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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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

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

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

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

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

All Sieges of Constantinople


 

The Leading Characters:

Manuel I Komnenos- Byzantine emperor (1143-1180)

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

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

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

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

Andronikos Kontostephanos- Byzantine general and aristocrat

Andronikos Angelos- Byzantine general and aristocrat, father of Isaac

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

Alexios Branas- Byzantine general and usurper

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

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

Bela III- King of Hungary (1172-1196)

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

Ivan Asen I- Tsar of the new Bulgaria 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Seljuk Empire

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

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Council of Clermont, Beginning of the First Crusade, 1095

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

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Peter the Hermit leads the People’s Crusade, 1096

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

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

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

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

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

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The First Crusade on the march

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

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

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

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

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

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Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos

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

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Hyperpyron coin of Alexios I

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

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

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

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Seljuk Turk army ride into Asia Minor

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

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

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

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

The Reign of John II Komnenos (1118-1143)          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Republic of Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of John II Komnenos in Venice

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

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John II and his wife Empress Irene “Piroska”

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

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

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

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Crusader Principality of Antioch seal

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

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

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

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

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


The Reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1176)           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Norman knight in Italy, 12th century

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

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

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

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Flag of the Principality of Armenia in Cilicia

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

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Reynald de Chatillon bows down before Emperor Manuel I, 1159

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos, art by Justinianus the Great

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

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

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

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Vlach people, 12th century

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

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Yaroslav Osmomysyl, Rus Prince of Galicia

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

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

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

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

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

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Seal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos, art by Spatharokandidatos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Manuel I Komnenos and his wife Maria of Antioch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos Komnenos, cousin of Manuel I, art by Skamandros

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

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

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

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

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

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Isaac Angelos, youngest of Andronikos Angelos’ 6 sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andronikos I Komnenos face icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185

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

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

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

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Pope Urban III

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

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Sicilian Necktie sample

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

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

Aftermath and Conclusion          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 7th century AD. This story will begin with events that have happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

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

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

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Welcome to the 4th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in the 3rd chapter, I discussed the reign of the Byzantine Empire’s most influential and most remembered emperor Justinian I the Great and his reign in the 6th century when the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) at its golden age was also at its greatest territorial extent. However, being too massive ruling the entire Mediterranean again as a “Roman lake”, it was far too stretched and left far too exposed for enemies to attack on all sides, most notably their traditional enemy in the east, the Sassanid Persian Empire. In the previous story however, I went with the what if scenario of Justinian I saving his empire and preserving its stability for many more centuries to come by sending the devastating plague that hit his empire in 542 east over to the Sassanids resulting in their total destruction and at the same time Justinian himself personally going to his own military campaign in Italy to restore it to imperial rule and training his own nephew and successor Justin II to be a strong ruler just like him. However, since the stories in this alternate history series are not continuous with each other, this story will go with the course of events in real history meaning that after Justinian died in 565, the plague was still present in the Byzantine Empire, the economy ruined from all the wars and the plague, the Sassanid Empire in the east still alive and strong, and Justinian’s successor Justin II coming to the throne as a not so competent emperor. The main part of this story where the course of history will change happens a full century after Justinian’s reign, therefore unfamiliar territory for me as I still have much to discover about this era of Byzantium, and here the Byzantine Empire ruled by Emperor Constans II (641-668) would literally be a shell of its former self, compared to the glorious state it was under Justinian I. Here in the mid-7th century, Byzantium being devastated from total war, first against the Sassanids and afterwards against a new enemy being the Arabs, it had lost more than 50% of the lands it gained under Justinian and now has to fight on the defensive against the rapidly expanding Arab Caliphate, in which the Byzantines for the longest never knew would pose such a threat. Now Justinian’s legacy in the cathedral of the Hagia Sophia which he had constructed in the imperial capital Constantinople and his code of laws known as the Corpus Juris Civilis which he commissioned may have lived long beyond his time but his legacy in expanding the empire in land did not last long and in the latter half of the 6th century and early 7th century, all his hard work in restoring the old Roman Empire through conquests had begun to fall apart. For instance, after Justinian’s death, Italy which had just recently been put under Byzantine rule quickly began falling to a new Germanic enemy invading through the north which were the Lombards, Byzantine Southern Spain slowly began falling to the Visigoth Kingdom in the north, the Avars and Slavs began frequently raiding the Byzantine Balkans, and the threat of the Sassanids in the east resuming in full scale wars, and the worst part was that the Byzantine treasury was growing increasingly empty. The hard times for Byzantium then began in 602 when the last emperor of Justinian’s dynasty, Maurice was dethroned and executed by his army which resulted in chaos reigning in Byzantium allowing the Sassanids to now invade imperial territory to the point of coming right outside Constantinople! In 610, Heraclius who would be another strong and decisive emperor came to the throne to save the empire and true enough by 628 he was able to finish off the Sassanid threat once and for all by winning the great war against them which totally fractured the Sassanid Empire and though the Byzantine here had won, years of war weakened the empire and its economy that one more war could result in Byzantium’s total annihilation. As for the Byzantines, little did they know that the war with the Sassanids was not yet the end, and little did they know that the new deadly threat to them would come from the Arab people from the deserts of the south who the Byzantines never had thought would ever be much of a threat. Apparently, the Arab tribes of the southern deserts in the early 7th century had all united under the new religion of Islam to form an empire or Caliphate and began expanding north beyond Arabia to conquer both the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires to spread Islam by the sword, and for them the Byzantine capital Constantinople was the ultimate prize. Now, the sudden rise and expansion of the Arab tribes of the desert becoming the Rashidun Caliphate was one of history’s most unexpected moments but at the same time it was also expected that the Byzantines would lose a great amount of their imperial holdings in the east, most notably all of Egypt and Syria to the Arabs very quickly as the previous war with the Sassanids heavily devastated the Byzantine forces and facing a powerful and swift enemy like the Arabs, the Byzantines could not stand a chance but at least with the Byzantines being able to adapt to these challenging times by coming up with new kinds of military and administrative systems and secret superweapons like Greek Fire survived the expansion of the Arabs whereas the Sassanid Empire that had fallen into civil war stood no chance and was soon enough entirely absorbed into the Arab Caliphate by 651. The main part and climax of this story will be on the 27-year reign of Constans II (641-668), the grandson of Heraclius who in 641 at only 11 inherits an empire that had gotten into a war with the Arabs and already at a breaking point. Unlike emperors Justinian I and Heraclius whose reigns and achievements remained well remembered long after their time, Constans II’s does not and remains one of Byzantium’s most underrated emperors despite achieving a lot as emperor and so much happening in his reign as it was under him when the course of Byzantine history had been drastically changing. For instance, it was under Constans II when the Byzantine Empire in an instant lost a large amount of territories most of them being important ones like Egypt and Syria, it was also under Constans II when Byzantium began its shift from Latin to Greek culturally and linguistically, and most importantly it was under Constans II when the new administrative system of Byzantium’s provinces known as the Thematic System was introduced whereas the Byzantines now having to fight constantly on the defensive against the expanding Arabs from the east while at the same time losing large amounts of land had to adapt to the situation and this meant reducing their provinces in size thus creating smaller military provinces called Themes to increase military presence. Under Constans II, the major shift in the course of Byzantine history took place as it was here where they would now from here on for 2 more centuries have to fight on the defensive to protect their empire from the ambitious conquests of the Arabs and in these difficult times, Byzantium had to adapt by coming up with all sorts of creative ideas for their survival including the creation of Thematic System- which you will learn more about how it works when reading this- to make their defenses easier and creating weapons like Greek Fire, a naval superweapon that was to remain a Byzantine state secret, and yes these new solutions the Byzantines came up with in these difficult times did prove effective enough in allowing the Byzantine Empire to live on through these hard times and eventually by the 9th century rise up again to counter-attack the Arabs. As for Constans II on the other hand, others may remember him as the emperor that met a very odd end being killed by a servant using a soap dish when bathing but in the story of his death that took place in the city of Syracuse of Sicily, Constans II did indeed have some kind of secret intention which was to move the Byzantine Empire’s capital to Sicily seeing Constantinople was far too vulnerable to the Arab attacks and having Syracuse as the new capital was more effective as it location was central in the Mediterranean and could help in further defending the Mediterranean and taking back lands such as Egypt and North Africa that were lost to the expanding Arab Caliphate. Now, I actually think here that Constans II did really intend to move west as he was looking to further defend the Mediterranean from the Arabs while at the same time I also see that he had also cared about the west and Byzantium’s Roman heritage, therefore this makes him and not Justinian the last Roman emperor to have some kind of connection to the west and Rome, considering that the Byzantine emperors despite ruling from the east were still considered Roman emperors. This article will be another long one as it covers the very crucial 7th century and the worlds of the Byzantines, Arab Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates, Sassanid Persians, and even the Tang Chinese Empire but a lot of it will focus on Emperor Constans II’s reign and his decision to move the imperial capital to Syracuse being the last Byzantine emperor that still care about Byzantium’s western roots but the real question here is that if Constans II moved the Byzantine capital to Syracuse, could this really change the course of Byzantine history?

