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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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

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Welcome to the 6th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter V of this 12-part series, I went over the Byzantine Dark Ages in the 8th century, the chaos and anarchy, the dystopian-like situation the Byzantine Empire, and the controversy of Iconoclasm or the breaking of icons that may have seemed like a simple issue but at the end caused so much tensions in the empire especially in its long-term relations with the western world, particularly the Church of Rome. The last chapter had also mentioned an event that could have ended the controversial Byzantine Iconoclasm before it could get worse and totally ruin Byzantium’s relations with the west and Church unity as a whole, and this event that could have changed it was if the emperor Artavasdos who only reigned a year (742-743) stayed in power longer rather than losing and being blinded by Constantine V (r. 741-775), who returned to power and continued Iconoclasm to an even higher level purging all those who believed in icons and worked to restore them. However, since the stories in this series despite being in chronological form with one chapter per century, their alternate history scenarios are not continuous with each other, so this means that for this chapter, the events of real history would play out whereas the Iconoclast extremist Constantine V would stay in power and not fall off a castle wall like in the previous chapter. This story then continues not so long after the last one left off and will be set at the turn of the 9th century at the tail-end of the Byzantine Dark Ages and the last days of the Iconoclast period and therefore this will be the last part of the Byzantine dystopian trilogy which began with chapter IV. Now this chapter in this series will be a very special one as we are now at the midpoint of this series and the thing that will be different about this story compared to the previous ones is that first it will be more of a direct sequel of its previous chapter as the same plot and scenario as well as characters from the last chapter return here except of course for the scenario of Artavasdos defeating Constantine V in the civil war, so basically it will be something not purely a 9th century story but rather an 8th and 9th century crossover alternate history story. Another unique style chapter VI over here will have which the other chapters will not is that its background part will no longer be a story retelling the past events but rather already beginning in the main setting in the year 800 while the lead character here Empress Irene Sarantapechaina or Irene of Athens will be the one narrating the events of the past going back to reign of Constantine V where she comes into the picture being chosen as the wife for his son Emperor Leo IV (r. 775-780).

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

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

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guide to the Thematic System of the Byzantine army (from Wikipedia); this article contains a lot of terms of Byzantine army units
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Guide to the Isaurian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 717-802; character illustrations and layout by Powee Celdran

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

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

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

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


The Leading Characters: 

Irene Sarantapechaina “Irene of Athens”- Byzantine empress 

Charlemagne “Charles I the Great”- Frankish emperor

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

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

Tarasios- Iconophile Patriarch of Constantinople

Staurakios- Byzantine eunuch official and general of Irene

Aetios- Byzantine eunuch official of Irene

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

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

Theophano Sarantapechaina- Irene’s cousin

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

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

Leo the Armenian- Iconoclast Byzantine general

Bardanes Tourkos- Byzantine general, Irene loyalist

Louis I the Fair- Son and successor of Charlemagne

Krum- Khan of the Bulgars since 803

Harun al-Rashid- Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate

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


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

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

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Empress Irene of Athens

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

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Arabian coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos (r. 741-742/ 743-775)

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

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Athens in the Byzantine era

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

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

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

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

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

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Flag of the Abbasid Caliphate, founded in 750

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

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

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

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Bulgar army, 8th century

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

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

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

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

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Map of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex

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

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Byzantine female court fashion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it came to ruling the empire though, there was not much significance in Leo IV’s reign except with one incident in 777 when the Bulgarian khan Telerig was ousted from the throne by the new khan Kardam making Telerig flee to Constantinople where Leo welcomed him, gave him the rank of patrician, and had him baptized as a Christian as here the Bulgars were still Pagan, though Telerig died later that year; and in 778 Leo despite his bad health decided to launch a campaign against the Abbasid Arabs in Syria as fighting a war was part of his bucket list before his death. The invasion Leo launched in 778 was a large one consisting of the armies of the Anatolic, Armeniac, Opsikion, Bucellarian, and Thracesian Themes all led by their own generals or Strategoi (singular: Strategos) and at the end, this campaign was successful in killing a large number of Arabs, winning a number of victories, taking back a large amount of spoils of war, and relocating a number of Syrian Christians to Thrace just as Constantine V did before, and the emperor at least got the honor of leading his men in battle. Later in 778, a triumphal procession in Constantinople was held for Leo IV and all the 5 generals who survived where all the spoils of war and Arab captives were paraded, though in the next year (779) the Abbasids struck back invading Eastern Asia Minor but Leo’s army again successfully won repelling the invasion. In 780, Leo IV decided to this time launch a campaign on Bulgaria against its new ruler Kardam but before he could even start, his health grew worse that in this story’s case Irene persuaded him to give up on it and rest and on September 8 of that year, Leo IV the Khazar died at only 30 from an extreme fever caused by his tuberculosis being the last effective ruler of his dynasty, the Isaurian Dynasty as his son Constantine VI at only 9 succeeded to the throne with his mother Irene as his full-time regent in which she will be for the most of Constantine VI’s reign. Irene ends her story here in 780 when she came to power already as the effective empress-regent for her son and here back to the setting in 800, she called it a day saying goodbye to the Logothete Nikephoros as Nikephoros returned to his house and Irene would return to her bedchamber which was not the empress’ room but the emperor’s as with no male emperor, she was free to occupy it.

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

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


The Background Part II- Irene as the Empress-Regent          

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In the year 800, a few days after Irene’s meeting with the new finance minister or Logothete Nikephoros at the Boukoleon Palace, Irene in a gold and purple imperial robe headed to the polo field of the Great Palace where she saw her advisor, the eunuch Aetios playing a game of Tzykanion or Polo who after seeing Irene stopped and rushed to her reporting about his rival eunuch Staurakios, Irene’s most trusted person before and here Aetios brought some sad news though happy for him which was that some weeks earlier on June 3 of that year, Staurakios had died from sickness in Cappadocia when raising an army to rebel against Irene and take over the throne despite being a eunuch, although Staurakios seeing that Irene took the throne even if she was a woman thought he could too even as a eunuch. Irene as the empress put most of her trust into the eunuchs as they were the people she was most acquainted with ever since she arrived in Constantinople back in 769, and eunuchs too being males without reproductive organs were the only men allowed into the women’s quarters as they could not do anything to a woman, though they had no ability to become emperor, they still had the power to influence one. However when Irene fell ill in 799, both eunuchs the younger one Aetios and older one Staurakios’ rivalry intensified and the reason for their rivalry was that the old-timer Staurakios felt threatened by the growing influence of the younger Aetios, but the rivalry had also something to do with the succession as Irene with her husband having died years ago and her son blinded and sent to a monastery being unable to rule again had no heir and she too did not want to remarry or adopt a son as she could also see them as a rival to her power, so without a named successor both eunuchs plotted to make each of their male relatives the next emperor, but neither of their plans succeeded. After Irene recovered a year earlier, she summoned both Aetios and Staurakios to a council to hear both sides of the story and at the end, she just dismissed Staurakios at least with an apology except doing nothing severe to him but only decreasing his power and feeling insulted, Staurakios headed over to Cappadocia to raise an army with the support of the Anatolic Theme’s Strategos which was the empire’s most powerful general against both Aetios and Irene but in June of this year (800), again after getting an illness that caused him to cough out blood, he died and his rebellion failed. Irene felt disappointed here as Staurakios was someone she put a lot of trust into and all of sudden after feeling cheated despite not being removed from his position, he rebelled, though to tell more about Staurakios, Irene here told Aetios the full story, that Staurakios was indeed a loyal official, general, and chef who Irene knew ever since she got to Constantinople and it was in 780 when she came to power as her son’s regent when the eunuch Staurakios also rose in influence.           

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Tzykanion, Byzantine polo (art by Amelianvs)

20 years earlier in 780, after Leo IV died his son with Irene Constantine VI became emperor at only 9, therefore the task was left to Irene to rule as the effective ruler of the empire as Constantine VI was too young to make his own decisions and Staurakios who in this story taught Irene the proper dining etiquette, introduced her to a number of cuisines including Byzantine, Arabic, Persian, and Frankish, turned Irene from a country girl to a sophisticated imperial woman, and helped secure her position as the empress-regent as a big percent of the army, mostly being the elite guard force or Tagmata opposed Irene as not only was she a woman but a supporter of the icons whereas most of the army were still extreme Iconoclasts undyingly loyal to the late Constantine V. The soldiers of the Tagmata refusing to answer to Irene and Constantine VI wanted a son of Constantine V on the throne and the perfect choice was the Caesar Nikephoros, the most ambitious of Constantine V’s 5 sons with Eudokia that were banished from the palace 4 years earlier, and although Nikephoros was never really a strong Iconoclast but he did have some imperial ambitions and so here in 780 he was proclaimed emperor by the Tagmata army in honor of their hero Constantine V, although just a month after the plot was hatched, Irene discovered it and had the conspiracy leaders exiled and Nikephoros and his 4 younger brothers made priests as a way to prevent them from taking the throne as priests and monks were also unqualified to rule. To confirm to the people that Nikephoros Caesar and his 4 brothers were made priests, Irene had them perform the communion service at the Christmas Day Mass of 780 at the Hagia Sophia and here the 25-year-old Nikephoros who was tall and muscular in appearance with large and dark curly hair, pale skin, and a long nose looked the most humiliated being forced to give communion to the people at the Mass. In 781 then, Staurakios was appointed by Irene as the empire’s foreign minister or Logothetes tou Dromou as Irene trusted eunuchs above all as her ministers and generals were still loyal to the late Constantine V and therefore strong Iconoclasts and as for Staurakios, the contemporary historian Theophanes the Confessor (758-817) would call him “the foremost man of his day and in charge of everything” as if Irene was the power behind Constantine VI, then Staurakios was the power behind her. It was also in 781 when the Frankish king Charles I, later known as Charlemagne who had ruled the Frankish Kingdom since 768 first came into the Byzantine scene when Irene considered making an alliance with him by marrying her son Constantine VI to Charlemagne’s 6-year-old daughter Rotrude, known as Erythro by the Byzantine Greeks and Irene herself even sent Byzantine scholars to the Frankish Kingdom to educate the young Rotrude in the Greek language and Byzantine customs. In 782 meanwhile, the war between the Byzantines and their eastern neighbor the Arab Abbasid Caliphate would resume when the caliph Al-Mahdi launched an invasion on Byzantine Asia Minor with an army of 100,000 men led by his son Harun al-Rashid as payback for their defeat to the Byzantines under Leo IV back in 778 and 779, and this totally shocked Irene but still acting strong, she had the armies of the Themes in Asia Minor counter-attack, except things only got worse when the Strategos of the Bucellarian Theme (located in Northwest Asia Minor) Tatzates defected the Abbasids, thus the Byzantines despite having a strong army with the elite Cataphract cavalry was defeated, although Tatzates still suggested to Harun to make negotiations with the Byzantines. Imperial envoys from Constantinople including Staurakios would meet up with Harun in Asia Minor where they would be captured by Harun’s Arab forces while Harun only agreed to release them if Irene was to pay off the Abbasids a tribute of 70,000 gold dinars and 10,000 silk garments a year for the next 3 years, and not wanting any trouble Irene agreed to it. Irene however was deeply humiliated with her defeat to the Arabs and so to make up for it in order to gain back her popularity, in the next year (783) she sent Staurakios to command an army to campaign in Greece against the Slavic tribes that had settled there for almost 2 centuries. Staurakios marched into Greece by land from Constantinople passing through Thrace heading east to Macedonia, then south to Thessaly, and finally to the Peloponnese in Southern Greece where at the end of the year he managed to take back a large amount of territory from the Slavs and in early 784 when returning to Constantinople, the victorious eunuch general Staurakios was awarded with a triumph. Now satisfied with reconquering most of Greece in 784, Irene returned to consolidating her rule and even though only the empress-regent for her son, she put her image on the right side of the coins even if that space was reserved for the emperor which was where her son was supposed to be, but instead Constantine VI was only put on the left as Irene wanted to show that she was actually the one really wielding power.

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Patriarch Tarasios of Constantinople, appointed by Irene in 784

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

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Army of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate

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

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Coin of Irene and Constantine VI with Irene on the right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Inside Constantinople’s Great Palace

          

In 792, despite Irene coming back to power, Constantine VI still asserted himself as the effective emperor, though Irene was still more popular here and she would do all it took to make her son fail in order to fully get him out of the way and this included, in this story’s case encouraging him to brutally suppress a revolt in the Armeniac Theme wherein Constantine had the general Alexios Mosele blinded, and out of his own cruelty he massacred a large number of the rebellious population in the Theme, thus the people of this Theme who had strongly supported him became his biggest enemy. Constantine VI though with his wife Maria of Amnia back in 790 had a daughter named Euphrosyne, thus making Irene a grandmother at 38, although with his wife Constantine failed to produce sons and in 794 when getting tired of his boring wife chose to divorce her, which was an illegal act although Patriarch Tarasios ignored it and the divorce happened, but it created a lot of controversy as it was against Church Law making many monks turn on Constantine VI and side with Irene. Constantine VI later in 795 would marry his long-time mistress Theodote, a Greek beauty, though this would even make the tensions between him and his mother even stronger and here with the monks supporting Irene because of her devotion to icons, her support base was even stronger than that of her sons’. In 795 as well, Constantine VI launched another campaign against the Bulgars in which he was successful at this time although no one cheered for him in the empire as he was rapidly losing his popularity. In 797, Constantine VI resumed his campaigns in the east as Caliph Harun al-Rashid continued raiding into Asia Minor again but before even going that far as when Constantine was at the baths in the city of Prusa in the Opsikion Theme right across the Marmara Sea from Thrace, he received fake news that the caliph withdrew his forces before he even began the war, although it was only Irene who came up with this as a way to get her son back to the capital and so Constantine returned to capital, however when returning he just realized literally everyone in the capital turned on him that people threw stones at him and shouted insults at him calling him “loser” and “idiot”. Constantine then decided to flee Constantinople when seeing everyone was against him but when reaching the dock at the Bosporus, the Tagmata guards had already been bribed by Irene, therefore they seized Constantine, beat him up, chained him, and dragged him to the imperial palace. Here on August 17 of 797, the unconscious Constantine VI woke up in the exact same purple room he was born in 26 years ago in 771 where he was met by his very enraged mother who was tired of having to deal with her incompetent and cowardly son and ruling with him, and thinking imprisoning or exiling him was not enough as someone would again return him to power, Irene would instead commit one of the most brutal acts in Byzantine history and in the dark and creepy purple room where he was born in 26 years ago was the last thing Constantine would see as here, the brutal emperor was brutally blinded by a court eunuch which in this story’s case was Aetios acting on Irene’s orders. Some sources including Robin Pierson in the History of Byzantium Podcast say that with the blinding being so brutal, Constantine VI would die shortly after, although this story would go with the version that after his blinding, Constantine VI was sent by ship just to one of the islands in the Marmara Sea known as the Princes’ Islands just a few kilometers from Constantinople to be put in monastery arrest for the rest of his life dying years later. Just right after Constantine VI was blinded, an unnatural natural event took place in Constantinople which was a solar eclipse and here for 17 days straight, the sky turned black although right here as Justinianus put it, Irene did not feel any sense of guilt at all and instead totally felt like she did not care while the rest of Constantinople’s people saw this solar eclipse as an act of God punishing Irene for blinding her son.  

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Meme of Irene blinding Constantine VI, 797

           

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

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Coin of Empress Irene as the sole empress

On the other hand, with Irene being a woman, a portion of the army in Asia Minor in 797 rebelled and for the 4th time chose to elevate the Caesar Nikephoros despite having been blinded back in 792 as emperor. Irene discovering another plot to make her brother-in-law Nikephoros emperor again acted quick and had Nikephoros’ 4 younger brothers blinded too, and had them all moved to Athens to get them further away where Irene’s surviving family members would watch over them. However, in 799 another plot made by the army in Greece which was of the Hellas Theme again chose to proclaim Nikephoros as emperor and when hearing about this, Irene had all 5 brothers moved out of Athens to one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara near Constantinople- though not the one Constantine VI was in- to keep them under closer watch. At the same time, the threat of the Abbasid Arabs was still at large in the east and Irene not wanting to continue conflicts with them as there was so much in her mind, chose to pay tribute again to Caliph Harun al-Rashid, which was an amount even bigger than what her son had to pay. Irene then moved on to talking about her illness just 2 years earlier wherein Staurakios and Aetios used it to have a power struggle between themselves but Irene on the other hand in this story’s case, when getting this illness would start feeling some guilt for blinding her son, seeing the illness as a punishment from God for doing just that. Here in 801, Irene was now feeling guilty for the blinding but with a big function that was to happen later that day, Irene had to hide her emotions, which was something she learned when being trained the proper court etiquette many years ago. With Irene’s hair now completed styled in a way with her wavy hair put down in an orderly way, Irene stood up and headed behind the dressing curtain to take off her dressing robe and begin putting on her dress for the night. The dress Irene was going to wear was something unusual for the conservative Byzantines as it showed a lot of skin exposing her shoulders and upper chest though in length it extended all the way to the floor and this purple silk dress with a gold lining at her chest was to be wrapped around her body and here Anthousa did the job of wrapping the dress around Irene’s torso and to keep it in place so the dress wouldn’t slip out, a silver belt with gems was put over Irene’s waist. Now this revealing purple silk dress had already appeared in the universe of this Byzantine Alternate History series in chapter III worn by the 6th century empress Theodora (527-548) and her successor empress Sophia (565-578), and as for Irene in the universe of this fan fiction series, when discovering old documents from the 6th century, she decided to replicate with the exact same style, although no one really saw her in it except her late husband Leo IV once when he was emperor between 775 and 780 and her son Constantine VI as Irene always tried to make herself look attractive in front of them. As the end result, Irene at 48 still looked exceptionally attractive in figure wearing this and all prepared for the function that night.          

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Empress Irene in the purple silk dress (art by Powee Celdran)

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

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Frankish Empire fashion

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

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Magnaura of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace (art by Byzantine Tales)

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


The Climax Part I- Charlemagne and Irene’s Marriage        

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

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

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

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Charles Martel battles the Umayyads at Tours, 732

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

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

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

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Seal of the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne

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

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Pope Leo III, crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800

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

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Carolingian Minuscule

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

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

       

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

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Charlemagne crowned by Pope Leo III, 800

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

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Coin of Charlemagne as a Roman emperor

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

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

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

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Supposed marriage proposal between Irene and Charlemagne

In order to gain more support from the people of Constantinople, Irene as usual went out to the Hippodrome and the streets of Constantinople to give away money and food but here it was soon enough going to be too late for Irene to still keep her popularity as both Aetios and her other most trusted advisor Nikephoros the Logothete were now hatching a plot to turn the people against her. Nikephoros the Logothethe on the other hand also had his own intentions to overthrow Irene which were different from Aetios’ and his was because as the finance minister, he objected to all of Irene’s weak financial policies such as reducing taxes for the nobility, and coming from the nobility he saw this as a sign of weakness wherein he could just bribe his way to power in order to get support to oust Irene and after all, Nikephoros even if being an Iconophile and loyal to Irene only wanted to work for Irene and pretend to be nice to her as a way to advance himself in power and one day take the throne. Now Nikephoros the Logothete and Aetios together with other conspirators including another palace official named Niketas Tryphillios, Irene’s cousin Leo Sarantapechos, and in this story’s case a young scheming Iconoclast soldier with his own ambitions which was Leo the Armenian– who in real history would become emperor in 813- would all meet up at a high-end tavern near the Great Palace in Constantinople where they would discuss their plot to overthrow Irene as they drank a few cups of wine. Where both Nikephoros and Aetios had common ground however was that they both objected to Irene marrying Charlemagne and for their empire to be ruled by a barbarian but as it turned out, both Aetios and Nikephoros had conflicting ambitions as Aetios still wanted to use this conspiracy to make his brother Leo emperor and rule through him while Nikephoros on the other hand was set to make himself emperor and not wait any longer and instead find the soonest opportunity to overthrow Irene while Aetios was still waiting for her death. In the tavern, Nikephoros already had an entire organized campaign in mind to get rid of Irene, which was to bribe off heralds and officials in the city to spread word that Irene wants to give up their empire to Charlemagne as well as announcing all of Irene’s inappropriate things in public even if they were not really proven which here for this story would include Irene lying down naked sunbathing at the Imperial Palace’s balcony among a lot of others, which was a similar strategy the historian Procopius did in the 6th century to ruin the image of the empress Theodora, Justinian I’s wife, except his was more privately done. Another rumor too was spread that Irene’s son Constantine VI had already died, therefore she killed him as a way to further vilify her. Nikephoros the Logothete too already got ahead in his plot to make himself emperor and this meant- in this story’s case- that he was to trick Irene’s still alive brothers-in-law the Caesars Nikephoros and Christopher despite being blind that they would be his co-emperors in order to get more support from the still Iconoclast troops in the army who were still undyingly loyal to Constantine V and his sons, though the other 3 sons who were all still alive were to be left behind. Now Nikephoros Caesar by 802 was still in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara under close watch by Irene’s officials and would only rise up one last time later on in 812 in real history, but in this story’s case, Nikephoros the Logothete would go there to this island just a few hours by boat from Constantinople, bribe the guards and monks of the monastery to only get the Caesars Christopher and Nikephoros out and together they would flee to a stronghold in Thrace.

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Location of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara (red)

In Constantinople meanwhile, after receiving a lot of fake news, a major percent of the population would already turn on Irene though the rest would still remain loyal while Aetios on the other hand when discovering that Nikephoros already beat him to taking the throne switched his loyalty back to Irene and returned to the palace while Aetios’ brother Leo in Thrace also gave up his ambitions. Now in real history, on October 31 of 802 as Irene was not in the Great Palace, the conspirators of Nikephoros the Logothete told some false information to the palace guards telling them Irene had fallen ill and was close to death therefore she chose Nikephoros to succeed her as a way to get rid of the scheming Aetios and later during the night, the guards believing it found Irene and escorted her back to the Great Palace where Nikephoros confronted her. Nikephoros here explained everything he was doing, though only as a way to get Irene to reveal to him where she kept all her gold which she did, and when Nikephoros got all the gold he wanted, he had Irene pack up all her things and then at the dead of night, he put her on a boat headed for one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara where she was to now be under his watch in a monastery there which she founded while Aetios was fired from his post, and Nikephoros then was crowned as emperor by Patriarch Tarasios who was as usual oblivious to the matter.

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Irene as empress (left) and nun after 802 (right), in real history

However, things would be very much different here in this story as Irene already made her move in asking Charlemagne to come over to Constantinople to marry her while Nikephoros knowing about this fled to Thrace to raise an army in rebellion against Irene and Charlemagne and there in Thrace, Nikephoros- in this story’s case- would craft an explosive which was like a grenade made using the combustible ingredients of the Byzantines’ superweapon Greek Fire, which included naphtha, quicklime, and resin, and this grenade was to be lit by a fuse which was to be blown up whenever the wedding of Charlemagne and Irene would happen. Now on October 31 of 802 in this story, rather than Irene losing the throne all of a sudden without her even knowing there was a plot to overthrow her, Charlemagne instead arrived in Constantinople escorted only by a few of his Carolingian knights and here he was welcomed warmly by the people, only because Irene told them to receive him well.

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Sample of a Byzantine era grenade

The people however were not in awe but questioning what they saw which was Charlemagne as from everything they have heard, he was some kind of great warrior emperor that could take down an army or a wall with his bare hands, but when seeing him ride his horse through the streets, he looked nothing like an old fat man with messy hair and beard despite still being tall and muscular, but still looking like he hadn’t taken a bath- which of course he did not after so many weeks riding his horse- and as he got off his horse, everyone noticed him walking in an odd way looking that there was nothing regal about him after all. Charlemagne with his entourage would meet Irene who was dressed in the complete imperial robes and crown at the Hippodrome where Charlemagne was immediately taken away by Irene’s beauty despite her already being 50 and here, the 60-year-old Charlemagne knelt down and out of nowhere spat on the ground and kissed Irene’s hand and grabbed her legs, although Irene immediately moved her legs away before she could fall; now Irene was already quite tall but Charlemagne was so much taller than her being from the Germanic race. The first thing Charlemagne however said to Irene was that he asked her where is the nearest bath and bedroom as he needed to rest and Irene pointed him to the palace while Charlemagne without even properly greeting her said he had such a long journey wherein he took a ship from the Istrian Peninsula in Italy to Greece and from there rode nonstop down the Ancient Roman road of the Via Egnatia to Constantinople for 2 weeks.

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Empress Irene of Athens (art by HistoryGold777)

Now on the same night as Charlemagne arrived in Constantinople, Irene once again dressed up in the same purple silk dress she wore when discovering Charlemagne was crowned emperor more than a year earlier and as the function held to celebrate Charlemagne’s arrival in Constantinople had begun in the Magnaura of the Great Palace, the people that came to attend included Aetios, Anthousa, and Irene’s cousin Theophano, and as Charlemagne got up from his nap entering the hall, he was immediately stunned by Irene’s outfit and how it showed off her still attractive body even at 50, and in fact she thought of wearing it seduce Charlemagne. In this celebration dinner then, there was a lot of food, drinks, and entertainment such as acrobatics and fire eating which also impressed Charlemagne but the one thing here Charlemagne found odd was a utensil the Byzantines used when eating their meat which was of course the fork whereas in the Frankish Kingdom here, people just ate with their hands and a knife. When getting his hands on the fork, Charlemagne said in Latin “what the hell is this!” that he ended up breaking the fork and also seeing all the dances and eunuchs he said the same too but at the same time everyone else there was laughing at him and his unsophisticated way of eating. Sitting next to him was Irene and as she spoke Greek, Charlemagne could at least understand some of it but when she started speaking Latin, they stated having a proper conversation although after drinking too much wine that was served, he began rubbing Irene’s legs and stomach but soon enough as he moved his hands up, passed out in front of everyone wherein they all saw how unkempt he was especially with the saliva dripping out of mouth and gas he was farting out that Irene had to order him carried to one of the rooms in the palace.          

