Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- A Retelling of the Bizarre Byzantine Renaissance and the Macedonian (Amorian) Dynasty

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 9th and 10th 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 VI- 9th Century

Look, I’m giving you these rules, so that you will not leave the best advices and the public interest in the light of past experiments and filtered information.” -Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, De Administrando Imperio

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Welcome to the 7th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Now before I begin this very lengthy article that will span more than a hundred years, I just have to say that I can’t believe I now reached this far in my series basically being more than halfway through the 1,100-year history of Byzantium, thus a milestone indeed! Last time, in chapter VI of this 12-part series, I discussed a possible and highly popular what if scenario of the Byzantine empress Irene of Athens actually marrying the rising star of the time, the Frankish emperor Charlemagne in 802 which could have happened but never did. The previous story too talked about one large united Frankish-Roman Empire as a result of this said marriage that would be a European superpower like the Roman Empire of old and would be powerful enough to turn the tide against the Byzantine Empire’s two mortal enemies and greatest threats being the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in the east and the Bulgarian Empire in the north. Though this marriage would been necessary only in reversing all of the Byzantine economic and military setbacks in the short-term but in the long-term this union of both Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and Carolingian Frankish Empires would only be rather confusing as both halves of the empire (eastern and western) were of different cultures and religions to put it short, and the succession system would be even more complicated. Now since the alternate history scenarios featured per chapter in this series do not continue with each other, the said fictional marriage from the last chapter and the union of the two empires would not continue here, and again as each story in this series is a stand-alone, this chapter would again begin discussing real historical events which will have a twist as it progresses. True enough, this marriage between Irene and Charlemagne was not that necessary in order to reverse all of Byzantium’s setbacks as about a century after this marriage was supposed to happen, Byzantium was long done with its dystopian-like Dark Ages period that the past 3 chapters were set in, and was now in its second golden age- the first one being in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565)- and now here out of Dark Ages, the Byzantine Empire as the 9th century ends became a cultural and military power in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean and together with the Frankish and Bulgarian Empires, one of the 3 major powers of early medieval Europe as a whole. For almost 3 centuries, the Byzantine Empire plunged into a dark age where the empire rapidly lost a great amount of territory and was under attack by enemies on all sides forcing them to fight for centuries on the defensive whether against the Arab powers from the east or the Bulgars from the north, but in the second half of the 9th century, things would all of a sudden change for the Byzantines. The turn of the tide for the Byzantines in the latter 9th century however did not come out of the blue, rather it mostly happened because of the luck of having good geography as in the east, the powerful Abbasid Caliphate being too large to govern started dissolving with its authority becoming decentralized into smaller states or Emirates and, in the west, the same thing too happened to the powerful Carolingian Frankish Empire of Charlemagne as part of Frankish tradition was to divide the empire among a ruler’s successors, thus these situations would give an advantage for Byzantium in the middle to rise again. The 9th century would see the Byzantine Empire slowly rise again into a dominant world power while the 10th century which would be this story’s main focus would see the Byzantine Empire literally in its second golden age of cultural and military power that other powers would grow to respect and fear it, but despite the great power and influence the Byzantines would gain here, they were still far from being an undefeatable force, as they would still face some military defeats to the Arabs and Bulgars while their imperial authority would still be challenged by the western world again in a “Cold War” like situation. Now since this series features one chapter per century, this one would primarily be set in the 10th century with Byzantium again reaching its peak of power and influence but between the previous chapter and this one, there will be a massive time jump as the last chapter was set in the very early part of the 9th century. Despite the massive time jump here of over 100 years, there will still be a lot mentioned about the 9th century in this story’s background as the 9th century had a very crucial role in Byzantine history especially in shaping the second golden age in the 10th century as the 9th century saw the Dark Ages of the Byzantine Empire end, as well as the pointless issue of Iconoclasm or the breaking of icons, the dissolution of the Abbasid Caliphate in the east which allowed the Byzantines to turn the tide of war to the offensive against them, the spread of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium to the Balkans wherein the Bulgars would finally become Christian, and the rise of the most colorful dynasty in Byzantine history, the Macedonian Dynasty which was founded by Basil I the Macedonian in 867 in a rather violent away, and again Basil I was another of the Byzantine emperors who came from humble origins who would go from a peasant, to a stable boy and wrestler, to a bodyguard, and finally become the sole emperor founding a dynasty that would last for over 200 years till the mid 11th century, but the big question is if this Macedonian Dynasty really existed as Basil I’s son and successor was Leo VI who continued the dynasty through his descendants was believed to not be his son but the son of the last emperor of the Amorian Dynasty Michael III who Basil killed, and this story now will exactly do that in discussing the possibility of the Macedonian Dynasty not really existing but in fact still being the Amorian Dynasty of the 9th century. This dynasty whether you would stick to it being the Macedonian or go with the possibility of it being the Amorian Dynasty continued would feature colorful rulers whether they were from the bloodline of Basil I or were powerful generals from the wealthy landed aristocracy that married into it, and these colorful characters of this powerful dynasty from the 9th to 10th centuries in chronological order would include its founder being a wrestler of low birth who became emperor, a serious scholar, a vengeful drunk, an unlikely admiral with a great ability in ruling, an intellectual snob obsessed with court rituals, a fun-loving party-boy, a highly skilled but ruthless general without much political and diplomatic skills, and an overall perfect mix of a soldier and diplomat emperor. The 10th century then would be forever remembered for these characters but also because it was very action-packed and featured a lot of the political struggles and extravagance Byzantium would be remembered for and henceforth the word “byzantine” meaning complicated. At the same time, I also have to admit that the 10th century under the Macedonian Dynasty is my favorite period in Byzantine history and was the particular period that got me so into Byzantine history. This period too is one of the most popular- next of course to Justinian I’s reign in the 6th century- in the history of Byzantium that recently, a graphic novel Theophano: Byzantine Tale, which I also made an article about before, was set in this era with the lead character being Empress Theophano who shares the story’s title name, and Theophano too was one of the major players of the 10th century Byzantine golden age who comes in the middle and latter part of the century being as the novel suggested a woman of low birth who married into the imperial family first to the fun-loving party-boy emperor mentioned above which was Romanos II (r. 959-963) who was from the direct bloodline of the Macedonian (Amorian) Dynasty and afterwards following his death she would be married to the highly skilled but ruthless general mentioned above which was Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) who after marrying Theophano would become emperor. Basically, no matter how small Theophano’s part in the bigger picture would look like, she did indeed play a major role in continuing the Macedonian Dynasty by giving birth to two sons who would be emperors later on being Basil II (r. 976-1025) and Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), and it was Theophano who also served as a link between all the influential people of this era, while at the same time being an ambitious woman which was something quite unheard of then, she also gets some bad reputation as a seductress and murderer that the poisoning and death of her father-in-law Constantine VII in 959 and of her husband Romanos II in 963 and also for plotting the successful assassination of her second husband Nikephoros II in 969. The big twist for this story then would be in its latter half, where if Theophano who in real history only came into the imperial family by chance never got the chance to do so, how different would the history of Byzantium in the 10th century be if Theophano simply did not come into the picture and just lived a simple life away from the politics of the imperial family?     

