Quarter from Genoa if Dusan took over Constantinople.

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Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (center) surrounded by Byzantine nobility and clergymen declares Hesychasm Orthodox, 1351

It also happened in 1351 that John VI returned the favor to the nobility that supported him in the civil war by holding a Church Council in Constantinople wherein John VI himself approved and fully legalized the mystical Hesychast teaching that was once considered heresy, therefore finally declaring it Orthodox which made him more popular with Byzantium’s conservative aristocracy, though his son-in-law and junior co-emperor John V despite not showing his feeling strongly opposed it due to his progressive upbringing. In 1351 as well, the empress Anna of Savoy who had remained out of politics since 1347 decided to leave Constantinople for good to set herself up in Thessaloniki wherein she would still feel like an actual empress as there she would control the mints, while her son the co-emperor John V had already reached adulthood which made him no longer need his mother as his regent. In the meantime, John VI I 1349 had appointed his other son Manuel Kantakouzenos as the first Despot of the Morea therefore setting himself up in the city Mystras along the mountains slopes above Ancient Sparta which here would grow into a thriving cultural and educational center as mentioned earlier, though in Thrace John VI’s other son Matthew would have to share rule over it with is brother-in-law the co-emperor John V, which made mistrust between them grow even more, therefore leading to the civil war between the Kantakouzenos and Palaiologos factions to resume in 1352. At this point, John VI would completely turn against his son-in-law he was supposed to by backing his son Matthew against John V.

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Ottoman sultan Orhan as an old man

John VI then would turn to the Ottoman sultan Orhan for military support, and Orhan still continuing his alliance to John VI as he was still married to John VI’s daughter Theodora would support John VI by sending an army of 10,000 Turks led by his son from a previous marriage the Turkish general Suleiman Pasha. In real history, Dusan also took part in this civil war by backing John V thus Dusan would send an army of 4,000 Serbian cavalrymen to assist John V while Venice allied with both young John V and Dusan would also send a few soldiers to assist John V’s side. In this story’s case however, Dusan would completely exploit the situation of Byzantium by literally launching an invasion of Constantinople himself being transported by the fleet provided by Venice while his forces and Byzantine ally John V would battle John VI’s forces and Ottoman forces that had been ferried across the Dardanelles into Europe at a land battle outside the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace which was John V’s birthplace.

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Army of Dusan’s Serbian Empire

The real history Battle of Didymoteicho in 1352 between John V’s forces with Serbian and Venetian allies against Matthew Kantakouzenos’ forces with Ottoman allies too would happen as well, and here the young John V himself with long and dark wavy hair dressed in golden imperial armor would personally lead his forces including his Serbian and Venetian allies outside the city he was born in 20 years earlier. In the meantime- but in this story’s case only- the same would happen as in 1204 where a large Venetian fleet would arrive outside Constantinople’s walls, except unlike in the 4th Crusade of 1204 where the Venetian fleet carried an army of Latins, the Venetians here would carry an army of Serbians including knights dressed in the full plate armor of this era and their emperor Dusan himself all armored up too. Dusan and his army here unlike the 4th Crusade back then would not really have any intention to sack Constantinople but rather to instead revive Byzantium and save it from decaying, and what Dusan really came to Constantinople with an army for was to capture their emperor John VI who Dusan saw as a traitor for turning against him many years ago in the civil war. The Venetians knowing Constantinople’s weak point being the Galata Quarter and the sea walls would immediately attack the walls of the Galata Quarter like they did when the 4th Crusade first arrived in 1203, and here unsurprisingly considering how weak and outnumbered the Byzantine forces were with most killed off by the plague and civil war, the people of the Galata Quarter would easily give up and let Dusan and his Serbians with their Venetian allies in as well.

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Early Ottoman army, 14th century

Back outside Didymoteicho in Thrace, the forces of John V and Matthew with their respective allies would clash in an intense and brutal battle in the rain with the Ottoman light infantry throwing their short spears and firing their crossbows at heavily armed and armored Serbian knights only for the knights to kick the Ottoman soldiers to the muddy ground brutally beating up to death while the few Venetian soldiers on the other hand would also fire crossbows on the Ottoman’s and Matthew’s few Byzantine forces. At the end however, the Serbian cavalry and Venetians despite their strength would still lose as they did in real history due to their smaller numbers compared to the Ottomans here who had an army of 10,000, though in this story’s case the side of Matthew and his Ottoman allies would end up being on the winning side when an Ottoman archer would shoot John V himself at the back with an arrow, while another Ottoman soldier would further injure John V by cutting his hand with a sword causing John V’s Serbian and Venetian allies to flee the battle in panic.

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Mounted 14th century Serbian knight

Though Matthew’s side would appear to be winning here, Matthew in this story’s case would be killed in this battle when a Serbian knight would run a lance through his chest, impaling and killing him, though in real history with Matthew winning it he still remained alive, while John V not being injured would flee to the Aegean island of Tenedos where he would plot to take over the throne for himself with the help of Venice, though here John V when injured would be dragged away by a Serbian soldier. Back in Constantinople, Dusan’s army would meet little resistance from the defending Byzantine troops while the people especially the commoners tired of the aristocracy and John VI’s failure to keep the empire alive and his conservative ways that was only bring them backwards would welcome Dusan with open arms accepting him as their emperor as these people wanted a stronger ruler that would lead their empire again to prosperity the way Andronikos III did before.