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Feasting in the Byzantine Empire

Now just like Irene 33 years earlier on December 17 of 769 when she married Leo IV, she would marry Charlemagne again on this day in 802 for this story, although Charlemagne in the past 6 weeks that he had been in Constantinople would not do the same as Irene before going through training in court etiquette, rather he would observe Constantinople for 6 weeks in order to get ideas for decorating his capital Aachen, and it was the newly restored mosaics by Irene replacing the previous ones were destroyed by the Iconoclasts that inspired him most and so were the public and private baths that he wanted to model the existing baths in Aachen to look like them. In the morning of December 17 of 802, Charlemagne was to be crowned as the Eastern Roman emperor in the Hagia Sophia by Patriarch Tarasios, and although he did not really need it as he had already been crowned emperor by the pope 2 years earlier, it was only ceremonial that he needed to be crowned as the eastern emperor as this way he would be accepted by the Byzantine people as an emperor who the patriarch crowned rather than just a foreigner who seized the empire.

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Charlemagne in a Byzantine Loros

Irene watched the coronation ceremony from the empress’ box on the upper floor of the Hagia Sophia while Charlemagne who was being crowned by the patriarch Tarasios at the large circle known as the Omphalion felt uncomfortable in the Byzantine imperial robes he had to wear which was the Loros, a long golden scarf tightly wrapped around the body which he saw as something that was suffocating him as it was wrapped so tightly whereas the golden robes he wore back at home were lose and comfortable, but he needed to wear it anyway to prove that he was accepting his position as the Eastern Roman emperor, and at the end of the ceremony he became known as Basileus Karoulos in which this name was Greek for Charles. In Thrace on the other hand, Nikephoros the Logothete had already sent a slave dressed up as a monk to Constantinople hiding the explosive under his robes after receiving reports that Irene and Charlemagne were to marry on the 17th of December.

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Nikephoros I the Logothete crowned as emperor standing on a shield, 802

Now on the same day as Charlemagne’s coronation and later his wedding, Nikephoros also dressed up in the golden imperial Loros though placed over a blue instead of purple silk tunic, and here in this Thracian fortress, he placed a crown on his head and stood on a large round shield having his soldiers lift it and proclaim him emperor, and right here he became Emperor Nikephoros in direct rebellion against Irene and Charlemagne while the two blind Caesars who still looked very young Nikephoros with his large black curly hair and Christopher with his red curly hair were made co-emperors, though only as a way to please the mostly Iconoclast troops there. Back in Constantinople, it was Irene’s turn to get ready for her second marriage and as she was being dressed up in her wedding dress, the same style of the long and tight one from before that covered almost the entire body, she started to think about things like how far she’s gone in life and being able to stay as the sole empress for 5 years now and that now by marrying Charlemagne she would be the joint ruler of a global empire, but at the same time, she also started feeling the guilt again for blinding her own son who here was still alive in the Princes’ Islands, but she also came to remember that she was already a grandmother here as her son had a daughter Euphrosyne who was somewhere out there. While she was dressing up, the same ghost of the old emperor Justinian I popped out again although this time very quick only telling Irene to remember that her marriage to Charlemagne is only political and to not give in to his demands as this could start giving mixed signals to the people of the empire that a barbarian is now running the show. In the afternoon of that day, the wedding ceremony took place at the Church of Pharos in the Imperial Palace Complex where Irene and Leo IV married on this day back in 769 and again Patriarch Tarasios retuned to marry both of them, but at the end of course this was all political as Irene never had any kind of feelings for Charlemagne who in return also did not, except that he was only attracted to her looks. As the ceremony took place, the reception area also in the palace complex was being set up and here the slave sent by Nikephoros the Logothete had arrived placing that explosive right under Irene and Charlemagne’s table but everyone else did not notice as they were setting up the food and the expensive wine from Burgundy which part of Charlemagne’s empire.

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Medieval wine making

Following the ceremony, the reception began and everyone enjoyed themselves with the food, wine, and festivities such as dances and circus performances while Irene having not eaten the entire day to make sure she wouldn’t be full for her big day and to fit into her dress went straight for the Frankish wines which she was curious about the most that she kept drinking it noticing that it tasted different compared to the Greek wines she was used to while Charlemagne on the other hand enjoyed himself by stuffing himself with food. Aetios meanwhile was also here together with Anthousa, Theophano, and the patriarch and Aetios though was still bitter about Irene’s marriage with Charlemagne but still wanting to keep his position, he pretended like he was all for the marriage. Meanwhile, as everyone was enjoying themselves, the slave sent by Nikephoros the Logothete with no one noticing him, not even Irene and Charlemagne crawled beneath their table and lit the fuse, and a few minutes later Aetios smelled something burning and tracked it to Irene’s table wherein he bent down and grabbed the explosive which was hot in his hands, and although he never really cared about Irene he still grabbed it and threw it into the fountain below just to save himself as if he weren’t there he would have just let it explode killing Irene and Charlemagne. The grenade then exploded in the fountain below while the slave dressed as a monk ran away but was immediately spotted by the Tagmata guards who seized him, beat him up, and dragged him to prison. Irene meanwhile did not notice anything as she drank too much of the Frankish wine and not eating anything prior to that, it was here her turn to pass out and be carried off to the palace while Charlemagne remained alert and using the very little Greek he knew, he asked everyone to return to the palace, but at least both were still married.               

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Omphalion, coronation square in the Hagia Sophia

Irene woke up the next day in a hangover in her room in the palace dressed down to her underwear forgetting everything that happened the previous day until Charlemagne entered telling her everything that happened including the explosion which woke Irene up. Charlemagne meanwhile did not care to investigate anymore as they at least survived and all he wanted anyway was to retire here in Constantinople feeling he had done his part already in growing his empire and therefore making it larger by now adding Irene’s Byzantine Empire into it and that he revealed he only came to Constantinople to marry Irene and sleep with her. Irene on the other hand wanted to know who was behind the plot and so she had that slave who was caught and imprisoned by the Tagmata guards tortured wherein he revealed Nikephoros the Logothete who had proclaimed himself emperor crafted it and sent him to plant it and after revealing it, the slave was stabbed to death in the neck in his prison cell. With the investigation over, Irene sent some men to track down Nikephoros but Charlemagne objected to it saying that this investigation is useless as now they both rule a massive empire together that the rebel emperor Nikephoros has no chance standing against it but Irene felt like it was her duty to do it as she put a lot of trust in Nikephoros and therefore still wanted to make him explain himself. Irene remembering Justinian’s advice to act on her own to solve problems here had her troops hunt down Nikephoros even if this would mean a civil war while Charlemagne wanted to discuss the more important matter which was how both will run the empire and Irene again remembering that she must act on her own asserted herself saying that Charlemagne must return to Aachen where he would rule from and she would stay in Constantinople as she did not want to go all the way there and leave her home.

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Irene and Charlemagne married

Charlemagne agreed to the deal but only if he was to rule the empire as the senior emperor and Irene as the junior ruler though Irene first objected to it, but knowing between her and Charlemagne, he was more experienced so it was left to him but Irene still wanted to keep her position as empress which was granted to her, therefore she was to rule the smaller eastern half but least being able to use the troops and funds from Charlemagne’s more powerful western half. The next issue they had to deal with was with the Church matters whether the Byzantines as well as the patriarch would now have to submit to the pope and the Western Church or vise-versa but Irene again asserting herself chose to not submit to the pope as long as the patriarch and pope would still be in good terms with each other and Irene ruling the empire would follow the pope’s spiritual guidance rather than ignoring it, which Charlemagne again agreed to as after all the pope and Byzantium were again in good terms after the period of Iconoclasm had ended back in 787. Now the last thing they had to settle is the political structure on whether to keep the Themes or not or to make Charlemagne’s western half divided into Themes as well and at the end, both could not come up with a conclusion so rather the Themes were to be kept in the Byzantine Empire while the Frankish western half still was to keep its own system of provinces or territories while the divide between both halves would be in the Istrian Peninsula between Italy and the Balkans and only a small piece of land would connect them which is the Adriatic coast of the Balkans running from Northern Italy down to Albania in which this part would be under the eastern half. The tough part for Charlemagne though was that he did not want to leave the great city of Constantinople which he already fell in love with but in early 803, he got word from one of his men that the Saxon war in Northern Germany was not yet over, therefore he needed to return there and also because he had many children (as many as 18 in total) back in Aachen that needed him and as a father, he was very devoted to his children, especially his daughters. Now in early 803, Charlemagne kissed Irene goodbye departing now by ship directly from Constantinople to Istria in Italy where he would ride north to Aachen knowing that he could now travel freely in Byzantium as he already controls it. Irene then made a public announcement to the people of Constantinople in the Hippodrome about her marriage to Charlemagne which everyone shouted insults to her at first still not accepting that a barbarian would rule them, but Irene told them the other side of Charlemagne that he was a cultured man that would be very respectful to their culture and that he has agreed to retain the autonomy of the Byzantine Church, adopt Byzantine customs, and that the people could now travel freely from Greece to Frankia as all of that is now under one empire. Irene had also announced that under the protection of Charlemagne and his armies which were stronger and more in number compared to theirs, they would be more secure and no longer going to face the threat of extinction, but most importantly what cheered everyone up was that they have a massive global empire again which was once again a united Roman Empire.    

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Speculated map of Irene and Charlemagne’s united empire

 

The Climax Part II- A United Frankish-Roman Empire and the Bulgarian War          

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In 803, the landscape of Europe and Asia Minor had changed compared to how it was just like a year earlier as instead of one massive empire in the west, a crumbling empire in the east, and several growing kingdoms or tribal confederations in the middle, there was one massive empire that went from Northern Frankia and Northern Germany all the way down to Greece and Asia Minor right across the sea now known as the Frankish-Roman Empire, although the half of the eastern empire ruled by Irene was barely connected by land to the larger western half of Charlemagne except for a thin strip of land in the Balkans along the Adriatic coast connecting Greece to Italy where the divide between the eastern and western halves was, while Southern Italy and Sicily itself was in no way connected to the main empire by land as the Papal States where Rome was separated it from Northern Italy which was under the united Frankish-Roman Empire. Though Irene was solely in control of the eastern half but at the same time still answering to Charlemagne in Aachen who controlled the larger western half as the superior ruler, a part of Northern Greece including the Themes of Thrace and Macedonia were in rebellion not recognizing either Charlemagne or Irene as their rulers but instead recognizing Nikephoros the Logothete who by 803 in this story’s case would take over the city of Serdica (today’s Sofia, Bulgaria) in Thrace making it his own capital. Like in real history too in 803, over in the Bulgarian state north of Byzantium, a new ruler would come to rule the Bulgars following the death of their previous ruler Khan Kardam, and the new ruler that came to rule the Bulgars was Khan Krum, though not related by blood in any way to Kardam but instead he was one of the tribal leaders of the Bulgars that managed to take the throne when the previous ruler died without a successor.

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Irene exiled in Lesbos (in real history)

Now in real history, Irene in late 802 who was in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara banished there by the new emperor Nikephoros I the Logothete just after a month of being there was again banished by Nikephoros to the more isolated Greek island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea as her first location in the Marmara was too close to Constantinople, therefore Nikephoros felt that Irene was too close to the capital meaning someone loyal to her would soon enough come to her rescue. In the real timeline then, Irene just after 9 months in exile in Lesbos died there from unknown reasons at the age of 51, but it was said that she died in her sleep, and in fact her blind son even outlived her by 2 years and Charlemagne by 11 years. In this story’s case however, Irene would still be alive and well in 803 ruling the eastern half but the biggest problem for her now was her rival emperor Nikephoros in Thrace who by this point would have already raised a large army but for Irene, it would not be much of a problem as she had Charlemagne and his more powerful army on her side and with them ruling one empire, his troops could come over to the east to help her.

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Emperor Nikephoros I the Logothete, Byzantine emperor in real history (r. 802-811)

With Nikephoros I as the Byzantine emperor in real history in 803, he would inherit a heavily troubled empire caused by the disasters of Constantine VI’s reign and of Irene’s after him and part of these problems he inherited was Charlemagne who in 803 put pressure on Byzantium by attempting a massive invasion on it as a way to get back at Nikephoros for overthrowing Irene who he proposed to marry, but also because he was now attempting to have Byzantines recognize his claim as emperor and he was only doing it here 3 years after he was crowned because when he was crowned in 800, Irene who was a woman was ruling the empire, therefore he could not agree to a woman recognizing his claim, but now with a man running the empire, Charlemagne now thought he could have the Byzantines recognize him. Nikephoros I however did not want to recognize Charlemagne and in fact did not even want his name mentioned in the empire which led to Charlemagne launching naval attacks in the Adriatic Sea against the Byzantine fleet, which then made Nikephoros conclude a treaty with Charlemagne known as the Pax Nicephori named after Nikephoros I which was not in full effect between both empires until 814 acknowledging that the Adriatic Sea was the permanent border between both empires.

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Charlemagne and his son Louis

In this story’s case however, the Adriatic was still to be the border between the eastern and western halves but the whole conflict with the Byzantines and Charlemagne over his recognition as emperor would not happen any longer as Charlemagne was basically the one in charge of the Byzantine Empire now together with Irene after he married her and took the Greek name Karoulos which the Byzantines of the eastern half would refer to him as. On the other hand in 803 in the real historical timeline, Nikephoros I in order to secure his legitimacy on the throne and form a dynasty made his son also named Staurakios like Irene’s former eunuch advisor as his co-emperor but in this year too, his rule would be challenged by a general loyal to Irene named Bardanes Tourkos who marched to Constantinople but failed to gain support, therefore his rebellion failed and he was forced to become a monk, although he also failed as one of Bardanes’ loyal soldiers which was Leo the Armenian- the same one mentioned earlier- as an act to move up the ranks switched his support to Nikephoros I knowing Bardanes would lose. In this story’s case, Bardanes Tourkos would remain loyal to Irene serving as her top general while Leo the Armenian here would be Nikephoros’ top general despite being an Iconoclast while Nikephoros was still an Iconophile. Nikephoros I in real history as an Iconophile continued Irene’s policy of restoring icons but undid Irene’s policy in relaxing taxes, instead Nikephoros would restore the regular tax collection and increase taxes especially for the nobility by coming up with creative means to do so which included a tax on the size of furnaces or a “hearth tax”, meaning that those with bigger furnaces had to pay more as well as imposing a tax on farmers based on the quality and quantity of their produce. Now with Irene still ruling the empire, she would however start showing more strength in ruling that after realizing that her own lax taxation policy made her an easy target for conspiracies by the nobility and had turned out to empty the treasury, she would gradually increase taxes, although not come up with the creative genius solutions Nikephoros would in taxation, but like Nikephoros she would soon enough create the new Themes of Thessaloniki, Cephalonia, Dyyrhachion, and the Peloponnese in Greece which were the same Themes Nikephoros I created in his reign (802-811). Irene though would not do it entirely alone but with the advice of Bardanes Tourkos and Aetios who would still remain with her while Charlemagne at times would have the final say in her decisions. Now Charlemagne here by 804 would be too busy with his own wars such as the war with the Saxons in Northern Germany which he finally finished and came out victorious in 804 forcing the Saxons to convert to Christianity but at the same time, he would be troubled by a new mysterious enemy in the north which were the Danes or Vikings who had first appeared in the historical record back in 793 when attacking Anglo-Saxon England and here they would begin raiding the northern coasts of his empire with their longships.

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Krum, Khan of the Bulgars (r. 803-814)

The other new problem bothering Charlemagne here just like in real history was the Avar Khanate in Central Europe (Hungary and Romania) which however here like in real history would eventually be subjugated by him in 805 turning the Avars into his client kingdom to protect them from the expansion of Krum’s Bulgars from the south. In 805 on the other hand, the Bulgarian Khan Krum had defeated and finished off the Avar Khanate annexing it to his Bulgarian Empire which now doubled in size by adding what is now Romania into his empire following the defeat of the Avars while the western remains of the Avar Khanate would fall under Charlemagne’s empire- in this case under the new united Frankish-Roman Empire- being made a frontier march or border state just as Northern Spain was, and now the Frankish word “march” had therefore meant borders state. Another event that would also happen here in 805 just like in real history was the death of the blind Constantine VI in the monastery he was sent to in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara, though in real history he still outlived his mother Irene by 2 years but here, Irene when hearing about it in Constantinople would be guiltier than ever just realizing that she had killed her son by blinding him 8 years earlier.           

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Avars, defeated by Charlemagne and the Bulgars in 805
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Army of Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire

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

Now the issue that Irene would face following her blinded son’s death in 805 was the succession as she being now 53 could not give birth to a new son anymore and she had no surviving male relatives to inherit the empire though luckily Charlemagne here had 3 adult legitimate sons that Irene could choose from. In 806 like in real history, Charlemagne sticking to the Frankish royal tradition of the ruler dividing his realm among his sons naming the eldest one also named Charles or better known as “Charles the Younger” naming him as his main successor as emperor and chief king of the empire, while the second son Pepin was given control of Northern Italy as its king though answering to his older brother, and the third son Louis known as “the Fair” was given control of Aquitaine as well as Provence and Burgundy as its king but also answering to his eldest brother, but what Charlemagne- in this story’s case- forgot was who will inherit the eastern half considering that he was in charge of it too as here he thought his wife Irene had someone in mind without knowing she had no surviving male relatives. Irene on the other hand when hearing of Charlemagne’s plan of dividing the western half of the empire among his sons as kings of different parts of it thought that the east after Irene would die could be ruled by the eldest son Charles as he like his father was to be the senior emperor and he being still single was suggested by Irene here to marry her also still single cousin Theophano who was already in her 30s. Meanwhile in real history back in Byzantium, Nikephoros I as part of undoing Irene’s policies decided to give up paying annual tribute to the Abbasid Caliphate, which however only made things worse between them that in 804 the still reigning caliph Harun al-Rashid invaded the Asia Minor and Nikephoros wanting to face off the Arabs in battle suffered a heavy defeat to them at the Battle of Krasos and again in 806, the Abbasid Arabs invaded again with 135,000 men but Nikephoros knowing he was unable to contain the invasion decided to give up and continue paying annual tribute again.

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Nikephoros I, Patriarch of Constantinople since 806

In 806 too just like in real history, the mostly oblivious Patriarch Tarasios would die though in reality, the new patriarch Nikephoros I who was also a historian and major source of this period was appointed as patriarch by emperor Nikephoros I who shared the same name as him, and in this story too, the same patriarch Nikephoros I too would be appointed as being an Iconophile, Irene would trust him too. In this story’s case however, with Irene still ruling the empire she would still continue her foreign policy in paying annual tribute to the Abbasids, therefore no Arab invasions would happen as she was ruling therefore giving her time to focus on dealing with the rival emperor Nikephoros who here by 806 was still not yet defeated as Irene’s forces here had never been able to besiege Serdica and Charlemagne’s forces could not yet come to the rescue still being busy pacifying their own borders. Here for this story, it would be only in 807 when Charlemagne would come to Irene’s rescue in the east by sending his troops there to help her troops defeat the rebel emperor Nikephoros’ forces in Serdica in which Irene’s general Bardanes Tourkos here would succeed in taking the city forcing Nikephoros and his still surviving loyalists including Leo the Armenian and Irene’s brothers-in-law Caesars Nikephoros and Christopher to flee north. Still not feeling defeated and wanting to take the throne, Nikephoros the Logothete would decide to head north to the now larger and more powerful Bulgaria of Khan Krum to get his support in taking the throne and being enraged with the failures of the brothers Nikephoros and Christopher even if they were not responsible for anything as they were blind, Nikephoros the Logothete here would kill both of them and dump their bodies in a river, though this act would actually lead to his downfall as the Iconoclast soldiers that supported him were actually backing the brothers more than him and with both brothers dead, the Iconoclast troops loyal to them would end up defecting to Irene despite her being an Iconophile as she was after all from the same family as the brothers, though Leo the Armenian would still remain with Nikephoros the Logothete. It will be very ironic though in this story that Nikephoros the Logothete would join forces with the Bulgarian khan Krum to get him on the Byzantine throne, as in real history with Nikephoros I as emperor he decided to launch a massive campaign to finish the Bulgar state of Krum for good after Krum captured Serdica from the Byzantines in 809, but little did Nikephoros I know that the Byzantines had very little chance in fully defeating the Bulgars who now had a massive empire covering almost the entire Eastern Balkans all the way north to the Carpathian Mountains. Now in this story, in 809 Krum would do the same as in real history by capturing Serdica from the Byzantines except here Krum would be assisted by Nikephoros the Logothete and Leo the Armenian, and when hearing about this in Constantinople, Irene would be furious that she would be the one to launch a massive campaign on the Bulgarians consisting of 50,000 men the way Nikephoros I did in real history, except here it would be even larger as Irene would be assisted by Charlemagne’s army from the west. What would also happen in this story like in real history in 809 would be that the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid would die thus relieving the Byzantines from the Arab threat in the east, and in 809 Irene’s sister-in-law Anthousa would also die.

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Pepin, King of Italy (r. 781-810), son of Charlemagne

Charlemagne here however would not be able to act quick as in 810, his western half of the empire would face somewhat of a succession crisis when his son Pepin the King of Italy had died at 33, although he had a son Bernard though he was still very young, and so now out of Charlemagne’s sons only Charles the Younger and Louis were left alive. Charlemagne meanwhile by 810 would already start suffering from bad health suddenly as according to his chronicler Einhard, he said Charlemagne was in good health all the way till old age until around 810 which was 4 years before his actual death but here by 810 in this story, he had already transformed his capital of Aachen worthy of an imperial capital just like Constantinople in opulence with buildings like the octagonal Palatine Chapel of his imperial palace built in Byzantine style, though the only thing Aachen did not have that Constantinople did was a scenic skyline by the sea, a harbor, and a strategic position on a peninsula at the border of two continents.          

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Bulgarian Empire under Krum (territory added by Krum in yellow)
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Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany; Byzantine style mosaics added by Charlemagne

With the Bulgars now attacking Irene’s half of the empire and going deep into Thrace, Irene had already sent an army led by both Bardanes Torukos and Aetios to push them out and soon enough march deep into Bulgarian territory. While Irene was directing her armies in battle though from Constantinople, Justinian I’s ghost would appear again this time telling Irene that she is doing a pretty good job in directing military campaigns even if she had never set foot out of the palace, the same way Justinian I did back in the 6th century in annexing great amounts of lands in Italy, North Africa, and Spain to the empire without even leaving the palace. Justinian here though would give Irene some war advice which is to tell her troops to be ruthless in battle in killing enemy, strike fear into them, and never give in to their demands, but to also show mercy in conquering the people of Bulgaria especially since a lot of the subjects of the Bulgar khan were still Byzantines by blood therefore the Byzantine army would have to be seen as their liberators from the Bulgars and not foreign conquerors, and true enough this was the tactic Justinian used in his conquests which was in brutally killing his enemies but sparing the people who were still Romans to make them feel like they were in fact liberated. In addition, Justinianus says Irene would just direct her generals in battle from Constantinople but would not personally lead the armies herself unless there is an emergency that really needs her there in battle itself. Now in real history, in Nikephoros I’s campaign against the Bulgars in 811, he personally led the Byzantine army deep into Bulgarian territory even capturing their capital of Pliska and razing it to the ground, though also the Byzantine army here committed great atrocities including a massacre of the entire population of the city as a way to get back on the Bulgarians. In this story however, Irene’s Byzantine army would consist of the entire armies of the Themes of Macedonia and Thrace which previously defected from Nikephoros to Irene, as well the armies of the Opsikion, Optimates or the Tagmata, and Thracesian Themes, though the armies of the 5 Themes campaigning in the Bulgarian heartland itself would do as Irene told them and not massacre the locals but instead burn the farms to cut the Bulgar army’s food supply.

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Carolingian Frankish knights, elite army of Charlemagne

However, Charlemagne’s Frankish forces from the west would arrive too by land in 811 led by both his sons Charles the Younger and Louis and they would be the ones carrying out the destruction of Pliska here as well as committing brutal atrocities there like massacring locals, similar to what they did before in fighting the Saxons in Northern Germany. In real history, Krum in 811 thought of concluding peace with Nikephoros I after Pliska was razed and his lands severely devastated by the Byzantines, but Nikephoros being intent on finishing the war and conquering Bulgaria did not agree to Krum’s terms as he knew he was close to winning, so instead he continued campaigning until Krum soon enough set a trap for him as Nikephoros’ army marched through the Varbitsa Pass in Bulgaria. Now in this story’s case, Krum after seeing his lands severely devastated by both the Byzantines and Franks would consider making peace with Irene and Charlemagne but Nikephoros who here would be on Krum’s side would persuade Krum to continue fighting as he still wants to finish off Irene for good, but here rather than setting the trap for the Byzantines at the Varbitsa Pass, the Bulgars and Nikephoros’ army would instead be the ones marching through it. Charlemagne meanwhile despite his failing health would still go to the campaign all the way in Bulgaria, except he would no longer lead his armies in person instead leaving the job to his sons while he would reunite with Irene back in Serdica which the Byzantines had just taken back and here, he and Irene would discuss their plan of how Bulgaria would be annexed to their empire. The sons of Charlemagne meanwhile would be the ones setting the trap for the Bulgars and Nikephoros at the pass using one side of it while the Byzantine forces of Aetios and Bardanes would ambush the Bulgars and their Byzantine allies from the other side.

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Carolingian knight, 9th century

The combined forces of the Byzantines and Franks here would number up to 70,000 with the majority being Byzantines and here at the mountains pass, the combined forces would easily overwhelm the forces of Nikephoros and Krum that their general Leo the Armenian would be killed here in the ambush, though Irene’s general Bardanes Tourkos in this story would get killed as well by the arrows and javelins of the Bulgars while leading a cavalry charge down the mountain pass. Like in real history, this battle would also take place on July 26 of 811, except here it would be in favor of the Byzantines and Franks as in real history, the Byzantines were caught by surprise and decimated in a single day and even Emperor Nikephoros I did not survive the battle, although his son and co-emperor Staurakios fled badly injured. In this story however, the Bulgars and Nikephoros’ forces would be outnumbered and surrounded by the Byzantines and Franks though both Krum and Nikephoros would try to escape the pass using the opposite ends but before getting out, they would both be stabbed to death by spears, Nikephoros by the Byzantines and Krum by the Franks. The remaining Bulgars and Byzantines of Nikephoros would then surrender and be sent to Charlemagne’s western half of the empire as slaves while both Krum and Nikephoros would be decapitated and their skulls later made into drinking cups. Now back in real history, after Nikephoros was killed in this battle at the age of 61, his severed head was given to Krum who made it into his drinking cup which here was a Bulgarian tradition that the defeated enemy ruler’s skull was to be made their khan’s drinking cup. Here however, Charlemagne had learned of this Bulgarian custom and chose to adopt it and since his troops killed Krum, Krum’s skull would be used as his drinking cup and since the Byzantines killed Nikephoros, his skull would be made into Irene’s drinking cup.