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Note: Since this story is set in the 9th and 10th centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.  

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Map of the 10th century Byzantine Empire (purple), from Byzantine Tales

For this story, I am back again to basically writing it alone except that the major inspiration for this story’s alternate history plot is from the recent Byzantine era graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale (Instagram: @byzantine_tales) by Spyros Theocharis (Instagram: @spyrosem) which I read very early this year and highly enjoyed that I even made an article reviewing the novel which included a fan casting for the Byzantine era characters for a potential film and a historical analysis of it made before I even began doing this Byzantine Alternate History series.

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Theophano: A Byzantine Tale graphic novel

Now don’t get me wrong here as I did indeed totally enjoy the graphic novel and its plot and because I enjoyed it and it has intrigued me a lot, I ended up involving its plot into my fan fiction series except without its lead character Theophano for the sake of experimenting which I usually do in this series, and for me this was also what I thought would be the best alternate history topic to feature for the 10th century. For those who do not know about this novel and want to know more about the real history of 10th century Byzantium, you can check their website linked here and order a copy of it, but for those who already know the story and want to see a different side of it without its lead character, this story here being chapter VII of my Byzantine Alternate History series will be exactly that. As I mentioned earlier, the Macedonian Dynasty era or Byzantine Renaissance from 867 to the end of the 10th century is my favorite era in all of Byzantine history as it was also the first era in Byzantine history that I read about 2 years ago which then suddenly got me so passionate about Byzantium, and although I already knew about Byzantium before by learning about Justinian I’s era in school, it was this particular period of Byzantium’s second golden age which I discovered by myself that got me so into Byzantine history, therefore this story that I am writing here will be an extra special one for me. The Theophano graphic novel too was a very great story basically because it was set in my favorite timeline in Byzantine history featuring some of Byzantium’s most colorful historical figures and intrigues coming to life, though despite Theophano taken out the picture thus altering the course of the said graphic novel’s plot, the well-made illustrations for the novel by Chrysa Sakel (Instagram: @chrysasakel) would still appear here as a visual guide to 10th century Byzantium and so would be the valuable primary visual source of this era the Madrid Skylitzes in which these illustrations would frequently appear here as well as its counterpart the Russian Primary Chronicle, and so would the artworks from various artists I know online that create Byzantine fan art including Ediacar, Amelianvs, Spatharokandidatos, Akitku, HistoryGold777, Ancientcitylullaby, and Justinianusthegreat. Now back to this story’s style, it will be very much like chapter III of this series which focused on Justinian I’s reign in terms of storytelling as like chapter III, this one will go with the flow of real history meaning that there would not be so much side stories, or more personal touches, or entirely fictional or highly embellished scenarios as the other chapters did, rather this chapter would be straight to the point sticking to historical events going in the same flow as they did in reality for the sake of conveniency as this chapter will cover more than a hundred years of story, but along the way, there will be a number of changes to the narrative and the most significant one first being the Macedonian Dynasty actually being the Amorian Dynasty continued and in latter half of this story when the character of Theophano herself is removed from the plot. In real history, Theophano came into the imperial family by chance when Romanos II as the imperial heir to his father Constantine VII chose her to be his wife, though it is still speculated whether Theophano (originally Anastaso) was simply a commoner from Greece and a daughter of an innkeeper who was rumored for her exceptional beauty that imperial heir Romanos chose her to be his wife or that she came from a minor noble family, but the graphic novel goes with the first theory, and when married she gets herself involved in the toxic schemes of the imperial court. This story however will have a different take on Theophano by making it seem like she did not exist at all and so the big plot here would be that Romanos II simply never heard about her, therefore he would never marry but the rest of the story will simply follow the events of real history which means Romanos II like in reality would die in 963 very young after only 4 years in power and would be succeeded by the Nikephoros II Phokas as emperor except here he would not marry Theophano as she wouldn’t even be around and like in real history would still be assassinated in 969 by his general John Tzimiskes wherein this story would end. At first, it may seem like Theophano did not really have any significant role but later on she would as her son Basil II would become the sole emperor of Byzantium following the death of John I Tzimiskes in 976 and as emperor, Basil II would begin with a rough start but at the end would achieve the impossible of conquering the entire Bulgarian Empire thus becoming one of Byzantium’s greatest conquering emperors known as “Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer” making the Byzantine Empire be once again at its greatest extent of territory, but this would only be achieved in the next century. Since this story’s main plotline is only limited to the 10th century while it was only in the early 11th century in real history when Byzantium reached its peak of power and influence covering a vast amount of territory again after the conquest of the entire Balkans, this story will squeeze in the full Byzantine conquest of the Bulgarian Empire into the 10th century before it ends as a way to give this chapter a dramatic conclusion, and therefore this means that Basil II was not really necessary for the conquest of Bulgaria as any other competent soldier emperor could have done it too, therefore, I would also say Theophano’s part was not really of any significance considering her being Basil II’s mother. On the other hand, there was a lot of research put into this story and rewriting the course of Byzantine history and I would have to thank the Youtube channels that feature Byzantine history in detail which are as usual Kings and Generals, Eastern Roman History, and Thersites the Historian, and of course my ultimate source the highly comprehensive History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson, and at the same time my Lego films from my channel No Budget Films set in this era will be featured here as well.  