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Tsar Stefan Uros IV Dusan Nemanjic, Byzantine emperor beginning 1352 (in this story’s case), art by Wlayko111

Most of the people, now being fed up with John VI would carry him out of the palace and drag him with force to the Galata Quarter to confront the angry Dusan himself. In Thrace, the Ottomans led by Suleiman Pasha after winning their victory would like in real history mindlessly pillage Thrace, although in real history their pillaging came to an end when John VI gave them a small fortress in Thrace to settle in, though here this would not be the case as John VI was already deposed by Dusan therefore allowing the Ottoman Turks to nonstop their mindless pillaging. John VI being badly beaten up by his people would then see Dusan again after about 10 years, and here the very angry Dusan would then blind the 60-year-old John VI at the spot for betraying him, afterwards sending John VI to Serbia to be imprisoned for life. Dusan would then go full circle here once again set foot in Constantinople, the city he spent some of his childhood years in as an exile which he grew to admire, thus he would take over the Blachernae Palace as the Byzantine-Serbian emperor although still keeping John VI’s staff and soldiers at the city who had defected to Dusan as well, thus Dusan would now allow his ally John V who had been wounded in battle to be brought to Serbia to live as a hostage as Dusan intended his son Uros V to succeed him as Byzantine emperor as well.           

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Serbian army of Emperor Dusan for his 1352 attack on Constantinople, in this story
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Venetian ship transporting Dusan and his troops to Constantinople in 1352, in this story
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Complete flag of the Republic of Venice

In this story’s case, the Serbian emperor Stefan IV Dusan would take over the Byzantine throne in 1352 after blinding the unpopular John VI, and following this Dusan would depose the Patriarch of Constantinople Kallistos who had excommunicated him back in 1350, replacing him as Patriarch of Constantinople with the Serbian patriarch Joanikije, while the Venetians who helped Dusan take Constantinople were given the entire Galata Quarter as well as the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Tenedos. Now Dusan’s territory would consist of not only all of Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Thessaly, and Epirus but all of Thrace itself including Constantinople, while Thessaloniki too would eventually surrender to him, however the Morea in Southern Greece which remained disconnected by land from the main empire here under its despot John VI’s son Manuel would resist against Dusan refusing to be under Serbian rule, therefore the Despotate of the Morea would be its own independent state, although Dusan would start making attempts to capture the Morea.

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Knights of Dusan’s Serbian Empire

With the Ottoman Turks here continuing their pillaging of Thrace, Dusan in 1352 as well would first march out of Constantinople with his knights to expel the Turks led by Suleiman Pasha, and with his large army and their strength, the Turks would flee in fear at the site of the massive sized Dusan and his troops to the coast using any boat they could find to retreat home to Asia Minor. Now what would be a major change in history here if Dusan took over the Byzantine Empire would be that the Ottoman Turks which only crossed into Europe because of assisting John VI’s side in the 1352 civil war would be driven away from Europe long before they could settle in it, as in real history without Dusan taking over Byzantine Thrace, the reigning emperor John VI allowed the Turks to stay in Thrace as part of his alliance with their sultan Orhan. In real history, John V after his defeat would escape to Tenedos where in 1353, he would plot to take back the throne from his father-in-law John VI which would never happen, and John VI when hearing about this now angrier than ever being fed up with his son-in-law he was supposed to protect decided to remove John V from the succession and instead replacing him with his son Matthew even crowning Matthew as co-emperor. In this story however none of this would happen, as John VI had already been blinded and imprisoned in Serbia, Matthew killed in battle by the Serbians, and the injured John V being brought to the Serbian capital Skopje as a hostage, and here John V in Skopje would get close to Dusan’s son Uros V.

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Gallipoli Peninsula in Thrace, site of the 1354 earthquake

Now in March of 1354, a great earthquake struck the Gallipoli Peninsula in Thrace to the point of destroying the city of Gallipoli forcing its Byzantine Greek population to flee, and in real history with the Ottomans under Suleiman Pasha already in Thrace, they would take advantage of the people fleeing Gallipoli as well as the city being in ruins, and settle in it themselves even relocating Turks from Asia Minor there, however in this story with Dusan already expelling the few Turks from Thrace, the Turks informally settling in the ruined city of Gallipoli would not happen and instead Dusan would have Gallipoli rebuilt and repopulated with Serbs. In real history, John VI when finding out that the Ottomans had settled in Gallipoli, he tried to convince them to leave even agreeing to bribe Orhan by paying him to vacate his people from it, but Orhan was true enough intent to keep it as it would begin his long-awaited dream of expanding Ottoman territory into Europe, and would refuse surrendering Gallipoli back to the Byzantines with the excuse that he did not take Gallipoli by force but it was given to him by God through the earthquake. The loss of Gallipoli to the Ottomans then triggered riots in Constantinople as the people were now in fear especially since the Ottomans were already at their backyard, therefore the people including John VI’s own loyalists would riot against him demanding John V to return to power.

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Fresco of Emperor Dusan (left), his wife Empress Helena (right), and son King Uros V

In this story however, Constantinople under Dusan would be at peace in 1354 as the entire Thrace with the Ottomans gone was already secured, allowing Dusan to go back and forth from Constantinople to Serbia, while here Dusan would be able to complete his code of laws and construct a number of churches and monasteries in Serbia while he in this story being in charge of Constantinople would also renovate the ruined churches and monasteries there, and at the end the results would still look the same as after all, the Serbians based most of their architecture and art styles on that of the Byzantines. Dusan being emperor was also best known for constructing monasteries in Serbia, while he even founded monasteries as far as Jerusalem and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt which he settled it with Serbian monks, while his brother-in-law and ally Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria did the same in Bulgaria as well despite Bulgaria being pressured by Hungary in the north and facing an economic crisis caused by Black Death. Back in real history, John V later in 1354 was able to reclaim Constantinople from his father-in-law by coming across an unlikely ally which was the Genoese pirate Francesco Gattilusio who arrived at John V’s base of Tenedos earlier that year and being fluent in Italian due to his Italian mother, John V easily sealed a deal with the pirate Francesco and with only a small army consisting of Francesco’s pirate crew, they arrived at the dead of night outside Constantinople’s walls in December of 1354.