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Staurakios, Byzantine emperor in reality (r. 811), son of Nikephoros I

Back in real history, Nikephoros’ son Staurakios who was 33 here immediately succeeded his father as emperor and carried off to Adrianople which was the nearest city to the pass, although from the battle, his spinal cord was severely injured that it caused him to be paralyzed, therefore he could not properly rule as emperor that his advisors had to suggest that he had to abdicate which he finally did on October 2 of 811 passing the throne to his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe who was married to Nikephoros’ daughter Prokopia, while Staurakios would retire to a monastery dying in January of 812 from his injuries. On the other hand, Nikephoros’ son Staurakios in real history had been married to Irene’s cousin Theophano since 807 and with Staurakios injured in 811, he even suggested that Theophano succeed him as sole empress the way her cousin Irene ruled, but this plan failed at the end and Michael I succeeded him and with the Bulgars victorious, they were still left as a major threat by 812. Here in this story though, both Staurakios and Michael Rangabe would live a quiet life the whole time while Nikephoros was challenging Irene but following Nikephoros’ death here, Irene would uncover the locations of both Nikephoros’ son Staurakios and son-in-law Michael, hunt them down, and have them blinded and sent to the Princes’ Islands as well to prevent another power struggle, while at the same time she would also have Krum’s son Omurtag who in real history would succeed his father in 814 blinded too, and the entire Bulgarian Empire too would be annexed into Irene and Charlemagne’s empire. Now, the Battle of Pliska in 811 wherein Nikephoros I in real history was killed was a major disaster for the Byzantines that would again prolong their dark ages and because of this, the Byzantines would continue suffering defeats to the Bulgars for the next few years, and this too would with Nikephoros I’s death would be the first time an emperor would die in battle against a foreign enemy ever since the death of Valens (r. 364-378) in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 by the Goths. In this story however, the Byzantine-Frankish victory here would be the first major success of their united empire, therefore showing that the union of both empires was a successful one as it led to a major victory and the annexation of the entire Bulgarian state, which would fall under Irene’s eastern half.

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Pliska, capital of the Bulgarian Empire, attacked in 811
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Byzantine forces defeated by the Bulgars at the Battle of Pliska in 811, in real history
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Khan Krum uses Emperor Nikephoros I’s skull as his drinking cup, in real history

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantines’ defeat to the Bulgars at the Battle of Pliska, 811 (Kings and Generals).


Aftermath and Conclusion        

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In this story, after the first victory of the united forces of the Franks and Byzantines over the Bulgars in 811, the entire Bulgarian state in the Balkans would be annexed to the eastern half of the Frankish-Roman Empire under Irene, and thus wiped off the map, and with this victory too, the Byzantine treasury would be filled up with all the spoils of war, thus Irene’s empire would be far from being bankrupt like how it was before she married Charlemagne. Now one of the other main advantages of Charlemagne marrying Irene and uniting their empires together was in making Byzantium rich again as before Irene’s marriage to Charlemagne back in 802 in this story, the Byzantine state was almost bankrupt while Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire was much larger and richer, and now with both empires united, they would share each other’s incomes. On the other hand with both empires united, Charlemagne would agree to settle some people in his part of the empire including Franks, Saxons, Lombards, and Avars into the depopulated eastern half of Irene and learning the strategy that Byzantine emperors of the past used in resettling people in the empire, Charlemagne would do the same in scattering his people in different parts of the eastern half and let them assimilate with the local population there whether Greek, Bulgar, Slavic, Armenian, or Syriac as a way to prevent unity among a single race which would later cause them to rebel. The local people in the eastern half such as the Greeks in Greece and Asia Minor, the Armenians in the east, or Slavs and Bulgars in the newly annexed Balkans would at first disapprove of Germanic people being forced to live side-by-side with them that would in fact cause some conflicts between them, although in time these Germanic people settled in the eastern half would learn to assimilate, adopt Byzantine practices, learn Greek, even convert to Byzantine Orthodoxy, and intermarry with the locals. On the other hand, Charlemagne would also resettle the Byzantine locals in the eastern half into his western half also to balance the population there, but more importantly the Byzantine people Charlemagne would settle in his half especially in Aachen would be Byzantine scholars, scientists, and artists in order to further make Aachen as impressive of an imperial capital the way Constantinople was. Now back to the empire’s succession issue, like in real history Charlemagne’s eldest son Charles the Younger would die in December of 811 in Bavaria from a stroke at 39, here in this story after returning by land from the campaign in Bulgaria, therefore leaving the youngest son Louis as the only one left to succeed his father who here had returned back to Aachen later on in 811 though sometime before his son Charles died.

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Louis I, Frankish emperor (r. 813-840), son of Charlemagne

Louis in this story’s would have stayed behind in Constantinople with Irene as here he was now made his father’s co-emperor and assigned to the eastern half, and here in this story in early 812, Irene would have her younger and still single cousin Theophano marry Louis only to secure Louis’ claim on the eastern empire as Louis though had already been married before to Ermengarde of Hesbaye and already had 3 sons with her. In real history though, Ermengarde was still alive by 812 and would only die in 818, but in this story’s case just for the sake of conveniency, Ermengarde would have already died in 812 when Louis married Theophano, who in real history in 812 had already retired together with her late husband the 2-month emperor Staurakios. Irene then in this story’s case would not have much longer to live and later on in 812 she would die in Constantinople at the age of 60 from a heart attack but at least satisfied knowing that she was able to settle the complicated succession herself, and before she stopped breathing on her bed, Justinian I’s ghost would appear one more time telling her she had done her part in running the empire well and then Justinian’s ghost would vanish right when Irene stopped breathing. As a Byzantine ruler, Irene here would be buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople right next to her son Constantine VI and first husband Leo IV and both Louis and Theophano would oversee her funeral, although Charlemagne being too old to travel himself would not attend, instead he would order that the whole city of Aachen should mourn their co-ruler’s death too.

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Old Charlemagne, before his death in 814

Louis meanwhile in 813 would return to Aachen alone just to be fully recognized by his father as his co-emperor like in real history, and again like in real history Charlemagne would die on January of 814 in Aachen at 71 leaving Louis to inherit the entire unite empire, both east and west except for Northern Italy, which was still under his nephew Bernard as its king, who eventually would die in 818 like in real history. Now with Louis as the sole empire of a global empire from the North Sea to Asia Minor, he would not be able to completely rule it alone, so he would make his wife Theophano rule the east from Constantinople and him ruling the west from Aachen, thus Theophano would be the second female ruler of Byzantium after her cousin Irene, and here begins the rule of the Carolingian-Sarantapechos Dyansty over the Roman-Frankish Super-Empire. The Byzantine-Frankish conquests here would resume and under Louis, the western Frankish armies would succeed more in conquering more lands in Spain from the Arab Umayyad Emirate and more lands in the north as well taking over some of Denmark and in the northeast going as far as parts of Poland conquering it from the Slavs. In the east meanwhile, the combined armies of the Byzantines and Franks would soon enough recover all of Asia Minor and Armenia which was lost to the Arabs and at the same time, more of the Balkans would be annexed to the eastern half to give in more land access from the east to west, and as the end result, the united empire would be much larger except some lands within the empire would remain independent such as the Papal States where Rome was as it was agreed that the pope should retain his autonomy over these lands, while the small Republic of Venice in Northeast Italy would still be independent although a vassal and large naval partner of the united Frankish-Roman Empire, the way Brittany was and would always be.

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Bust of Charlemagne in Aachen, containing his relics

As for Louis, like in real history, here he would also be a devout Catholic Christian thus known as “Louis the Pious”, therefore never wanting to convert to Orthodoxy although he would respect it that the eastern half was to remain Orthodox as part of the agreement between Charlemagne and Irene, while he too would respect that his wife Theophano would remain Orthodox. Louis too like in real history here would be also paranoid and would purge his family members which were his father’s illegitimate children- his half-siblings- that he saw as a threat, although here like in real history, Louis already had 3 sons from his first wife which were Lothair, Pepin, and Louis II and in 815, Louis like in real history had already made his son Lothair govern Bavaria and Pepin govern Aquitaine, then in 817 like in real history too, Louis would proclaim his eldest son Lothair his co-emperor while at the same time making Pepin King of Aquitaine, and Louis II better known as “Louis the German” as King of Bavaria. In real history, the Frankish emperor Louis I’s wife Ermengarde had died in 818, therefore Louis married again to Judith of Bavaria in 819, although here this would not happen as he was already married to Theophano who was his co-ruler ruling the eastern half, and like in real history in 823 when Louis had a son with Judith named Charles, named after his grandfather, instead here Charles would also be born in 823 except in Constantinople being Louis’ son with Theophano who despite being already in her late 40s would still be able to give birth, and Charles here would be named as the heir to the eastern empire, thus continuing the Carolingian rule over Byzantium. Now in the 820s, the Byzantines in real history would experience major losses of territory to the Arabs, first being Crete which in 824 fell to exiled Arabs from the Umayyad Emirate of Spain and in 827, the new Arab Dynasty from North Africa known as the Aghlabids would begin their conquest of Byzantine Sicily. In this story however, with the Byzantines being a now stronger force with their Frankish allies combined would resist the Arab attacks in Crete and Sicily, and not only would their armies halt the Arab attacks there, they would also launch attacks into North Africa, thus the land where the old city of Carthage was (Tunisia), would be annexed to the empire’s western (Frankish) half too, and the Aghlabid state in North Africa would soon be wiped off the map as well and annexed to the Frankish half of the empire. In the east meanwhile, the Byzantine forces in the 830s and 840s would continue their campaigns against the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in the east and now no longer fighting on the defensive position like before, but instead on the offensive, though to be realistic, the Byzantines no matter how powerful they now are here with the combined forces of the Franks would not entirely destroy the Abbasid Caliphate, instead only the Levant (Syria and Palestine) would return to Byzantine hands, though with their losses the Abbasids would have to campaign elsewhere, therefore having to expand east into India and Central Asia instead of west into Byzantium.

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Lothair I, Frankish emperor (r. 817-855), son of Louis I

Now fast-forward to 840, and here Louis like in real history would die at around 62 in what would be in Germany in the western half of the empire and here his eldest son Lothair I succeeded him as the Frankish emperor, but in this story’s case with Byzantium as part of their empire with them, Charles II who was Louis’ son with Theophano would immediately succeed as the ruler of the eastern half with Lothair as the western half’s ruler as here like in real history, Louis’ middle son Pepin had already died in 838, though Louis II was still alive. In reality, Lothair I in 843 split the Frankish Empire with his 2 other surviving brothers Louis II and Charles II with the Treaty of Verdun thus splitting Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire into 3 leaving Lothair ruling the middle part known as Middle Frankia as its king based in Aachen, while Louis II had East Frankia which would be Germany, and Charles II left with West Frankia which would later be France. In 855, with Lothair’s death, the realm would further be split among his 3 sons with the Treaty of Prum thus creating the Kingdom of Lotharingia based in Aachen which would be under his son Lothair II while Lothair I’s other son Louis would inherit Italy as his kingdom, and Lothair I’s other son Charles would inherit Provence which would be his kingdom, thus Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire had been split into 5 parts as Lothair I’s other brothers Louis II ruling East Frankia and Charles II ruling West Frankia were still alive.

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Charles II the Bald, King of West Frankia (r. 843-877), son of Louis I; Eastern Roman emperor and son of Louis I and Theophano in this story

In this story however, in 843 Lothair I would only split his realm in half with him ruling West and Middle Frankia from Aachen and his brother Louis II ruling East Frankia as their younger half-brother Charles II had already become the eastern emperor in Constantinople. Now the rest of the story for the Frankish Empire gets confusing after 855, so instead this story would end before 855 with the united Frankish-Roman Empire under Lothair I, Louis II, and Charles II, and here let’s just say that the situation would not be that the Byzantine Empire entirely became absorbed to the Frankish Empire both politically and culturally, rather both cultures would eventually fuse with each other, though it would be quite too difficult to explain it all here, so instead this story will just end in a rather happy but confusing way. What would happen as well is that the Franks in the west would soon enough face the growing raids of the Vikings or Norsemen in the north who were in search of land to settle and farm in escaping their cold and inhospitable lands in Scandinavia therefore making raids into Europe whereas they would arrive and settle into what is now Russia forming what would be the Kievan Rus’ Empire in 862 which would later pose a threat to Byzantium. The big question here though is that will the united Frankish-Roman Empire survive in the next decades given the confusing situation of the succession system especially with the successors always having to divide their lands among each other, and this story will no longer go there so it is best that you as viewers should decide how this story will go in the next half of the 9th century.         

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Invasion of Byzantine Crete by the exiled Arabs from Spain, 824 in real history
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Invasion of Sicily by the Aghlabid Arabs of North Africa, 827 in real history
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Treaty of Verdun- division of Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire into 3 parts: East (green), Middle (purple), and West (orange) Frankia; 843 in real history
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Further division of the Frankish Empire into 5 parts with the Treaty of Prum, 855 in real history

Watch this to learn more about the dissolution of Charlemagne’s Empire (Kings and Generals).

Now in the Byzantine Empire in real history, following their defeat to the Bulgars in 811 and the abdication of Nikephoros I’s son Staurakios, Michael I Rangabe who was Nikephoros I’s son-in-law inherited the empire but had turned out to be a weak ruler especially when the empire was in great danger with Krum still on the offensive against them. Michael I though acknowledged Charlemagne as emperor, though only as the Greek “Basileus” and not as “Roman emperor” but Michael I’s biggest problem was the Bulgars which he saw that the only solution was to fight on the offensive against Krum which he did, although Michael I was hesitant about it. The Byzantine forces and the Bulgars eventually clashed at the Battle of Versinikia in 813 wherein the army of the Anatolic Theme under the same Leo the Armenian in this story having no loyalty in Michael I deserted leaving Krum to be victorious again.

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Emperor Michael I Rangabe, Byzantine emperor in real history (r. 811-813), art by Melissinos Arts

Michael I later in 813 decided to abdicate which everyone agreed to as no one saw him as a fit ruler anyway, therefore he passed the throne to the general Leo the Armenian and retired to become a monk in which he would live the rest of his life as all the way till his death in 844. Though Leo V the Armenian was the new emperor, Krum had already gone as far as the walls of Constantinople thus ravaging the Thracian countryside, and wanting to put an end to Krum’s terrorizing of Thrace, Leo V attempted to have Krum assassinated except Krum escaped it and out of revenge continued massacring the Byzantine people in Thrace. Leo V however struck back by invading Bulgar lands and carrying out massacres on the Bulgars, and just before Krum could launch another attack on Constantinople again, he suffered a stroke and died leaving the Bulgar state to his son Omurtag who then decided to end the conflict with the Byzantines as he feared Leo V would make an alliance with Charlemagne’s son Louis who just succeeded his father in 814.

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Emperor Leo V the Armenian, Byzantine emperor in real history (r. 813-820)

Leo V now as an Iconoclast had blamed all their defeats to the Bulgars on the restoration of icons by Irene, and so in 815 Leo V after firing the Iconodule patriarch Nikephoros I and appointing new Iconoclast scholars to be in charge of the Church, he once again resumed Iconoclasm also as a way to please his supporters who were the now old veteran soldiers still loyal to the late Constantine V. Leo V’s Iconoclast policies though were not as extreme as his predecessors Leo III and Constantine V as here Iconodules were no longer persecuted and monasteries were no longer raided for icons, instead the new order was that icons were only to not be displayed in public. Leo V had turned out to rule successfully except that in 820, he fell out with his friend and general Michael the Amorian who Leo though was having an affair with his wife, and so Leo punished Michael by imprisoning him in the furnace of the palace and tied to a large ape to see whether Michael would die from dehydration or be hacked to death by the ape, although the execution was delayed as it was Christmas giving Michael enough time to have his conspirators dress up as choir members who then stabbed Leo V to death at the Christmas Eve Mass in the Hagia Sophia leaving no heir to succeed him.

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Michael II the Amorian, Byzantine emperor in real history (r. 820-829)

The next day, Michael was dragged out of the furnace and immediately crowned with the chains still on his feet to prevent a succession crisis, and here begins the age of stability for the Byzantine Empire under the Amorian Dynasty under Michael II. However, Michael II too was an Iconoclast, though not an extreme one and since his first wife died, Michael II married the same Euphrosyne who was the daughter of Constantine VI and granddaughter of Irene, as a way to legitimize himself as emperor as Michael II only began out as a common soldier. Michael II in this reign although faced many difficulties such as the rebellion of the general Thomas the Slav which led to a civil war as Thomas proclaimed himself emperor even claiming to be Constantine VI though not knowing Constantine VI had been blinded by Irene and had died in 805, and this civil war would go on for 2 years (821-823) resulting in Thomas defeated and executed in 823. Though Michael II won the civil war, his army was weakened thus unable to stop the exiled Arabs from Spain from taking over Crete in 824 which then led to the creation of the Emirate of Crete as mentioned earlier, and in 827 the Aghlabid Arabs of North Africa began their conquest of Sicily. Michael II then died in 829 at least leaving Byzantium more stable than it was when Leo V came to power in 813, and here Michael II at least established a dynasty being succeeded by his son Theophilos, who too was an Iconoclast.

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Emperor Theophilos, Byzantine emperor in real history (r. 829-842), son of Michael II

Theophilos now as emperor spent his entire reign in war against the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in the east and again with the Bulgars in the north in which he had mixed results, though in his reign, the Byzantine army and empire itself was much more stable again. One of Theophilos’ great achievements was the creation of the Beacons System which was made up of several torches built across Asia Minor from the Taurus Mountains to Constantinople to send signals in case an Arab army was attacking, therefore a Theme’s army could easily come to reinforce the other Theme under attack. Theophilos suddenly died in 842 with his son Michael III (r. 842-867) who being only a year old when becoming emperor was under the regency of his mother Theodora, the wife of Theophilos who like Irene was also a major supporter of icons. Here history would repeat itself as just how Irene held a council in 787 to put an end to Iconoclasm when being the regent for her young son Constantine VI, Theodora here as the regent of her young son Michael III held a Church Council in Constantinople in 843 that finally put an end to Iconoclasm for good. Although Theodora did not depose Michael III the way Irene did to Constantine VI in 797, instead Michael III in 857 when grown up got rid of his mother’s regency and ruled alone, and although he was an irresponsible ruler, he at least had good administrators running the empire for him.

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End of Iconoclasm in Byzantium under Michael III and his mother Empress-Regent Theodora, 843

It was in Michael III’s reign, following the end of Iconoclasm wherein Byzantine art and culture would have a Renaissance as after all these years wherein art became plain and simple, here it was revived to more extravagant levels to make up for the years it was lost under the Iconoclasts. Here in Michael III’s reign as well would begin the conversion of the Slavs north of the Byzantines in Eastern Europe into Orthodox Christianity by two Byzantine missionaries St. Cyril (originally Constantine) and St. Methodius beginning 863, and in 864 the Bulgarian ruler Boris I, being an ally of the Byzantines would be baptized as a Christian, thus converting the Bulgarian Empire to Orthodox Christianity as well. Now in the second half of the 9th century, Europe would have 3 major empires which was the Frankish Empire, Bulgarian Empire, and Byzantine Empire which here had come out of the Dark Ages and steadily enter its second Golden Age.         

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Byzantines defeated by the Bulgars at the Battle of Versinikia from the Manases Chronicle, 813 in real history
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Assassination of Emperor Leo V, 820 in real history
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Rebellion of Thomas the Slav and civil war from the Madrid Skylitzes, 821-823 in real history
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Map of the Byzantine beacons built across Asia Minor by Theophilos
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Byzantine in the 2nd half of the 9th century (yellow)

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Versinikia, 813 (Kings and Generals).

Our story will now end here with the closing of the dystopian like Byzantine Dark Ages which had seen Byzantium be under constant attacks for 2 full centuries by the Arabs coming from the south and east and then from the Bulgars in the north, a pointless war against religious icons that was thought to save the empire but at the end only made things worse especially in their relations Western Europe, and of course the humiliation of their empire’s pride as at one point in the 6th century, they were the master of the Mediterranean and then came the 7th century when in an instant, the Byzantines lost more than half of their empire to the Arabs coming out of nowhere. At first, Byzantium in the 7th century beginning with the reign of Constans II (641-668) thought that they could still one day reverse their defeats and gain back their lands but then came 2 sieges of Constantinople by the Arabs, first from 674-678 and again from 717-718 and from here onwards things would change. From the 7th century onwards to the 9th, the Byzantines were then forced to fight on the defensive against the Arabs that by the 8th century it became the new world order for the Byzantine Empire that they existed to fight on the defensive even when winning victories. Now at the beginning of the 9th century where this story took place, the Byzantine Empire despite having been stabilized was weak economically and politically and having a woman as a ruler which was Irene was a big question for them especially since she was not even part of the dynasty but had only married into it. Now, I would see that Irene had considered Charlemagne for various reasons especially since he had a much a larger and younger empire which was much wealthier with a larger army than Irene’s Byzantium and this could be as I said in the introduction of this story the magic pill that could save the deteriorating Byzantine Empire. Now the marriage between Irene and Charlemagne could have benefited both empires a lot, though it would benefit Byzantium more as it could save it economically and in helping them reverse all their setbacks while for Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire, uniting with Byzantium would make them more cultured not only in art but in governing. However, the union between both empires had a lot of down sides as well, as for one it could ruin the proud identity of the Byzantines as Orthodox Christians as the empire of Charlemagne being Catholic and under the guidance of the pope would have to be the official religion of the empire as Charlemagne’s half was the more powerful one, thus this would not be received well by the proud Orthodox Byzantines, although since the religious icons had been restored under Irene, the relationship between Eastern and Western Churches would be much friendlier which is what I chose as the outcome of the marriage between Irene and Charlemagne in this story. Another down side with their marriage is that things will only become confusing especially in the governing system of the empire as this could mean that the western Frankish half would have to adopt the Theme System or that Irene’s half would have to adopt the Frankish governing system, and even more confusing would be the cultural impact on the people of the united halves as this union could either mean that the Byzantines would have to integrate into the Germanic culture and customs of the Franks or vice-versa, therefore I could not decide how this union would fully turn out, so I chose not go any further anymore beyond the mid 9th century. Now overall, I would say that the marriage between Charlemagne and Irene was not so much a magic pill that could turn all the setbacks for the Byzantines around, though in the short-term it could as the Byzantines were threatened by the Bulgars in the north and having a union with the massive Frankish Empire could definitely help the Byzantines crush the immediate threat of Krum’s Bulgarian Empire but in the long term, the union will not be very much that magic pill as for one obviously, the Byzantines and the Franks were from two different worlds as the Byzantines despite being the older and weaker empire was the more sophisticated and cultured one while the Franks were a new barbarian empire that had just learned to adapt to the sophisticated culture of the Greeks and Romans, therefore it would actually be hard to see them act as one empire except if they had a common enemy. Now for me, it was overall quite a difficult job in creating this story especially with the outcome of Irene and Charlemagne’s supposed marriage and writing about it, especially since the situation that would soon enough follow this crucial event was certainly something very confusing especially on how both halves of the united empire would be run especially given the confusing tradition of the Franks when it came to inheritance and diving their realm among their successors, and because of this I would see that this union would not really work out well and would not last a full century, therefore sometime after 855, the united empire would disintegrate leaving the east independent, though still under the rule of the Carolingians. On the other hand, I am also not very knowledgeable about the Franks and their history, society, and culture the way I am with Byzantium but when writing this, it also made be somewhat interested in the story of the Franks too. On the other hand, this what if scenario of Charlemagne and Irene marrying is a very popular one in Byzantine Alternate History and when writing this story, it was fun especially in the more insider situations and stories such as Irene and her personal life especially in her personality and how she dresses, as well as in portraying Charlemagne in a different light as rather than showing him here as the legendary “Father of Europe”, it was quite fun to show a more human side to him as a tired old man, and of course writing certain events like the grand imperial wedding and this fictional plot hatched in it of the exploding grenade. This story too despite being a bit too confusing was also something rather experimental in blending genres together as it included Byzantine politics and religious debates, the extravagance of the Byzantine court, medieval politics and wars, and family drama all mixed up with some comedy, romance, action, suspense, treachery, and a bit of a dystopian feeling. Another thing I enjoyed most in writing this story was putting more attention on Irene rather than the more famous Charlemagne as I would say Irene is overall an underrated historical figure who is somewhat fun to play around with when writing a fan fiction as she had a very complex personality, was beautiful with a perfect body, was courageous and decisive, ruthless but still caring, intelligent and sophisticated, though not very skilled in running an empire and securing loyalty, therefore she was far from perfect which makes her an even more interesting character to build a story on which I just did here, and I should definitely thank my friend Justinianus for building up Irene’s character more in this story and adding a bit of some entertaining twists such as the return of Justinian the Great from chapter III here as a ghost. Now as the centuries would go by, Charlemagne would be forever remembered as one of the greatest figures of medieval Europe that actually managed to unite almost all of Europe into one empire that ambitious and ruthless leaders later on like Napoleon Bonaparte in the 19th century and Adolf Hitler in the 20th century would follow the example of Charlemagne in putting Europe into one empire, but little did these future leaders know Charlemagne would have actually succeeded more in making a complete European superpower if he was to marry Irene and absorb the Byzantine Empire. Of course, this marriage never happened and the empires never united, but not so long after Charlemagne died in 814, his empire never really lasted as a unified one but rather an empire divided among his successors, but for this reason in the empire being divided, this would soon enough lead to the foundation of the medieval Kingdom of France and in 962 the actual Holy Roman Empire beginning with Otto I the first Holy Roman emperor, thus laying the foundations for Germany. As for Byzantium in reality, this marriage would later turn out to be something not so necessary as in the next half of the 9th century, after Iconoclasm would be finished off for good, the Byzantine Empire would get over its Dark Ages and enter a new age of a Renaissance in art, culture, and military power that the whole standard of living for the Byzantines of living in fear seeing the end of their empire was imminent would be no more, instead the Byzantines by the end of the 9th century would finally turn the tide of war against the Arabs to the offensive.