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (purple) at its medieval apogee, beginning of the 11th century

Watch this video below to learn more about the Byzantine emperors from the Macedonian Dynasty (from Hellenic History Series).


 

Before beginning the main part of the story itself, there is still some more I have to say about why the 10th century under the Macedonian Dynasty is my favorite period in the history of Byzantium and this is not only because it is fascinating with colorful characters and it was the first part of Byzantine history that I fully read about which got me into it, but it is rather also because it was the century of the Byzantine Empire. Now what I meant about the 10th century being “the century” of Byzantium is that it was the century Byzantium would be remembered for or basically its golden age the same way the Renaissance in the 15th century was for Italy, the 16th century for Spain, the era of Napoleon in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for France, and the Victorian Era and Industrial Revolution in the 19th century for England which means for Byzantium it was its most eventful era not necessarily meaning everything went their way but rather so much had happened with so many colorful characters and events, therefore making this era known as the “Byzantine Renaissance”, though on the other hand this era too happens to be quite insider being mostly only known to Byzantine history enthusiasts. For Byzantium, the 6th century under Justinian I the Great could also be considered Byzantium’s great moment but then it did not last that long and it was also only under one emperor, and on the other hand, Byzantium was still a Roman superpower unlike here in this chapter set in the 10th century, the eventful era for the empire was not under just one emperor but a whole dynasty of colorful rulers and here too Byzantium was growing into its height of power and influence as a culturally and linguistically Greek empire in the Middle Ages but of course still the Roman Empire (Basileia ton Rhomaion in Greek)in name. This chapter will exactly show how Byzantium was the cultural and military power of the 10th century as the extensive military conquests would feature heavily here wherein the powerful Byzantine army did not just fight to defend their borders anymore but gain the upper hand to launch attacks deep into Arab territory in the Middle East where the Byzantines had not ventured to in the past 3 centuries therefore regaining a large amount of lands they lost in the past, while at the same time Constantinople as the imperial capital was the “desire of the world” with advanced technology and imperial extravagance in art and architecture while the empire itself had a very organized ruling system despite all the civil wars, ambitious aristocratic generals, court intrigues, scheming eunuchs, and corruption behind it, though all of this combined whether good or bad would still make Byzantium what it really is. Of course, what also made the 10th century a very interesting time were the colorful yet checkered rulers of Byzantium including the usurping and not so well-educated admiral Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944), the highly cultured intellectual Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 945-959), the tough and ruthless military emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), and the more or less perfect soldier-diplomat emperor John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976) who all had a part in shaping the golden age of the Byzantine Empire, thus all these characters will be featured heavily here. Now the word “Renaissance” means a “rebirth of something” and for Byzantium the 10th century would see its rebirth or rather revival as a superpower after almost 3 centuries of being in the dark having to fight for its survival, and to set the stage for the main storyline of the 10th century, this chapter will go back to Byzantium in the 9th century under the Amorian Dynasty (820-867) where the dystopian-like Byzantine Dark Ages ended and its Renaissance began. The Amorian era would be discussed in this story’s background to discuss how the Byzantine Renaissance began with the turning of the tide of war against the Arabs to the offensive as well as to give a background to the bloody politics of the Byzantine court. It was also in the time of the Amorian Dynasty particularly in the reign of its last emperor Michael III (842-867) when the unlikely founder of the Macedonian Dynasty Basil I rose to power and it was he who killed Michael III and began the Macedonian Dynasty but as mention earlier, when looking into the matter carefully, it seems like the Macedonian Dynasty never really happened except for Basil I’s reign (867-886) as his son and successor Leo VI (r. 886-912) is said to have been the illegitimate son of Michael III the Amorian, and true enough even historians sometimes agree to this meaning that the well-known Macedonian Dynasty that ruled for almost 2 centuries until 1056 was actually not the Macedonian Dynasty but the Amorian Dynasty continued. For the sake conveniency however, historians still refer to Leo VI as Basil I’s son and part of the Macedonian Dynasty and so are his descendants, but this story for the sake of creating a plot twist will go with the speculation of Leo VI being actually Michael III’s son and not Basil I’s so the Dynasty here despite being known as the Macedonian Dynasty is actually the Amorian Dynasty continued, therefore this story will refer to Leo VI not as Basil I’s son as well as not a Macedonian but an Amorian and so would his descendants. In this chapter, the story of Byzantium will get even more exciting yet crazy as it will cover a lot of interesting events including a long war against the Bulgarian Empire under its tsar Simeon (r. 893-897), the continued war against the Arabs except this time with the Byzantines finally gaining the upper hand, religious debates and controversies still continuing, the spread of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium to the Balkans, endless court politics and rivalries with the eunuchs involved, ambitious generals setting their eyes on the throne, and the tensions with Western Europe again brewing in the same old “Cold War” situation as before and here despite Charlemagne from the previous chapter gone, there will be a new Frankish ruler like him to challenge the authority of Byzantium which would be the first Holy Roman emperor Otto I the Great (r. 962-973). On the other hand, this chapter will also cover Byzantium’s northern neighbor the Bulgarian Empire a lot, as well as new people from the north coming in to the picture either to help or harm the Byzantines and these will include the nomadic Magyars and Pechenegs, as well as the Rus or Norsemen that would establish the Kievan Rus’ State in what would be medieval Russia. Now since this chapter will cover a long amount of time spanning more than a hundred years, it would be told in a fast-paced action-packed documentary style which at some points would be something like a mockumentary in tone as this chapter would somewhat be a parody to the Theophano graphic novel, therefore would have in some parts a sarcastic tone as we skim through the years and events.