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

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The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent by 555 under Emperor Justinian I the Great
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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- The Empire Strikes Back

Byzantine History for Everyday People- Reactions to Quotes from Byzantium

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

The Sieges of Constantinople

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

Related Videos to this era:

Constans II the Bearded (Thersites the Historian)

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

Constans II: Struggle for Survival (Eastern Roman History)


The Leading Characters:

Constans II- Byzantine emperor

Constantine IV- Son and heir of Constans II

Theodore Calliopas- Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna

Mizizios- Byzantine general, Komes of the Opsikion Theme

Muawiyah I- 1st Caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate

Heraclius- Son of Constans II and co-emperor

Tiberius- Son of Constans II and co-emperor 

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

Theodosius- Twin brother of Constans II

Kallinikos of Heliopolis- Byzantine engineer, inventor of Greek Fire

Paul II- Patriarch of Constantinople

Pope Martin I- Patriarch of Rome

Saborios- Byzantine general, Strategos of the Armeniac Theme

Yazid- Arab general, son of Muawiyah I

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

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

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

Gaozong- Tang emperor of China

Character images below of these selected characters from this story, Illustrated by Powee Celdran

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

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


The Background (From Justinian I to Heraclius)

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

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

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

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

The Avars now had been making raids into the Danube borders of Byzantium ever since Justinian I’s reign but part of Justinian’s policy was to pay off the Avars and their allies, the Slavs (Sclaveni in Latin, Sklabenoi in Greek) to stay where they are and not attack but when becoming emperor, Justin II seeing the treasury was too empty to continue paying the Avars annual tribute decided to stop paying tribute therefore making them raid into the Byzantine Balkans with their Slav allies to find land whereas the Avars fought as cavalry and the Slavs as infantry. As for Byzantine Italy which had just been entirely conquered from the Ostrogoth Kingdom, the wars and plague left it a depopulated wasteland and due to pressure from the Avar hordes in Central Europe, the Germanic tribe of the Lombards migrated south to look for land therefore invading Byzantine Italy in 568 meeting very little resistance as not that many troops were left to defend Italy as a result of the deaths from the previous war against the Ostrogoths and in such a short amount of time, the Lombards were able to take over half of Italy leaving only the major cities of Ravenna, Rome, and Naples as well as the south to the Byzantines. In the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire on the other hand, ever since 562 Justinian I agreed to a truce with their mortal enemy, the Sassanid Persian Empire ruled by Shah Khosrow I, King of Kings though the amount of money to be paid off to the Sassanids as tribute was soon to be impossible with the Byzantine state now critically running out of funds and again as Justin II decided to do with the Avars, in 572 he decided to stop the annual tribute to the Sassanids, therefore resuming war and this time to an even more severe level wherein the Sassanids had the upper hand making them able to seize some of Byzantine territory in Syria.

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Avar cavalry (left) and Slav infantry (right)

The resumption of the war against the Sassanids and the defeat of the Byzantine forces to them as well as the pressure of running such a massive yet fractured empire in 573 made Justin II break down and lose his sanity and memory that soon enough he became unfit to rule and in 574, he was convinced by his wife the empress Sophia to abdicate and rule in name only and appoint his commander of the palace guard or Comes Excubitorum the Thracian Tiberius to run the empire not as Caesar while Justin II still ruled as Augustus or senior emperor and Tiberius would be the first Byzantine emperor from here on to primarily speak Greek. Justin II then adopted Tiberius as his son and heir despite them being the same age here (54) and from here on Tiberius would be the one effectively running the empire cleaning up the mess Justin II left behind which included continuing the defense of Italy against the Lombards and campaigning against the Sassanids in the east to push them back though the campaigns were left to their generals as Tiberius like Justin II and Justinian I before him again ruled as a palace emperor though luckily one day, out of chance he discovered tons of gold in his new house in Constantinople which was the house of the late Narses, the eunuch general of Justinian I who had died in 573 and apparently Narses had been keeping a large amount of gold for himself and having no children to inherit the wealth, it was passed on to the state and used to continue funding the wars and to resume paying tribute to the Avars.

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

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

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Sassanid Empire flag

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

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

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

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Byzantine Sirmium, ceded to the Avars and Slavs in 582

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

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602)

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

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

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

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The Strategikon of Emperor Maurice

This military manual here is basically a guide on how to fight particular enemies the Byzantines had at this time whether Franks or Lombards, Avars or Slavs, Sassanids or other eastern enemies, and Nomadic horsemen from the distant steppes of Central Asia and this book discusses not only how to beat the enemy by learning their fighting styles but from learning about their culture and behavior as well and a lot of the information for this book came from Byzantine spies sent to study these people. However, this book has not much mention about the Arabs from the south and their fighting styles as at this point, they were not in any way seen as a big threat though the useful advice given here was when it came to fighting the Slavs, it was best to fight them during winter by camping across the Danube in order to contain them and prevent them from crossing as they were at their weakest during winter, but as it would turn out, this tip from the Strategikon would cause Maurice his downfall. In 602, before winter came, Maurice successfully led his forces in beating back the Avars and Slavs across the Danube and with this success, the army was ordered to camp across the Danube during winter while Maurice returned to the capital. From the beginning, Maurice was already unpopular with Constantinople’s people especially the elite for never being around that much in the capital to please them and for his weakness in economic policy which led to the empire’s near bankruptcy and across the Danube, it was his own army that came to despise him for making them live in harsh conditions at enemy territory especially since they were to do it during winter wherein the cold was much more brutal there than it was within Byzantine territory but more importantly, these soldiers began to rise up due to their lack of pay, although this was not Maurice’s fault as the empire’s treasury was already emptying out. The soldiers camped across the Danube then refused following orders and went in open revolt against Maurice and here their centurion or senior officer Phocas was sent to march to Constantinople and overthrow Maurice in favor of Maurice’s son Theodosius who for the army was seen as a better choice. However, when Phocas arrived in Constantinople, the blue and green factions who were traditionally each other’s enemies united and rioted with support from the Byzantine Senate in favor of Phocas as their new emperor. With the unrest ongoing, Maurice with his family fled Constantinople across the narrow Bosporus Sea to Chalcedon on the Asian side but it was too late as they were caught by Phocas’ men although Maurice’s eldest son Theodosius was already sent away in time to seek help from Khosrow II in the Sassanid Empire, though when caught, Maurice’s wife and daughters were banished to monastery while Maurice and his 5 sons as well as his brother Peter were all sentenced to death. Here on November 27, 602 at one of Constantinople’s harbors, Maurice witnessed his 5 sons beheaded in front of him before he himself was beheaded and when he and his sons were killed with Phocas as the new emperor overseeing the executions, the eldest son Theodosius escaped but was later found though spared and sent to live out his life in the neighboring Kingdom of Lazica (today’s Georgia) in the Caucasus. The execution of Maurice thus ended the Justinian Dynasty founded back in 518 by Justinian’s uncle Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527); some historians too use the event of Maurice’s execution in 602 as the end of antiquity and the Byzantine golden age and the start of the Dark Ages.

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Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna (red), established in 584
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Byzantine Exarchate of Africa (red), established in 585
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Maurice’s troops across the Danube in 600, by Amelianvs
The Byzantine Emperor Maurice about to be executed by the usurper Phocas, having seen his five children killed in front of him, 602
Execution of Emperor Maurice in 602, end of the Justinian Dynasty
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The Byzantine Empire in 600 (green) and Sassanid Empire (orange)

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

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

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Emperor Phocas of Byzantium (r. 602-610)

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

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

To fully kick start the rebellion, Heraclius the Younger set off to Egypt as his father was too old to journey therefore remaining in Carthage. Heraclius the Younger with his cousin Nicetas then seized Egypt for themselves in rebellion against Constantinople by cutting off the grain supply for the capital, therefore starving the people of Constantinople which was a sure move that turned them against Phocas. In 609, Heraclius the Younger then proceeded with his fleet to Greece and in 610 arrived in Constantinople and once the ship had docked in the harbor, the mob had already turned on Phocas in favor of Heraclius and here as Heraclius arrived, a severely beaten Phocas who’s robes were torn off was brought to Heraclius whereas Heraclius questioned him “is this how you have ruled, wretch?” and in return Phocas said “and will you rule better?” and being so enraged, Heraclius had Phocas beheaded at the spot. Now here on October 5, 610, the 35-year-old Flavius Heraclius the Younger, a native Greek speaker of Armenian and Cappadocian Greek descent was crowned emperor who was yet to face a very heavy burden of ruling a damaged empire.