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Coat of arms of the Palaiologos Dynasty (above) and of the Genoese Gattilusio family (below) which ruled Lesbos after 1355, in real history

Francesco here came up with a trick to let them in telling the guards they needed to enter to get spare parts claiming one of their ships broke down, thus the moment they were let into the city, Francesco’s pirates gained control of the walls while the people woke up at the dead of night rioting in favor of John V while John VI at the palace the next day having no more support left was forced to abdicate in favor of his son-in-law. By the time the year 1355 began, John V at 22 was the sole ruler of the empire while his father-in-law John VI retired to become a monk in the Morea where his son Manuel was as its governor, although Matthew Kantakouzenos still did not give up his claim and so the conflict between him and John V still continued for the next 2 years, while for his support the pirate Francesco would be given the island of Lesbos by John V to rule as its vassal lord paying tribute to John V, being given John V’s sister Maria in marriage as well.

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John VI Kantakouzenos as emperor (left) and as a monk (right) after his abdication from power in 1354

In this story then John V’s return to power in December of 1354 would not happen while Lesbos too would not fall under the Genoese pirate Francesco who in no way would come to the picture here with John V being in Serbia the whole time, instead the Byzantine Empire now united with Serbia would again be a major Balkan power with its economy growing again, although once again this age of peace and prosperity would not last long enough as in December of 1355, the emperor Dusan like in real history would suddenly die at the relatively young age of 47 wherein here he would not be able to achieve his conquest of the Morea from Manuel Kantakouzenos. Just like in real history he would be succeeded by his son Uros V who being young and unprepared would not have the strength of his father to keep his large empire intact, which means that in this story’s case with Dusan’s sudden death in 1355, Constantinople and Thrace would become its own independent Byzantine state again with John V returning from Serbia to be Byzantine emperor once more, although no matter how reduced Byzantine territory would become here, one major obstacle for them would have already been taken care of which were the Ottoman Turks as in real history with John V coming back to power, the Ottomans had already crossed into Thrace beginning their expansion, but here thanks to Dusan expelling them back to Asia Minor, John V back in power would no longer have to face the inevitable expansion of the Ottomans into Europe therefore he would continue to rule out the rest of his years in peace.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire under John V (pink), Serbian Empire under Uros V (gray), and 2nd Bulgarian Empire under Ivan Alexander (blue) after Dusan’s death in 1355, in real history and this story
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Map of Lesbos, given by John V to Francesco Gattilusio in 1355 in real history
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Emperor Stefan IV Dusan and the Serbian Empire’s flag fan art

 

The Epilogue (in real history)               

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The rest of the events following 1355 would now just be told in a fast-tracked way, so basically the Serbian emperor Stefan Uros IV Dusan suddenly died in 1355 without completing his objective of capturing Constantinople and reviving the Byzantine Empire to its old glory and replacing it as a Serbian power. Rather than Dusan taking over, John V returned to power in December of 1354 while his father-in-law the senior emperor John VI Kantakouzenos was forced to abdicate and become a monk residing in the Morea in Southern Greece where his son Manuel was its despot, though despite already being an old man here, John VI would continue to live being a monk until his death in 1383 at the age of 91, and as a monk he would write an autobiography of his life as emperor as well as a history of the time he lived in, which gives us up to this day an account of events that happened in 14th century Byzantium including the 1341-1347 Civil War and Black Death through John VI’s eyes.

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Outline of the mosaic of Emperor John V Palaiologos in the Hagia Sophia

As for John V, the rest of his story after his return to power by 1355 was mostly a disappointing one as the Byzantium he came to rule was impoverished and already at a total breaking point while outbreaks of Black Death kept coming back every now and then, not to mention that their territory here only consisted of Constantinople, Thrace, Thessaloniki, a small number of islands in the Aegean, and the Morea, therefore an attempt to revive Byzantium to its old glory the way John V’s father Andronikos III did before was no longer possible. On the other hand, with the Ottomans having already settled in Gallipoli since 1354 due to the earthquake, their expansion in the Balkans had already begun and neither Byzantium which was now in economic ruin nor the Serbian Empire now under Dusan’s son Uros V who was a weak ruler unable to hold together the large empire his father left behind for him could stop the gradual advance of the Ottomans that began to slowly conquer the cities in the Balkans. On the other hand, John V who had taken back the throne was able to deal with the challenger to his authority which was his brother-in-law Matthew Kantakouzenos by using his alliance with Serbia as in 1356 a Serbian army led by the late Dusan’s trusted general and Governor of Macedonia Vojin defeated Matthew in battle capturing him as well while John V in 1357 paid Matthew’s ransom for him to be released from the Serbians as Matthew was supposed to face trial in Byzantium. Matthew however at the end did not face real punishment as all he had to do was renounce his claim to the throne, and when he finally did, he was sent to the Morea to retire along with his retired father the former emperor John VI and his brother Manuel who was its despot. Though with the conflict of Matthew settled, the Ottomans were left to freely conquer the Balkans that by 1363, the city of Adrianople itself which was the closest major city to Constantinople fell under Ottoman rule which in 1365 in fact even became the Ottomans’ new capital being renamed as “Edirne”. In the meantime, the Ottoman sultan Orhan had died in 1362 at the age of 80 and since his eldest son Suleiman Pasha who previously led the first wave of Ottoman expansion into Europe had died from a hunting accident in 1357, Orhan would be succeeded by his younger son and Suleiman’s younger brother Murad I who just like his father was another ambitious ruler, and it was Murad I who in 1365 moved the Ottoman capital from Bursa in Asia Minor to Edirne in Thrace.