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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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Genealogy of the Macedonian (Amorian) Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire (867-1056), without Theophano and her descendants (crossed out in red) in this story’s case

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VI- What if Charlemagne and Irene Married and United their Empires?

A Review/ Analysis/ and Fan-Casting for Theophano: A Byzantine Tale

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III: Justinian I the Great Saves his Empire from the Plague and 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)

All Sieges of Constantinople

Ethnic Origins of the Byzantine Emperors


The Major Players of this Story’s Byzantine Renaissance Epic:

Emperor Leo VI “the Wise”- Byzantine emperor (886-912); image found in the main story itself

Zoe Karbonopsina- Byzantine empress and empress-regent, wife of Leo VI; image found in the main story itself

Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos– Byzantine emperor (913-959), son of Leo VI and Zoe; image found below

Alexander- Byzantine emperor (912-913), half-brother of Leo VI

Nikolaos Mystikos- Patriarch of Constantinople (901-907/ 912-925)

Simeon the Great- Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire (893-927)

Romanos I Lekapenos- Byzantine admiral turned emperor (920-944), father-in-law of Constantine VII

John Kourkouas- Byzantine general, supreme commander of the eastern forces under Romanos I

Helena Lekapene- Byzantine empress, Daughter of Romanos I, wife of Constantine VII

Bardas Phokas the Elder- Byzantine general of the powerful Phokas clan

Romanos II- Byzantine emperor (959-963), son of Constantine VII and Helena

Joseph Bringas- Palace eunuch and advisor of Romanos II

Basil Lekapenos- Palace eunuch and advisor, son of Romanos I

Nikephoros II Phokas- Byzantine general and emperor (963-969), son of Bardas Phokas the Elder, “Pale Death of the Saracens”

Leo Phokas the Younger- Byzantine general, younger brother of Nikephoros II, son of Bardas Phokas the Elder

John I Tzimiskes- Byzantine general and emperor (969-976), nephew of Nikephoros and Leo

Sayf al-Dawla- Arab Emir of Aleppo (945-967)

Polyeuctus- Patriarch of Constantinople (956-970)

Otto I the Great- King of East Frankia and Holy Roman Emperor (936-973)

Zoe Porphyrogenita- Daughter of Constantine VII and Helena, Byzantine empress and wife of Nikephoros II and John I in this story

Sviatoslav I “the Brave”- Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (945-972)

Bardas Skleros- Byzantine general, and eventual emperor in this story

Bardas Phokas the Younger- Byzantine general, son of Leo Phokas the Younger

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Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of Byzantium (r. 913-959), art by Powee Celdran

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (blue), Bulgarians (dark orange), Arabs (green), Franks (gold), Rus (dark red)


Part I.