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Khosrow II’s Sassanid imperial court
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Heraclius the Younger overthrows and executes Phocas in 610, by Amelianvs

          

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

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Heraclius the Younger, Byzantine emperor crowned in 610

Meanwhile with Byzantium’s eastern borders left poorly defended under Phocas’ rule, the Sassanids led by their powerful and highly skilled and feared general Shahrbaraz– whose name meant “royal boar” although his real name is unclear- scored major victories that in 611 he captured the major city of Antioch itself for the Sassanids, followed by the capture of Damascus in 613, and afterwards even Caesarea in Cappadocia in Asia Minor fell to the Sassanids which opened the way for the Sassanids to expand westwards to Constantinople. As for Heraclius, before becoming emperor he had married Fabia Eudokia, a patrician woman from North Africa and in 612 their first child who was to later be Emperor Constantine III was born but shortly after Constantine’s birth, Eudokia died and due to her popularity, the whole of Constantinople mourned at her funeral. With his first wife dead, Heraclius decided he needed to marry again in order to have more children and establish a legitimate ruling dynasty, though Heraclius had no choice but to marry his niece Martina, the daughter of his older sister Maria in 613. The marriage between Heraclius and Martina shocked the population of Constantinople and most especially the Church as it was definitely incestuous and illegal but they still married and Martina was still proclaimed Augusta by Heraclius and crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople Sergius I. The Byzantines again suffered a heavy blow to them in 614 when Jerusalem was captured by the Sassanids, and although Jerusalem and in its location had no strategic importance, as the holy city it did have a lot of spiritual importance and for the Byzantines, losing the city was a heavy loss that angered the people of the empire.

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Sassanid general Shahrbaraz, by Gambargin

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

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

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

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Sassanid army captures Byzantine Jerusalem, 614
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Greatest extent of the Sassanid Empire (orange) under Khosrow II, by 622

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

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Emperor Heraclius in full battle gear

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

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Trebizond, base of Heraclius in his Sassanid campaign

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

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Persian Zoroastrian Fire Temple sample drawing

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

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Nomadic Khazar army from the Caucasus

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

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Avar and Slav armies attack the land walls of Constantinople, 626

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

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Execution of Khosrow II, 628

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

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

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

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Heraclius returns the True Cross to Jerusalem, 629

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

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Byzantines defeat the besieging Sassanid forces at Constantinople, 626
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Emperor Heraclius and his Byzantine forces defeat the Sassanids at the Battle of Nineveh, 627
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Heraclius and his army loot the Sassanid imperial palace at Dastagird
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Ctesiphon, imperial capital of the Sassanid Empire

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


The Rise of the Arab Caliphate

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

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Muhammad’s Conquest of Mecca, 629

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

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Muhammad’s letter to Heraclius

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

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Flag of the Rashidun Caliphate, the 1st Islamic Empire

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

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Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople

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

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

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

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

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

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Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem

Now in early 637, the Arabs forces again led by the victor of Yarmouk Al-Walid laid siege to Jerusalem which was poorly defended by the very exhausted and outnumbered Byzantine troops with only Patriarch Sophronius leading them. Seeing the Arab forces outside, Sophronius did want to put up a fight, instead he agreed to surrender the city only if the caliph Omar himself would accept the surrender. At this time, Omar all the way in the Arab Caliphate’s capital Medina in the Arabian Desert travelled himself to Jerusalem in a white camel where doing the same as Heraclius in 629 out of respect for the city got off his camel and entered the city by foot where he was met by Sophronius himself who surrendered the keys of the city to Omar. In Jerusalem, Omar was treated well as Sophronius himself gave him a tour of the city’s holy sites and here they made a deal which was that Omar was allowed to take Jerusalem as long as he allowed Sophronius to keep his position as patriarch and for the Christians and Jews to be left alone to worship freely with their Muslim occupiers. Jerusalem then fell peacefully while the Arabs later conquered all of Syria and Palestine except for Antioch where the emperor was still in but hearing now that Jerusalem and Syria was lost, Heraclius just chose to say goodbye knowing that with the might of the Arabs, it would be too difficult to take them back so he then set sail returning to Constantinople while later in 637, even Antioch had fallen.

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

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

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

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

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Empress Martina, wife and niece of Heraclius, by Skamandros

On February 11, 641 the 66-year-old Emperor Heraclius had died in Constantinople ruling for 30 years through many ups and downs. In his reign, Heraclius began ruling a deeply troubled empire in ruins which grew worse but was able to put it back together, but just as he thought he did, everything he worked so hard on fell apart, thus he died a broken man seeing all the lands he regained after defeating the Sassanids lost to the Arabs, therefore it can simply be said that Heraclius had lived too long that it would be better off that he died shortly after his victory against the Sassanids in 628 as a happy man, but instead he lived long enough to see all his hard work undone unlike Justinian I before him who at least died long before his hard work in expanding the empire would be all shattered. Heraclius though had the legacy of beginning the Greek era of Byzantium by turning Greek into the major language, reorganizing the political-military system of the empire by laying the foundations for the Thematic System that would be operational years later, and seeing the Taurus Mountains of Asia Minor as the empire’s natural defense against the Arabs, which sure enough will soon happen as well.

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Battle of Al-Qadisiyah- ultimate defeat of the Sassanid Empire to the Arab Rashidun Caliphate, 636
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Coin of Heraclius, Constantine III, and Heraklonas as co-emperors, 638-641
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Fullest extent of the Arab Rashidun Caliphate in the 7th century (green), vassal states (light green)

The Reign of Constans II             

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

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

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

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

-Constans II, 641

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

           

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

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7th century Arab infantry army charges with full speed
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7th century Arab cavalry advances across the desert

          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amr ibn al-As, Arab general and governor of Egypt

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

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

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

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Arab forces of the Rashidun Caliphate march across the Sahara Desert to Carthage, 647
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Byzantine era Carthage, capital of the Exarchate of Africa

          

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

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Coin of Constans II as a young emperor

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

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Pope Martin I

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

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

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

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Imperial court of Constans II in Constantinople

           

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

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Young Constans II illustration

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

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Pope Martin I arrested and brought to Constantinople, 653

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

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

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

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

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

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Location of Cherson (encircled in black)
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Colossus of Rhodes before the Arab conquest of Rhodes in 654
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Arab fleet (left) and Byzantine fleet (right) engage each other at the Battle of the Masts, 655
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Byzantine and Arab fleets clash with each other at the Battle of the Masts

 

Birth of the Thematic System and the Move West       

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

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

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

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7th century Byzantine soldier clashes with a Slav warrior