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Icon of Empress St. Irene of Athens

Now Irene would then have the legacy of being Byzantium’s first female ruler making that a possibility and more importantly for putting an end to the controversy of Iconoclasm which would indirectly lay the foundations for the empire’s new Golden Age, and for this reason no matter how flawed Irene was, she would become a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. Of course, the Byzantines despite coming out of its Dark Ages would still go through some hard times which includes their Cold War situation with the west still continuing but by the end of the 9th century, Byzantium would be one of the 3 most powerful empires in Europe next to the Carolingian Frankish Empire and Bulgarian Empire. The Byzantine Golden Age wherein all its setbacks and humiliations for the past 3 centuries would be reversed would be another chapter in the 1,100-year history of Byzantium and therefore a story for another time. The next chapter of this Byzantine Alternate History series will explore the rise and peak of the Byzantine Golden Age from the late 9th to early 10th centuries followed by the glorious 10th century of Byzantium under the powerful military and palace emperors of the Macedonian Dynasty all put in one story but with only one significant historical of this period eliminated to see how history would turn out to be, without this one person. Well, this is all for chapter VI of Byzantine Alternate History- the midpoint of this series and therefore a very special alternate history story in this series- this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!                    

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 8th century AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses. Also keep in mind that this story has some content that may be disturbing to some readers.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IV- 7th century

“Icon comes from the Greek word “eikon”, which means “images”, but in the Greek-speaking Roman world, before the advent of Christianity, eikon was usually used to describe portraits of humans.” -Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (2012)

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Welcome to the 5th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter IV of this series, I went over the turbulent 7th century which saw the end of the early era of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire or Late Roman era and the beginning of its Dark Ages together with the sudden expansion of an unexpected empire, the Arab Caliphates as well as the turbulent reign of the autocratic emperor Constans II (641-668). The 7th century was a major turning point for the Byzantines as here they had lost more than half of their imperial territories first to their long-time enemy, the Sassanid Persian Empire which the Byzantines managed to defeat but just shortly after it, the over exhausted Byzantines were to face the rise of an unexpected enemy from the south, the Arabs who would stop at nothing to conquer in the name of Islam, which for the Byzantines could have been their end. The Byzantine Empire still at least managed to survive the expansion of the Arabs but it had cost them a lot as a large portion of their imperial territories, most importantly the rich provinces of Egypt and Syria were forever lost to the Arabs while the Sassanid Empire on the other hand had completely fallen to the rule of the rising Arab Caliphate by the mid-7th century. It was in reign of Emperor Constans II when things began to totally change for the Byzantines, first in terms of territory that with a great loss of it, the Byzantines had to adapt to these changes to increase military presence in order to check the expansion of the Arabs, thus leading to a reconstruction of the empire’s administrative system to the creation of smaller military-controlled provinces known as Themes in Asia Minor (Turkey), which would be the empire’s new heartland. On the other hand, the 7th century had also seen the major shift of Byzantium in terms of language and culture from Latin to Greek, though despite this drastic shift from Latin to Greek, the Byzantine Empire still and would always remain the Roman Empire continued with its emperors still called “Emperor of the Romans”. In the previous story, I went with the possible what if scenario of Constans II actually relocated the Byzantine Empire’s capital to Syracuse in Sicily which he did in fact plan to do seeing that Constantinople was far too dangerous and also if he survived the assassination attempt on him in 668 and living long enough to permanently divide Byzantium in half so that it would be much easier to protect and preserve for much longer. The previous story’s main topic on Constans II moving the capital to the west and dividing the empire in 2 parts between his sons with one based in Constantinople and the other one in Syracuse could have actually benefited the empire a lot as having an emperor in the west could help restore Byzantine rule in Italy which by then had already been slipping away to the rising power of the Lombards but also having the capital there could ensure the Byzantine reconquest of Egypt and North Africa from the Arabs. 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, therefore Constans II did die in 668 assassinated in his bath and his plan to move the capital west to Sicily never came to happen and from 674 to 678, Constantinople would be put under siege by the Arabs with Constans not being around to come to the aid of his son, the new emperor Constantine IV, although the Byzantines happened to win this war in reality and weaken the Arabs. What will continue though from the previous chapter will be the new “dystopian” condition the Byzantine Empire is at from being a world power like it was in the 6th century to now having to fight on the defensive for its survival against the endless rapid expansion of the Arabs and its people now having to live in constant fear, which is why this dystopian-like period for Byzantium would be known as the “Byzantine Dark Ages” going on for over 2 centuries until the Byzantines turn the tide of war against the Arabs from the defensive to the offensive. This new “Byzantine Dystopian” style for this alternate history series had started in the previous chapter as the Byzantine Dark Ages had begun and will continue on to this chapter where things will go at first from bad to worse until things will slowly get better again and as the dystopian Byzantine world from the previous story will continue to this one- despite the alternate history outcome from last time not continuing here- a lot of the elements of the dystopian Byzantine world will return here including the political instability and usurpers, emperors with a dictatorial style of ruling, people resisting against the rule of the emperor to change society, an empire in a dangerous situation, constant war and economic crisis, the new dystopian-like Thematic System, and unimaginable new technology like the superweapon Greek Fire. This story will begin with a background on the real history of Byzantium in the late 7th century briefly covering the reigns of Constantine IV (668-685) and his son Justinian II (685-695), followed by a 22-year period of anarchy (695-717) which had seen a change of emperor 7 times and with all this instability, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate which had been weakened by the Byzantine victory of 678 would once again come back with a vengeance taking over Byzantine lands including Carthage ending Byzantine rule in North Africa once and for all. The year 717 then would be a very crucial moment as Byzantium which after 22 years of instability would face another siege on their capital, Constantinople by the Arabs but at the end, the Byzantines under their new emperor Leo III the Isaurian would win once more and slowly turn the tide of war against the Arabs. The siege of 717 would then be remembered as the “Battle for the Fate of Europe”- more than the Battle of Tours in 732- as if things went in favor of the Arabs, then the Byzantine Empire could have ended right at this moment, thus this would allow the Arabs to continue expanding deep into Europe, and now if not for the Byzantine victory here most of Europe would have fallen under Islamic rule and history as you know it would be totally different and it was here in this battle where the Byzantine Empire and more particularly Constantinople would best be remembered as the wall that had protected Europe from the advance of Islam, in which Byzantium will prove to do just that many more times. This story will not yet end here and will also not be the what if scenario if the Byzantines lost and the Arabs won and how Europe would be different because of this, no, instead it would continue further on into the reign of Leo III (717-741), the founder of the Isaurian Dynasty which shows an even more dystopian side to the history of the Byzantine Dark Ages mainly due to his anti-icon policies known as Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons (painted human images) that will shake and split the empire’ population and plant the seeds for its permanent split with the western world or the Great Schism. This event in Byzantine history is one of its oddest in their 1,100-year history as the Byzantines being Orthodox Christians would surely be known to highly value their religious icons, but true enough there was a time when icons were outlawed as the emperor Leo III saw it as sinful therefore blaming all the empire’s setbacks against the Arabs on the overly excessive use and veneration of them. Now when it comes to doing a kind of dystopian style story set in the Byzantine Empire, the 8th century is a perfect time as like in all dystopian stories where a kind of autocratic government in charge outlaws something creating massive unrest and resistance, here in Byzantium the same can be said when the imperial government had outlawed religious icons which therefore outraged half the empire’s population while the other half supported it. This time in Byzantine history thus shows that an issue that may seem so small which here is about the use of icons could cause so much tension not only among the people of the empire but in the unity of the entire Christian Church as well. A little-known fact too is that something as small the banning of the use of icons by Emperor Leo III was a total major turning point in medieval history which would start the permanent schism between the Church of the east (Orthodox) and Church of the west (Catholic) and for the Byzantines, this was another period of great unrest despite having come out of a previous one and once again another episode in the endless religious debates of Byzantine history. The 7th century then was a major turning point as the Byzantines would for the first time face the expansion of the Arabs now having to fight on the defensive, while the 8th century with Byzantium at its lowest point would be another major turning point as it is here mainly due to Iconoclasm when the permanent schism both politically and culturally between Byzantium and Western Europe would start growing becoming something like a centuries long “Cold War”. The period of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire would not only be during Leo III’s reign but would go on for over a century which totally deepened its divide with the Latin Catholic west, although this growing divide with the west could have been reversed if Iconoclasm could have ended earlier and it surely did almost happen shortly after Leo III’s death in the year 742 when the Armenian Artavasdos, a loyal general of Leo III who helped him come to power in 717 who was however secretly against the Iconoclast policy usurped the throne from Leo III’s son Constantine V for the sake of ending Iconoclasm and restoring the use of icons, although in real history, the rebellion of the usurping emperor Artavasdos failed while the even more extreme Iconoclast Constantine V succeeded and would rule the empire for 3 more decades. Now the big question this story will tackle in its climax is what if Artavasdos’ rebellion succeeded and if the use of icons would be restored earlier on, would this lessen the chances for the permanent schism between Byzantium and the west and preserve Church unity?    

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this story is set in the 8th 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 in this story’s setting, 717 (purple)
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Map of the expansion of the Islamic Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates (622-750)

For this article, I am working in collaboration with Mario Puyat (follow him on Instagram @mariopuyatrewreplays and on Twitter @mario_puyat), a friend of mine who in this case helped me put this story together, thus making this story the second one in this series to be done in collaboration with someone (the last one being chapter III). In my previous special edition article wherein I interviewed 5 of my friends by having them react to quotes said by Byzantine era people, Mario happened to be one of these 5 and now he is returning for this article to give his take on Byzantine history despite not being so completely familiar with it. To give a quick background on Mario, he is a 22-year-old film student who plans to direct films and write movie scripts while at the same time is also a pop culture enthusiast being a big fan of the Star Wars, Marvel, and DC universes as well as of young adult dystopian stories, in which story’s genre will somewhat be just that, except not so much a young adult type. On the other hand, when getting to know me, Mario had developed quite an interest in Byzantium as well and not to mention, he previously helped me in making my Lego Byzantine epics for my channel No Budget Films as a co-producer as well as being a voice actor for a number of Lego Byzantine characters in my films, most notably the leading character Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos from the 2020 Lego 13th century Byzantine epic War of the Sicilian Vespers. Though neither a historian nor a passionate Byzantine history enthusiast, Mario has a passion for writing stories, which is why I chose him to have a part in the creation of a chapter of this series, and this one here is the perfect one for someone like him to have a part in as this one as I would say is something not so entirely Byzantine in the sense of being stuck in the past, but rather something more relatable to modern readers and pop culture enthusiasts as it has quite a modern take on it being a dystopian style story with a bit of family drama and intimate romance despite being set in the 8th century Byzantine Empire. In this 12-part series, I on the other hand wanted to experiment as well by having someone who isn’t so entirely familiar with Byzantium’s take on Byzantine history as after all, I do want to make the rich and fascinating history of Byzantium more accessible to a wider variety of people and not only limited to scholars and historians, and part of this means experimenting with the history of Byzantium by making some kind of fan fiction out of it, which is exactly what I’m doing here. Though most of this story is basically me writing it, Mario’s part comes in when creating the personalities and actions of this story’s characters to fill in the blanks in where history does not record them such as these characters personalities and intentions, so therefore, despite these characters being real ones, they had to be embellished here for the sake of creating a full story. When creating this story, I also did some extensive research using more scholarly but fun sources online such as the Byzantine history Youtube channels Kings and Generals, Eastern Roman History, and Thersites the Historian, as well as no other than the highly comprehensive History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson.

Now when it comes to the dystopian genre of stories, many would immediately think of only modern ones most notable George Orwell’s 1984– which I was also a great fan of and made fan fictions of it too-or more recent novels like the Hunger Games and Divergent series, but as it turns out, the dystopian genre is not only limited to a modern or futuristic world setting, but can go as far back as to the medieval era Byzantine Empire, especially if you are able to look closely into its history and use all your creativity. When it comes to the entire 1,100-year history of Byzantium from the 4th to 15th centuries, it is the 8th century’s story in which this article will be set in that I am least fascinated due to the fact that it had more internal than external struggles and not so much was documented about this period which therefore is why it is also called the “Byzantine Dark Ages”, but when looking deeper into the story of this era, especially with the lack of information, it is the perfect time in Byzantine history to create a highly experimental fan fiction, which is basically this story with Byzantium under the Isaurian Dynasty. Of course, to set the stage for this story, the same thing will go as the previous stories of this series with a historical background to it which will discuss the events that led to the dystopian setting of Leo III’s Byzantium beginning where the previous chapter left off as we leave the early Byzantine era and enter the middle part, then giving a background to the leading characters such as the madman emperor Justinian II and afterwards Leo III the Isaurian who originally was Konon, a Syrian shepherd of Isaurian origins with an Eastern influenced mind together with the Armenian Artavasdos as well who helped him come to power, then we proceed to the beginning of Leo III’s reign with the epic battle of the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople where the Byzantines again come out victorious. The dystopian genre of the story then comes in at the part on Leo III’s reign (717-741) especially when the ban on icons is imposed and how the people of empire would react to it.

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Coin of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741), author of Byzantine Iconoclasm

Basically, a dystopian story features the world under the rule of a totalitarian government which envisions a bright future but really everything in society just goes wrong and the 8th century Byzantine Empire of Leo III is no exception to this kind of setting. As usual in dystopian stories where some kind of freedom to do something is banned by the government, here in this case it would be exactly the same case as in real history where the use of religious icons were banned, therefore icons were confiscated from everyone who owned them and either destroyed or burned, and again like most dystopian stories which feature a kind of dictator that runs the totalitarian government just like Big Brother in 1984, for this story, the totalitarian state supreme leader character would be Emperor Leo III, the author of the Iconoclast movement and after his death in 741, his son the even more Iconoclast extremist or simply the “Icon of Iconoclasm” Constantine V, wherein the climax of the story comes in. Most dystopian epic stories too feature a protagonist who is destined to rise up and overthrow the system, and for this story, it will be the historical figure the Armenian-Byzantine general Artavasdos who in reality from 742 to 743 usurped the throne from Constantine V in the name of restoring the use of religious icons. This story then will have the very much unknown Byzantine emperor Artavasdos as the lead character who was in fact the person that helped Leo III come to power and later as Leo III’s right-hand-man was married to Leo III’s daughter Anna which is surely what also gave him a claim to the throne in 742. Now many, even those who are very familiar with Byzantium may not really know much about this usurper Artavasdos or if they do, they would just remember him as an unsuccessful usurper who never had anything important to do with real history, but when getting to know him and his plans more, you would definitely find out that he could have in fact played a crucial role in Byzantine history by reversing the repressive movement of Iconoclasm before it would grow even stronger if he was able to survive and not be defeated and blinded by Constantine V in 743. As the lead character of this story, the 55-year-old Artavasdos in 742 would be a reluctant hero who is secretly against Leo III’s Iconoclast policy but is afraid to show it as he was also loyal to his father-in-law Leo III who he helped come to power in 717 but following Leo III’s death, he would have to rise up for the good of Byzantium or at least for those who value icons and their beliefs, also because he had some personal reasons to rebel which was mainly his envy and hatred for Leo III’s son Constantine V who he felt betrayed by as Artavasdos before Constantine V’s birth was promised the throne by Leo III. For this story too, there will however be no fictional character made up for it, instead with the help of Mario, I will somewhat fictionalize these historical characters in terms of personality as history true enough does not describe what these characters’ personalities were like. The 3 leading characters who’s personalities will be created in a fictionalized way for this story will include the general and soon-to-be emperor Artavasdos who in Mario’s take in creating the story would be the emperor’s loyal general but is deeply troubled by the emperor (Leo III) having a son; Constantine V who is Leo III’s son and heir being something like a smart but somewhat odd and insane, immature, arrogant, decadent, and bloodthirsty young ruler with an addiction to pleasure who believes he is always right and is a blind believer of everything his father says most especially Iconoclasm making him someone to hate more than to like; and Leo III’s daughter Anna who is Constantine V’s older sister and Artavasdos’ wife who here for this story would be an intellectual and artistic woman who behind her father and brother’s back is the leader of the resistance against Iconoclasm who in personality is nice and calm but becomes cruel and ambitious in order to protect the interests of her family as she is also abused by her brother who had envied her too. On the other hand, the much better-known emperor Leo III or Konon too will play a major role here in the story’s first two-thirds and although contemporary historians who wrote about him, most notably Theophanes the Confessor (758-817) who strongly opposed Iconoclasm portrays him as a total villain, here in this story, Leo III’s portrayal would be more unbiased as both the talented and cunning savior emperor saving Byzantium from its ultimate extinction at the hands of the Arabs and restoring stability following the 22-year period of Anarchy despite being of low birth but also would later on be a villainous ruler for his declaration of the banning of icons plainly for superstitious reasons which resulted in thousands of valuable icons destroyed and the human rights of those who venerate and create them violated whereas some even died for the sake of freely venerating icons. The big twist here will be on Artavasdos who for the most part would be Leo III’s right-hand-man strongly enforcing Iconoclasm in the empire with Leo III still alive, though after the death of Leo, he has a big shift in character when betraying Constantine V in 742, suddenly becoming a strong fighter against imperial Iconoclasm and a symbol for those who believed in the icons, even if his main reason to usurp power was his personal hate towards Constantine V. This story too will focus more deeply on the issues in the Byzantine Empire’s Dark Ages in the 8th century showing how Byzantium is no longer like it was in the Golden Age of Justinian I in the 6th century (as seen in chapter III), most especially with the empire at its lowest point of power and the internal war against icons tearing the empire apart whereas Iconoclasm would be popular with many most especially soldiers and those from the eastern provinces while many most especially those in the western provinces and women strongly opposed it. Therefore, this story will not focus too much on the external wars of Byzantium which they also did at this time not only against the Arabs but a new enemy being the Bulgars in the north; instead, it would be something more on the society of Byzantium and of course the constant burden of religious debates that Byzantium became famous for. Also keep in mind that this story will have a lot of mature content such as blood and gore, disturbing moments, language, substance, and a lot more.

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Guide to the Thematic System of the Byzantine army (from Wikipedia); this article contains a lot of terms of Byzantine army units
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A Renaissance era depiction of Byzantine Iconoclasm (breaking of religious icons)

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

Byzantine History for Everyday People- Reactions to Quotes from Byzantium

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

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 Byzantine emperors (695-1453)

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Related Videos to this era:

The 22-Year-Anarchy (Eastern Roman History)

The Arab Siege of Constantinople, 717-718 (Kings and Generals)


The Leading Characters:

Leo III the Isaurian (aka. Konon)- Byzantine emperor (717-741)

Artavasdos- Leo III’s imperial partner and Byzantine general, Strategos of the Armeniac Theme

Anna- wife of Artavasdos, daughter of Leo III, leader of the resistance against Iconoclasm

Constantine V Kopronymos- son and successor of Leo III

Anastasios- Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople

Niketas- Byzantine general, son of Artavasdos and Anna

Nikephoros- son of Artavasdos and Anna

Tzitzak- Khazar wife of Constantine V

Maria- Byzantine empress, wife of Leo III, mother of Anna and Constantine V

Eutychius- The last Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna

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

Funko pop versions of the 3 leading characters of the story created by Powee Celdran- Artavasdos, Anna, and Constantine V:


The Background (The Themes, Justinian II and the 22-Year Anarchy, 695-717)         

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Since the late 630s, the Byzantine Empire had lost a great amount of territory, most notably the rich provinces of the Levant (Syria and Palestine) to the sudden expansion of a new enemy, the Arab Rashidun Caliphate or Islamic Empire from the deserts of Arabia in the south. The Byzantines never expected the people from the deserts of Arabia to be such a threat until the unexpected happened for Byzantium when the people of Arabia all united under the new faith of Islam and their unity combined with their ability to travel across deserts with such speed turned the Arabs from scattered tribes in the desert to a world power in an instant. In only about 20 years since the birth of Islam, the Arabs had now controlled much of the Middle East as well as Egypt which they had conquered from the Byzantine Empire and by 651, the Arabs had completely conquered all of Persia destroying the Byzantine Empire’s traditional mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire, thus the Arab Caliphate replaced the Sassanids as Byzantium’s eastern mortal enemy.

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Flag of the Rashidun Caliphate, the 1st Islamic Empire

Meanwhile, as the Byzantines lost most of its eastern provinces mainly Egypt and Syria, Asia Minor became its new heartland while the Taurus Mountains in Eastern Asia Minor would be its natural barrier against the expansion of the Arabs, although the Arabs were creative that when knowing they were unable to cross the Taurus Mountains into the Byzantine heartland, they soon enough began constructing their own navy after taking the ports of Syria and from there, they would begin attacking Byzantium by sea. By the 7th century, Byzantine territory had drastically shrunk not only because of the expansion of the Arabs but with the loss of almost the entire Balkans (Southeast Europe) to a number of external enemies mainly the Slavs and this was a devastating loss as the Balkans played a major role as the recruitment center for soldiers in the Byzantine army. In the mid-7th century, the Byzantines still at least had control of half of Italy as the other half fell to a new enemy being the Lombards and some of North Africa as the rest fell to the Arabs, though these remote parts of the empire were not under the direct rule of the emperor but of a semi-autonomous governor known as the Exarch who answered directly to the emperor and there were two of them controlling their own Exarchates, the two being the Exarchate of Ravenna that controlled Byzantine Italy from Ravenna and the Exarchate of Africa that controlled North Africa from Carthage. Now with the Byzantine Empire so heavily reduced in size and population and the heartland now being Asia Minor, the emperor Constans II (r. 641-668) saw the need to reorganize the empire’s administrative and military structure more particularly in Asia Minor, thus leading to the creation of the Thematic System or Themes between 659 and 661 which were smaller military-controlled districts named after their respective armies that controlled them.

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Emperor Constans II of Byzantium (r. 641-668), Illustration by Powee Celdran

Basically, in these new shrunken provinces or Themes, each of them had a mobile army assigned to it while recruitment too was done locally per Theme to increase the number of soldiers, while all young men too living in these districts were encouraged to join the army in exchange for land given to them, to also ensure their full loyalty to the empire. Each of these Themes were under a general called a Strategos who was both the top commander of the Theme’s army and the provincial governor and each of the Themes was to provide both soldiers and resources for the empire. The main purpose though for the Themes was more in terms of military matters as when the eastern border would be under attack, the army stationed in that Theme near there would immediately come to the rescue while on the other hand when another part of the empire would be under attack, the emperor could simply have another Theme’s army come over to that part, which therefore was a smarter defence method rather than how things were before when an entire army had to march from one end of the empire to the other when a war broke out. The first 5 Themes created under Constans II were all in Asia Minor and these were the Anatolic (Anatolikon) Theme found in Central Asia Minor, the Armeniac (Armeniakon) which was the largest one found in Eastern Asia Minor next to the border of the Arab world, the Thracesian (Thrakesion) Theme in the western coast of Asia Minor, the Opsikion Theme in Northwest Asia Minor right across the sea from Constantinople which consisted of the most elite army of the empire though as you will see would be the troublemakers, and lastly was the Karabasian (Kibyrrhaioton) Theme in the southern coast of Asia Minor which was basically the one controlled by the navy. While the Themes were being created, the Arab Caliphate entered its first civil war or the First Fitnah (656-661) which gave the Byzantines time to recover but at the end in 661, the Arab Rashidun Caliphate was destroyed and replaced by the new Umayyad Caliphate under Caliph Muawiyah I who made the Caliphate based in Damascus in Syria a more organized state and as the first Umayyad caliph or emperor, he was fully intent in taking over Constantinople. Knowing the Constantinople was too dangerous in location, Constans II in 662 left it for good later finding himself in Sicily wanting to make Syracuse his new capital which was also part of his plan in launching the Byzantine reconquest of Egypt and restore Byzantine imperial presence in the west but in 668, he was assassinated in his bath, thus his plan to both relocate the capital west and take back Egypt failed.           

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II
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Cavalry of the Arab Rashidun Caliphate, 7th century
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Map of the first original 5 Themes of Asia Minor created under Constans II
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Damascus, capital of the Umayyad Caliphate beginning 661

Following the death of Constans II in 668, Caliph Muawiyah I using his fleet took over some of the Byzantine ports of Asia Minor launching the first Arab Siege of Constantinople in 674, although this was not really a major attack but a series of intermittent skirmishes on Constantinople by the Arab army and fleet and up until 677, the siege was not coming into any results until the young emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-681), the son of Constans II counter-attacked the Arab fleet head-on using the secret superweapon Greek Fire for the first time totally obliterating the Arab fleet and army.

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Emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-685), son and successor of Constans II

In 678, the Arabs fled Constantinople and the Byzantines, thanks to Greek Fire emerged victorious while Muawiyah later signed a truce with the Byzantines agreeing to pay them annual tribute and return to them the islands and ports they previously captured from them. Following the death of Caliph Muawiyah in 680, the Arab world again fell into civil war which here was the Second Fitnah going on for the next 12 years, thus giving Byzantium some relief and time to recover after all the damage the Arabs had inflicted on them. Meanwhile, despite Byzantium for now saved from the threat of the Arabs, another new enemy would come for them from the north which was that of the Nomadic Bulgars from the Steppes near the Volga River in today’s Russia as when losing a war with Nomadic Khazar people of the area, the Bulgars were forced to migrate south to lands they could settle in, and the only available land was Byzantine Thrace (Southeast Europe). Leading the migration of the Bulgar hordes into the Balkans in 680 was their ruler or Khan Asparukh and with the eastern borders of Byzantium secured, considering the Arabs were again in conflict with each other, Emperor Constantine IV summoned the armies of all the 5 Themes to confront the Bulgars in battle at the empire’s northern border, the Danube Delta, where the Bulgar army led by Asparukh had already assembled at.

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Asparukh, Khan of the Bulgars (r. 681-700)

After assembling the Byzantine army at the Danube Delta, Constantine IV had to rush back to Constantinople after falling ill, although he also had more important matters to attend to, which here was the 6th Church Council wherein at the end, he succeeded at declaring the religious controversy of Monothelitism which his father stood for a heresy and reaffirming the Orthodox belief in the natures of Christ. Meanwhile, with the emperor not present in battle, the Byzantine army panicked and were thus defeated by the Bulgars here at the Battle of Ongal in 680, and as a result Constantine IV in 681 had to cede Northern Thrace to Asparukh acknowledging the birth of the Bulgarian state there or Bulgaria, which true enough is today’s Bulgaria. From here on, the Bulgarian state was born and there to stay which would later be both a valuable ally and brutal enemy to the Byzantines in different times as you will later see, and Constantine IV despite losing Northern Thrace to the Bulgars still remained popular as he solved a difficult religious controversy and successfully defended Constantinople from the Arabs earlier on, while at this time he would also create the new Theme of Thrace to further protect Constantinople from the nearby Bulgars. In 685, Constantine IV died at only 33 from dysentery later becoming a saint, and was here succeeded by his 16-year-old son Justinian II (born 669) who as the new emperor was very ambitious wanting to live up to the emperor he was named after, Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), Byzantium’s most influential ruler and also a saint, although Justinian II did not have which Justinian I had being the vast amount of wealth to carry out such ambitious conquests and building projects considering that the Byzantium of Justinian II was weakened and exhausted compared to the powerful Byzantium Justinian I inherited back in 527.