Prologue- The Amorian Dynasty and the Rise of Basil the Macedonian, the wrestler turned emperor (811-886)        

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At some time in 811 was born the future emperor Basil the Macedonian to peasant parents in the Byzantine Theme of Macedonia near the city of Adrianople, though its name can be misleading as this Theme was not in Macedonia itself but in Thrace. Though Basil was born a peasant and known as the Macedonian, he was in fact not a Macedonian but in his father’s side an Armenian descended from the Arsacid Dynasty that ruled Armenia (12-428AD) as well as a descendant of the first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), if you would believe the fabrication made about Basil’s lineage during his reign later on, but in this story’s case his noble lineage would be true. In his mother’s side, Basil was either of Slavic or Greek descent which would still remain unclear but the known fact is that Basil’s father from Byzantine Armenia before Basil was born was resettled into the Theme of Macedonia which was part of the imperial policy to balance ethnic groups across the empire and integrating them with others to prevent a strong sense of unity that could lead to ethnic rebellions. Basil’s early life is not known but it is said, which would be true in this story was that his mother once had a dream wherein a saint told her that her son Basil would one day become emperor no matter how impossible that seemed as they were from a very simple family, but Basil took this prophecy very seriously believing it was his destiny. Some sources though put Basil’s birth around the 830s but also in the Theme of Macedonia hence his nickname “the Macedonian” while other sources say as a child, he was taken into the Bulgarian Empire up north as captive returning to Byzantine Macedonia in the 830s, but this story would simply stick to nothing eventful happening in Basil’s early life except for the prophecy of him becoming emperor. Now let us have a recap of the events in the 9th century which the previous chapter mentioned as well and here let’s begin with 811, the year of Basil I’s birth which was also the same year the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I the Logothete who overthrew Empress Irene in 802 died in the Battle of Pliska against the Bulgarian forces of the Bulgarian ruler or khan Krum leading to a severe defeat for the Byzantine forces whereas the dead emperor’s skull was turned into Krum’s drinking cup. Nikephoros I though had a son named Staurakios who fought in this battle and survived but badly injured from it that in only 2 months he abdicated as becoming paralyzed, he could not rule properly therefore he retired as a monk dying the next year and had passed the throne to his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe (r. 811-813) who as emperor had no military experience that in 813, he lost against the Bulgar forces of Krum when his forces deserted him.

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

Not wanting a bloody end, Michael I abdicated and again retired to become a monk and would live up to 844 while the throne was passed to Leo V the Armenian (r. 813-82) the same general that deserted him, who as emperor brought back the old policy of Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons which was thought to have ended back in 787 if you remember from the previous chapter, though Leo V was not entirely serious about it but rather only used returning the policy for political reasons to please his soldiers that supported him as they were still hardcore Iconoclasts. Under Leo V though, the Bulgarian threat to Byzantium disappeared when Khan Krum died in 814, however Leo V did not rule long enough and establish a dynasty as in Christmas of 820 an unlikely coup happened when his friend and trusted general Michael the Amorian turned on him and killed him during the Christmas Mass, thus Michael II the Amorian was proclaimed emperor.

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

Michael II to justify usurping the throne tried to pretend like he had nothing to do with Leo V’s murder and as emperor he was an able ruler except he lacked education and class, but so did he lack legitimacy that his other general friend together with Leo V which was Thomas the Slav in 821 rose up against him starting a full scale civil war that was as damaging to Byzantium the same way a foreign war would be and this civil war lasted for 2 years until Thomas was defeated and had surrendered in 823 but despite winning a victory, it was a very costly one for Michael II as he ended up burning a big portion of the Byzantine fleet which Thomas controlled and losing a major part of the fleet opened up some regions of the empire to foreign invasion. In 824, the entire island of Crete fell to Arab pirates from Spain who were exiled from the Umayyad Arab Muslim state that controlled most of Spain known as Al-Andalus or rather the Emirate of Cordoba as this group rebelled against the authorities there but failed thus turning to piracy in the Mediterranean, and without a Byzantine fleet to stop them Crete fell to these pirates thus creating the Emirate of Crete which would be a major thorn for the Byzantines’ commercial activities in the Mediterranean from here on as Crete was a very strategic area in the Mediterranean. However, not only Crete had fallen as in 827 Byzantine control of Sicily would begin to slip out when the army of a new Arab power in North Africa known as the Aghlabids first invaded Sicily and here would start the Arab conquest of Byzantine Sicily. Michael II who founded the Amorian Dynasty then died in 829 and would be succeeded by his 24-year-old son Theophilos who unlike his father was very educated and cultured and despite being a Byzantine, he greatly admired the arts, sciences, and general culture of the Islamic Arab world, most especially that of the Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad as Theophilos’ idol was the sophisticated and powerful Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809) who had been mentioned significantly in the previous chapter.