Here, Constans managed to win a number of victories against the Slavs by defeating a large Slavic raid and afterwards returned some of Greece to Byzantine rule and after defeating these invading Slavs, his army had captured many prisoners of war which were the Slavic warriors, who were then all stuffed into ships and sent over across the Aegean Sea to Asia Minor to be resettled as the previous wars against the Sassanids and Arabs have resulted in the near depopulation of Asia Minor. In 659, Constans briefly returned to Constantinople to be with his family as by this point his wife Fausta had given birth to two new sons Heraclius and Tiberius, although history does not specify their birth years, so instead for this story Heraclius as the elder one would have been born in 656 and Tiberius in 657 and here in 659 Constans back in Constantinople appointed both sons Heraclius and Tiberius as co-emperors even if they were too young to read and write, so now there were 4 people with the imperial title being Constans II and his 3 sons, and this for sure would have made Constans’ twin brother Theodosius feel threatened as he was put aside in favor of Constans’ very young sons, but Constans on the other hand never really cared as he always saw that having a twin was a threat, so here Constans began his plans in eliminating his twin brother. After his short stay in Constantinople, Constans travelled this time to Asia Minor, this time to drive back the Arab forces that had still remained, and due to the Arab Caliphate in conflict with each other, Constans took advantage of the situation and when leading the army himself, he campaigned far into the east of Asia Minor successfully driving away the Arabs. It was in this 659 campaign in Asia Minor where Constans would make his greatest achievement in the history of Byzantium, which was the creation of the Thematic Systems or to put it short, the Themes (Themata in Greek), and this was another change that marked the transition of the empire from Latin to Greek as the names of these new smaller provinces or Themes would be in Greek. History though is not very clear about the formation of the Theme System or if Constans II exactly created it as others say it was his grandfather Heraclius that did, but many sources still agree that the first 5 Themes or shrunken military provinces of the Byzantine Empire were created under Constans II between 659 and 661, and in this story’s case it will true enough be Constans II that toured Asia Minor between 659 and 661 to create the Thematic System. The word “Theme” here does not really have a literal translation but it simply meant the name of a particular area bearing the name of the mobile army that was stationed in it as each of these new provinces had their own mobile armies assigned to it and these provinces too were under the administration of their army’s general known as the Strategos, basically a Greek title which replaced the former Latin Magister Militum. Now in these new provinces or Themes of Asia Minor, the soldiers stationed in them were given land of their own which their children would inherit as well as succeed their fathers as soldiers as a way to ensure their full loyalty as the empire was sure enough running out of soldier recruits with most of the Balkans lost and the remnants of the Plague of Justinian from the previous century still making comebacks. On the other hand, the Slavic warriors that were previously captured in the Balkans were relocated to Asia Minor to be settled as the soldiers for these Themes wherein here they were to marry locals, though at the same time Constans still encouraged many of the local men of Asia Minor to join the army and had many of the ruined castles of Asia Minor rebuilt as well which were to be the strongholds for each of the Themes’ armies. It was here at this point that Asia Minor became the Byzantine Empire’s new heartland as it was to now provide both soldiers and food supply for the empire and with the creation of these new provinces or Themes, each of the Themes were to produce their own goods for the empire’s survival whether it was minerals, food, wood, or military equipment while each Theme too had its own foundry to manufacture its soldiers’ uniform weapons and armor. Under Constans II, 4 Themes were created in Byzantine Asia Minor (Turkey) with their own generals in charge of it and its own capital and these first 4 Themes were the Anatolic Theme (Anatolikon in Greek) consisting of the central and southern part of Asia Minor in which the eastern army of the empire was stationed in and the city of Amorion; next was the Armeniac Theme (Armeniakon) which was the largest and most of the Themes being located in the eastern part of Asia Minor along the border with the city of Amasea as its capital; next was the Thracesian Theme (Thrakesion) in the western coast of Asia Minor where the Thracian army would be based in, hence the origin of its name; and last would be the Opsikion Theme in the northwest part of Asia Minor which here was to be administered directly from Constantinople, and this Theme would be under the most elite army of the empire or the Praesental army commanded not by a Strategos but by a general with the title of Komes, which was an honorary title for a general. After creating the 4 land Themes in Asia Minor, Constans decided to create a fifth one which was this time to be a naval Theme under the imperial navy and marines which was to be the Karabasian Theme (Kibyrrhaioton) in the southern coast of Asia Minor to further protect the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Asia Minor. The first known generals Constans II appointed to be in charge of these Themes included one of Sassanid Persian descent named Saborios, whose name is the Greek version of the Persian name Shapur who would be the Strategos of the Armeniac Theme and another one named Mizizios, an Armenian general who was made the Komes of the Opsikion Theme, the most elite Theme. Constans on the other hand before even hitting the age of 30 made a very strategic achievement for the empire that was to prove very effective in the next centuries to come, although still it was not entirely him who came up with the idea of these Themes from scratch but rather his grandfather Heraclius when he saw the provinces of Syria and Palestine lost to the Arabs and Asia Minor as the new core of the empire, thought it would be Constans II to put this whole idea into full effect. There is a lot more to explain about the Themes of Byzantium, Thematic System, and its elite armies being the Cataphract cavalry but that would be for the upcoming stories after this one, but to put it short it was effective in the way that when both parts of the empire were under attack, one Theme’s army could focus on one side while the other could focus on the other side without having to march an army from one far end of the empire to the other, therefore these Themes made it quicker for armies to respond to external attacks.

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Map of the first original 5 Themes of Asia Minor created under Constans II
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Slavic warriors, resettled into Asia Minor by Constans II
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Cataphract cavalry, elite army of the Byzantine Themes

Watch this to learn more about the creation of the Theme System under Constans II (Eastern Roman History).   

      

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

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Caliph Muawiyah I, 1st Umayyad Caliph

It also happened in 661 that the caliph Ali was assassinated in a mosque at the city of Kufa (in today’s Iraq) and with his death died the Rashidun Caliphate as with him dead, Muawiyah took over as Caliph ending the civil war and beginning the Umayyad Caliphate wherein he turned the Caliphate into something more politically organized and had moved the caliphate’s capital from Medina in the Arabian Desert to Damascus in Syria which was more of a threat to the Byzantines as it was closer to their borders, although for the meantime, Muawiyah still organizing the new caliphate did not yet have plans to attack Byzantium, thus giving Constans more time to rebuild the ruins of his empire and put the Themes into full effect. Here in 661, Constans II at the age of 30 now had a full and thick square beard in his large face, which was the first thing to be noticed about him as well as his thick and long curly hair as seen in his coin which too will be a new standard for future Byzantine emperors, henceforth his nickname Konstantinos ho Pogonatos meaning “Constantine the Bearded” in Greek as true enough he ruled by his real name Constantine while his family members and those closest to him still referred to him as the Latin Constans or “little Constantine” (Konstas in Greek). Now back to Constans’ growing unpopularity, the people here at this point in 661 started favoring Theodosius over his twin brother and considering that they almost looked a like, the people who hated Constans thought it would not hurt those who favored Constans if they deposed Constans and replaced him with Theodosius as long as Theodosius would grow a longer beard the way Constans has, therefore those who are loyal to Constans would still mistake him for Constans, however it would not really work as Theodosius still did not have Constans’ brutal and autocratic personality whereas as Theodosius was more relaxed. For this story at least, Constans suspected something wrong about his twin so let’s say say the faction loyal to Constans soon enough knew of the plot by those who opposed him to overthrow him and replace him with Theodosius and so when finding out about this, Constans now knew this was the right time to act against his twin brother and get rid of him for good. History too does not say when Constans and Theodosius’ mother Gregoria died but let’s just say that here in 661 she had already died which now gave Constans every reason to get rid of his twin brother as he would most definitely not do it while their mother was still alive. Having enough of the possibility of Theodosius taking over the throne from him with popular support, Constans without any hesitation had some of the palace guards arrest Theodosius at his quarters in Constantinople’s imperial palace and cut off his tongue, again as a way to make sure he would not try to claim the throne as again a single deformity like missing a tongue would render him unable to rule as emperor. Constans too thought of simply executing his twin brother but he soon started to think cutting off his tongue was a better punishment as Theodosius had still done nothing wrong that deserves the death penalty, and so after getting his tongue cut off, Theodosius was forced to take Holy Orders and become a monk in a monastery outside Constantinople but little did Constans know that the injury Theodosius received when getting his tongue cut off cost him his life and later on in 661, Theodosius had died. Constans here would therefore be remembered as the “Bearded Autocrat” or “Constans the Killer” and this would not be it yet for his vicious deeds, although he was at least still very loyal to his wife Fausta and 3 sons but Fausta hearing about Constans’ vicious act that ended up killing his twin brother would soon begin to fall out with him. Each day Constans and Fausta would argue more and more that they would stop eating and sleeping together while Fausta even tried to get her 3 sons Constantine, Heraclius, and Tiberius away from their father fearing that her sons would follow in their father’s footsteps becoming a bloodthirsty tyrant. Now in 662, Constans had grown tired of living in Constantinople being unpopular with the people and ignored by his family, so here is when he decided to leave the capital again and protect the empire but here he also began to think about the rather short life he had lived so far, about how he had lost his childhood and teenage years when having to put aside for the responsibilities of running an empire, about how the difficulties in his early reign of having to face challengers left and right turned him into a bloodthirsty autocratic ruler, and how this kind of personality of his turned his people and family against him. Constans here thought it was time to change his image which is why he decided to head to Greece and protect it as he got word that the Slavs were invading again, and here at this point, the Theme Systems was now more or less fully operational that if Constans pulled out one Theme’s army, the armies of the other Themes could defend that Theme and since the Opsikion Theme was closest to Constantinople with its troops being the elite retinue of the imperial army, he called for this Theme’s army to join him in this campaign. The Opsikion Theme’s general Komes Mizizios, the Armenian noble 8 years older than Constans who was said to be very tall and handsome but at the same time shy and reserved led his troops across the Marmara to meet Constans in Constantinople where he and his troops were to accompany the emperor in his new campaign.

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

Meanwhile- in this story’s case- the senators Constans sent to China, Alexios and Philippikos almost 20 years earlier has returned to Constantinople with Alexios who left Constantinople in his 40s was now in his 60s and Philippikos who was then in his 20s now in his 40s and now when returning, both reported to Constans about their fascinating journey in this far away land, about how sophisticated the imperial court was in their capital of Chang’an with buildings made with crystal and glass, about the colorful silks worn by its people, and the exotic food unknown to the Byzantines such as fisheye that was only reserved for the emperor. The senators had also told Constans that their emperor Taizong had agreed to lend them some money in exchange for Byzantine jewelry, although Taizong had already died back in 649 and was succeeded by his son Gaozong, who at this point was still ruling and Gaozong too had agreed to help Byzantium as he too feared the expansion of the Arabs even if it was still far from China. The senators too had told Constans that the last Sassanid heir, the young Peroz, son of the last shah Yazdegerd III had arrived in China seeking refuge wherein at this point he had already grown up and had built a church there as he was true enough a Christian and there in Tang China, the young Peroz had been training to be a general to command the Chinese imperial forces to one day lead an attack against the Arabs in Central Asia. Constans was intrigued hearing of stories from what he thought was a parallel world of Byzantium but not wanting to waste time, he asked both senators Alexios and Philippikos to join him in his campaign with Mizizios and the Opsikion army.