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Sultan Murad I of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1362-1389), son of Orhan

It was actually in fact under Murad I when the Ottoman Sultanate was established when the capital was moved to Edirne (Adrianople) as here the Ottomans formally adopted the bureaucratic and military systems of the Byzantines, while it was also under Murad I when the famous Janissary units of the Ottoman army were introduced, which were soldiers recruited from the Christian lands in the Balkans they had conquered including Greece and Serbia who being recruited as boys and from early age trained to be fierce and loyal soldiers that were forbidden to marry as their duty was only to their sultan and empire. Now John V himself with his limited troops and resources could not stop the advance of the Ottomans into the Balkans, but luckily John V through his Italian mother Anna of Savoy had connections with Western Europe, and although Anna died in 1365 in Thessaloniki, her relatives from Savoy in Italy came to Byzantium’s aid in 1366 in a Crusade against the Ottomans wherein John V’s new brother-in-law and loyal ally the Lord of Lesbos and former pirate Francesco Gattilusio assisted the Savoy army in driving the Ottomans away from Gallipoli, but at the end the attempt was not all successful as the Ottomans had already expanded north and were already targeting the Serbian and Bulgarian Empires. Though being mostly unsuccessful in keeping Byzantium a strong state, John V was not overall a weak leader although he lacked some toughness therefore making diplomacy his only tool to keep his empire alive and this would exactly be the case here in 1366 as well, as when in need for military assistance from the more powerful kingdoms of Europe, John V himself traveled to the Kingdom of Hungary to ask from its king Louis I the Great for an army to help him drive away the Ottomans in the Balkans.

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King Louis I the Great of Hungary (r. 1342-1382)

John V however when arriving in the Hungarian capital Buda did something rather embarrassing which was not getting off his horse while the Hungarian king Louis I approached John by foot, therefore Louis thinking John was arrogant only agreed to help John’s Byzantium if John was to convert his empire to Catholicism, which John saw as something too much to do. Eventually, John V realized that it was about time anyway to convert his empire to Catholicism as due to being brought up by his mother with Western values, John thought that it was only right to submit to Latin Catholicism believing Byzantine Orthodoxy and its beliefs were already becoming outdated.

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Pope Urban V

In 1369, after eventually being invited to Rome by the pope Urban V himself, John V set sail from Constantinople to Rome where he would formally convert to Catholicism, however at the end it was only John V that converted as his people still being proudly Orthodox and even those who were pro-Western still refused to convert as Orthodoxy was already deeply set in their identity, therefore this would be another failed attempt in getting support from the more powerful west. John V by 1371 once again returned to Constantinople empty handed, and even worse when returning home, he was held in Venice as a debtor not being allowed to leave unless he paid up, and without having much money to pay, the Venetians only allowed John to leave if he surrendered the Aegean island of Tenedos to them, and when finally doing so John was allowed to leave even taking back the crown jewels that his mother pawned to them more than 20 years ago during the civil war. It also happened in 1371 that the short-lived Serbian Empire established by Dusan died out when its emperor Dusan’s son Uros V died without an heir, and due to this the once powerful Serbian Empire was divided into various states ruled by different powerful magnates, and in the 2nd Bulgarian Empire Ivan Alexander their last powerful tsar died as well in 1371 at the age of 70, and with Bulgaria already weakened at the time of his death it was divided between his 2 sons Ivan Shishman and Ivan Sratsimir, thus both Serbia and Bulgaria here would be more and more vulnerable to fall under the rule of the rapidly expanding Ottomans.

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Map of the Ottoman expansion into the Balkans and Asia Minor under Murad I
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John V converts to Catholicism at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, 1369
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Map of the Serbian Empire divided into different states following Uros V’s death in 1371
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Meme of a Byzantine man in 1350

           

The Ottomans too would gain further success in 1371 when expanding west and winning a major victory over the now divided and disorganized Serbians at the Battle of the Maritsa where the Ottomans with only 800 men would crush an army of 50,000 Serbians by surprise while the Serbian troops were asleep by the Maritsa River which then turned red with their blood. This battle then marked the end of an independent Serbia, and with this Ottoman victory John V ruling what was left of Byzantium more and more feared for his survival, thus in 1372 John V was left with no choice but to do the most humiliating thing submitting Byzantium as a vassal of Murad I’s Ottoman Empire to ensure its survival.

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14th century Ottoman Janissaries, introduced by Murad I

Basically, all John V needed to do here was to pay annual tribute to Murad I at Edirne, have his Byzantine troops take part in the Ottoman conquests, and provide Murad I with young Byzantine men who were to serve as Ottoman Janissaries, and to sum it up, just do whatever Murad told him to do. The Byzantine people on the other hand were fine with John V submitting them as an Ottoman vassal as long as their empire stayed alive, but the one who opposed the idea of Byzantium being a vassal the most was John V’s eldest son and co-emperor Andronikos who being unable to accept the humiliation of his empire being an Ottoman vassal and his father being bullied by the Ottoman sultan rebelled against his father’s rule in 1373 claiming that his father was weak and if Andronikos took over the throne, he would rule strongly, while at the same time Murad’s son Savci Bey joined forces with Andronikos with both rebelling against their respective fathers. Later in 1373, both rebellions of Andronikos and Savci Bey were crushed by their fathers while Murad I brutally blinded his son leading to his death, thus Murad also asked John V who was his loyal vassal to do the same to his son. John V however only faked Andronikos’ blinding by pouring hot vinegar into his eyes as a way to show Murad that he actually did it, though as punishment John V locked up his son Andronikos as well as Andronikos’ wife Keratsa who was the daughter of the late Bulgarian tsar Ivan Alexander and their young son in prison, while John V also stripped Andronikos of his title as co-emperor and instead appointed his younger son Manuel as his new co-emperor.