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

Though Theophilos greatly admired the Abbasid Caliphate in cultural aspects, he was also threatened by them therefore he was committed to fight them in battle which he spent most of his reign doing and had ended either winning some victories but losing great defeats as well such as in 838 wherein Theophilos led the army himself but ended up losing leading to the Abbasid forces penetrating deep into Byzantine Asia Minor and sacking the city of Amorion, the capital of the Anatolic Theme, the empire’s most powerful Theme or military province, but surprisingly this would be Byzantium’s last major defeat to the Arab caliphate. Back in Constantinople, Theophilos was a great patron of the arts and sciences doing just as his idol Harun al-Rashid did with his capital Baghdad by using public funds to construct several luxurious palaces and learning centers, and his patronage of art science would kick-start the Byzantine cultural Renaissance, but at the same time he was also a supporter of Iconoclasm like his father Michael II and Leo V before him though not an extreme one as Theophilos only did it to please his powerful Iconoclast allies in the army, and little would he know that he would be the last Iconoclast emperor whereas his wife the empress Theodora was a strong Iconophile or supporter of religious icons and their veneration.

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Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Theophilos, empress-regent 842-855

Meanwhile, the threat of the Arabs was still at large as in 841 the Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tasim launched a massive naval expedition intended to attack Constantinople but it failed as Al-Mu’tasim died in early 842 and so did Theophilos from dysentery and here he would be succeeded by his son Michael III who was only 2-year-old therefore ruling at first under the regency of his mother Empress Theodora, the powerful eunuch Theoktistos, and his uncles Bardas and Petronas who were his mother’s brothers. The first act of Michael III as emperor, although carried out by his mother was finally ending the issue of Iconoclasm wherein a Church Council in Constantinople was held in 843 which then declared Iconoclasm a heresy while the Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople John VII Grammatikos was removed from office by force and replaced by the Iconophile Methodios I who would also serve as the young emperor’s regent. This kind of regency council would only be the first one mentioned in this story as it is about to become a standard in Byzantine politics and so would be eunuchs running the government, but another standard that would be set following the end of Iconoclasm was a rebirth in the arts as after all those years of icons being destroyed making art look plain, the art scene of the Byzantine Empire especially in religious paintings found in churches would be ever more impressive than before as a way to make up for all those years these images were being destroyed for no useful reason.

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Byzantine forces defeated by the Bulgars at the Battle of Pliska in 811
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Khan Krum of Bulgaria uses Emperor Nikephoros I’s skull as his drinking cup
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Assassination of Emperor Leo V, Christmas of 820
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Rebellion of Thomas the Slav and civil war 821-823, from the Madrid Skylitzes
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Invasion of Byzantine Crete by the exiled Arabs from Spain, 824
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Invasion of Sicily by the Aghlabid Arabs of North Africa, 827
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The court of Emperor Theophilos, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine army under Theophilos defeated by the Abbasid Arabs at the Battle of Anzen, 838
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End of Iconoclasm and the Restoration of Icons under Empress Theodora and her son the young emperor Michael III, 843

    

With the issue of Iconoclasm done for good and the power of the Abbasid Caliphate in the east suddenly no longer a threat following the decentralization of their state, as well as the with the same kind of dissolution of the powerful Frankish Empire in the west to smaller kingdoms, it seemed like all was well for the Byzantines to kick-start their Renaissance or golden age thus ending the dystopian like Byzantine Dark Ages. Though Iconoclasm had finally come to an end, it was not really the end as soon enough new religious debates and controversies would emerge with one being now the issue over whether the Church should be run by highly spiritual officials or secular ones and another one being the rise of a heretical Christian sect known as the Paulicians in Asia Minor, which although had been around in Eastern Asia Minor and Armenia since the 7th century. As a heretical sect of Christianity, the Paulicians rejected some books of the Old and New Testament and preached against private property and at first, they seemed to be harmless until they had grown to become a political movement in the 9th century.

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Massacre of the Paulicians under Empress Theodora

Theodora as the empress-regent and a strongly Orthodox Christian was heavy on persecuting the heretical Paulicians by force that in less than 2 years into her reign as her son’s regent, about 100,000 Paulicians were brutally put to death under her when they refused to acknowledge their errors and convert to Orthodoxy. The surviving Paulicians fled east to Armenia and to the Arabs and later their leader Karbeas would establish the independent Principality of Tephrike (today’s Divrigi, Turkey) in Eastern Asia Minor with the help of Umar al-Aqta, the Arab Emir of Melitene which was one of the semi-independent states or emirates formed in the border between Byzantium and Abbasid Caliphate as a result of the Abbasids’ decentralization in recent years, and now this new Paulician state would pose a threat to Byzantium. At the same time as the Principality of Tephrike rose, the eunuch Theoktistos who was basically in charge of the empire here made the first attempt to recapture Crete from the Arab pirates there which although failed and in 847, the Patriarch of Constantinople Methodios I died and here the eunuch Ignatios, son of the former emperor Michael I Rangabe thus a grandson of Emperor Nikephoros I who was his mother’s father became the new patriarch, although Ignatios was a highly spiritual person who was against the Church being involved in secular matters, thus here begins the ongoing debate over Church leaders being spiritual or secular which would play a big role in this story.