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Illustration of Byzantine era Thessaloniki

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

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7th century Constantinople street life, by Amelianvs
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Chang’an, imperial capital of the Chinese Tang Empire
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Full coin of Constans II the Bearded including reverse

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

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

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

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Lombard army of Italy, 7th century

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

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Pope Vitalian

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

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White flag of the Umayyad Caliphate

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

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

Constans II Strikes Back (The Climax)   

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

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

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

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Marble soap dish intended to kill Constans II

The servant too had said that earlier in that day, he got a letter with orders from Caliph Muawiyah in behalf of the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos Saborios who both wanted Constans dead as Muawiyah feared that now with Constans in Sicily, he could easily take back Arab held Egypt from there as Muawiyah knew that when Constans was younger his forces took back Alexandria for a year while Saborios wanted Constans dead so he could fully take the throne without opposition. After Constans learned everything he needed to know form this servant, he strangled the servant to the point of unconsciousness and when knocked out, Constans dragged the servant to the marble ground where Constans killed the servant ironically by smashing his head with the same marble soap dish meant to kill Constans and afterwards the guards rushed into the baths as Constans put on a towel.

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Meme of Constans II’s assassination

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

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Seal of Caliph Muawiyah I

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

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Syracuse in the Byzantine era, Constans II’s new capital
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Damascus, capital of the Umayyad Caliphate beginning 661

           

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

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Emperor Constantine IV, son and successor of Constans II

Apparently, back in 597 when Emperor Maurice got a fatal illness, he thought of this same solution too which was to divide the empire in two parts between his sons, but when recovering shortly after, this plan was scrapped, but here it was Constans who now decided to stick to this which was a strategy a lot of Roman emperors in the past had used and while Constantine IV’s half included the Themes of Asia Minor, and over in the west, Constans II thought of creating Themes in Italy as well and part of it was to make the whole of Sicily an entire Theme too; although by 700 in real history, Sicily too became a Theme. Now like in real history, as Constantine IV came into power, here in this case, the same would happen when some of the soldiers in Asia Minor would here for this story get some fake news that Constans II had died so they marched to Constantinople and demand Constantine IV to rule in equal power with his two younger brothers Heraclius and Tiberius but just as Constantine IV did in real history, here he refused to do so in being manipulated and so he had the leaders of these rebellious troops executed after tricking them to meet with him peacefully, therefore beginning his reign in the same autocratic manner as his father, a trait he sure enough inherited, and rather than ruling with his brothers equally, Constantine remained the senior emperor of the east and his brothers only junior co-emperors. Meanwhile, the larger rebellion of Saborios and the soldiers of the Armeniac Theme had been growing and here by late 668, almost the entire Asia Minor was on his side the moment he was already in the region of Bithynia in the Opsikion Theme very close to Constantinople. Here as Saborios was stationed in the Fortress of Hexapolis drilling his army and waiting for his Arab reinforcement army to arrive, he would meet the same fate as he did in real history, and as Saborios got word that an imperial loyalist army from Constantinople was marching towards them, he mounted his horse right next to the fortress’ main gate but when he got on, his horse suddenly bolted and charged at the gate whereas Saborios slammed his head on the gate as a result of his horse charging. The horse then galloped away while Saborios fell to the ground and since he had not yet put on his helmet when his head was slammed against the gate, he died a few minutes later from the injury while his army with no more leader just defected to the loyalist forces of Constantine IV, thus Saborios’ rebellion was over, though not his Arab allies. Even with Saborios dead, the army led by Muawiyah’s son Yazid was still headed directly to Asia Minor and true enough they were only using Saborios as a way to get to Constantinople themselves wherein if Saborios was emperor, he would only be Muawiyah’s puppet but with Saborios gone, the Arabs had every reason to take Constantinople for themselves. As for Constantine IV here in 669, he would have no reason to head over to Sicily like in real history as his father had not been killed therefore Mizizios not rising up in rebellion, instead he would have to focus with the happenings in Asia Minor as here in 669, 5,000 Arab forces under Yazid’s command reached as far as the Anatolic Theme taking over its capital, Amorion although soon enough like in real history, the army of the Anatolic Theme liberated their capital driving the Arabs away. At the same time, Muawiyah like in real history sent a fleet to attack Sicily and Carthage in 669 and in this story’s case, it would be for the reason of stopping Constans from launching an attack on Egypt, although Constans with Mizizios here would easily defeat the Arab fleet sent against them. Back in the east, Yazid who was still around commanding his fleet in 670, like in real history was able to capture the port of Cyzicus in the Marmara which was very close to Constantinople and intended to be used as a base to construct a larger fleet for the attack on the capital. In 672, the Arabs would now make more progress when the fleet of Yazid had captured the port city of Smyrna in the Aegean to be used as another base to build more ships for their grand assault in Constantinople.

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Greek Fire sticking on water

In Constantinople meanwhile, Constantine IV was growing even more worried but here Kallinikos the engineer would demonstrate to him the new weapon he had created which was a kind of brass cannon that was able to blow out some kind of sticky liquid fire that was operated with a kind of pump but the secret was its chemical ingredient being naphtha, sulphur, and resin which was to be ignited with this mechanism, and Constantine only agreed to use it if its exact formula and procedure was a secret to be kept between both of them and the elite naval force that was to operate it. Late one night in 672- in this story’s case at least- both Kallinikos and Constantine tested this weapon on the shores of the Marmara and to their surprise it worked as the fire emitted from the cannon did stick in the water as was intended.       

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Strategos Saborios leads the army of the Armeniac Theme in rebellion, 667-668
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Umayyad army led by Yazid in Asia Minor, by Marwan Musa
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Byzantine Smyrna, captured by the Umayyads in 672

         

For the entire year of 673, both Byzantines and Arabs had been preparing for the grand battle to come, therefore Constantinople was still safe even if the Arabs in 673 had already captured some of the southern coast of Asia Minor including the city of Tarsus; although in this story’s case with Constans II still alive and Syracuse as his capital, he started feeling the need to go back to Constantinople, just to save it from the upcoming Arab attack. Just like in real history, the grand battle would come in 674 when the Arab fleet and army themselves under the command of Yazid besieged Constantinople both by land and sea and this Siege of Constantinople went on for 4 years (674-678) intermittently as the Arab forces would pause every winter retreating back to their naval bases in Cyzicus and Smyrna as winters were something alien to the desert born Arabs, and every time spring came, the Arabs would attack again. There are not that much sources on this 674-678 siege of Constantinople but it was clear that, things had not come to any results until 677 when Constantine IV decided to lead the fleet himself head-on against the Arabs, and this would be where the secret superweapon Greek Fire would first come into use and in 678, the Arabs being unable to continue the attack due to the power of Greek Fire had fully retreated and on their retreat were heavily defeated once again by the Byzantine fleet off the coast of Lycia in southwest Asia Minor. On the other hand, while the siege of Constantinople was ongoing, Constantine IV was too busy defending capital that he could not put his attention to other parts of the empire and true enough Thessaloniki with most its troops having to march to Constantinople was left poorly defended when the Slavs besieged it in 676, although when the Siege of Constantinople was over by 678, the Slavs too have been driven away from Thessaloniki.

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Constantinople at the 1st Arab Siege, 674

In this story’s case on the other hand, the Siege of Constantinople would play out in a much different way considering that Constans II here was still alive, although when it would begin in 674 he was still absent from Constantinople, thus leaving the 22-year-old Constantine IV to lead and supervise the defense of the city himself, and here he would be extremely nervous as this would be the first time he was to lead his army in a full scale battle against about let’s 50,000 Arabs while the defending Byzantine forces only numbered up to let’s say 15,000 but luckily in the case of this story, the superweapon of Greek Fire was already built and the engineer Kallinikos was to be by Constantine’s side the whole time as the weapon in this battle was at Constantine’s imperial ship.