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Andronikos IV Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1376-1379), son of John V

At the same time, Venice and Genoa again went to war with each other using the conflict between John V and his son Andronikos as their proxy war and 3 years later in 1376 Genoa won the war, thus the Genoese in Constantinople’s Galata Quarter broke Andronikos, his wife, and son out of prison. Andronikos then became Emperor Andronikos IV Palaiologos and now taking the throne, he overthrew and locked his father up in prison together with Andronikos’ two brothers Manuel and Theodore, thus here John V would lose the throne for the second time in his life, although as emperor Andronikos IV would turn out to only be a puppet of the Genoese and in return for Genoa helping him, he handed them over the island of Tenedos while he also gave Gallipoli back to the Ottomans, thus giving more losses for Byzantium. 3 years later in 1379, Murad I using spies would suddenly break John V and his two sons out of prison and with the support of Murad I’s forces, John V later in 1379 would take the throne back again, although Andronikos IV at first would not surrender as he would hold himself in the Galata Quarter ruling it as his own, though in 1381 he would eventually surrender peacefully to his father, thus Andronikos IV would be allowed to continue ruling some land in Thrace.

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

As John V was back in power, he would end up dividing what was left of Byzantium among his 3 sons with him taking Constantinople, the eldest son Andronikos IV in charge of what was left of Thrace, Manuel in charge of Thessaloniki, and Theodore as the new Despot of the Morea, although Andronikos IV now living in Selymbria near Constantinople would still not yet give up his rebellion but before once again launching an attempt to take the throne from his father, he suddenly died in 1385 giving a lot of relief to his traumatized father. Although with John V back in power once again paying tribute to the Ottomans, Murad I beginning 1383 would still lay siege to Thessaloniki basically because Murad saw its governor who was John V’s son Manuel as a dangerous threat, and in 1387 after 4 years of being under siege, Thessaloniki would surrender to the Ottomans while Manuel would flee to Lesbos attempting to take it back.

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Prince Lazar of Serbia (r. 1373-1389)

With Thessaloniki now falling to the Ottomans, the Ottomans would now continue focusing their campaign against the now divided Serbia but in 1387 as well, the most powerful of the post-imperial princes of the divided Serbian states which was Lazar Hrebeljanovic, who was once an official in Emperor Dusan’s court would win a surprising victory against Murad I’s large Ottoman army, thus preventing the Ottomans from capturing the Serbian city of Nis. Feeling confident of his victory, Prince Lazar would make an attempt to restore the Serbian Empire of Dusan by reuniting the divided Serbian states and raising a large army to once and for all expel the Ottomans from the Balkans.

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Serbians and Ottomans clash at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389

Prince Lazar’s attempt to reunite Serbia and drive the Ottomans away however would turn out to be unsuccessful as when Lazar’s large Serbian army would confront Murad I’s even larger Ottoman army at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Serbians despite their strength would still be defeated by the Ottomans, although in the course of this battle Sultan Murad I himself would be assassinated by the Serbian knight Milos Obilic who broke into Murad’s tent killing him with a knife, though Milos would afterwards immediately be killed by Murad’s soldiers. With Ottomans victorious despite their sultan assassinated, Prince Lazar would be executed by the Ottomans and all the divided Serbian states would be forced to be vassals of the Ottomans in order to still keep their rulers, and here Bayezid I the son of Murad I would succeed his father as the new Ottoman sultan, and now Bayezid was someone not content with having Byzantium as a vassal, therefore he would have the ultimate goal of conquering Constantinople.

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Sultan Bayezid I of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1389-1402), son of Murad I

Back in Byzantium, John V’s tragic story was not yet over as in 1390 he was overthrown for the 3rd time and this time by his grandson John VII Palaiologos the son of Andronikos IV claiming that he was continuing his late father’s rebellion, although despite having support of the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, John VII would lose the throne 5 months later when his grandfather would take it back assisted by his son Manuel and the Knights of Rhodes forcing John VII to flee back to his base Selymbria. John V back in power again would continue being the new sultan Bayezid I’s vassal agreeing to also send Manuel to Bayezid I’s court as a hostage, and when John V had the Golden Gate of Constantinople’s walls repaired, Bayezid I was enraged as John did it without consulting him, thus Bayezid threatened to blind Manuel if John did not tear down the gate he just repaired. Fearing Manuel would be blinded, John V had the gate he just repaired torn down, though John would not be able to get over the humiliation of doing this and so in one night in February of 1391, John V was said to have committed suicide by poisoning himself as in the next morning he was found dead at the age of 58. John V would then be succeeded by his son Manuel becoming Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos who would surprisingly turn out to be a competent ruler, although his story would be saved for another time, however before the 14th century would end the entire 2nd Bulgarian itself would fall under Ottoman rule, and just half a century later, it would be Constantinople’s time to fall to the Ottomans.

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Ottomans defeat the Serbians at the Battle of the Maritsa, 1371
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Ottomans against Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389
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Sultan Murad I assassinated by Milos Obilic after the Battle of Kosovo, 1389
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Golden Gate of Constantinople’s Walls

Watch this to learn more about the 1389 Battle of Kosovo (Kings and Generals).


 

The Epilogue (in this story) and Conclusion            

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For this story, the biggest difference would be that the Ottomans would have already been expelled from Thrace and forced to move back to Asia Minor by Dusan, although following Dusan’s death which in this story would like in real history also happen in 1355, the geography of the Balkans would remain the same as it was in real history except for the Ottomans settling in Gallipoli and already taking parts of Thrace.