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Mosaic of Ignatios, Patriarch of Constantinople (847-858/ 867-877)

Now under Theodora and the eunuch Theoktistos, the empire seemed to operating well especially since it suddenly acquired a lot of wealth some time back in Theophilos’ reign when a large source of gold was discovered in the empire’s Armeniac Theme in Asia Minor and it so happened too during the regency of Theoktistos that the Byzantine fleet went as far as sailing to Egypt- which the Byzantines had not done in over 2 centuries- and attacking the Arab held port of Damietta there in 853 to punish the Arabs for their naval raids on the empire. By 855, Michael III had now come of age being 15 and he distrusted both his mother and Theoktistos relying a lot more on his uncles Bardas and Petronas, and a lot of Michael’s issues with his mother and eunuch regent had to do with the usual case of being forced to marry someone he did not like rather than his beloved mistress Eudokia Ingerina.

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Emperor Michael III of Byzantium (r. 842-867), son of Theophilos and Theodora

Michael III however supported by his uncle Bardas succeeded here and Theoktistos was then arrested and executed while the empress Theodora was banished to a monastery for life, which here would be the first of many incidents like these. From 855 onwards Bardas was the effective ruler of the empire as Michael III was still young and at the same time not really a responsible ruler as he prioritized entertainment, partying, horse riding, and drinking with friends over the empire and it was around this time in 857 when the young Michael III would meet the future emperor Basil the Macedonian who had apparently come to Constantinople some time back. A lot of the information about Basil the Macedonian coming into Constantinople and making a name for himself remains to be of legend but would be true in this story’s case as an alternate history story, which means that here Michael III would first meet Basil in the palace’s horse stables with Basil nothing more but a stable boy.

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Basil the Macedonian, peasant turned stable boy, turned wrestler, turned bodyguard of Michael III

Here in 857, the massive 46-year-old Basil would out of the blue impress the emperor when being able to tame a horse nobody could tame but him as he had an ability to communicate with horses and again sometime later Basil would prove his strength as a wrestler when the emperor himself saw Basil wrestling against and defeating the undefeatable Bulgarian champion in a wrestling match with ease, and because of his great strength and unusual abilities, Basil would soon grow to become a favorite of Michael III who would immediately make Basil his bodyguard or personal protector and chamberlain known as the Parakoimomenos in Greek, which although was a position assigned for eunuchs. On the other hand, the emperor’s uncle Bardas would do quite a pretty good job in actually managing the empire and it was under him that the Renaissance of learning and culture would rise as he invested heavily on constructing learning centers, palaces, and richly decorated churches, though he was also a strongly secular person who in 858 forced the reigning patriarch Ignatios to resign wherein Bardas would replace him with his friend the scholar Photios who was a secular person with no religious background as Bardas saw that a politician was needed to be in charge of the Church of Constantinople.

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St. Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople (858-867/ 877-886)

After becoming a priest in only a week, Photios quickly became patriarch though his appointment would cause a lot of tensions and again with the Patriarch of Rome or the pope in the west Nicholas I who had also just been elected as pope in 858 and apparently had backed Ignatios, thus here begins the Photian Schism which dealt with the issue of whether the emperor was to appoint or fire the Patriarch of Constantinople or if it was the job of the pope to do it, thus again making it another heated situation in the rivalry between the Orthodox Church in east and Catholic Church in the west where again it had to do with the pope wanting to assert his supremacy over the Church of Constantinople and the other Churches which included Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria whereas all the heads of these Churches were in fact intended to be equal. Now it would seem that a lot of the reasons for the Byzantine Renaissance to kick-start was due to Bardas’ administration and investments to grow Byzantine culture and literacy but the rising Byzantine Renaissance was also due to military victories and as Bardas was basically responsible for the cultural revival, his brother Petronas was responsible for the military resurgence as in 856 in his campaign against the Paulicians of Tephrike, he happened to go as far east even crossing the Euphrates River in Eastern Asia Minor striking deep into Arab territory being the first to do so in more than 200 years, thus returning to Constantinople with many Arab prisoners of war.

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Tephrike, stronghold of the Paulicians (today’s Divrigi, Eastern Turkey)

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Basil the Macedonian (far left) defeats the Bulgarian wrestler in a wrestling match, Madrid Skylitzes

           

Though things seemed to be going in favor for the Byzantines when it came to expelling Arab raiders from their eastern frontiers more so with the power of the Abbasid Caliphate in decline thus creating smaller Arab emirates and small Georgian and Armenian Christian principalities along the border of Byzantium and the Caliphate, there happened to be a new unknown enemy that would attack Constantinople directly for the first time in 860 while Michael III himself was away in the east battling the Arabs.