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Greek Fire operated from the imperial ship

Feeling nervous about what was to come, Constantine motivated himself by remembering how his grandfather Constantine III at only 14 helped lead the defense of Constantinople in 626 against the Avars, Slavs, and Sassanids, and after feeling some sense of motivation, Constantine encouraged his younger brothers Heraclius and Tiberius as well his mother Fausta- in this story only- to all take part in defending the city. By April of 674 like in real history, the Arab fleet from Cyzicus sailed up the Marmara arriving in Constantinople’s south shore and unlike in real history when Constantine IV confronted them only in 677, here he already led the fleet head-on against the incoming Arab fleet of Yazid the moment the Arabs arrived and here is when Greek Fire would first be used against the enemy ships, and is turned out it would be fully effective as the sticky flames would not only stick to the water but burn down the smaller wooden Arab ships too but what was even more devastating was its fear factor as when the flames began to burn the ships and water, the Arab soldiers panicked and jumped off into the water drowning to death. Again like in real history, the battles would go on each day, pausing at night, and again resuming the next day until the point that the Arabs infantry had already disembarked from their ships and began scaling the walls, though Constantinople’s walls as usual would be too impossible for the Arab forces to fully scale due to their height and the number of soldiers defending them as it turned out more troops were assigned to the walls than in the sea, and it was also in the walls where Fausta, Heraclius, and Tiberius would be rallying the troops. As the weeks had gone by, the battles still continued with no result to the point that the Byzantines had been losing hope, but just when they all thought hope was lost, as Constantine looked south into the Marmara, he saw a large fleet consisting of 300 Byzantine ships, and as it would turn out this was his father Constans II himself leading a reinforcement fleet together with Mizizios to relieve Constantinople. In their approach, thousands of flaming arrows fired by Byzantine archers from these ships flew across the sky into Yazid’s ships further burning them and soon enough, these larger Byzantine ships crashed straight into the smaller Arab ships destroying them. Constans would then see the other imperial ship where his son was at and when seeing a streak of flames fired from it against a larger Arab ship, Constans was amazed at the sight but at the same kept cursing in Greek as he could not believe what he just saw.

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Coin of Constans II with his son Constantine IV

Having dealt enough damage here and as the days were getting colder as the year progressed, Yazid ordered his entire army and fleet to retreat and as the Arab forces and ships were retreating, Constans now had the chance to get off his ship and board his son’s ship where they would now reunite after not seeing each other for almost 12 years, and here the 44-year-old Constans barely recognized his son who was now fully grown up as the last time they had seen each other, Constantine IV was only 10. As the days would now go by, the Byzantines had noticed that they were no longer under attack, therefore the people of Constantinople had begun rebuilding the damage caused by siege but soon enough they had noticed the days would turn into weeks, and weeks into months with no more attack against them from the Arabs when the year 675 came.

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Greek Fire used against an Arab ship at the 674 Siege of Constantinople

           

Now in this story’s case, the main difference here in the 674-678 Siege of Constantinople was that here it was over in its first year and not having to go one much longer for 4 more years and the reason for this scenario happening in this story was due to the alliance the still alive Constans II made with the Tang Chinese emperor Gaozong.

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Gaozong, Tang Chinese emperor (r. 649-683)

Back in 668, after Constans survived the attempt on his life, he sent the senators Alexios and Philippikos to China and as it turned out when back there again, they were able to successfully convince the emperor there to amass an army over the next 6 years and only by 674 were they completely ready to march west and distract the Arabs who were attacking Constantinople by forcing them to turn east and face off an attack by the Chinese forces. At this point, the last member of the Sassanid’s ruling dynasty, Peroz who had been living in Tang China was already grown up in his 30s and now a powerful general in the Chinese army who had been trained to fight in the ways of both the Chinese and of his own Persian people and in this story’s case, it would be Peroz dressed in his Sassanid imperial armor that would lead a total of 100,000 men west from China into the border of the Umayyad Caliphate in Central Asia, and these 100k would consist of Chinese infantry and cavalry including war elephants, as well as Sassanid Persian refugees dressed up once again in their own Persian armor and ready to fight to the Arabs to avenge their fallen empire’s twin defeats at Al-Qadisiya in 636 and Jalula in 637 to the Arabs.

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Tang Chinese imperial army

Word of the caliphate’s eastern border under attack would first reach Caliph Muawiyah in Damascus who would then send word about it to his son Yazid who was camped with his army in Smyrna and here in 675 just when Yazid was preparing to set sail to Constantinople again to continue the siege, he got word from his father that the eastern border in Central Asia was under attack and the worst part he heard was that it was under attack by the Sassanids, the very enemy the Arabs thought they had completely crushed. Believing that the Sassanids were planning to reclaim their empire, Yazid with his army instead of continuing on Constantinople would immediately rush east where the Sassanid refugee forces and their Chinese allies were already making progress being already in what is today’s Afghanistan, very close to the Sassanid heartland of Iran which the Arabs now held. Before the winter of 675-676 would arrive, Yazid and his very tired forces after marching for months would confront the fully energized 100k army of Peroz at Bactria (Afghanistan) where due to being exhausted would lose to the combined Sassanid and Chinese forces, although Yazid would still survive retreating back to his father in Damascus never wanting to lead another campaign again after losing almost his entire army in the east. Peroz meanwhile after winning this entirely fictional victory would not anymore try to reclaim the Sassanid Empire even if he was the son of the last Sassanid emperor, instead he would return to China to continue loyally serving Emperor Gaozong as here Peroz never really wanted to reestablish the Sassanid Empire, instead he only chose to fight the Arabs as he wanted to show that the Sassanids would make up for all the harm they caused on the Byzantines for the past centuries and by defeating the Arabs here, the last of the Sassanids did indeed redeem themselves to their old enemy. Although in reality, this kind of battle would happen in the next century (751) where the Arab and Chinese forces would clash in battle. Back in Constantinople, the days would still go by without an Arab attack and as an entire year went by in peace, it was concluded that the Arab siege was over. Constans II meanwhile remained in Constantinople for most of 675 reuniting with his family and although his wife Fausta would still be angry at him for abandoning them back in 662, she would at least forgive him as Constans still came back at the last minute to relieve Constantinople from the Arab siege and as Constans saw his two younger sons Tiberius and Heraclius, he was surprised to see how much they have grown and now as young adults, both brothers looked very different from each other (as they are depicted in Constantine IV’ mosaic in Ravenna) whereas the older one Heraclius very much resembled his mother with tanned skin with thick and curly dark hair while the younger one Tiberius looked a lot more like his father and eldest brother with lighter hair and lighter skin.

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Mosaic of Constantine IV (right) with his brothers Heraclius (first to the left) and Tiberius (2nd to the left), Sant’apollinare in Classe, Ravenna

In Constantinople, Constans would congratulate Constantine for his bravery and success in the defence of Constantinople and for the creation of Greek Fire, and at the same time Constans as the most senior emperor would congratulate the weapon’s architect Kallinikos too. Constans too would tell Constantine the whole secret why the Arabs had no longer showed up and this was because if not for Constans asking the Chinese emperor to send an army to attack the Caliphate, then the Arabs would have not turned their attention east and would instead return to attacking Constantinople. Constantine would then thank his father for doing just that and just before Constans was to return back to Sicily, he confirmed with Constantine that the empire was to now be fully divided with two capitals, Constantinople and Syracuse although when Constans would die, Constantinople would remain as the superior capital where Constantine would rule from and Syracuse the inferior one where Heraclius and Tiberius would rule from after the event of Constans’ death. Constans too had settled a divorce with Fausta with the approval of the current patriarch of Constantinople here Constantine I and after concluding the divorce, Constans would leave by ship to Sicily for good while his general Mizizios would return to the Opsikion Theme in Asia Minor he was in charge of to continue being its Strategos, and with Constans gone again, Constantine IV was now the senior emperor of the eastern half of the Byzantine Empire.

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Sassanid forces in Central Asia returning to the fight the Arabs, 675 (in this story’s case)

Aftermath and Conclusion            

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The much older Constans II now was clear that he never wanted to rule from Constantinople again and after returning to Syracuse, he was to never return to the main imperial capital despite being the most senior emperor. However, for Constans when returning to Constantinople coming to the rescue when it was under attack, he knew he had done his part in making up for all those years he was absent from his family, and what was even more honorable of him here was that he came back right in time to save his family at this moment, but now when doing what he needed to do to redeem himself for his family, he returned to Sicily enjoying himself alone away from his family, while he also thought it was for the best to divorce Fausta, as after all his marriage to her when he was only a child was only for a political alliance with Fausta’s father Valentinus who turned out to be a traitor anyway. In this entirely fictional scenario of Constans surviving his assassination back in 668, in the following years as he based himself in Syracuse, he would actually end up turning Sicily itself into a new Byzantine Theme, though back there, Constans would still never really change and continue being oppressive in his ruling style and taxation. By 679, for this story’s case at least, Constans would achieve his greatest dream which was the Byzantine reconquest of Cyrenaica and Egypt using the 300 ships that helped him defeat the Arabs in Constantinople, and here all of Cyrenaica would be recaptured, though for Egypt it would only be Alexandria and the northern coast while the Arabs would still remain in the rest of Egypt, but still, a portion of the abundant grain supply for Constantinople would still resume, though by losing the coast of Egypt, the Arabs deep within Egypt would have a more difficult time communicating with their imperial capital, Damascus.