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Emperor Justinian II in his 1st reign (685-695), son of Constantine IV

It also happened here in 685 over in Byzantine Syria at the town of Germanikeia (today’s Kahramanmaras, Turkey) where a boy named Konon who would later be emperor was born to a simple family of Syrian and Isaurian origins as an only child and from a young age, Konon would develop the ability to speak the Arabic language together with his native Greek as his name suggests, but at the same time he could understand the culture and mind of the Arabs due to the fact that living close to the border of the Arab Caliphate, he was exposed to Arab people who came to his town to trade and from them, he learned everything about their culture. The one thing about the beliefs of the Arabs that intrigued Konon most was how they disapproved worshiping God through icons or the form of a human image as it was strictly forbidden for the Arabs as Muslims to worship God that way considering it as idolatry and as a Christian, Konon thought this was true enough the right way to worship God. Another factor that had influenced Konon’s stance against icons too which will be shown in his time as emperor later on was that coming from the east, most people there were Monophysite Christians, those who believed Jesus Christ was fully divine and not human, therefore as God it was not right to have an image of him unlike the Orthodox Christians of the western parts like Constantinople who worshiped Christ as God with images. On the other hand in the Armeniac Theme in 687, the person who will later help Konon come to power, Artavasdos was born, although history does not record his date and place of birth and family background except that he was a Byzantine-Armenian known as Artavazd in Armenian with “Artavasdos” as his name’s Greek translation, so for this story it will just be made up that he was born in the Armeniac Theme (Northeast Asia Minor) considering he was an Armenian and would be 2 years younger than Konon, and for this story is someone from a prominent military family.

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Greek Fire used against an Arab ship at the 674-678 Siege of Constantinople
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The coming of the Bulgars, Khan Asparukh and his Bulgar hordes arrive in Byzantine Thrace, 680

Meanwhile, back to Justinian II, he came to power with a great amount of luck as he was from the 5th generation of the unbroken Heraclian Dynasty founded by his great-great-grandfather Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), showing here for the first time in Byzantine history and in fact in all of Roman history that a dynasty ruled on for 5 generations in one straight hereditary line from father to son, but little did Justinian know he would be the last of his dynasty. The young emperor was deeply ambitious and a religious fanatic as well believing that it was his destiny to defeat the Arabs once and for all in the name of Christianity and considering the Arabs were still in conflict with each other, Justinian II’s armies successfully attacked the Arabs in Armenia and Syria thus retaking some lands the Byzantines lost and with the defeats, the new Umayyad caliph here Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) in 688agreed to pay tribute to Byzantium.

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Caliph Abd al-Malik of the Umayyad Caliphate (r. 685-705)

Afterwards, Justinian II focused his attention on the Balkans to deal with the Slavs and take back the lands Byzantium lost to them wherein Justinian himself personally led his men in battle and at the end, he managed to succeed in defeating the Slavs while the Slavs that survived were forced to relocate to Asia Minor to repopulate it and provide more troops as the previous wars against the Arabs there killed many. Justinian II would also put the Themes his grandfather Constans II created into full effect and this meant resettling people from across the empire into them in order to balance each Theme’s population but another reason of him doing this was to limit people of the same race (e.g., Slavs) for them to not rebel and in this process, as the Slavs being seen as a rebellious people by Justinian II were moved to Asia Minor and the Mardaites who were mostly Monosphysite Christians living in Southern and Eastern Asia Minor were relocated by Justinian II to the Balkans and this would be when Konon and his family were relocated from Byzantine Syria to Thrace, though it is not clear when this happened, but for this story’s case it would be in 695 before Justinian II was deposed. Now before Justinian II was deposed, as a fanatically religious ruler, he was the first emperor to put the image of Christ in the coins used around the empire and part of his imperial policy was to crack down on the last remnants of Pagan practices, meaning banning playing games such as Dice and Tabula in public as he saw it as Pagan in origins, thus this started making him extremely unpopular.

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Coin of Emperor Justinian II (left) with the image of Christ on the obverse (left)

Justinian II too was not only unpopular for being puritanical in his policies but strongly unpopular with the rich as he increased taxes on them as well as having rich tax evaders imprisoned and tortured and instead, he favored small landowners and farmers. In 692, the Second Fitnah had ended with Caliph Abd al-Malik victorious and the Umayyad Dynasty still ruling the Caliphate, though the caliph was extremely outraged seeing Byzantine coins with Christ’s image on them as again the Arabs being Muslims strongly opposed the idea of seeing God as a human so in retaliation against Justinian II, Abd al-Malik had Islamic art put on the papyrus scrolls the Byzantines imported from Arab Egypt and due to this, the enraged Justinian II declared war on the Arabs, also because the Arabs tried to imitate Byzantine art such as having mosaics in their capital, Damascus. The peace between the Umayyad Caliphate and the Byzantines then ended right here in 692 when both forces confronted each other at the Battle of Sebastopolis in Southern Asia Minor where the Slavic warriors Justinian had resettled to Asia Minor for the first time fought in the Byzantine army but at the middle of the battle, the 20,000 Slavs for unclear reasons- although most possibly because they were never loyal to Byzantium and were forced to fight for them- defected to the Arabs and at the end, the Byzantines suffered a heavy defeat. As a result of this defeat, Justinian II had the one responsible for it, the young leading Isaurian general Leontios the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme imprisoned and it was also here when Justinian II would show how much of a madman he was when he had the families of the defected Slavic warriors in the Opsikion Theme massacred leaving no one alive, according to the historian Theophanes the Confessor (758-817), who although portrays Justinian II as a madman, which is true for this story. Justinian II would later on become even more unpopular for his autocratic style of ruling which he inherited from both his father Constantine IV and grandfather Constans II shown when he summoned a Church Council in 692 also known as the Quinisext Council in which out of his own orders demanded that all Churches including the west which was basically the Church of Rome under the pope to use eastern practices in their liturgy like the use of the Greek language, and this surely offended the pope making this one of the first steps that began the split of the Eastern and Western Churches.

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Justinian II’s Quinisext Council, 692

Another thing that would make Justinian II be labelled as a madman was how he used the taxes he brutally extracted from rich taxpayers to expand the Imperial Palace complex in Constantinople by expanding the garden and constructing a new dining hall as a way to imitate Justinian I’s ambitious construction projects, but in the process of this as Justinian II built a new fountain in the palace, a church had to be destroyed, which also turned the Church against him. In 695, Justinian II released Leontios from prison after 3 years making him the Strategos of the newly created Theme of Hellas (Western Greece), but this here would be the downfall of Justinian II as when Leontios was assigned to Hellas, the population there mostly being rich landowners rose up under him naming him emperor against Justinian II. When arriving in Constantinople with the army of the Hellas Theme, Leontios was then backed by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the people of the Blue faction of the chariot races mostly consisting of the aristocracy wherein they all plotted to overthrow the emperor.

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Mutilation of Justinian II’s nose, 695

The plot was then successful and the ministers of Justinian II who were responsible for the brutal taxation of the aristocracy were executed while Justinian II himself was caught and brought to the newly proclaimed emperor Leontios but rather than executing Justinian II, Leontios had his nose cut off, which here was practice for deposing an emperor known as Rhinokopia, as having a single deformity such as missing a nose would make someone unfit for sitting on the imperial throne as the emperor for Byzantines had to be seen as someone physically perfect. The 26-year-old Justinian II whose nose was mutilated was then loaded into a ship and sent over to the remote Byzantine colony of Cherson, a cold and desolate place north of the Black Sea in what is now the Crimea in Ukraine which was dumping ground for political enemies and the reason now why Leontios did not just execute Justinian II was because Leontios was loyal to Justinian’s late father Constantine IV who appointed him as the Anatolic Theme’s Strategos back in 682, therefore he wanted to honor his late friend by sparing his son, though this was not yet the end for Justinian II.

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Arab forces at the Battle of Sebastopolis, 692
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Slavic warriors, resettled into Asia Minor by Justinian II, defected to the Arabs in 692
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Diagram of Byzantine Constantinople’s Imperial District featuring the Hagia Sophia, Imperial Palace Complex, Hippodrome, and Polo Field

Watch this to learn more about Justinian II’s first reign, 685-695 (Eastern Roman History).

In 695, the 35-year-old Isaurian Leontios was emperor being the first ruler of the 22-year anarchy period and to consolidate his rule as he was a usurper with no ties to the previous Heraclian Dynasty he overthrew by deposing Justinian II, he spared Justinian II’s family members such as his mother Anastasia the wife of the late Constantine IV, although Leontios despite being backed by the aristocracy and Blue faction was never that popular basically because he was a usurper with no legitimate claim to the throne, and an Isaurian in origins in which the Byzantines of Constantinople till this point still saw the Isaurians being the people of the mountains of Southern Asia Minor as still barbaric and primitive, even though Leontios was only Isaurian in blood and was not even born in the mountains of Isauria. As emperor, Leontios decided to avoid making offensive measures against the Arabs which Justinian II did and instead chose to only fight defensive measures against them though the caliph Abd Al-Malik saw this policy of Leontios as a sign of weakness using it to his advantage to launch a naval invasion on Byzantine Carthage in 697, the last piece of land Byzantium still held in North Africa. In response to the Arab invasion of Carthage, Leontios sent an army and the fleet of the Karabasian naval Theme under the command the general John the Patrician to retake Carthage which happened to be successful at first until the Arab reinforcement fleet arrived in 698 defeating the Byzantines, thus Carthage here completely fell to the Arabs ending the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa. The surviving Byzantines together with John retreated to Crete where John was killed when the surviving soldiers mutinied replacing him with Apsimar, a Droungarios or 3rd in command of the Thematic Army who was of Germanic descent as his name suggests; the soldiers too named him as Emperor Tiberius III fearing Leontios would punish them for losing. The army under Tiberius III marched to Constantinople blockading it while in the city another outbreak of the Plague of Justinian from the 6th century occurred and inside the city, the Green faction of the chariot races that never wanted Leontios in power anyway switched their support to Tiberius III opening the gates for him, thus Leontios was overthrown making Tiberius III the second ruler of this 22-year anarchy. Leontios then instead of being executed suffered the same fate as Justinian II who he overthrew 3 years earlier and as Leontios’ nose was mutilated, he was sent into monastery arrest in the capital. As the new emperor, Tiberius III was at least successful in resuming attacks against the Arabs in the east led by his brother Heraclius and in repopulating Cyprus as well with Arab prisoners of war, but the one thing he failed to see was the rising threat of the exiled Justinian II returning. The one thing Tiberius III’s reign would best be known for was the end of Byzantine control over Africa with the loss of Carthage which had been under the Byzantines ever since the conquest of the Vandal Kingdom there in 534 by Emperor Justinian I’s general Belisarius, and at the turn of the 8th century, Byzantine rule over Africa was permanently lost as Tiberius III believed that taking back Carthage and keeping it under Byzantine control was too risky considering it was too far. From 698 onwards, Carthage would be under the rule of the Arabs and from here, they would continue to expand westwards joining forces with the native Moorish (Berber) people who they converted to Islam and from here, they would expand more later crossing the Strait of Gibraltar over to Spain believing it was the easier despite longer way to successfully reach and take over Constantinople.

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Byzantine era Carthage, capital of the Exarchate of Africa, completely lost to the Arabs in 698
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7th century Arab cavalry advance across the deserts of North Africa

Meanwhile, for the past 9 years (695-704), the slit-nosed Justinian II remained in exile in the cold and desolate city of Cherson along the freezing north shore of the Black Sea and here, Justinian II- for this story’s case- was put under house arrest and only allowed to walk only within the city walls once a day though made friends with a local abbot who he told his plans to, which was that of taking back the throne and having revenge on those who wronged him.

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Byzantine ruins of Cherson in the Crimea, Ukraine; exile place Justinian II, 695-704

The local authorities in Cherson soon began to know about Justinian’s true intentions and therefore planned to have him sent back to Constantinople to be tried and executed so in 704, he escaped Cherson in the middle of the night fearing for his life and so he fled west across the strait to the mainland of Caucasian Russia which here was part of the land of the Khazars ruled by their khan Busir and when there, Justinian was received well by Busir who even married off his younger sister to Justinian and when married she was renamed Theodora after the famous wife of Justinian I, again as an act of Justinian II imitating the man he was named after. Both Justinian and Theodora then lived happily in an old Roman mansion given to them along the Black Sea’s northern coast as this was once a Greek and Roman colony, though Busir was soon enough given a bribe by Tiberius III to betray and kill Justinian who was discovered to have fled there. However, Justinian soon enough knew of the plot so instead, he killed the men sent to kill him by strangling them with his own hands and afterwards fled by southwest across the Black Sea to the new land of the Bulgars to seek their alliance leaving his wife behind. On the way to Bulgaria in 705, the ship Justinian was in got caught in a storm, though at least they all survived and arrived safely in Bulgaria, now ruled by Khan Tervel, son of Asparukh who had died back in 700. Justinian II here was able to gain the assistance of Tervel and his Bulgar army in exchange for Justinian paying tribute to him and together they marched south to Constantinople and along the way in Thrace, Justinian and Tervel encountered the 20-year-old Syrian shepherd Konon, who with his family had been relocated by Justinian II there 10 years earlier. Konon here was someone who was willing to use every opportunity to get himself in a position of power, and the right opportunity came for him here when meeting Justinian II who was on his way to take back the throne and here Konon thought of finding a way of getting into the imperial service as a soldier and spy by providing Justinian II and his army with sheep to eat.

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Arabic lamb dish, cooked by Konon for Justinian II

Justinian II here at his tent privately met the young Konon for dinner which Konon prepared himself- for this story’s case- and what was prepared was a lamb dish cooked in the Arabian style with lots of flavorful spices which was a dish from Konon’s native Syria with some influences from the Arabs that had passed there and here Justinian II was greatly impressed not only by Konon’s ability to cook such flavorful food but how he could speak Arabic so fluently and how much he knew the culture and way of thinking of the Arabs. Soon enough, Justinian II together with his Bulgar allies and Konon arrived outside the walls of Constantinople where they camped outside for 3 days as Justinian was denied entry as the people still despised him even after 10 years. After 3 days, Justinian with a few of his men were able to sneak into Constantinople in the middle of the night finding a way up the 4th century Aqueduct of Valens through the waterway and when inside, he climbed down through a building attached to the aqueduct.

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Aqueduct of Valens, Constantinople

The next day, the people were shocked to see the former emperor with his nose cut-off with Bulgar soldiers walking through the city’s streets while Tiberius III after just waking up fled across the Bosporus to the Asian side of Constantinople when hearing Justinian II returned. Now back in power, Justinian II honored his promise to Khan Tervel naming him a Caesar, which now was just an honorary title, while Tervel was the first foreign ruler to receive it, and as Tervel and his army returned to Bulgaria, Justinian II at 36 was crowned again being the 3rd ruler of the anarchy period, and now known as Justinian II Rhinotmetos or “the slit-nosed” in Greek, using a replica of his nose made of gold to cover the cavity where his real nose once was as a way to make it seem he was still in perfect shape.

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Emperor Justinian II in his 2nd reign (705-711) with his golden nose replica

In 706, Tiberius III over in the Asian side of the Bosporus was captured and brought to Justinian II who as usual had Tiberius’ nose cut off and together with the previously deposed Leontios who was dragged out of the monastery, they were both paraded in Constantinople’s streets with their cut-off noses exposed before both were brought to the emperor’s box at the Hippodrome where Justinian II when watching a chariot race used both Leontios and Tiberius III as his footstools with one former emperor’s neck stepped on by a foot Justinian II as a symbol of having conquered both of them, and afterwards both Leontios and Tiberius III were beheaded followed by a purge by Justinian II on all those loyal to both usurpers leading to the deaths of thousands including Tiberius’ brother Heraclius. Konon meanwhile was sent over by Justinian II east to negotiate with the rulers of the small kingdoms of Alania and Lazica over in the Caucasus and also to spy on the Arabs there as Justinian now knew Konon knew the behavior of the Arabs, although Justinian true enough betrayed Konon here stranding him across the Caucasus, however Konon soon managed to return to Byzantine territory by foot crossing the snowy mountains with just snowshoes. Konon would then disappear into the Anatolic Theme in Asia Minor for some time now, and in this story’s case he would marry a Greek woman named Maria like in real history, though for this story’s case she would be the daughter of the Theme’s Droungarios and by this point they would have their first child, a daughter named Anna whose real birthdate is unknown but, in this story, she would be born in 708.

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Emperor Justinian II Rhinotmetos, 2nd reign

As for Justinian II in his second reign, his full purpose of ruling the empire now would no longer be for growing it but to carry out revenge on all those who wronged and humiliated him before and this is when he would be known as the bloodthirsty madman emperor he is better known as since in his second reign, he put all his energy into purging all those who opposed him and helped overthrow him back in 695, and true enough not a day went by without anyone being arrested or executed, though also in 706 Justinian’s Khazar wife Theodora and their newborn son Tiberius arrived in Constantinople being sent there by the Khazar khan Busir who now gave up the plan of betraying Justinian. Just as he did in his first reign, Justinian II resumed his impulsive style of ruling in his second one that in 708 he launched a campaign against the Bulgars and their Slav allies to gain the lands he gave up to the Bulgars in exchange for returning him to power, thus betraying Tervel who helped take back the throne in 705, though Justinian II and his forces were defeated by the Bulgars forcing him to renew his peace agreement with Tervel. The defeat of the Byzantines to the Bulgars in 708 allowed the Arabs to continue raiding Asia Minor in which in 709 they managed to capture some cities in the Cilicia, the southern coast and go as far deep into Cappadocia too and because of the defeats the Byzantines had suffered, Justinian II in his usual act of vengeance had the commanders he saw responsible for it executed, despite them being capable leaders, thus the empire would lose some of its best military leaders. On the other in 709, Justinian II turned his attention to the remains of Byzantine Italy, particularly Ravenna which he found out was the place that opposed him the most and it was true enough the aristocrats of Ravenna including its bishop that played a major part in overthrowing him back in 695. Justinian II here though succeeded in sending an expedition to Ravenna to round up and arrest all those who conspired against him, afterwards all these people were brought over to Constantinople where Justinian had these aristocrats, true enough his life-long enemies executed right in front of him while the bishop’s eyes were gouged out. Meanwhile many people were already beginning to flee Constantinople in fear of getting killed by the emperor’s orders since soon enough everyone no matter guilty or innocent as long as seen as suspicious by the emperor were put to death or killed in the confusion and because of Justinian II’s tyrannical rule, the colony of Cherson where he was banished to earlier on rose up against him in 710 under the Armenian patrician general Bardanes or Vardan, who Justinian II had just sent there to be in charge of it, and now Bardanes was someone who really desired the throne that back in 695 when Leontios seized power, Bardanes who helped Leontios eyed the throne more than Leontios. As the uprising against Justinian II in Cherson grew even worse when Bardanes allied himself with the Khazars, Justinian II in 711 then sent an army to Cherson to deal with rebellion, but instead the army sent there defected to rebels later on sailing south to Constantinople finding out Justinian II was away as he headed over to the Armeniac Theme to again suppress another rebellion against him by the aristocracy there. With the emperor gone, Bardanes and his rebel forces were let into the city by the people who were tired of Justinian II anyway and Bardanes was proclaimed here as emperor renamed Philippikos while Justinian II never made it back as on December 11 of 711 Justinian II when heading back to Constantinople to counter-attack Philippikos was arrested and beheaded at age 42.

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Tiberius, son of Justinian II at his grandmother Anastasia’s arms is hunted down by the soldiers of Emperor Philippikos, 711

Shortly after, the soldiers of Philippikos hunted down Justinian’s 6-year-old son Tiberius in Constantinople who was hiding in a church with his grandmother, Justinian’s mother Anastasia and when caught, the young Tiberius was hacked to death by the soldiers, thus fully ending the bloodline of Heraclius and the Heraclian Dynasty. Anastasia though as a woman was spared but would never be heard from again, while Justinian’s wife Theodora in this story’s case would return back to her native land of the Khazars, and Justinian’s head was then sent to Rome and Ravenna to be paraded and displayed in public whereas everyone cheered as the evil emperor was dead and although he tried to live up to Justinian I whom he was named after, he was only Justinian II and not the “Second Justinian”. A legacy that Justinian II left behind however was the introduction of the Loros or a long golden embroidered scarf wrapped around the body as the new uniform for Byzantine emperors as previously this kind of outfit was only worn for consuls in the Byzantine senate, but with office of consul now abolished, this uniform became for the emperor’s use only beginning with Justinian II, and would be the uniform for Byzantine emperors till the very end. 

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Empire of the Khazars (purple), early 8th century
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Justinian II makes the Bulgar Khan Tervel a Caesar in Constantinople, 705
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The Loros, new Byzantine imperial uniform introduced by Justinian II

In 711 as well, the same year Justinian II’s rule was finally put to an end with his execution, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate now under its new caliph Al-Walid I was at its height of power as here in 711, the Arab armies from North Africa together with their subjugated local Moorish forces there had finally begun their conquest of Europe by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain easily defeating the weakened Visigoth Kingdom. Previously, the Christian Visigoth Kingdom of Spain that had been around there since the 5th century after taking over Spain from the Western Roman Empire by the late 7th and early 8th century fell into civil war thus further weakening it that when the Arabs finally crossed into Europe through Spain, the Visigoths stood no more chance and in only a few years after 711, the Visigoth Kingdom would meet its end, although remnants of Visigoth Spain would survive as the Christian Kingdom of Asturias in the north formed by the surviving Visigoths and this new kingdom would resist against the expansion of the Arabs before turning the tide of war against them beginning the Christian Reconquista a few centuries later.

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Flag of the Kingdom of Asturias, resistance kingdom of the Visigoths in Northern Spain

The Arabs though would still stop at nothing conquering everything in the name of Islam that in only about 10 years after arriving in Spain, they had already conquered almost the entire Iberian Peninsula including what is now Portugal leaving the Christians including the ever-independent Basque people to the remote corners of Northern Spain and this was not yet the end as the Arabs were also set to conquer the Frankish Kingdom, the predecessor of France up north. In the east meanwhile, the rule of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate had already reached as far as the Sindh region in today’s Pakistan which they had conquered back in 708, thus the rule of the Arabs spanned from the Atlantic Ocean all the way east to the Indus River. Back in Byzantium, the new emperor Philippikos as the 4th ruler of this anarchy period had turned out to not really be an effective ruler as the only thing he did good for his people was finishing off the madman Justinian II but as plainly a general, he had not much experience in politics and at the same time, he as an Armenian was also a believer of the Monothelite doctrine that was condemned as a heresy by Constantine IV back in 680 as the Monothelite faith was stronger with people in the eastern regions of the empire like Armenia. In 712, he renounced the ruling of the 680 Council of Constantinople attempting to restore the Monothelite doctrine of Christ having only one energy, thus Philippikos fired the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Cyrus replacing him with the Monothelite John VI, and here is when the foundations of Iconoclasm as an imperial practice was laid when the emperor had some religious icons in the capital that did not please him removed. For returning the heretical Monothelite doctrine, Philippikos soon enough became hated by his people and opposed by the pope in Rome and because of executing Justinian II, the Bulgar khan Tervel who still had some loyalty to the late emperor struck back and raided into Byzantine Thrace going as far as the Walls of Constantinople. To counter-attack the Bulgars, Philippikos sent the army of the Opsikion Theme right across the sea from Constantinople across the Bosporus to Thrace in order to push back the Bulgars which they were successful at, although when putting too much attention to fighting the Bulgars up north, the Arabs attacked Asia Minor by land again from the east. In 713, the Opsikion army rebelled in Thrace marching straight into Constantinople where the city’s garrison easily opened the gates for them as they and not even Philippikos’ bodyguards had turned out to have no loyalty towards him as he was again another usurper with no ties to the previous Heraclian Dynasty. The rebelling soldiers then caught Philippikos at the moment he was taking a nap in the imperial palace wherein they dragged him out to the Hippodrome where he was publicly blinded and after that sent to a monastery where he died some months later also in the same year as a result of his injuries from the blinding. With Philippikos deposed in 713, the Opsikion Theme army chose to proclaim Philippikos’ senior secretary Artemios as their new emperor who then was renamed as Emperor Anastasius II thinking he could be easy to manipulate but the Opsikion army here was wrong as true enough he did not want to be a puppet and so he executed the soldiers who plotted to overthrow Philippikos as a way of installing discipline. Anastasius II was then the 5th ruler of the anarchy period and it was in his reign in 713 when Artavasdos first comes into the picture whereas here he was 26 at this point and already a highly skilled soldier and for his skills, Anastasius II appointed Artavasdos as the Strategos or commanding general of the Armeniac Theme which he came from. In 714, the Arabs continuing their attacks penetrating as far as the Anatolic Theme in Asia Minor and soon enough they had blockaded the coastline of Asia Minor with their fleet and in response to the attacks of the Arabs, Anastasius II ordered that the land and sea walls of Constantinople be repaired fearing a possible siege of the city. At the same time, Anastasius II also ordered that the food supply of Constantinople be restocked to last at least 3 years, had the fleet rebuilt, and in 715 cancelled the Monothelite decree Philippikos had issued returning to Orthodoxy again by deposing the Monothelite patriarch John VI and replacing him with the Orthodox Germanus I. Konon then comes back again to the picture in 715 when Anastasius II appointed him to be the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme which he now settled in seeing that Konon possessed a lot of military skill and afterwards Konon was sent east to surprise attack the Arabs in Syria as here the caliph Al-Walid died as well which Anastasius saw as an opportunity to resume the attacks on the Arabs. Anastasius II too sent a fleet to come to the defense of Rhodes in case the Arabs would attack it but here the same Opsikion army troops that put Anastasius in power 2 years earlier felt betrayed by him thinking he sent them there to die and so they mutinied, gave up on the mission, and returned to the Opsikion Theme. The army though could not find the right person to name as their new emperor until finding an unlikely random tax collector of low birth who they elected as emperor although he was unwilling and fled to the woods to hide but was soon enough found hours later and had no choice but to be proclaimed as Emperor Theodosius III being the 6th and last ruler of the anarchy period. Constantinople was then put under siege for the next 6 months which later resulted in Theodosius III victorious and Anastasius II fleeing across the Bosporus to the city of Nicaea where he was later found in 716 and forced to abdicate and retire peacefully as a monk in Thessaloniki as Theodosius being a merciful and reluctant ruler wanted to avoid any form of bloodshed. The Umayyad Arab forces meanwhile under the command of their general Maslama, brother of the new caliph Suleiman which were still in Asia Minor in 716 laid siege to the Anatolic Theme’s capital Amorion where the Theme’s Strategos Konon with his wife Maria and daughter Anna were in after he just returned from his campaign in Syria.