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Stefan Uros V “the Weak”, Tsar of Serbia (r. 1355-1371), son and successor of Dusan

Following Dusan’s death in this story’s case, Uros V would succeed his father Dusan as Emperor of Serbia and just like in real history, he would not be as strong as his father in ruling his empire which is why he would in this story just like in real history be remembered as “Uros the Weak”, while in this story’s case with John V Palaiologos being sent as a hostage to Serbia by Dusan, John V would befriend Uros V who was just 4 years younger than John, and due to Uros V’s weaker style of ruling, he would simply allow John V to return to Constantinople allowing Byzantium to be independent again. John V would then return to Constantinople and return to ruling as the sole Byzantine emperor in 1356, and thanks to Dusan’s rule as Byzantine emperor in Constantinople despite only lasting for 3 years, most of the city’s decay would be mostly repaired by Dusan who had more funds than the Byzantines here, therefore Constantinople would once again slowly grow into a thriving capital, unlike in real history wherein Constantinople by the latter part of the 14th century fell more and more into decay all while Black Death kept coming back and forth. The outbreaks of Black Death returning would however still happen in this story’s case after John V’s return to power and Byzantium’s separation from Serbia after just 3 years of being under Serbian rule. Although again the biggest difference here compared to real history aside from Byzantium and its capital being economically restored in his 3-year occupation of Byzantium would be that the Ottomans would no longer threaten John V and Byzantium, thus despite coming back to rule a very much reduced and bankrupt Byzantium John V would no longer have to face the expansion of the Ottomans into the Balkans, thus giving a lot of relief to Byzantium which in fact would allow their empire to survive for even much longer.

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New flag of the Ottoman Empire after 1362

With the Ottomans in this story being forced back into Asia Minor, they would not achieve their conquests in Balkans like they did in real history, therefore Adrianople would not become their capital and no young men from the Balkans recruited as Janissaries for the Ottoman army; instead, the Ottomans would be forced to expand their empire east and south, thus what could happen is that they would instead go east and conquer the breakaway Byzantine Empire of Trebizond and possibly later the Kingdom of Georgia. Like in real history, Orhan in this story’s case would also die of old age in 1362 and for the sake of changing history, here he would not be succeeded by Murad I but by his older son Suleiman Pasha who would not die from a hunting accident in 1357, and under the new Ottoman sultan Suleiman they would begin their expansion east giving up their ambitions to expand into the Balkans and capture Constantinople. On the other hand, the former emperor John VI Kantakouzenos who had been blinded and imprisoned by Dusan after taking over Constantinople in 1352 would die not too long after being imprisoned in Serbia possibly by 1355 as well due to being blinded and slowly tortured to death in prison, therefore with John Kantakouzenos dying in prison he would not do as he did in real history when retiring as a monk by writing a history of his time and reign as emperor, meaning that we would also not get any insights to the this era of Byzantine history in John VI’s point of view as here he wouldn’t write his memoirs. Another major change here in this story is that John V when back in power would not have to face his brother-in-law Matthew Kantakouzenos challenging him as Matthew here had already died in battle back in 1352, therefore the continued civil war against Matthew which ended in 1357 here would not happen while Matthew’s brother the Despot of the Morea Manuel who refused to be under Dusan’s combined Byzantine-Serbian Empire would renounce his rebellion and accept his brother-in-law John V as his emperor thus returning the Morea in Southern Greece to direct Byzantine control while also Gallipoli which Dusan here just settled with Serbs would still remain a Serbian colony in Byzantine lands. Now with the Ottomans no longer expanding into Thrace like in real history due to realizing that their attempt had failed when being driven away by Dusan here, John V who here would not have the Ottomans at his backyard would no longer have to desperately ask for military assistance from the more powerful kingdoms of Western Europe, although John V would still focus on keeping diplomatic ties with King Louis I of Hungary as well as with Serbia, Bulgaria, Venice, Genoa, Aragon, France, the Papacy, and his cousins ruling the state of Savoy in Italy in case John V would need military assistance from them in the rare occasion of the Ottoman threat returning or if another power would try to invade what is left of Byzantium, and not to mention he would eventually recover the crown jewels that was pawned to Venice.

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Icon of Emperor John V Palaiologos of Byzantium

Like in real history however, John V here in this story would also follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather Michael VIII Palaiologos considering Church unity and would also do as he did in real history in agreeing to submit to the pope’s authority, though it would also have a negative impact on the proudly Orthodox Byzantine people who would rather die than accepting Catholicism as their religion still seeing the pain and damage inflicted on them caused by the Catholic Crusaders back in 1204 as a not so distant memory. Now in this story, John V would not do the humiliating thing of submitting Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal due to the Ottoman threat no longer growing in the Balkans, therefore John V would not have to be bullied and ordered around by an Ottoman sultan thus leading to no conflict with his son Andronikos who basically rose up against his father for the plain fact that he agreed to be an Ottoman vassal. Without the conflict between John V and his son Andronikos in 1373, as well as Andronikos’ brief take-over of the throne from 1376-1379, Byzantium would instead enjoy a period of relative peace in the 1370s and 1380s despite their economy and imperial prestige no longer a strong one like before, and without the conflict with Andronikos as well, John V later in 1390 would also not lose the throne to his grandson and Andronikos’ son John VII. In Serbia meanwhile, its emperor Uros V would like in real history also die in 1371 without an heir, thus Serbia would be divided into several states ruled by powerful magnates as well, although with the Ottomans no longer expanding into Thrace, the Serbians would not suffer a humiliating defeat to them at the Battle of the Maritsa, therefore giving the Serbians an opportunity to reunite.