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The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, built under Caliph Muawiyah I

As for Constantine IV in Constantinople, with the siege not going on until 678 as it did in real history, he would use the following years after 675 to rebuild the imperial capital and due to the success of Greek Fire, he would now make it a permanent wartime weapon and not only that but the state secret he wanted it to be wherein its formula and procedure would be only revealed to members of the elite naval force and to those in the line of succession to the imperial throne, while the weapon’s architect Kallinikos would be appointed as the empire’s chief military scientist working in the imperial court. Like in history, the Arabs would suffer major defeats too after they lost the siege of Constantinople, except here in this case the Arabs were defeated a lot earlier before 678, though here they would do the same as they did in real history after being defeated, which was Caliph Muawiyah in 679 agreeing to the peace terms with Byzantium which included paying an annual tribute of 50 slaves, 50 horses, 3,000 pounds of gold, and returning the Aegean islands including the city port city of Smyrna which were all under the Byzantines not so long before. What would be different for this story though is that with the Arab Umayyad Caliphate losing heavily both at Constantinople and in Central Asia, their weakened armies would no longer have much interest to fight and so would their defeated general Yazid and soon enough with the ports of Mediterranean Egypt lost, the Arabs would eventually lose all of Egypt to the Byzantines. Caliph Muawiyah in this story like in real history would also die in 680 realizing from his failure that it was impossible to breach into Constantinople, and at his death would be succeeded by his son Yazid as caliph just as Muawiyah had planned. As for the diplomat senators Alexios and Philippikos, they would choose to remain in the imperial court of China at Chang’an where they would serve the Chinese emperor Gaozong as Byzantine ambassadors to strengthen relations between both empires and there they would introduce some Byzantine customs to China and vice-versa. Back in Italy, the Exarch of Ravenna Theodore Calliopas who in real history died back in 666, for this story’s case had already died by around 673 while the empire was already split in half. Constans II on the other hand in this story’s case would die in 680 before hitting the age of 50 and ironically, he would die in the same baths of Syracuse’s imperial palace, although this time not anymore by being smashed in the head by a servant like in 668; instead Constans when alone at the baths would suffer a heart attack and pass away in minutes and would only be found later as his servants entered the baths for cleaning. Constans’ body would then be sent to Constantinople where he would be buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles- where he is really buried- and his funeral would be presided over by Constantine IV, although since Constans II was never really popular and had abandoned Constantinople and ruled in an oppressively autocratic way, his funeral would not be mourned by many but due to the fact that he relieved the city from the siege 5 years earlier, there would be at least some mourning for him. Following Constans II’s death, Constantine IV now as the most senior ruling emperor would honor his father’s plan in dividing the empire in order to fully protect all sides of it and continue their holding onto Italy and send both his younger brothers Heraclius and Tiberius to Syracuse to rule together as both were already co-emperors since 659, while Constantine IV would rule as the most superior of them from Constantinople, which was to still remain the main capital.  

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Coin of Emperor Constantine IV
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Court of the Umayyad Caliphs in Damascus

           

Now with Constans II having survived the assassination attempt on him and therefore successfully moving the capital to Syracuse and coming right in time back to Constantinople to relieve it from the Arab siege and further masterminding a heavy defeat on the Arab armies by conspiring with the Tang Chinese Empire, and later on dying from natural causes, the same happenings too would happen for Byzantium in Constantine IV’s latter reign as it did in real history. A lot of things Constantine IV had done as emperor were still mostly achievements, like for instance the 3rd Council of Constantinople between 680 and 681 which was finally able to solve the controversy of the Monothelite doctrine Constans II and his grandfather Heraclius before him strongly supported that even led Constans II to go as far as arresting Pope Martin I in 653 for opposing it.

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3rd Church Council of Constantinople headed by Constantine IV, 680-681

Here in this story, like in real history, Constantine IV would succeed in solving the issue by looking back at the ruling on the natures of Christ from the Council of Chalcedon back in 451 and afterwards reaffirming them, and for both successfully defending Constantinople from the Arabs and solving the Monothelite controversy once and for all, Constantine IV would become more popular than ever- as he was in real history- and gaining so much popularity, he would be hailed as the “New Constantine the Great” and the “New Justinian the Great” and coincidentally, Constantine IV here at this point was married to a certain Anastasia and already had a son named Justinian who he was training to be his successor, but in this story’s case to rule from Constantinople, as tragically for Constantine IV by 681 like in real history, his health already began to fail despite his young age, which historians say he could have been suffering from cancer. In real history however, Constantine IV in 681 following in the footsteps of his father mutilating his twin brother in 661 had both his younger brothers Heraclius’ and Tiberius’ noses cut off to prevent them from succeeding to the throne as a sure way to secure young Justinian’s succession, though in this story’s case, this incident would not happen as Heraclius and Tiberius got their chance to rule the empire already from Syracuse where they would busy themselves continuing the campaign against the Lombards in mainland Italy. The other real event that too would happen in this story’s case was the first major invasion of the Bulgar hordes from the steppes of Russia led by their ruler Khan Asparukh across the Danube into Byzantine territory in 680 while Constantine IV was busy heading the Church Council. Again like in real history, Constantine IV here in would lead the armies of the 5 Themes north to confront the Bulgars in 680 as well but at the middle of the campaign would suffer a bad illness due to his chronic disease and have to retreat back to Constantinople leaving his army to confront the Bulgars and without Constantine commanding them, the army like in real history would suffer a defeat to the Bulgars at the Battle of Ongal in 680 which here would also make Constantine in 681 have to acknowledge the creation of the first Bulgarian state in what was the Byzantine province of Moesia in the south bank of the Danube, and here is when the story of Byzantium’s northern neighbor and greatest enemy and ally at different times, the Bulgarian Empire begins. Constantine IV though would not lose his popularity for his defeat to the Bulgars, but in addition for this story’s case too like in reality, he would create the Theme of Thrace based in Constantinople to further protect the valuable province of Thrace, the empire’s capital region from the rise of the Bulgars who had now gained their own state subjugating the Slavic locals there. History does not say what Constantine IV had been doing after 681 but it is most likely that he had been putting the Themes of Asia Minor his father created and the Theme of Thrace he created into full effect in case the Umayyad Arabs would come back again, but it is highly possible that Constantine was not so active anymore after 681 due to his failing health. In this story, Constantine IV would die just 5 years after his father on September 14, 685 at only 33 like he did in real history and would be succeeded in this story’s case as the emperor in Constantinople by his now 16-year-old son Justinian II while his brothers Heraclius and Tiberius would still remain in Sicily. The reign of the passionate and ambitious yet tyrannical and evil emperor Justinian II now would be a story for another time, although in here like in real history, Constantine IV for successfully defending the capital and finally solving the issue of Monothelitism would become a saint after his death. Now the big question at the end of this story is what will happen to the Umayyad Caliphate after being defeated even more than they were in real history and if the establishment of Syracuse as the second capital was worth it and the answer to both cannot fully be told in a simple way but to put it short, all I can say is that even when defeated, the Umayyad Caliphate was still around and would still one day return to action and for the Byzantines having 2 capitals with their own emperors just as the empire did before 476, they would be able to focus on both sides of their empire as in the east the Theme System would soon enough be fully prepared and functional if ever the Arabs rise again while in the west, the emperor ruling from Syracuse could focus on the problems there and restore Byzantine rule to Italy which had been neglected with the growing threat of the Arabs in the east. Now to simply put it, Constans II’s decision to make Syracuse a capital was to prove effective especially since this would help the Byzantines slowly regain control of the Mediterranean again and therefore not spiral down in the sense of rapidly losing lands and this is how this move could change the course of Byzantine history.         

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The coming of the Bulgars, Khan Asparukh and his Bulgar hordes arrive in Byzantine territory, 680
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Flags of the armies of the Byzantine Empire’s Themes, to be developed from here on
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Full mosaic of Constantine IV with his brothers and son Justinian II (leftmost) in Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna