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Prince Masalama, general of the Umayyad forces

Konon however knowing the Arab language convinced Maslama and his forces to leave by promising them he would be their ally if he would take the throne from Theodosius III as the fact that Theodosius was a weak and reluctant emperor gave Konon now the right opportunity to fulfill his dream of taking over the throne. In late 716, Konon had found common ground with the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos Artavasdos who also intended to overthrow Theodosius III and here in late 716, Konon proclaimed himself emperor when meeting up with Artavasdos on the way to Constantinople. Theodosius III meanwhile knowing the Arabs would soon besiege Constantinople renewed Byzantium’s alliance with the Bulgar khan Tervel though at the same time in early 717, Konon and Artavasdos when arriving in the city of Nicomedia very close to Constantinople captured Theodosius’ son also named Theodosius who was however spared and in so little time, the rebelling armies of the Armeniac and Anatolic Themes arrived in Constantinople ready to besiege it again. Theodosius III however did not want another fight and not wanting to be emperor anyway, he abdicated in favor of Konon and retired to become a monk while here on March 25 of 717, Konon was no longer Konon but now renamed as Emperor Leo III proclaiming an end to the 22-year anarchy. 

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The 6 emperors of the Byzantine 22-year-Anarchy (695-717)- Leontios (top-left, r. 695-698), Tiberius III (top-middle, r. 698-705), Justinian II Rhinotmetos (top-right, r. 705-711), Philippikos Bardanes (bottom-left, r. 711-713), Anastasius II (bottom-middle, r. 713-715), Theodosius III (bottom-right, r. 715-717), art by Powee Celdran, images recreated from their respective coins 
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Umayyad Caliphate forces arrive and conquer Visigoth Spain, 711
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Map of the Umayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent, 710s

The Siege of Constantinople, 717-718 “The Battle for the Fate of Europe”

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On March 25 of 717, Konon the simple Syrian shepherd boy with a cunning mind and deep knowledge of the Arab culture was now the emperor of the Byzantine Empire Leo III the Isaurian, except the empire he now came to rule was a shell of its former self as in 717, Byzantium only controlled slightly more than half of Asia Minor, only Eastern Thrace in the Balkans, less than half of Greece, and in Italy only Sicily, the southern regions, Rome, Ravenna, and the Istrian Peninsula (part of today’s Croatia), although at least all the Aegean Islands together with Sardinia and Corsica and the remote colony of Cherson north of the Black Sea were still Byzantine as the Lombards occupied most Italy and the Slavs occupying what was once the Byzantine Balkans, and the rest of course having already fallen to the Arabs. Here in 717, Konon now as Leo III was emperor at 32 with long curly dark brown hair, a short beard, and a short and stocky built while Artavasdos here hitting the age of 30 looked somewhat like Leo except much taller and thinner with long black hair and green eyes and at the same time too, Leo’s wife Maria and daughter Anna had arrived in Constantinople settling themselves in the imperial palace.

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

Leo not wanting to be another usurper that would easily be overthrown possibly 2 years later again as he had literally no ties to the previous Heraclian Dynasty or any dynasty before it here promised Atavasdos to marry off Anna despite being 21 years younger than Artavasdos which was a way to establish a new dynasty and in addition to this, Leo even promised that if ever he died Artavasdos as his son-in-law would immediately succeed him to the throne as Leo had no sons but just about a month later in this story’s case, Maria happened to be pregnant which gave some joy to Leo and a bit of a sense of uneasiness for Artavasdos especially if Maria were to give birth to a son. The moment Leo III came to power, he immediately broke his alliance with the Umayyad Caliphate as he never wanted to ally with them anyway only pretending to make an alliance to get them to leave so instead, he chose the same old Bulgar khan Tervel up north who he met back in 705 with Justinian II as his ally, renewing the alliance of Theodosius III. The Bulgars meanwhile still hated the Byzantines for various reasons but hated the Arabs even more and so for the sake of keeping the new Bulgarian state alive in order to not fall to Arabs knowing that the Arabs would stop at nothing to conquer, Tervel decided to ally with the Byzantines having the Umayyad Arabs as their common enemy, although Leo III did not meet Tervel yet personally instead only exchanging letters with each other.

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Tervel, Khan of the Bulgars (r. 700-721)

Over in Damascus, the new caliph Suleiman who had succeeded his brother Al-Walid in 715 soon enough got word that Leo betrayed his promise of allying with them when a letter from Leo reached him saying he had never wanted their help anyway and only for them to leave but this here totally enraged Suleiman making him send an army of 80,000 men from all parts of the Umayyad Caliphate from North Africa to Syria, from the Arabian Desert to Central Asia together with a fleet of 1,800 ships to directly attack Constantinople under the command of again his brother Maslama intending to finally carry out the ultimate dream of the Umayyads. In July of 717, Leo III together with Artavasdos in this story’s case had already completely fortified Constantinople’s land and sea walls stationing a sufficient number of troops and by August, the Arabs now crossing the Dardanelles strait into Thrace arriving in Europe built a temporary stone wall some kilometers away from the 5th century land walls of Constantinople to guard their Thracian camp and block all reinforcements coming for the Byzantines while the fleet later sailed directly into the Marmara Sea while Leo III from the rooftop of the imperial palace saw the Arab army and fleet miles away. Now to completely seal off the city’s harbor or Golden Horn from the attack of the Arab navy, Leo III had a large chain as long as 20m placed on opposite ends of the harbor’s entrances, one side being the main city and the other side being the Galata District. The situation now seemed hopeless for the Byzantines as the 22 years of anarchy, riots, and executions issued by Justinian II depopulated the capital and its army, therefore the walls which Anastasius II luckily repaired was the city’s only hope for survival and if not for that, Byzantium would soon enough already end. However, when all hope seemed to be lost, a young patrician eunuch working in the imperial court named Eutychius– in this story’s case- presented to Leo the empire’s state secret, the superweapon of Greek Fire in which here only 3 ships were equipped with it, and this moment, the procedure of operating the weapon was given to Leo III for his and the operating team of the navy’s eyes only.         

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The Byzantine Empire in 717 (purple)
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The chain at the Golden Horn, installed by Leo III
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The land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Land Walls), art by Powee Celdran

The “Battle for the Fate of Europe” then began when the Arab fleet attacked Constantinople from the sea while the army of 80,000 attacked by land completely surrounding the city to completely block it off from any reinforcements or food supply but luckily, the people of Constantinople had a food supply that could last for 3 years. The people inside the city were now all fearing the worst and so Leo III despite not wanting to lay his eyes on religious icons encouraged the people including soldiers to all rally under them to boost their morale as here too, with a lack of soldiers, civilians whether women or children including the elderly and monks were all encouraged to defend the walls. The first wave of attack came from the Arab fleet attacking south from the Marmara, but before arriving at the entrance to the city’s harbor, Leo III deployed the 3 large ships with Greek Fire in it right against the advancing Arab fleet which at the end totally burned down 20 of the Arab supply ships while its sailors either died burning or jumped into the water and drowned to death at the frightening sight of liquid fire emitted from a large brass gun- an ancient version of a flamethrower. Not a lot of the Arab ships though were destroyed but after seeing 20 of their ships burned by a kind of flame never seen before, the sailors decided to just give up, therefore the ships instead docked outside the Galata District unloading troops that laid siege to the walls.

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Umayyad forces at the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

The main army however was still over in Thrace while their general Maslama chose to stay there camped outside Constantinople the whole time believing they will win this way as back in previous Arab siege from 674 to 678, the Arabs using the strategy of launching minor attacks and retreating back to their bases in Asia Minor when winter came proved unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of a lot of men. As the months passed and autumn came, the Arabs happened to run low in their food supply as there were too many of them sent on this expedition while Maslama did not expect it to last this long, therefore a group of the Arab army formed a foraging party that pillaged the countryside of Thrace to find food whether grain from the farms or mushrooms from the woodland areas. At this point when a foraging party of 4,000 Arabs searched the countryside of Thrace for food, the Bulgar cavalry army of Tervel finally came to the aid of the Byzantines and here they ambushed and completely wiped out the foraging Arabs, afterwards returning back north for the meantime. Leo III on the hand came up with the strategy of delaying the siege for the attacking Arabs since he knew winter would come soon and knowing the Arabs well, he knew that winter was their ultimate weakness as they came from the southern deserts where snow did not exist and true enough when the winter of 717-718 came, it was an exceptionally harsh one even for the Byzantines. The winter then happened to go on for 3 months with the snow covering the ground the entire time disabling the Arabs to continue attacking Constantinople’s walls but allowing the Byzantines to return to rebuilding their defences. As the months passed, the Arabs soon enough ran out food supply considering that their army was still large in number that the Arab troops had to resort to first eating their horses and camels as well as weeds, tree barks, leaves, and mushroom in which some were poisonous thus killing them. The famine soon enough grew worse as the winter passed that it was even reported that the Arab soldiers had to resort to cannibalism eating the flesh of their fellow fallen soldiers that had died either from battle, the cold of winter, or from starvation, and to mask the taste of human flesh, the Arabs too had to go as far as coating the human flesh they ate with their own shit. With the increase of the death toll in the Arab army rising each day, burying their fallen soldiers became a problem so the Arabs too had no choice but to eat their dead soldiers. At the same time too as the Arabs laid siege to Constantinople, the caliph Suleiman had also died in the town of Dabiq in Syria in September of 717 and was succeeded by Caliph Umar II who was not related to him but still ruling as part of the Umayyad Dynasty and when the spring of 718 came, the new caliph sent a reinforcement army and a fleet from Egypt making the situation for the Arabs improve by a bit. The sailors in the Arab reinforcement fleet however were mostly Christians as the Muslim sailors were already used in the first wave and being Christians, they immediately switched sides joining forces with the Byzantine navy thus turning the tide against the Arab fleet which was soon enough outnumbered. Here also in the spring of 718, Leo III had his ships with Greek Fire again attack the Arab ships blockading the Bosporus Strait from the north and with the power of Greek Fire, the entire Arab fleet blockading the Bosporus was destroyed.

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Emperor Leo III on his ship at the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

In this story’s case, Leo III together with Artavasdos and Eutychius were on one of the ships equipped with Greek Fire and as Leo kept ordering the weapon to nonstop shoot out fire, he saw for himself that the weapon had a flaw too which was that if it was overused, it could overheat and possibly explode or shoot fire back at them, though the other flaw was that it was unwieldy as the gun was too heavy and its range for shooting fire was only a few meters. In this story’s case too, after the Arab fleet blocking off the Bosporus was destroyed, Leo together with Artavasdos got off in the Asian side across the Bosporus leading a cavalry charge themselves against the Arab reinforcement army there and by summoning the nearby Opsikion Theme’s army to march there, they both succeeded in totally decimating the 20,000 Arab reinforcements by attacking from both sides trapping them. Across the Bosporus in Thrace meanwhile, the now over exhausted remnants of the Arab army that survived the winter were still camped there and by the time the Bulgar cavalry arrived again this time with Khan Tervel personally leading them, the Arabs with no more strength stood no chance and a large number of them were massacred.

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Map of the 717-718 Arab Siege of Constantinople
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Arab ships, 718
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Greek Fire operated by the Byzantine navy
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Bulgar army massacres the Umayyad Arabs outside Constantinople during the winter of 717-718

The siege then continued to go on for a bit more than a year until August of 718 when Maslama who was still alive got word from the caliph Umar II himself to immediately abandon the siege as if it went on, then they would lose more men therefore creating a shortage of troops in the caliphate. In over a year, about 30,000 Arab soldiers had died though mostly from the winter and from the Bulgars as the Byzantines forces true enough did not do much of the fighting. While the Arabs retreated back to their ships, the last remnants of them in Thrace were again massacred by Tervel’s Bulgars. Maslama then led the army in their retreat to Syria and along the way, a storm in the Marmara destroyed a large portion of the retreating Arab fleet while the rest were also destroyed by the larger Byzantine ships pursuing them that at the end, only 5 of the 1,800 ships sent to Constantinople made it back safely to Syria. All thanks to Greek Fire, a brutal winter, the assistance of the Bulgars, and a mass defection of the Arab navy, the Byzantine Empire survived the event that could have brought about their end and with the Byzantine victory, it was not only them that was saved, but the rest of Europe as well, as if the Arabs managed to defeat the Byzantines here, then the way for them to conquer the rest of Europe would be clear. As for the Arabs, this attack on Constantinople was completely fruitless that this defeat made them swear to never attack Constantinople again and true enough this would be the last time the Arabs would attack Constantinople with full force and at the same time, this defeat would totally weaken the prestige of the powerful Umayyad Caliphate that was still at its greatest territorial extent here. Though Constantinople was spared once more, the wars between Byzantium and the Arabs was not yet over and as emperor, Leo III from here on would focus his policy on continuing the attacks on the Arabs to weaken them but first it was time for him to consolidate his rule. However, for saving the Byzantine Empire from ultimate destruction, Leo III at only 33 was hailed as a national hero and the biggest feat here was that he went from a simple shepherd boy to the savior of the empire.

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Tervel and his Bulgar army’s final attack on the Arab forces outside Constantinople, 718

Watch this to learn more about the 717-718 Umayyad Arab Siege of Constantinople (Eastern Roman History).


The Reign of Leo III and Iconoclasm (718-741)         

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Having saved Byzantium from ultimate destruction, Leo III now in 718 focused on rebuilding the severely damaged empire he inherited and luckily for Leo III, he could now finally establish his own dynasty thus ending all the instability Byzantium faced as here too in 718, his wife Maria gave birth to a son who was named Constantine after the emperor Constantinople was named after, Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), the founder of the Byzantine Empire. With the birth of the boy Constantine, Artavasdos who was still in Constantinople here was deeply upset as he thought the throne would pass to him, but being loyal to Leo III he hid his true feelings and now after the siege was over, Leo III thanking Artavasdos for his part in helping him come to power and successfully defending Constantinople was awarded the title and position of Kouropalates which was basically the head of the imperial palace, although Artavasdos also retained his position as the Strategos of the Armeniac Theme wherein he would reside in its capital of Amasea for most of Leo III’s reign.

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Leo III the Isaurian

Meanwhile over in Byzantine Sicily in 718 as the siege was still happening, some fake news had reached there saying that Constantinople had fallen to the Arabs and in the panic there, the people named a local government official there named as Basil as their emperor as they thought there was no more emperor, but when Leo III in Constantinople got word of this, he sent a part of the army to Sicily to crush this rebellion not wanting the previous anarchy period to repeat itself. When the army arrived in Sicily telling everyone Constantinople was still theirs and that they had an emperor, the people of Sicily still being loyal surrendered the usurper Basil who was then executed right there while his head and hands were sent to Leo III. Back in Constantinople later on in 718 a few months after young Constantine was born, he was baptized by the same patriarch Germanus I who also survived the siege and in attendance were both his parents, older sister Anna, and Artavasdos who was soon to marry her, and here a very bizarre and apocryphal incident happened which was although written by sources hostile to Leo III and his son Constantine saying that Constantine as a baby took a shit on the water he was being baptized in, which here in this story’s case is true hence the origin of the nickname he would be known as later being Kopronymos meaning “shit-named” in Greek. Just a year later in 719, the ex-emperor Anastasius II came out of his monastery in Thessaloniki intent on taking back the Byzantine throne from Leo III therefore marching east to Constantinople supported by the Bulgars of Tervel who betrayed Leo III switching support to Anastasius II. In response to this, Leo III personally led the army west where he confronted the small army of Anastasius II defeating it and having the ex-emperor executed while the Bulgars retreated back north to their homeland. Leo III here by executing Anastasius II made his intention plain and simple that he was there to stay and establish a dynasty to make sure the 22-year anarchy period was no longer to last and to further make sure he was there to stay in power till death, he focused on reforming the empire, first of all by reducing the power of the Themes’ Strategos (plural: Strategoi) as he knew by holding so much power as he had seen it before with himself as a Strategos and with the Opsikion Theme overthrowing both Philippikos and Anastasius II that with this much power, an emperor could be easily overthrown and part of his reforms in the Thematic System was dividing the Karabasian naval Theme creating a new naval Theme in charge of the entire Aegean Sea with the other half of the Karabasian. In the meantime, his wife Maria gave birth to two more daughters after Constantine, the first one being Irene who in this story would be born in 720 and the next one Kosmo born in 721. Meanwhile in 720, two important events happened first was the wedding of the now 33-year-old Artavasdos to the 12-year-old Anna in Constantinople- although for this story’s case as in real history their marriage possibly happened some time earlier possibly 717- but here too in this case like in real history, Leo III made his 2-year-old son Constantine co-emperor in 720 to fully secure his dynasty, though betraying Artavasdos in the process who was promised earlier by Leo to succeed him. In the ceremony of young Constantine being crowned as his father’s co-emperor, Artavasdos as Mario put it pulled out a dagger from his sleeve although he quickly left the throne room without saying anything hiding his true feeling of being cheated. Leo III then moved to making one of his greatest achievements in his reign which was a code of laws known as the Ecloga, a continuation of Emperor Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis from the 6th century.

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Leo III’s Ecloga

The legal reforms in Leo III’s Ecloga was envisioned to make Byzantium a better place to live in for all classes after all the years of war and instability and these reforms included the abolition of paying the increasingly high taxes the rich had hated and also the abolition of serfs in the empire who were then turned into landowning peasants. Another major change in Leo III’s Ecloga was in criminal law with the discontinuation of the practice of cutting off noses to prevent someone from taking back the throne as Leo saw that this practice was just silly as Justinian II in 705 came back to power anyway despite his nose being cut-off, instead Leo III replaced this punishment with blinding as this would surely disable someone from coming back to power while the death penalty was a bit too severe. True enough in the entire history of Byzantium later on, no emperor would return to power blind except for one later on in the early 13th century.          

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Emperor Leo III (left) with his son and co-emperor Constantine V (right)

The process in creating the Ecloga took several years and only in 726 was it completely finished as Leo III had to make sure these laws would work but the one particular thing Leo added here was his own stance on the excessive use of icons in the empire, and although he was not so much a religious person, he strongly believed that what he believed was for the good of the whole empire. Leo originally as Konon from the eastern provinces of Byzantium lived among Monophysite and Monothelite Christians and had also came into contact with Muslims and Jews countless times which definitely influenced him in being not a fan of icons as Jews and Muslims did not believe in worshiping God through images. These Christians in the east believing Christ was only divine could not be seen as a human as well as the Virgin Mary and saints, and seeing Christ as only God, there was no way God could be visualized and Leo despite being Orthodox leaned heavily towards the beliefs of the eastern Christians. Things for the Byzantines of the western parts including Constantinople, Thrace, Western Asia Minor, Greece, the remains of the Balkans, and the remains of Italy however were different as icon painting and veneration became a very sacred tradition as there many people were as descendants of the Greeks and Romans kept with them the old Pagan tradition of using images to worship which from statues of the old gods like Zeus and Athena turned into painted images of saints.

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Early-Byzantine era religious icon

What really disgusted Leo on the excessive use of icons among the people of Constantinople was how they used icons for everything even as godparents in the baptisms of their children and Leo as a strong believer of the 2nd Commandment Thou shall have no other gods before me had come to believe that this practice of icon veneration was already like Idolatry or worshiping other gods, therefore sinful. Back in 725 before the Ecloga was completed, Leo III made a public speech in the Hippodrome against the excessive use of icons warning people that they were offending God that way, although many here did not take what he said seriously and Leo though did not punish them too as he only wanted to warn them. Now in 726, the same year the Ecloga was finished, the unexpected happened in the Aegean Sea when the underwater volcano at the island of Thera (today’s Santorini) erupted spewing an ash cloud so high that it could be seen all the way from Constantinople and Leo III again at the rooftop of the imperial palace where he saw the Arab invasion in 717 this time seeing the ash cloud knew that enough was enough on the icons as God was definitely punishing them for their excessive use on them. For the entire 8th century so far and the 7th century before it, Byzantium faced nothing but military defeats, plague, depopulation, political instability, civil wars, and now a massive volcano eruption and here the superstitious Leo III had to find something to blame for all these setbacks and of course what he blamed it all on was his people’s excessive use on icons. Getting word soon enough that this massive eruption came from Thera, Leo III seeing this as the last straw decided to carry out his first public act against icons and so here, he ordered the large mosaic of Christ above the gate of the imperial palace or Chalke Gate removed, which was a mosaic made back in the 6th century to celebrate the victories of Justinian I.

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The Chalke Gate at the Imperial Palace of Constantinople

In this story’s case, Artavasdos in an act of loyalty to Leo III as his partner in action and the head of the palace being present in Constantinople here ordered the palace guards to take down the mosaic, although Artavasdos here deep inside did not want to carry out the job as he was married to someone who highly valued icons, the emperor’s daughter Anna wherein despite their major age gap, they were having a happy marriage. Here in 726, Anna was already a very pretty grown woman at 18 with long straight black hair, a slim built, and not very tall in height and at only 18, she already had her first son with Artavasdos which was Niketas, though in the past years for this story’s case, she busied herself in pursuing an artistic and scholarly career in painting icons as well as playing music and studying the history and politics of the empire. Anna was present at a corner of the imperial palace complex near the Chalke gate and seeing the mosaic taken down by no other than her husband truly broke her heart as she lived to make beautiful icons, although she did not fight back by running to her husband or the soldiers asking them to stop, instead she left the scene and went to her mother crying. Maria here at her room in the palace told Anna that she too despite being loyal to her husband Leo III was not for the destruction of icons and so she asked Anna to gather a number of women to fight back.

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Byzantine Iconoclasm from the 9th century Chludov Psalter

Most men were fine with the destruction of the mosaic of Christ at the Chalke Gate but the women were upset with it, and as it would turn out later on, women had valued icons a lot more than men therefore strongly condemning what would be Leo III’s Iconoclast policy and so here in this story’s case as Mario put it, Anna ordered some local women of Constantinople who were upset with the destruction of the Chalke Gate mosaic to kill the palace guard officer in charge of tearing down the mosaic. Like in real history, the officer in charge of taking down the mosaic was hacked to death by a group of angry women and following this, riots mostly led by women broke out all over Constantinople lasting for the next few years although intermittently. It was not only in Constantinople though where people opposed the first stage of destroying icons as in 727, the fleet in the Aegean Sea mostly made up of Western Greek sailors that highly valued icons mutinied against Leo III, although their small-scale rebellion was easily crushed where in this story’s case, Leo sent Artavasdos to mercilessly crush it. The uprisings in the empire over the first wave of the confiscations and destruction of icons grew worse over the next years that in 730, Leo III after being convinced by eastern bishops who strongly opposed icons, finally had no choice but to declare a general ban on icons making Iconoclasm or the “destruction of icons” a law in the Ecloga. To fully make Iconoclasm a law, the Church of Constantinople had to be in line with it too, although the Patriarch of Constantinople Germanus I who had been patriarch since 715 did not agree to destroying icons so here in 730 he resigned and was then replaced by the Iconoclast Anastasios who Leo III appointed, thus Iconoclasm was in full effect with the Church now supporting it. With Iconoclasm now a law, all icons were no matter where in the empire and how valuable were to be confiscated by imperial soldiers and to be destroyed either by being smashed or burned, while those caught holding icons were to be punished severely by getting whipped, and for those who restored broken icons or were caught painting icons were to get their hands burned. At this point though, there was still no death penalty on those who supported icons better known as the Iconodules as the laws of Iconoclasm went primarily against religious icons and not people as the icons were seen as the cause of Byzantium’s failures. A large number of monks and artists who restored icons soon feared for their lives in Constantinople or Asia Minor that a lot fled in large groups to Byzantine Greece or Italy where the imperial authorities weren’t as severe in punishing those who supported icons and Italy on the other hand would be a haven for them, especially in Rome which here was still under Byzantine rule but its autonomous ruler being the pope as usual in wanting to assert Rome’s independence from Constantinople welcomed those who fled Constantinople and the east.     

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Eruption of the Thera Island Volcano in the Aegean Sea, 726
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Destruction of the mosaic at the Chalke Gate under Leo III, 726

As the Byzantines in the 720s had been in no large conflict with the Arabs, Leo III could therefore put all his attention in cracking down on religious icons in the empire but if the conflict did not come from the Arabs, it came from the people of Italy who highly valued icon veneration as a sacred tradition.

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Pope St. Gregory II, Patriarch of Rome (715-731)

First of all, in 726 when Iconoclasm was first instituted by Leo III, the people of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna which was still around here encouraged by the pope Gregory II rebelled in large numbers with such violence that the Exarch of Ravenna Paul was killed when crushing the riots. To finish off the unrest in Italy, Leo III in 727 appointed the same patrician eunuch Eutychius who helped him defend Constantinople from 717-718 against the Arabs as the new Exarch of Ravenna sending him to Italy where he first arrived in still Byzantine held Naples. Eutychius’ mission in Italy was also to find a way to remove the authority of Pope Gregory IIwho Leo III saw as a threat to his power as the pope being from the west was a strong icon supporter. Most of Italy here was now part of the Lombard Kingdom of its ambitious king Liutprand and with the Lombards being Christian, the pope was more willing to ally with them rather than following orders from the Byzantine emperor who was though in charge of Rome, and with Eutychius as the new exarch, he offered bribes to Liutprand to give up his alliance with the pope which was successful.

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King Liutprand of the Lombards of Italy (r. 712-744)

In 730, a usurper in Italy named Petasius based in the area of Umbria near Rome rose up against Leo III proclaiming himself emperor and when hearing of Petasius’ rebellion, Eutychius immediately rushed south to deal with it wherein he managed to kill Petasius in battle. On the other hand, in 730 as well, another rebellion against Byzantine rule in Italy broke out again over the ban on icons and this one happened in the Venetian Lagoon, the now growing community by the Adriatic Sea founded back in the 5th century from mainland Roman Italians escaping the Huns. Here, the Venetian people from the community of the lagoon in rebellion against the emperor proclaimed their community’s leader or Dux Ursus known as “Orso Ipato”in Italian as their independent ruler or Doge, thus the Venetian Lagoon here separated from the Byzantine Empire giving birth now to the Republic of Venice, which would be both a strong ally and a bitter enemy to Byzantium in the next centuries to come.