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Prince Lazar as the eventual restored Serbian emperor (tsar) in this story

In this story, Prince Lazar would do the same in attempting to reunite Serbia into an empire once again like it was under Dusan, and this time he would in fact be successful as without the pressure of the Ottoman expansion, Lazar could focus on Serbia’s reunification and again without the Ottoman threat, the catastrophic Battle of Kosovo in 1389 here would not happen, thus allowing Lazar to live to see his dream of reuniting Serbia into a strong empire once again come true with Lazar himself becoming the new Serbian emperor. Now what would happen here is that Serbia would again become the undisputed power of the Balkans surpassing that of their neighbors Byzantium and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, while Byzantium on the other hand again without the Ottomans pressuring them or forcing them to pay tribute would still hold on to Thessaloniki unlike in real history which fell to the Ottomans in 1387, thus Byzantium would continue to live on, that they would in fact manage to recapture territories in Greece and even in Northwest Asia Minor that they have lost over the past decades. The last years of the 14th century for Byzantium under John V Palaiologos in this story though would still be quite disappointing mainly because they would no longer become a strong power anymore not even at the level they were for a very short time under John V’s father Andronikos III, but it would still not be as disappointing as it was in real history wherein Byzantium did in fact have to face the humiliation of being an Ottoman vassal to ensure its survival. John V here would at least rule out the rest of his years peacefully without losing the throne to his son and later to his grandson and without being an Ottoman vassal, instead the only major challenges John V would face would be a lack of finances, the plague of Black Death returning every now and then, and some PTSD from being injured and almost killed in battle against Matthew Kantakouzenos and his Ottoman allies back in 1352. In this story too, John V would not die too soon from a possible suicide caused by humiliation in 1391, so instead he would in fact live on until the early 15th century dying a natural death leaving behind a stabilized despite highly reduced empire, though to be realistic here his son Andronikos would also die suddenly in 1385 like in real history, therefore John V would like in real history also be succeeded by his other son Manuel II Palaiologos. The big question now would be if Byzantium being already so reduced in size would still continue to live in for a century or more, as well as if the Ottomans would return west once again, or if Serbia would eventually capture the remains of Byzantium again, though all of this would be a different story altogether.  

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (purple) and of the Ottomans (green), by 1389

           

And now we’ve come to the end of this chapter set in the 14th century, and to sum it all up the 14th century was indeed a very disappointing and even depressing time for the Byzantines with disaster and instability already becoming a normal part of life. The 14th century shows how far Byzantium has gone from being a rich world power, with an all-powerful emperor, advanced battle tactics, extravagant court life, and a bustling metropolis as its capital to a shadow of its former self with conflicts over the smallest issues, a disorganized army mostly made up mercenaries, a weak economy, divided society, defeat after defeat in battle, and emperors no longer as the master of the known world but reduced to beggars constantly asking for support from the now more powerful kingdoms of Western Europe. However, all empires do have their time to rise and become powerful and to decline and lose their dominance, and this was the case here as the 14th century was really the time for Byzantium to decline in its power and prestige allowing the kingdoms of Western Europe which were once disunited and weak to become the new powers. The 14th century too was time of many uncertainties which included of course the well-known plague of Black Death that not only affected Byzantium but the rest of Europe and the most the known world, as well as the sudden rise of a new power being the Ottomans from a small Turkish feudal state in Asia Minor to a dominant power in the Balkans able to cripple Byzantium, and wipe the Serbian and Bulgarian Empires off the map. On the other hand, the 14th century also shows that it was a miracle that Byzantium not only came back to the picture back in 1261 when it was thought to have been lost forever when the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople back in 1204, but that Byzantium made it to 1,000 years of existence here, and more so that Byzantium survived the turbulent 14th century as well as the beginning of the Ottoman expansion into Thrace making it into the 15th century. Of course with all the disasters and tragedies the remains of the once powerful Byzantine Empire went through in the 14th century, it would already look like its end would be inevitable, however there could still be some solutions that could save the dying Byzantium and perhaps keep it alive for much longer and others would think that maybe the right reforms, wise spending, or diplomacy could save Byzantium here, I would say it would be quite an unpopular choice which would be foreign intervention and a takeover by a very similar power like Serbia taking over Byzantium that could save it, and it is for this reason why I chose the what if of Dusan’s Serbian Empire to take over Byzantium in order to save it. Another possible what if story in the 14th century that could result in saving the ruined Byzantium from its decay would be if Andronikos III Palaiologos lived much longer rather than dying in 1341 in which his death resulted in a very much devastating civil war at the worst time possible, however I would think that if Andronikos III lived much longer, maybe things would eventually not be so bright for Byzantium anymore as no matter how much success he brought, Andronikos III may not be able be powerful enough to maintain it for long due to the rise of Serbia and the Ottomans. Andronikos III’s reign too is generally praised for being one of the last bright spots in Byzantine history only because it ended so abruptly with his sudden death.