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

And now I have reached the very end of this story but before I finish, I have to mention about creating this and why Constans II is for me such an interesting historical figure that I dedicated an entire fan fiction story to him. Now as you may know, this fan fiction article happens to be an extremely long one and I have to admit it was a very long process writing it as it required an extensive amount of research and considering that my favorite history related Youtube channel Dovahhatty is currently only at Justinian’s era and had not yet reached this part of Byzantine history, I had to go the long way to put this story together by watching several documentary videos on this era from rather more scholarly channels like Kings and Generals, Eastern Roman History, and Thersites the Historian, as well as listening to the History of Byzantium Podcast, and in fact even reading more scholarly research works in order to get the whole story of 7th century Byzantium. When completing this story, I also discovered that I have now entered unchartered territory as in the entire history of Byzantium, I am not entirely familiar with the 7th century which on the other hand is not as well documented as the 6th century Byzantium of Justinian I or the later eras and what made much more challenging to write was that I put it all together. At the end I also realized that there is a lot more to discover about Byzantium even if I am still more or less familiar with its entire 1,100 year history and as it had turned out, the 7th century is surely an interesting but very crucial time for Byzantium as this was when things just changed in a blink of an eye wherein almost half of its imperial territories it had in the 6th century was lost as the Arabs out of the blue expanded and in only a few decades already came so close to ruling almost the whole known world putting Byzantium in the defensive position for the next 2 centuries to come considering the arrival of the Bulgars at the end of the century too. The other crucial part for Byzantium in this century was the changing of their geography with the creation of the Thematic System and the drastic cultural shift from Latin to Greek and more importantly the end of the golden age or rather the age of antiquity and the beginning of the Dark Ages. It is for all these reasons I have mentioned why the 7th century was a very crucial time for the Byzantine Empire not only in the reign of Constans II but with the events long before it such as the execution of Maurice in 602, the Byzantine-Sassanid War from 602-628, the reign of Heraclius, and the rise of the Arabs and it is for this reason why this fan fiction story had to be a really long one but no matter how long, I still wanted it to go full circle, which is why I ended it with the return of the Sassanids to make up for the harm they did to the Byzantines in the past by indirectly helping them against the Arabs. As for the part of Constans II, I had to choose him as the lead character for this story out of all the emperors of this century because I find his story and more particularly his odd choice of suddenly wanting to move the imperial capital to Sicily very interesting. Constans II too is an emperor who I believe has a very complex personality as at the same time as being the kind of strong emperor with a dictatorial style of rule, he was still more or less a visionary who saw the need to take extreme measures to ensure the survival of his empire. At the same time, I cannot also blame Constans for ruling in such an autocratic way by purging all those he saw as a threat including the pope and his twin brother because he ruled the empire in a very difficult time when it was at the verge of extinction to the Arab Caliphates. On the other hand, it is also hard to judge Constans’ character as he grew up with so much stress being only 11 when coming to power yet having to face a very troubled empire, so no matter how much people bash Constans for ruling in such an autocratic way, he should also be admired as he came to throne at such a young age ready to face the burden of ruling an empire at the verge of extinction. I also have to say that it was also exciting to particularly write this chapter (chapter IV) of this Byzantine Alternate History series as this article has somewhat a different approach not just centering on the lives of the Byzantine rulers and people but on the political and geographical situation of a larger world at this time and at the same time not only on the world of the Byzantines but of the Arabs Caliphates, Sassanids, and Imperial China too, and when planning out this alternate history fan fiction series, I always wanted to write about the unknown Chinese angle in Byzantium, and now I got the chance. At the end, the result for this story happened to be a kind of dystopian Byzantine epic featuring a severely weakened, troubled, and shrunken Byzantine Empire at the state of perpetual war, ruled by an autocratic dictator emperor, and having new kinds of unthinkable technology being Greek Fire compared to the past 3 articles featuring a stronger Byzantium being the dominant world power. Now this chapter is only the beginning of this dystopian Byzantine setting as it is the end of the early Byzantine era and entry point to the Byzantine Dark Ages which the next 2 stories of this series will be part of, so the next 2 stories of this series will be when Byzantium will be at its lowest points having to constantly fight on the defensive against the expansion of the Arabs before the coming of the 10th century when the Byzantines would turn the tide of war, this time fighting on the offensive against the Arabs ready to conquer everything they have lost to them. Up next, in chapter V of this Byzantine Alternate History series, in the 8th century the Arab Umayyad Caliphate will strike again this time even stronger than before whereas Carthage will even fall to them while the new power of the Bulgars in the Balkans would rise up as well and Byzantium this time would be very close to extinction due to external pressure and internal conflicts until Leo III, another unlikely savior emperor again with a very complex personality would come to the rescue, although the next story will rather center more on Artavasdos, the man behind Leo III’s rise of power who too will become emperor for only a year (742-743) before meeting his end, though the next chapter of this series will explore what Byzantium would be like if this very unknown emperor would have ruled much longer, but of course as the rule of this series, there will be no continuity from the alternate ending of this story to the where the next will begin. Well, this is all for chapter IV of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!                   

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

WARNING: THIS IS A VERY LONG ARTICLE BUT ENJOY!! 

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So, welcome back to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! It’s been quite a while since I last posted something, so here’s something again. Previously over the past months I have done articles that involve both Ancient Roman and Byzantine societies followed by an extremely long one on No Budget Films’ most recent 13th century Byzantine Lego epic War of the Sicilian Vespers, but now here’s another one I’ve always wanted to write about and again it will be focusing on the 1,100 year history of the Byzantine Empire covering all its 12 centuries but unlike another one I wrote a long time ago which mainly focused on the events happening within the Byzantine Empire, this will focus on both the events within the empire but put side-by-side with what was happening around the rest of the world while Byzantium was existing. However since it would be too long to cover all 12 centuries in one article, it will be a 2-part series wherein this one as the first part will cover Byzantine history from its beginnings in the 4th century ending in the year 1000 while next part will go on from 1000 to the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and the events after. This article will be divided in two sections per century, the first section discussing what is  going on in Byzantium and the next one on what is happening in different places around the world, but of course this article would only focus on the key events in these centuries as it would go on forever to talk about what happened each year but will still come to highlight not just important events but some interesting trivia like inventions and discoveries happening between the 4th and 15th centuries around the world. In this article, the final division of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires in 395 then from the 5th century onwards, the Eastern Roman Empire which is Byzantium would be on its own paragraph while the western part of the Roman Empire which would be dissolved in 476 would be in the other paragraph with the events happening all over the world and speaking of events all over the world, this article will talk about what was going on in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, China, India, the rest of Asia, and even in the Americas all while the Byzantine Empire was existing for 1,100 years. Also take not here that the part on the 5th century will be divided in 3 sections with one on Byzantium or the Eastern Roman Empire, the next on the Western Roman Empire and Western Europe, and the last on the rest of the world. This article as you read it would be your chance to travel around the world over the centuries with Byzantium as your base where you would from there in each century travel around the world by knowing what is happening in each part of the world, what powers are rising and falling, and what new inventions are being made. In this article, such key events that will be brought up here would include the same turning points in Byzantine history over the 7 centuries but other bigger events around the world like the expansion of the Arabs in 7th century, the rise of the kingdoms in Europe together with the Holy Roman Empire, and changes of dynasties in China. Now when reading this please forgive me if I’m getting some facts wrong since the happenings around the world from the 4th to 11th centuries outside Byzantium is some new information to me in which I had mostly discovered when writing this article which especially includes dates of the formations and declines of various empires and kingdoms around the world. This article though will not go all the way back to Rome’s founding in 753BC, or to the time of the Roman Republic or imperial age known as the Principate, rather its main focus would be more on the story of the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium which begins in the 4th century and this article will be starting around the year 300AD with the exception of events before that such as the transformation of the Roman Empire into the Tetrarchy which laid the foundations for Byzantium while this article will end in the year 1000 when the Byzantium turns again into a powerful force and the rest of Europe too becomes stronger entering the High Middle Ages right before the age of the Crusades. Of course, this article too will not forget to mention the names of all the Byzantine emperors through the centuries to show also who was ruling Byzantium while such events were happening around the world. It is plain and simple that in the 1,100 years the Byzantine Empire existed, several others kingdoms and empire rose and fell; Byzantium then had seen its western half disappear in 476 following with the rise of kingdoms in Europe including England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire, the rise and expansion of the Arabs from the 7th century onwards, the rise and fall of their neighboring Bulgarian Empire twice (7th-11th and 12th-14th centuries), the beginning and end of the Crusades, the rise and fall of the massive Mongol Empire, as well as the rise and fall of the Seljuks, and also several changes of dynasties in China, the whole Viking age, the slow rise of Russia, and the unexpected rise of the Ottomans all while Byzantium within itself saw 15 changes of dynasties, civil wars, political reforms, and countless enemies threatening its borders. To put it short, the Byzantine Empire lived from the time of the Roman Empire all the way to the start of the Renaissance, meaning Byzantium survived the entire Middle Ages though not very steadily as Byzantium went though many ups and downs throughout the centuries but despite its civil, military, and cultural changes, Byzantium still stayed the same empire with one emperor under one God even if several break-away Byzantine Empires happened and by being one empire, Byzantium despite becoming very different from Ancient Rome culturally and especially in language from going from Latin to Greek and after a time not having Rome, it still stayed the “Roman Empire” or Romania in name and all its emperors still being Roman emperors, but while all of Europe was transforming over the centuries of the Middle Ages, Byzantium would remain the advanced and sophisticated empire of the Middle Ages as the remnant of Imperial Rome before them, although in Byzantium’s last years it was obviously no longer a powerful world empire but a regional power as the west had already surpassed Byzantium in power and influence, although Byzantium despite having grown weak with age would still be the powerful empire symbolically as its capital was Constantinople which was for a long time known as the “Queen of Cities” and one of the most advanced cities of the Middle Ages. Now this article would not really go so deep to analyze the turn of events throughout the centuries, but instead will try to focus more on facts, dates, and key events to keep it simple, but obviously this will be a very long article since Byzantium’s existence surpassed a thousand years.

Now for all of you reading, please do also like and follow The History of Byzantium and listen to their podcasts as this article I’m doing is something similar to it. Also like their Facebook page.

Credits to AMELIANVS for some of the art.