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Orso Ipato, First Doge of the Republic of Venice

Although wanting to be independent from Byzantium, Orso Ipato still wanted to maintain peaceful relations with Leo III’s Byzantium agreeing to provide the empire ships as an ally as long as they kept their independence and because of this, Leo III acknowledged the Venetian’s independence. Pope Gregory II meanwhile continued to strongly oppose Leo III’s Iconoclasm by encouraging revolts against imperial rule and writing letters to Leo III condemning Iconoclasm and in response to this, Leo also in 730 doing as Emperor Constans II did back in 653 when arresting Pope Martin I, also sent some soldiers from Constantinople to Rome to arrest Gregory II but due to a storm, the ship was unable to cross the Adriatic Sea and in early 731, Gregory II died before he could be arrested. Following Gregory II’s death, Gregory III was elected as the new pope and he too opposed Leo III’s Iconoclasm excommunicating all those in Italy who destroyed icons, though Leo III gave up his plans in arresting the pope seeing it was useless, instead he later put the Church dioceses of Sicily and the remains of the Byzantine Balkans under the Patriarch of Constantinople and not the Patriarch of Rome or the pope, thus replacing their bishops with those under Constantinople and here is where the soon-to-be schism between the Churches of Constantinople and Rome would begin.

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Map of 8th century Italy- Byzantine territory (orange), Lombard territory (blue)

           

In the early 730s, the Byzantines again did not get into much conflict with the Umayyad Arabs in the east as at this point, the Arabs focused more in fighting against India in the east, the Frankish Kingdom in the west, and the Khazars in the north found in the Caucasus area. In 732, the Khazar khan Bihar, son of the khan Busir who’s sister earlier on married Justinian II made an alliance with Leo III’s Byzantium and to fully seal it, Bihar sent his daughter Tzitzak to Constantinople to marry Leo III’s son Constantine who here was already 14 and quite overweight but already a learned scholar despite actually hating scholars and monks, though the young Constantine was also unstable and childish in personality- in this story’s case- but most importantly he inherited his father’s extreme disgust for icons which Constantine knowing theology more than his father believed too that God could not be painted as a human. Constantine too was believed to be a bisexual which he is in this story but when seeing the Khazar princess Tzitzak who here was 4 years older than him, he was struck by her exotic oriental beauty having long black hair, fair skin, and gray eyes.

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Khazar women’s fashion sample

In this story’s case, Tzitzak came to Constantinople in her native dress decorated with tons of gold and silver scales as well as headdress full of jewelry and not speaking any Greek, therefore having an interpreter with her and to all the people of Constantinople, her appearance totally left everyone questioning it, although this was not the first time an emperor would marry a Khazar woman as Justinian II’s wife Theodora was a Khazar although when she arrived in Constantinople in 706, Theodora was already dressed in Byzantine robes. What was particularly intriguing to those who saw Tzitzak up close was the tattoos seen around her upper-body as was a nomadic Khazar custom and the when taking a good look at Tzitzak privately in the palace’s baths to see if she was healthy which she seemed to be, Maria was shocked to see all the tattoos on Tzitzak’s body but still approved of her well-behaved personality anyway, and later when Constantine came to see her, he was surprised to see the amount of tattoos when removing her dress, but for Constantine he’d rather have an exotic foreign wife than a Byzantine woman who he found boring and conservative in dress and appearance. Tzitzak was then baptized and renamed to the Greek Irene (although would be known as Tzitzak in this story) and after being baptized she would marry young Constantine, then in the next years she would have to learn Greek which now completely took over Latin as the empire’s language.

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Sample Khazar women’s tattoos, from @laura.petresc on IG

It also happened in 732 when the Umayyad Arab forces from Spain invaded the Frankish Kingdom but suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Tours to the Frankish army under their general Charles Martel thus putting a full stop to the Arabs’ advancement into Europe. As for Artavasdos, still the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos with Anna would meanwhile remain in the Armeniac Theme’s capital of Amasea where they would have more children including another son named Nikephoros all while Anna being away from Constantinople for this story’s case would continue her art projects in painting icons away from her father’s eyes, though Artavasdos would see it but not react to it anyway as he still respected whatever his wife did being happily married to her. The 730s meanwhile was not a much recorded part of Leo III’s reign and so here on a few occasions, Artavasdos and Anna with their children would travel to Constantinople for some family functions wherein for this story Leo himself would cook the flavorful Arabic food he grew up with for his family this time, although in this story’s case nothing would go that pleasantly as envy and distrust would start erupting between family members especially between Anna and her father over their views on the use of icons, Constantine and Anna as Constantine would soon grow more and more envious of his older sister as she was more liked and got more praised and attention for her art and literary works while Constantine did not despite him also doing them, but the bigger hatred was of course between Artavasdos and Constantine as Artavasdos still felt betrayed by Constantine’s birth.

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Arabic food cooked by Leo III

Artavasdos when in Constantinople would try to do whatever it took to get rid of the lazy and arrogant young Constantine that Artavasdos when seeing him would mockingly call Constantine “Kopronymos” remembering the incident of Constantine as a baby shitting on the baptismal water thus angering Constantine and at one point, he intentionally pushed Constantine in the imperial palace’s halls making it look like it was an accident and another time, as Mario added Artavasdos would accuse Constantine of stealing his jewelry telling it to Leo III himself except Leo here refused to believe it seeing his son would not do such a thing. Meanwhile, Leo III’s war on icons was still brewing stronger especially in Constantinople that not a day would go by with soldiers looting churches to confiscate icons and bonfires in almost every square of the city wherein icons were burned much like in Nazi Germany where books were burned in bonfires, while Leo III too would have the previous coins of Justinian II with Christ’s image that were still around melted down to make new coins. When in Constantinople seeing icons burned in these bonfires, Anna had enough of her father’s useless and superstitious policy of destroying icons as Anna being a more educated person knew the icons had nothing to do with the empire’s setbacks.

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Sample image of faces damaged by Iconoclasm (not Byzantine)

Here in 735 for this story’s case, Anna encouraged by her mother Maria had decided to save icons from destruction, thus at the middle of the night she with a group of local women from Constantinople, the same ones who killed the palace guard officer back in 726 would horde the undestroyed or even broken icons while the city guards were asleep and would hide them all in the underground 5th century Cistern of Theodosius which they would use as their base wherein the women would restore icons at midnight. Anna had also come up with a plan for the remaining people who owned icons which was to hide them under their clothes, which is what most monks and nuns did when fleeing to Italy in order to not get caught possessing illegal icons. Meanwhile, not all religious icons could be restored since a lot which were already painted in the walls of churches or in mosaics were damaged in a way that their faces were removed leaving an empty blank spot and restoring them would definitely lead to being arrested at the spot. While in the Armeniac Theme, Anna would also travel to Cappadocia, the perfect place to hide icons especially in the deep and labyrinthian cave systems there wherein people actually lived and there, the people in which most were still for icons would restore them there or even make new ones.           

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Battle of Tours, 732- Charles Martel and the Frankish army defeat the Umayyad forces
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Amasea, Capital of the Armeniac Theme in Asia Minor
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Cistern of Theodosius in Constantinople, secret base of Anna’s resistance against Iconoclasm
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Cave systems of Cappadocia
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Destruction and confiscation of icons under Leo III

The secret resistance movement led by Anna in this story’s case would soon grow larger with more people joining it for the sake of restoring valuable icons that artists worked so hard to make, though neither Leo III nor Constantine nor even Artavasdos knew of Anna’s movement although Artavasdos and Anna’s sons Niketas and Nikephoros soon will and would join their mother’s cause against their grandfather. Now on the other hand, the Arabs won a major victory over the Khazars in 737, thus the Arab forces resumed their raids into Asia Minor attacking in two sides although never intending to attack Constantinople again after the failure of 718. Back in Constantinople, Constantine by here was now no longer a child but in mentality still was especially in how he envied his older sister Anna as she got more attention than him by the palace officials and the people of Constantinople. As an Iconoclast and artist at the same time, Constantine in this story’s case developed his own simplistic style of art mostly consisting of symmetrical crucifixes with no images while Anna made very intricate icons or art depicting nature which her brother and father definitely saw as it had no religious images but Constantine surely envied his older sister’s more superior style in art that pleased a lot of people more than with his work.

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Playing music in the Byzantine era

Constantine and Anna too were musicians skilled in playing the lyre although the people cheered more for Anna who sang with a very excellent voice again fuelling Constantine’s envy and hate towards her. Now in personalities they were so far apart as Anna was a serious and mature person while Constantine was impulsive and immature and Anna being calm as usual would often remind him to stop envying as not everything is a competition and scoring points do not matter although Constantine and Anna kept quarrelling nonstop to the point of slapping each other. Constantine could still not get over Anna so one day in 740- in this story’s case- after drinking at a tavern, he gathered a group of thugs from the tavern to locate Anna’s base as Anna was back in the Armeniac Theme here. Constantine and the thugs managed to find Anna’s base at the Cistern of Theodosius where they looted all the icons under restoration there as no one was there and in an act of revenge, Constantine had some of them burned and another set of icons which he saw Anna’s name on them personally destroyed by himself as an act of vengeance. In the gardens of Constantinople’s imperial palace, Constantine himself in a mental breakdown as Mario put it personally destroyed the icons his sister made by stepping on them, slamming them against the courtyard columns, breaking them with his knees, and even urinating on them and here his father caught him right at the moment doing that. Leo III caught Constantine screaming and cursing countless times thus asking Constantine what was wrong and Constantine clearly kept screaming “Anna you double-crosser, this is what you deserve!” and here Leo saw the icons his daughter had made or restored and was not surprised as he always argued with her though Leo still did not know Anna was leading a secret resistance against Iconoclasm, but knowing how Constantine felt, Leo told him that he felt this kind of way before back in Justinian II’s 2nd reign when Leo as Konon then was betrayed by the emperor who he thought put all his faith into him when Justinian II stranded Konon across the snowy Caucasus Mountains before meeting Maria and Anna’s birth. Leo here told Constantine he would get his chance to prove himself right here by going to battle as an Arab army had breached into the Anatolic Theme in Asia Minor which needed to be driven away. Leo III one more time led his army mostly consisting of the Cataphract cavalry in battle and this time with his son and co-emperor Constantine by his side confronting the Arabs at the Battle of Akroinon just south of the Anatolic Theme’s capital Amorion and here, the Byzantines would again defeat the Arabs killing 13,000 of them including the Arab generals. This battle then turned the tide of war against the Arabs and with the success here, Leo III believed that God was now on the side of the Byzantines for getting rid of unholy icons while Constantine would here gain the popularity he so wanted as the army would now praise him for his bravery in battle. Although the Byzantines won a major victory, in October of 740 a great earthquake struck Constantinople destroying a lot of buildings while the Hagia Eirene church was severely damaged and so were the Theodosian Walls while the statue of Constantine I above the Column of Constantine fell off. Now those who supported the icons including the empress Maria here thought that this earthquake was punishment from God for destroying holy icons and following the earthquake Leo III proceeded to rebuild the land sea walls but was here beginning to grow worse in health.

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Leo III and Constantine V fighting Umayyad Arab forces at the Battle of Akroinon in 740, Byzantine victory
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Hagia Eirene in Constantinople, partially destroyed by the 740 earthquake

Watch this to learn more about Leo III and his reign (Thersites the Historian).


The War of the Emperors (The Climax)        

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Following the victory of the Byzantines at the Battle of Akroinon in 740, a period of stability for the empire and the Thematic System would begin and after repairing the damage on Constantinople from the recent earthquake, Leo III would no longer be able to function well anymore and so here he reassigned Artavasdos to the Opsikion Theme closer to Constantinople to be its Komes– as this Theme’s general was not known as a Strategos- moving his family there except for his eldest son Niketas who was left behind in the Armeniac Theme replacing his father as its Strategos at only 18. By this point in 741 when moving to the Opsikion Theme, Artavasdos and Anna had a total of 9 children as it is recorded that after Niketas and Nikephoros they had 7 other children although their names and genders are not recorded, so for this story’s case, 3 of the 7 were boys and the 4 were girls. Now on June 18 of 741, Emperor Leo III the Isaurian formerly known as the Syrian shepherd Konon had died at 56 from complications caused by his health condition of edema being the first emperor since Constantine IV in 685 to meet a peaceful end, though Leo III’s legacy of Iconoclasm would live on now that his 23-year-old son Constantine V being his co-emperor immediately succeeded to the throne crowned by the Iconoclast patriarch Anastasios while Constantine’s 27-year-old wife the Khazar Tzitzak who now was becoming fluent in Greek was crowned as his empress or Augusta.

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Coin of Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos

Artavasdos here had the worst day of his life when Constantine V was crowned as the empire’s sole emperor and so Artavasdos rather than attending the coronation in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople went hunting alone in the Opsikion Theme- in this story- while Anna and their children attended. Here Artavasdos was already 54 but still looking as young and strong as he was when helping Leo III come to power in 717 with long dark hair and a long beard while Anna here at 33 despite having already had 9 children was still looking young and beautiful as ever, while Constantine V at 23 looked very young too with thick and long dark curly hair and a short and stocky stature like his father, though he was quite overweight and bad in posture. Constantine V spent the first few months of his reign in 741 consolidating his power and continuing enforcing the Iconoclast policies of his father and true enough soldiers continued their constant raids into houses and churches across the empire confiscating icons and burning them. While the war on icons continued to rage on, Anna and her resistance movement of women still continued to horde and restore icons in the middle of the night while Constantine V now had everything he wanted as emperor and almost every night he would host lavish and wild parties at the imperial palace dancing and drinking to the point of getting hangovers. As a bisexual, Constantine enjoyed having young men and women at his parties barely clothed except for a toga over their underwear and in these parties, Constantine too would get high by inhaling a flower that could be used as a drug from Asia Minor. Both Anna and Artavasdos now had their own reasons to hate Constantine as not only was he an Iconoclast extremist and an obstacle to Artavasdos but he was also an excessive young man that cared more about pleasure than for the good of his empire and so here in their house in Constantinople, Artavasdos when at his bedroom with Anna told her that it was time to get rid of Constantine for the good of the empire by poisoning him and Anna was also intent on doing it as part of revenge on him destroying her icons the previous year. Artavasdos here also told Anna in private that Constantine V needed to go as they both knew Constantine had a health condition which was epilepsy which was a valid reason to make him not completely suitable to be emperor as just a simple health condition could discredit someone from being emperor for the emperor needed to be seen as a perfect human and Artavasdos having no kind of health condition or deformity would be a perfect candidate for the throne. In this story’s case in one night in March of 742 while Constantine V was having another wild party in the palace, Anna decided to attend it to as being the emperor’s sister, she would definitely be allowed entry and so in her house, she dressed up for the occasion in more lose and revealing clothes as for Constantine, the more skin showing the better. The dress Anna put on here was simply a red silk Ancient Roman style dress which was just an easy to put on red sleeveless tunic just fastened above the shoulders with a pin and a red toga cloth known as a Stola draped over it with only two belts to hold up the dress where one was fastened below the chest and the other at the waist, and when wearing it she realized how comfortable it was compared to the more conservative and difficult to wear Byzantine style dresses of her time.

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Sample Roman red dress with a Stola

While Anna was dressing up, Artavasdos came in giving her the vial of poison which Anna put deep inside her dress right at what was her underwear, a piece of cloth tied around the chest- the one seen in the 4th century Roman mosaic- which she tightened it more to hold in the poison vial and it was here when she told Artavasdos the whole truth that she was in fact leading a the resistance against Iconoclasm and Artavasdos did not really seem to mind as he never really cared about Iconoclasm anyway and would just do whatever it took to get rid of Constantine and it was here at this party through Anna that would be his first opportunity to get rid of Constantine as Leo III was now dead and Artavasdos with Leo still alive would not do any harm to his family. Before leaving Artavasdos kissed Anna and brushed his hand down her body, also to make sure the poison vial stayed in place inside her clothes. The party then went on in the imperial palace and Anna was able to enter freely looking for the drinks being served to Constantine although she failed to carry out the plan as she soon enough couldn’t help but indulge herself in the alcoholic drinks and later, she got too drunk that the poison vial slipped out of her dress into a couch while she later crashed into one of the beds nearby waking up the next day when the party was over. The next day as the palace staff cleaned up the room where the party the night before was, they found the vial of poison and a headband and when Constantine saw it, he knew the headband belonged to Anna, therefore Constantine concluded Anna was attempting to poison him. Anna however happened to be inside the palace and when woken up by the palace staff cleaning it, she was immediately brought to Constantine in her sleepwear who then pulled her hand dragging her to the palace courtyard where he had the palace guards chain her up to one of the columns and afterwards tear off the back of her nightgown while Constantine pulled out a whip ready to whip her himself. Now as emperor, Constantine had the right chance to punish his older sister that made him feel so miserable and here he viciously whipped Anna’s back on and on and as he remembered all the moments Anna got all the attention instead of him, he increased the power of the whipping until Anna passed out, and at the end, Constantine gave Anna 30 lashes until her back was filled up with bruises, although there was not much bleeding as it was only a soft leather whip that was used on her. The first people to pick up Anna later on and help her recover were her two younger sisters Irene and Kosmo as well as her mother Maria who put her in a cold bath in their part of the palace where Maria looking at her daughter in the bath saw all the wounds at her back. Anna waking up felt some kind of discomfort as her mother and sisters were present while she was naked in the bath but she told her mother here exactly what happened and that Constantine is insane, while also Anna told her mother that Constantine does not know yet she is leading the resistance against Iconoclasm but if he finds out he’ll have everything they worked so hard to restore destroyed and them all executed regardless if they’re his family members. Maria told Anna here that it was now time to rise up against Constantine V and replace him with Artavasdos but it was also hard for Maria as this meant getting rid of her son although she asked that Constantine should instead suffer a more humane punishment which was to just have his tongue cut off if Artavasdos succeeded in his rebellion. Some nights later after Anna recovered from her wounds, while she and Artavasdos were at their bed in their house in Constantinople, Artavasdos while looking at the wounds in Anna’s back as she was lying down with only the blanket covering her told her some valuable information he heard from Constantine V which was that the reigning Umayyad Arab caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik launched another attack into Asia Minor and that Artavasdos was asked to take part in the counter-attack by leading the Opsikion Theme’s troops. Here, Anna told Artavasdos that this was the right opportunity to strike against Constantine V by doing it in the middle of battle abandoning Constantine V’s forces there.

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Iconoclasm continues under Constantine V
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Dressing up a Byzantine era woman

           

As the summer of 742 came, Artavasdos with the Opsikion Theme army joined Constantine V as they marched east out of Constantinople into Asia Minor to confront the Arabs while Anna right here organized a meeting with the members of the Iconodule resistance at their base, the Cistern of Theodosius where she asked everyone if they were all in favor of Artavasdos as emperor in which all said yes as they’d rather have anyone else other than the monster Constantine V. For the people that supported icons, Artavasdos was the perfect choice even if he was not really a strong believer of icons but for them it would seem like he was not a usurper with no legitimacy as he had family ties being Leo III’ son-in-law and was also a disciplined and no-nonsense soldier and administrator unlike the unstable and somewhat insane Constantine V who they were now all comparing to all the lunatic and bloodthirsty Roman and Byzantine emperors of the past like Caligula (r. 37-41AD), Nero (r. 54-68AD), Commodus (r. 180-192), Phocas (r. 602-610), and Justinian II. Together with Artavasdos in this campaign was his younger son Nikephoros who was being trained here by his father in battle but right before they would all confront the Arab forces, when marching somewhere in the Anatolic Theme, Artavasdos and a few of his Cataphract cavalry soldiers charged right at the portion under Constantine V’s command wherein one of the commanders of Constantine’s bodyguard force named Beser was killed.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldier

Artavasdos then shouted out loud to Constantine that Anna ordered this as she is leading the resistance against Iconoclasm, although Constantine here did not attack Artavasdos fearing Artavasdos’ forces will kill him first so instead Constantine and the troops loyal to him fled the site retreating to the Anatolic Theme’s capital Amorion which was just nearby. Artavasdos together with Nikephoros after turning on Constantine V also did not continue with campaign, instead they marched their forces back to Constantinople where Artavasdos was ready to crown himself emperor before Constantine could make it back there. When arriving back in Constantinople, both Anna and Patriarch Anastasios welcomed them and here there was total shift in Patriarch Anastasios who from being a strong Iconoclast suddenly became an ardent supporter of Artavasdos, of Anna’s resistance, and of icons in general. Anastasios meanwhile just like Artavasdos never really cared much about Iconoclasm or defending icons as he being the patriarch only wanted to be in favor of the reigning emperor no matter who whether Iconoclast or not but when seeing for himself how much the people rallying under Anna were so ardent about icons, he felt their pain and therefore in an instant became totally on their side and a defender of icons. Artavasdos at 55 here was soon enough crowned as emperor dressed in the new imperial robes or the Loros Justinian II previously introduced while Anna was crowned as empress or Augusta and Nikephoros even though being their second son was crowned as co-emperor to fully secure Artavasdos’ branch of the Isaurian Dynasty as the eldest son Niketas was still over in the Armeniac Theme here at this point in 742, therefore there was no time to crown him co-emperor as Constantine V could return in any moment. It is also debated by historians that Niketas may not be Artavasdos’ son with Anna but from a previous wife which is why he was not crowned co-emperor although this is highly unlikely and this wouldn’t be the case for this story. After his coronation, Artavasdos was then backed by Anna’s mother Maria and younger sisters Irene and Kosmo who all encouraged him to take the title of “Protector of the Holy Icons” as by supporting the cause of the people for the icons or the Iconodules, his legitimacy as emperor would be more secure as the majority people of Constantinople had backed him. Meanwhile in Amorion, Constantine V was still emperor but there only as the people there especially the army with him and of the Anatolic Theme supported Iconoclasm therefore backing him. As it turned out, the soldiers that were in Amorion were mostly the same ones two years earlier at the Battle of Akroinon that helped Constantine and his father defeat the Arabs and remembering him well, they all rallied under him and so did the entire army and people of the Anatolic Theme. Constantine V here at least got the dream he wanted so much which was to have a great amount of popularity and these soldiers not only supported him, they pledged to fight and die for him and for the name of Iconoclasm. Constantine V though when in Amorion in this story’s case would also get some strange dreams, although this would be due to his growing addiction to the flower drugs he was taking, and as Mario put it here, Constantine in Amorion one time dreamt that he was in his bedroom there seeing Artavasdos in the bed next to him thinking it was real until waking up the next day seeing Artavasdos was not there. Artavasdos too experienced the same thing back in Constantinople, except instead he got a dream of Constantine overthrowing and blinding him- as what happened in real history. As emperor in Constantinople, Artavasdos’ first act was to restore all the icons to their rightful places as well as repaint the frescos in which their faces were destroyed and all this had to be done in little time before Constantine V could come back while Artavasdos too apologized to the people for what he did back in 726 in taking down the mosaic at the Chalke Gate saying he only did it because of his loyalty to Leo III. Under the guidance of Anna with her mother and sisters, a lot of these icons were successfully returned to their rightful places from being kept underground at the Cistern of Theodosius while a lot of those that were destroyed were fixed to be good as new again. At the same time, both Constantine V in Amorion and Artavasdos in Constantinople during the autumn and winter of 742 began preparing their armies for the ultimate civil war to come. Constantine further encouraged his soldiers by reminding them that they are fighting to get rid of Artavasdos and Anna who he called the “double-crosser” in his speeches and this anger also further increased the morale of the soldiers as they knew from reports that they were rapidly undoing the Iconoclast policy of Leo III which was their hero. The armies of the Themes of Thrace and Opsikion would then switch sides to Anna’s resistance and Artavasdos and so would the distant Armeniac Theme under Niketas who immediately got word from his father to join forces with him against Constantine V who meanwhile was backed by the armies of the Anatolic and Thracesian Themes all being loyal to the Iconoclast cause. By early 743, it turned out almost the entire population of Constantinople especially monks, nuns, and women were all loyally behind Artavasdos giving him hope that he will defeat Constantine V, also because he had 3 Themes with him while Constantine only had two Themes.          

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Seal of Emperor Artavasdos
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Cataphract cavalry, elite army of the Byzantine Themes
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Amorion, Capital of the Anatolic Theme

Watch this to learn more about Emperor Artavasdos (Eastern Roman History).

Over in Italy, in this story’s case Exarch Eutychius in 743 when hearing of Artavasdos being crowned emperor, he switched his support to Artavasdos and restoring icons even if he was against icons considering he was loyal supporter of Leo III. Eutychius though would only switch his support since he desperately needed imperial support no matter who, as Byzantine rule in Italy was almost completely lost due to the ambitious conquests of the Lombard king Liutprand that in 738 Ravenna was temporarily captured by the Lombards that Eutychius had to flee to the new Republic of Venice before recapturing the exarchate’s capital of Ravenna some years later.

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Pope Zachary, Patriarch of Rome (741-752)

It also happened that back in 741, the new pope Zachary was elected and in 743 when hearing of Artavasdos coming to power and restoring icons, here in this story’s case he congratulated him agreeing to have the Church of Rome in good terms with Constantinople again. Soon enough, the message to restore icons were spread to the western parts wherein Leo III had previously replaced their bishops with Iconoclast ones but with the Iconoclast policy gone under both Emperor Artavasdos and Patriarch Anastasios of Constantinople, the icons were freely allowed to be restored. Back in Constantinople, in this story’s case, Anna had managed to actually get Constantine’s wife Tzitzak who was left behind in Constantinople to support icons after having a couple of drinks together and this would be possibly because women were more attached to religious icons than men. With the army of Artavasdos fully assembled, they all marched into Asia Minor under Artavasdos’ command while the Armeniac Theme under Niketas would meet them along the way, although Artavasdos chose to attack Constantine V in waves but was not expecting that Constantine V led his entire army from both the Anatolic and Thracesian Themes to confront Artavasdos’ forces. The two sides met near the city of Sardis in Western Asia Minor in May of 743 and being outnumbered to the entire Thematic armies of Constantine V, Artavasdos’ and Niketas’ forces were defeated here although both father and son still survived as Niketas fled north and Artavasdos back to Constantinople to gather the second batch of his troops. 3 months later, Niketas and his Armeniac Theme army was spotted and cornered in the town of Modrine near the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor where Constantine with such a fury led a charge defeating the Armeniac troops again forcing Niketas to flee. Niketas though would still manage to regroup his army and blockade the Dardanelles strait to prevent Constantine passage into Europe but later on outside the city of Nicomedia on the way to Constantinople, Niketas lost again to his uncle due to Niketas being too young and inexperienced in fighting battles and when losing, Constantine captured his nephew Niketas himself personally beating him up to the ground and later shipping him to Constantinople to be imprisoned. Having defeated Niketas, Constantine then crossed the Dardanelles Strait into Thrace and later arriving outside Constantinople’s walls laying siege to it. Constantine V though did not entirely lay a siege but more of a blockade by both land and sea and after some 2 months by November of 743, the defending army tired of being locked in surrendered allowing Constantine V entry while Artavasdos together with Anna and Nikephoros made it in time to flee across the Bosporus to the Opsikion Theme while Niketas was left in a prison within Constantinople.          