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Dusan’s Serbian Empire ball

It is then for this reason why I chose the alternate history topic for this chapter to be something to do with a more powerful foreign power taking over Byzantium not to conquer and destroy it but to restore it and save it from decay, and in this case, it was Stefan IV Dusan’s Serbian Empire. Dusan true enough did have the intention to capture Constantinople and possibly replace the dying Byzantine Empire as a Serbian power, however in real history this never came to happen due to Dusan’s alliance with Venice never coming into full force and his sudden death in 1355, therefore we would not really know if his intention was to conquer Byzantium to save it or wipe it off the map. Though Dusan’s true intention may remain unknown, I would rather think he would have the intention to conquer Byzantium to restore it and save it from decay as true enough Dusan did admire Byzantine culture and politics by making reforms as well as a code of laws for Serbia based on how things were done in Byzantium before it fell apart, while he also invested a lot in the arts by building churches and monasteries in Serbia with impressive frescos all based on the art and architecture of Byzantium, therefore this could mean that Dusan really wanted to revive Byzantium’s imperial power as well as arts and culture scene. If Dusan’s intentions to revive Byzantium would prove to be true, however it will still be disappointing as his death came to soon which means that even though he took over the Byzantine Empire, his death would lead Byzantium to be independent again, but despite Dusan’s quick rule over Byzantium there would be one major change that would totally alter the course of history which is that the Ottoman threat would no longer be existent, therefore both Byzantium and Serbia as well as Bulgaria would continue to survive.

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Statue of Emperor Dusan in Serbia

Now, if Dusan were to take over Byzantium and would manage to expel the Ottomans from Thrace before their expansion into the Balkans could begin, this would totally change everything by making the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans never happen as in reality the Ottomans did eventually and not too long after they became the master of the Balkans and in 1453 captured Constantinople ending the Byzantine Empire. Of course, these events such as Dusan’s conquest of Constantinople never came to happen therefore being all speculation, though even if Dusan never lived to see his dream of capturing Constantinople, he would at least leave behind the great legacy of elevating Serbia to the dominant power of the region from what was not too long ago just a small kingdom in the Balkans, thus he would be remembered as “Dusan the Mighty” that in the 19th century Dusan’s legacy would be a battle cry in the national awakening of Serbia that would happen by then as it was under Dusan when Serbia was at a time of glory with an empire that would cover most of the Balkans. Although at the same time, Dusan’s possible conquest of the dying Byzantine Empire would just remain one of the many what ifs of a foreign power taking over Byzantium, but surprisingly it would be a very interesting what if, and it for this reason why I chose to make this the main topic of this chapter, as after all Dusan remains to be one of medieval history’s most underrated great rulers. Now back to the Byzantine story of the 14th century, despite all their defeats and troubles they went through including all the devastating civil wars and Black Death, they at least managed to survive it and, in a way, still recover but even though they did, the 14th century was really the beginning of Byzantium’s end. The major characters in this chapter then from Michael VIII Palaiologos, to Andronikos II, Andronikos III, John Kantakouzenos, Anna of Savoy, John V, the first Ottoman sultans Osman and Orhan, and the Serbian emperor Dusan would be the people to introduce Byzantium’s final act, which will be the story for the next chapter and the finale of this series. After all, since this chapter was in a more unknown and hardly talked about time in Byzantine history, it was more or less just a teaser for the next one which would be the grand finale as this chapter had introduced the Palaiologos Dynasty which would be Byzantium’s last ruling dynasty as well as the Ottoman Turks that had gone from a small group of people at the Byzantium’s border in Asia Minor to become the most imminent threat to Byzantium’s existence by the end of the 14th century, as in the next chapter both the Palaiologos Dynasty and the Ottomans will return for the final act of the history of Byzantium. This series’ next and final chapter will no longer cover a what if of a foreign power taking over Byzantium like the previous one where it was Bulgaria and here Serbia, but instead the well-known event in world history of the Fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire itself to the Ottomans on May 29 of 1453 where the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, the grandson of John V makes a heroic last stand defending the city as the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II lays siege to it for 2 months with a massive army and the newest weapon of the era being cannons. The what if for the next chapter would be if Constantine XI would at first surrender Constantinople to Mehmed II but in the meantime would plan a counter-attack to recover Constantinople from the Ottomans that would come in the form of a massive Crusade with armies from across Europe culminating in an epic battle between the Ottomans and the many different armies and rulers of Europe now aware of the ever-expanding Ottomans. Well, this is all for chapter XI, the second to last chapter of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler, see you all next time for our grand finale… thank you for your time!     

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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

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

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

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

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople


 

The Leading Characters:

Manuel I Komnenos- Byzantine emperor (1143-1180)

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

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

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

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

Andronikos Kontostephanos- Byzantine general and aristocrat

Andronikos Angelos- Byzantine general and aristocrat, father of Isaac

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

Alexios Branas- Byzantine general and usurper

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

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

Bela III- King of Hungary (1172-1196)

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

Ivan Asen I- Tsar of the new Bulgaria 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Seljuk Empire

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

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Council of Clermont, Beginning of the First Crusade, 1095

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

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Peter the Hermit leads the People’s Crusade, 1096

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

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

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

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

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

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The First Crusade on the march

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

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

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

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

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

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Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos

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

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Hyperpyron coin of Alexios I

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

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

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

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Seljuk Turk army ride into Asia Minor

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

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

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

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

The Reign of John II Komnenos (1118-1143)          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Republic of Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of John II Komnenos in Venice

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

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John II and his wife Empress Irene “Piroska”

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

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

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

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Crusader Principality of Antioch seal

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

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

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

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

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


The Reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1176)           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Norman knight in Italy, 12th century

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

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

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

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Flag of the Principality of Armenia in Cilicia

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

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Reynald de Chatillon bows down before Emperor Manuel I, 1159

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos, art by Justinianus the Great

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

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

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

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Vlach people, 12th century

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

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Yaroslav Osmomysyl, Rus Prince of Galicia

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos, art by Spatharokandidatos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos and his wife Maria of Antioch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos Komnenos, cousin of Manuel I, art by Skamandros

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

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

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

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

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

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Isaac Angelos, youngest of Andronikos Angelos’ 6 sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos I Komnenos face icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185

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

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

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

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Pope Urban III

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

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Sicilian Necktie sample

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

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

Aftermath and Conclusion          

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

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

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

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

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