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Coin of Emperor Artavasdos (left) and his and co-emperor Nikephoros (right)
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Byzantine Civil War- Battle of Sardis, 743- Constantine V’s forces defeat Artavasdos’ forces under Niketas, art by Faisal Hashemi

When the city garrison surrendered to Constantine V who now entered Constantinople in the new uniform of the imperial Loros after more than a year of losing the throne, he was beyond disgusted to see how much icons Artavasdos and Anna restored and the worst part for him- in this story’s case- was seeing his name with the title “Kopronymos” graffitied in the city’s walls which was the nickname people that hated him used to put him down reminding him of defecating in the baptismal water as a baby.

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Byzantine blinding from the Madrid Skylitzes

Constantine though did not yet destroy the icons that were just restored, instead he first focused his attention to rounding up everyone he knew was loyal to Artavasdos and Anna mostly being monks and women in the resistance movement and had them all either blinded, have their noses cut off, or executed in the most brutal ways such as being sawn in half or burned alive right in front of him as he celebrated with drinks and music. The next person Constantine targeted was Patriarch Anastasios who Constantine saw betrayed him and Iconoclasm by switching sides to Artavasdos so here like in real history, Constantine had Anastasios’ robes torn off and put on the back of donkey to be paraded around the streets of Constantinople wherein those loyal to Constantine all laughed at the site mocking Anastasios.

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Sawing in half execution method

Constantine though like in real history here did not fire Anastasios, instead he only punished him by humiliation and afterwards chose to keep him as patriarch as he could not find any replacement and just wanting to be in favor with the reigning emperor again, Anastasios chose to switch his support to Constantine V again. The next move Constantine V planned was to install a large mosaic of a black cross which was to replace an old mosaic with an image of Christ for the apse of the Hagia Eirene which was here under repair after the damage caused to it by the earthquake of 740 but before he began working on it, Constantine returned to his wife Tzitzak in the imperial palace before going to his bath alone as a way to relax now that he had taken back the throne. When in his baths, as Mario again put it, Constantine again went back to inhaling the drug flowers he so loved that soon enough he began hallucinating things including the time he was a baby defecating on the baptismal font, his sister Anna getting more attention for works, the icons of Anna that he broke and urinated on, how Anna tried to poison him, and lastly he saw Artavasdos right next to him with a dagger about to slit his throat, although later Constantine snapped out seeing this was only a hallucination.

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Drug flower inhaled by Constantine V

Although right when Constantine woke up from his hallucination- in this story’s case- his 3 sisters Anna, Irene, and Kosmo all surrounded him and out of fear thinking they were there to strangle him in his bath under Artavasdos’ orders, Constantine immediately told Anna he was sorry for hurting her before but Anna replied telling him he was only hurting himself with what he did to her by only making his hatred consume him. Anna then told Constantine that Artavasdos sent her back there offering to settle the claim to the imperial throne with a personal duel between Artavasdos and Constantine to the point of only making one submit to the other which would allow Constantine to prove himself once again. Constantine willing to fully have revenge on Artavasdos agreed to the duel thus putting on his golden imperial armor and readying his sword, the curved single-blade Byzantine saber known as the Paramerion. In real history, after fleeing Constantinople in November of 743, Artavasdos sought refuge in a castle in the Opsikion Theme but was immediately caught there by Constantine V’s soldiers and brought to Constantinople where he together with both sons Niketas and Nikephoros were blinded and sent to live out their lives in the small Monastery of Chora in the outskirts of Constantinople where all 3 would die possibly not so long after from the infection caused by the blinding, thus ending the rebellion and short reign of Artavasdos.

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Paramerion, Byzantine curved sword

In this case however, Constantine himself travelled to this castle across the Bosporus together with his sisters who brought him to Artavasdos who was already waiting for Constantine in his imperial armor above the castle walls. The duel between both emperors would begin with Constantine striking with his sword first which Artavasdos immediately dodged and watching from the other side of the walls opposite to them were Anna, Irene, Kosmo, and Nikephoros while Artavasdos’ loyal troops stayed below inside the castle and Constantine’s troops outside. Both Artavasdos and Constantine here both dueled each other with their Paramerion sabers and for a long neither of them got the upper hand as both blades kept parrying each other, although Constantine managed to head-butt Artavasdos while Artavasdos in return swept Constantine’s leg pinning him down, but Constantine later managed to cut Artavasdos’ leg with his sword injuring him. Constantine then used the pommel of his sword to beat Artavasdos’ face into a pulp but Artavasdos still fought back by choking Constantine and while trying to pin him down, he kept taunting Constantine with insults including again calling him “Kopronymos” which only made Constantine angrier therefore breaking free from Artavasdos’ choke hold making Artavasdos drop his sword, and then pinning Artavasdos down to the ground. Constantine then dropped his sword and placed his foot on Artavasdos’ neck as again a sign of having conquered him, though Constantine took too much time doing that to show everyone around him he and Iconoclasm had still won thus the soldiers loyal to Constantine outside the castle walls all cheered but taking too much time showing off to everyone, Artavasdos enraged as ever at Constantine beating him managed to break free from Constantine’s foot, got up, hit Constantine’s waist hard with his elbow, kicked Constantine in the stomach, and kicked Constantine again, though the second kick resulted in Constantine falling off the railing of the castle wall. Constantine then fell off in what would be equivalent to 3 floors hitting his back right at the ground of the castle’s interior being critically injured and, in a coma, while the cheers of his soldiers outside the walls suddenly stopped, and Anna being shocked at the sight of her brother falling off the castle walls screamed “Artavasdos what did you do!” while Artavasdos also being shocked at what happened fell to the ground exhausted. The soldiers loyal to Constantine meanwhile in the panic all decided to switch their support to Artavasdos but at the same time also carried Constantine’s body away while Anna put her hand on his neck noticing his pulse was still beating despite him being unconscious. Later on, everyone who was at that castle including Artavasdos all returned to Constantinople quietly as none of them expected the duel to end with Constantine critically injured and near dead. When hearing of what happened to her son, Maria refused to speak to Artavasdos and took a vow of silence refusing to even lay her eyes on him for her entire life as he almost killed Constantine who Maria only wanted slightly injured to make him unqualified to take the throne. Now that Constantine despite surviving the fall was completely paralyzed and had to be confined to the which would be here the Chora Monastery and being completely paralyzed, there would be no chance at all for Constantine to return to power. Artavasdos meanwhile as the full emperor would keep Anastasios still as patriarch who would again shift his loyalty back to Artavasdos and icons, then Artavasdos too would establish his branch of Leo III’s Isaurian Dynasty now making his other son Niketas who would here be released from prison as his other co-emperor together with Nikephoros, and now fully taking back the throne, Artavasdos would issue a decree saying that all icons in the empire are to be restored.

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Patriarch Anastasios paraded on a donkey by order of Constantine V
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Iconoclast art, the cross at the apse of the Hagia Eirene added by Constantine V
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Byzantine castle in the Opsikion Theme in Asia Minor
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Byzantine era Chora Monastery in Constantinople, Constantine V’s exile place (Artavasdos’ in reality)

Aftermath and Conclusion         

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In real history the failed rebellion of Artavasdos and his civil war against Constantine V showed that the empire was literally split in half over the issue on icons so it was basically Byzantium vs Byzantium where icons were still popular among one half of the population and despised by the other half. Constantine V in reality saw the uprising of Artavasdos which he defeated as a sign to make him have a firmer stance on Iconoclasm which he took to an even higher level later passing death sentences on those who possessed icons as the issue could lead to civil wars like the one he faced from 742 to 743 that nearly cost him his life.

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Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos (r. 741-742/ 743-775)

In real history, Artavasdos and his sons Niketas and Nikephoros were all publicly blinded in the Hippodrome and all banished to the Chora Monastery in Constantinople whereas Anna and the rest of their 7 children would all follow them there to retirement where Anna would be the one caring for her blinded husband and sons who die not so long after, possibly only 2 years later in 745 from the infection caused by the wounds from the blinding. The same historian Theophanes the Confessor who was hostile to Constantine V as well as to his father Leo III and Justinian II before him mentions that 30 years after Artavasdos’ rebellion failed (773), Anna returns to the picture now as an old woman while Constantine V was still in power and here he forced Anna to dig up the bodies of her Artavasdos and her 2 sons with him, use her cloak to carry their bodies, and dump them in a mass grave as a way of condemning them as heretics for supporting icons, while Anna afterwards disappears from the pages of history. Constantine V in 754 in real history called for a Church Council at Hieria, found right across the Bosporus from Constantinople attended by hundreds of Iconoclast bishops and priests from the empire wherein the full-scale persecution of Iconodules was declared.

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Church Council of Hieria, 754 headed by Emperor Constantine V (left)

As emperor, Constantine V’s Iconoclast policy was even way more extreme than his father’s as not only did he pass death sentences on those who supported icons especially on those restored them or encouraged to restore them, but he hating scholars and monks primarily targeted them, had monasteries raided to confiscate icons and their hidden wealth to fund his armies, and had many monks and nuns blinded as well. Another thing Constantine V did as a result of the rebellion of Artavasdos which he crushed was that he divided the troublemaking Opsikion Theme which Artavasdos was in charge of into two halves as a way to weaken its power; the first one still being the Opsikion Theme which had Nicaea as its capital and the other half became known as the Optimatoi Theme with Nicomedia as its capital. As part of creating the new Optimatoi Theme, Constantine V had also introduced a new unit in the Byzantine army which was the Tagmata (singular: Tagma), the new elite force in charge of protecting the emperor in battle which was to be loyal to the emperor at all times which Constantine V created in response to Artavasdos’ rebellion, and the Tagmata were then assigned to the Optimatoi Theme.

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

On the other hand, other than viciously persecuting Iconodules and carrying out an extreme policy of Iconoclasm, Constantine V was a very popular emperor especially among the army as he was most of the time victorious in battle against the Arabs and later against the Bulgars up north, and also because he gave free food to the people of Constantinople, possibly as a way to compensate for his persecutions on Iconodules. Now back to the situation of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate, as their armies were raiding into Asia Minor by the time Constantine V and Artavasdos fought the civil war with each other, they never really penetrated as far as by this time the Umayyad Caliphate was weakening and by 746 once Constantine V finished the civil war, he turned his attention to the war against the Arabs winning a great victory and even recapturing his father’s hometown of Germanikeia in Syria which had some time earlier fallen to the hands of the Arabs. Following this victory, the Byzantine navy defeated an Arab fleet near Cyprus in 747 while in 752, Constantine recaptured a great number of territories in Eastern Asia Minor from the Arabs and resettled the people to the Balkans right at the border with the Bulgarian state. Meanwhile, in 750 the Umayyad Caliphate after another civil war was destroyed and replaced by a new Arab power being the Abbasid Caliphate moving the capital from Damascus to Baghdad which relieved the Byzantines as the new Caliphate’s center was farther away and that it would take some time for this new power to consolidate its rule over the Arab world, though in 751 the new Caliphate won a victory over the forces of the Chinese Tang Empire at the Battle of Talas in Central Asia while in the far west, Spain which came under the rule of the Umayyads still remained an Umayyad state in exile based in Cordoba refusing to be under the Abbasids.

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

However in the remains of Byzantine Italy, not all went in favor for the Byzantines and by 751 with Italy being neglected by Constantine V and Leo III before him as it was too far away, the Exarchate of Ravenna came to an end when Eutychius its last exarch surrendered Ravenna to the Lombards as it proved already too impossible to hold, though the fall of Ravenna to the Lombards was also another blessing in disguise as if it stayed longer under Byzantine rule, the valuable mosaics such as those of Justinian and Theodora which had their faces would have been destroyed and the Lombards not being Iconoclasts would keep them that way when holding Ravenna. With the emperor neglecting Byzantine Italy as their problems were mostly in the east, the pope had also begun to lose faith in the Byzantines, also because of their Iconoclast policy so for protection against the ambitious Lombards, the pope would have to turn to the new powerful Frankish Kingdom up north in today’s France which was willing to fight the Lombards and could be more trusted by the pope as the Franks unlike the Byzantines did not destroy icons. From 755 onwards, Constantine V with the threat of the Arabs dealt with turned his attention north to wage war against the Bulgars who also declared war on them when feeling suspicious of Constantine V fortifying the Byzantine border with them and in this war, the Byzantines won 3 major victories over the Bulgars first in 756, then in 759, and lastly in 763 and with all these victories, Constantine surely believed that Iconoclasm was definitely a successful move. Constantine V later planned another attack on the Bulgars again in 775 but failed to as he died that year at the age of 57 and at his death, he left the empire stronger than he had founded it. According to the Russian Byzantinist historian George Ostrogorsky (1902-1976), he says Constantine V’s had an equally positive and negative reputation as on the positive side he scored countless victories against the Arabs and Bulgars making him very popular with the army especially but on the negative side he was a more vicious Iconoclast than his father that the same historian Theophanes the Confessor described him in the same vicious way as he did with Justinian II saying Constantine V was a “monster” and even a “precursor of the Antichrist” because of how extremely he went against icons therefore because of his extreme Iconoclasm, he would forever be remembered as “Kopronymos” or the “shit-named” despite him still being a capable emperor.                 

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Constantine V’s Iconoclasm from the Manases Chronicle
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Map of the new Arab Abbasid Caliphate, formed in 750 replacing the Umayyad Caliphate
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Battle of Talas, 751- Abbasid Caliphate Arabs defeat the Tang Chinese forces in Central Asia
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Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars from the Madrid Skylitzes
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Meme of Constatine V the chad compared to Virgin Basil II (r. 976-1025)

Now in this story’s case, the events in history will play out quite but not so differently with Artavasdos as emperor and Constantine V out after 743. For Constantine V in this story’s case with Artavasdos winning the civil war, he would be paralyzed for life and have to be confined to the Chora Monastery where in real history Artavasdos and his family were banished to, and in possibly only 2 years (by 745)- the possible date of Artavasdos’ death in real history- Constantine V would die from his severe injury at only 27. His wife Tzitzak here would have to return to her native land of the Khazars like what Justinian II’s wife did back in 711, whereas in real history Tzitzak had died in 750 after giving birth to Constantine V’s first son Leo IV “the Khazar” who would succeed his father as emperor. With Artavasdos continuing his reign as emperor on the other hand, not so much would be different as compared to Constantine V’s reign in reality, except of course for the destructions of icons, and with Artavasdos fully reigning as emperor from 743 onwards, the icons previously destroyed under Leo III and Constantine V would all be put back in place and day and night, the people serving Anna’s resistance would put the icons right back in their rightful places and repaint those that were damaged by the years of Iconoclasm. Therefore, with Artavasdos as emperor, there would be no Council of Hieria in 754, no persecutions, and no having to blind monks and nuns, and instead by some encouragement from Anna and her sisters who were strongly devoted to icons, Iconoclasm would be made illegal and the same Ecloga of Leo III would be updated with the part on Iconoclasm removed, and instead prohibiting it. As for the conflict with the Arabs, the same of course would happen with the Umayyad Caliphate’s power weakening so due to that, Artavasdos just as Constantine V did would also win a great number of victories against the Arabs in the east in 746, 747, and 752 also taking back Leo III’s hometown of Germanikeia. With Artavasdos staying as emperor though, things will only be different in the Byzantine world as outside it, things would still play out the same way as in real history so over with the Arabs, the Umayyad Caliphate would still be dissolved in 750 and replaced with the Abbasid Caliphate and over in Italy, the ambitious Lombards would continue to expand and in 751 take over Ravenna. The fall of Ravenna to the Lombards that would end the Byzantine Exarchate meanwhile would still be inevitable due to the increasing power of the Lombards, so in this story’s case even with Artavasdos as emperor, the same would happen in Italy wherein Exarch Eutychius would still surrender Ravenna to the Lombards and afterwards disappear from the pages of history by fleeing to the new Republic of Venice never to be heard from again, while Byzantine territory in Italy following the fall of Ravenna like in real history would only consist of the southern regions and Sicily as Rome was always asserting itself as independent anyway. However, since icons and icon veneration was now reinstated in Byzantium, the pope would still remain loyal to Byzantium and its emperor Artavasdos also agreeing to still keep Rome under the Byzantines’ protection, therefore this would be a very major change if Artavasdos who favored icons stayed as emperor as with this happening, the pope would no longer have to turn to the Frankish Kingdom for support against the Lombards, but instead still to the Byzantines while the Republic of Venice too would still remain an ally to Byzantium whether the empire was Iconoclast or not. Back in the empire when it would come to reforming the Themes, Artavasdos would also do the same as Constantine V in limiting the power of the Opsikion Theme thus dividing it and making the other half divided out of it also as the Optimatoi Theme as from his rebellion against Constantine V from 742-743, Artavasdos would realize from it despite being the one rebelling that this Theme was something that was causing trouble. In the process of breaking the Opsikion Theme in half too, Artavasdos would also do the same as Constantine V in real history in creating the new imperial elite force or the Tagmata that would be the emperor’s personal army in battle and he too would assign them to the new Optimatoi Theme. Artavasdos though considering that he was way older than Constantine V when taking over the throne in 742 being 55 then would not rule as long as Constantine V in real history who ruled until 775, instead Artavasdos as I would put it would die by 759 at the age of 72 despite having begun Byzantium’s new war against the Bulgars in 755 just as Constantine V did in real history, though at his death, Artavasdos would still leave the empire stronger than he had founded it, meaning Byzantium was more stable compared to how it was in 717 when Leo III with help of Artavasdos took over the empire wherein the Arabs laid siege to Constantinople, though for defending and restoring icons, Artavasdos would be made a saint. Following Artavasdos’ death, the elder son Niketas then would be the senior emperor though his younger brother Nikephoros having already been crowned co-emperor will still stay co-emperor. It would then be in the reign of Niketas and Nikephoros as co-emperors that the Byzantine-Bulgarian war would go on and just as it went in favor for Constantine V and Byzantium in real history, I would also say the same thing for Niketas and Nikephoros’ Byzantium wherein they would also score major victories over the Bulgars. Now we have come to the big question which is what if Artavasdos succeeded in defeating Constantine V and stayed as emperor and would this do a lot of change to the course of the Byzantine history? Well, the answer to this is not very simple but also not very complex. In the short-term, not a lot of changes would happen to the Byzantine Empire in its geography or political situation as after Artavasdos’ death in this story’s case which would be in 759, the Byzantine Empire would still be the same in size and power as it was in real history by this time wherein it was ruled by Constantine V, therefore Asia Minor would still be the heartland where all the Themes and the empire’s army though powerful would still not be that powerful enough to relive the conquests of Justinian I in the 6th century taking back Italy and North Africa once again. In the long-term things may be favorable for Byzantium if Artavasdos survived in power as considering the popes in Rome always opposed the Byzantines’ policy of Iconoclasm and with Artavasdos supporting the icons, then the Byzantine emperor as well as the Church of Constantinople would be still in good terms with the Church of Rome, therefore this will change a lot of things in the long-term for the turbulent relations between the pope and Byzantium. With icons reinstated earlier enough in Byzantium, then Byzantium’s relationship with the pope would not be fractured that much, therefore the pope would no longer have to ally with the Frankish Kingdom of Pepin I and Rome rather than later on becoming an independent state known as the Papal States would still remain under the rule of the Byzantine emperor except with some autonomy under the pope, and in the centuries to come if Byzantium remained in good terms with the pope if icons were reinstated earlier on, then possibly there would be no Great Schism later on in 1054 where the final division between the Eastern and Western Churches happened, and possibly no tensions between the Byzantines and the Crusaders by the time the 11th century ends, and lastly with Byzantium and the pope still good terms, there may even be no bloody 4th Crusade later on in 1204 that almost ended the Byzantine Empire. Of course, Iconoclasm in Byzantium did not go on forever as in 787 the empress regent Irene, the daughter-in-law of Constantine V called for a Church Council that put an end to it temporarily although by 815 Iconoclasm made a comeback under Emperor Leo V (r. 813-820) but in 843 with another Church Council led by the empress regent Theodora, Iconoclasm came to a full stop, therefore this also shows women were strongly devoted to icons.           

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Byzantine Cataphracts battle Arabs in Asia Minor
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New Byzantine Themes in Asia Minor by 750

And now I have come to the very end of chapter V of my Byzantine Alternate History series but before finishing I would like to share my thoughts on this era and creating this kind of dystopian Byzantine story with a mix of family drama and more. First of all, this era in Byzantine history being the 8th century is the part of Byzantine history I am not very much interested in as most of the conflicts except for the epic Arab Siege of 717-718 were mostly internal such as Iconoclasm while the empire was also at its lowest point and not so much too was recorded on this era, which is why it is often called the “Byzantine Dark Ages”. However, despite not being so interested in this era and having not so much recorded about it, I started to think that this was the best era to experiment by adding more fictional elements especially in creating a bit more of a fictional twist with the personalities and stories of historical figures who aren’t so much documented in real history like Artavasdos and Anna as well as Constantine V, except here since this story is in favor of the Iconodules or icon supporters, I made Constantine V look like the same kind of villain Iconodule historians like Theophanes the Confessor describe him as, although just to make the story in favor Artavasdos, I kind of had to embellish Constantine V’s villainous personality as someone more sadistic, deranged, envious, and decadent than what he actually was in reality. In addition, since there are not so many conflicts in this era for Byzantium to go so much into detail about, I also wanted to use this chapter as my chance to experiment more when writing about Byzantium by adding in some more family drama, intimate romance, wild partying scenes, a bit on Byzantine fashion and art, the origins of Constantine V’s title as the “shit-named”, the story of Leo III originally being Konon which was another Byzantine rags to riches story, a totally made up scenario of Constantine V being kicked off the walls by Artavasdos which was a scene inspired by the season 2 finale of Cobra Kai, and a dystopian angle was overall this story’s genre considering the whole issue on Iconoclasm and how it became a law in the empire. As for Artavasdos, this was the most interesting part for me to write about as he is possibly Byzantium’s least known emperor but indeed was an emperor even if ruling so short and having quite an unusual name for a Byzantine emperor and no matter how insignificant he may seem, he may have actually had a great impact on Byzantine history in the long term if he stayed in power as he supported icons and with Iconoclasm being one the major reasons for the permanent and bitter schism between Byzantium and the west, then this schism in the long-term may not be so great in scale if it so happened that Iconoclasm ended earlier under Artavasdos rather than in real history when it went on for about a century more with a small break in the middle (787-815). Of course, this story also had to include Justinian II’s first (685-695) and second (705-711) reigns, the 22-Year-Anarchy period (695-717), the complete loss of North Africa, and Leo III’s reign (717-741) as a way to give some background to the situation of 8th century Byzantium as this 22-Year-Anarchy period was put here to show how bad the situation for Byzantium setting the stage for the cruel 8th century while the first 2/3 of this story with Leo III’s reign and the Arab Siege of Constantinople from 717-718 was definitely important as way to set the stage for the foundation of Iconoclasm and for the conflict between Constantine V and Artavasdos. Now lastly, I also want to talk a bit about Byzantine Iconoclasm here and even though in its time it was popular among many and seemed to be what could have saved the empire from almost falling apart considering the reigns of the Iconoclast emperors Leo III and Constantine V were successful ones, it was also as I would say a waste of time for the Byzantines that really had no purpose and scientific or logical reason and was all based on superstition as when they could have used this time to possibly fix their relationship with the pope and therefore with the rising Western European kingdoms which in turn could have strengthened Byzantium in totally turning the tide of war against the Arab in the east or the Bulgars in the north, but instead the Byzantines wasted their time in the internal issue of Iconoclasm and even though the empire would live longer beyond Iconoclasm vanished, it still ruined their relations with the pope and the west, thus in the long-term Iconoclasm was one of the driving factors for the downfall of Byzantium. Of course back then, without much science to explain things, people would turn to the most stupid of things such as destroying icons thinking it would save them without knowing it would do more harm than good. Overall, as I finish this chapter I have to realize that it was a very hybrid kind of story with the Arab-Byzantine wars fused together with a modern-era dystopian angle, religious controversies, family drama, romance, decadence, and very little details that are too less important for history to mention and this was the whole purpose of writing this chapter in particular, which was to show a more personal and emotional touch in retelling the rich and fascinating history of Byzantium and of course I would have to thank my friend Mario for helping me here in creating the littlest details for this story found here and there. Of course, here in the 8th century, no matter how far this may have been from the time of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire was still the Roman Empire in name and politics despite its culture now drastically shifting to Greek yet here the dystopian story of the Byzantine Dark Ages does not yet end as the next chapter will continue the story of Byzantine Iconoclasm ending in 787 and how Byzantium will react to the birth of new empire in the west that will come to challenge their authority.

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Empress Irene of Athens (r. 780-802), daughter-in-law of Constantine V

Up next in chapter VI of Byzantine Alternate History, the story from this chapter on Artavasdos staying in power will not continue, though the next chapter will start off not too long after this one finished which means some characters including Constantine V but this time like in reality staying power will return and here, the period of Iconoclasm in Byzantium would come to an end with Empress Irene but at the same time, Byzantium will face the rise of the new Frankish Empire of Charlemagne in 800 that had come to challenge the authority of the weakened Byzantine Empire but if Irene and Charlemagne were to marry, then possibly it would be one of the biggest what ifs in world history, thus with this marriage Europe could once again become a super-empire almost as large as the Roman Empire of old. Well, this is all for chapter V of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… 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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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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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.