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The Kievan Rus’ (Varangians) sail down to Constantinople from Russia, 860

Here in 860, this unknown enemy that attacked Constantinople or at least its suburbs with their longships was the newly forming state of the Kievan Rus’ or basically the predecessor state of Russia and these back people back then were basically Norsemen from the eastern part of Scandinavia (modern day Sweden) better known as Varangians rather than Vikings as Vikings refer more to the Scandinavians from the west (Norway and Denmark) that would come to attack Western Europe while the Varangians from Sweden led by a chief named Rurik would be the ones to sail into Russia and Eastern Europe. As you may all know that the 9th century over here was the era of the Vikings and this included the Varangians who like the Vikings in the west seeing their native land was too cold and overpopulated to farm in, they searched out for land to colonize, and here the Varangians sailed across the Baltic Sea into the rivers of Russia where they would establish trading colonies like Novgorod and Kiev and integrate with the local Slavic population there before establishing their own state there and then sailing out into the Black Sea to Constantinople. The Varangian warriors here better known as the Rus however did not really intend to besiege Constantinople but just lay waste to its suburbs and loot treasure in typical Viking fashion and after they carried out their raid, they simply left the area when Michael III came back.

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Fresco of the Rus’ attack on Constantinople, 860

The Byzantine people however would never forget the fear caused by these warriors as their large sizes, messy hair and beards, and drunken behavior greatly intimidated them though Patriarch Photios claims that the Rus departed because of divine intervention. When doing an investigation on the Rus’ attack, it turned out that it was indirectly caused by the Byzantines as back in Theophilos’ reign, he helped the still remaining Khazar Khanate in Southern Russia and a long-time Byzantine ally construct the Fortress of Sarkel along the Don River which later blocked the Rus’ fleet from coming out to the Black Sea to trade and in revenge for the Byzantines for helping build this fort, they chose to attack Constantinople just to teach Byzantium a lesson. With this attack by the Rus, Photios decided that it was time to make a firm stance in converting the people up north to Christianity as a way to create allies rather than enemies, although Photios was actually doing this as part of the ongoing competition with the Church of Rome, and just like in the 20th century Cold War between the USA and Soviet Union where both were at race to beat each other into blasting off to space, here the Byzantine Empire and Papacy had their own Cold War in a race with each other on which of them would be first to convert the still Pagan Slavs and the still Pagan Bulgarian Empire up north, and apparently the Byzantines won it being first to convert the Slavs as Photios sent two missionaries deep into Central and Eastern Europe.

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Sts. Cyril (left) with the Cyrillic Alphabet and Methodius (right), Byzantine missionaries sent to convert the Slavs by Patriarch Photios

These two Byzantine missionaries Photios sent were the Greek brothers Constantine (renamed Cyril) and Methodius who had known the Slavic language therefore making it easier to spread Orthodox Christianity by preaching it in their native Slavic languages and these brothers would end up spreading Orthodoxy to what is now Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Russia and despite the political agenda of Photios in converting the people of these distant lands just to beat the Church of Rome in doing so, these brothers would be forever remembered as saints and their greatest legacy was in leading to the creation of the Cyrillic Alphabet named after the younger brother St. Cyril which would be the alphabet of many Slavic countries up to this day including Russia, though this would be more of a different story altogether. Back in the empire, Michael III would happen to be too trusting of the people that worked with him like his uncle Bardas who in 859 was promoted to the rank of Kouropalates or Head of the Palace and even Caesar in 862, though in 863 Michael himself led a military campaign together with his other uncle Petronas against an invading army of Abbasid Arabs and forces of their satellite Emirate of Melitene allied with the Paulician forces of Tephrike under Karbeas and here at the Battle of Lalakaon in Paphlagonia (Northern Asia Minor), the Byzantine forces led by Petronas won a decisive victory over the Abbasids and their allies while the Paulicians’ leader Karbeas too was killed here. This victory thus happened to be the turning point wherein the tide of war against the Arabs truly switched to the offensive for the Byzantines and this would be the reality for the Byzantines from here on yet in the following year (864) something else went in favor for the Byzantines and this was with their northern neighbor, the Bulgarian Empire as their ruler Boris I finally chose to convert to Orthodox Christianity thus making Bulgaria fall under the Church of Constantinople and true enough under the Byzantine sphere of influence.

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Boris I, aka. Boris-Michael, 1st Christian ruler of the Bulgarian Empire (852-889)

The reason for Boris I to accept Orthodox Christianity was most certainly because he was pressured to do so according to the History of Byzantium Podcast, and I would agree with it too as Bulgaria here was surrounded by two powerful Christian Empires pressuring them to convert which were the Orthodox Byzantines in the south and the Catholic Carolingian Franks in the west and between both, Boris chose Byzantine Orthodox basically because Constantinople was closer to him and when being baptized as a Christian in the Bulgarians capita of Pliska, he changed his name to Boris-Michael using the name of his godfather, the Byzantine emperor Michael III who although was not at his baptism. As for Michael III, despite so much successes happening in his reign, he really had nothing to do with it but no matter how irresponsible he was as a ruler who did not really give a care about anything, he had competent people behind him such as his uncles Bardas and Petronas as well as Patriarch Photios while Michael was busy partying with his friends that one time according again to the History of Byzantium Podcast, he participated in the chariot race in the Hippodrome himself and once played around with his friends dressing up in stolen clerical outfits dancing around in the streets of Constantinople as if he was mocking the clergy. Michael had also grown closer to his bodyguard Basil as the years passed which also helped Basil rise up the ranks that soon enough Michael as an act to keep his longtime mistress Eudokia Ingerina closer to him as he was still married to his wife he did not love, he had Basil divorce his first wife Maria despite them already having a son named Constantine, thus having Basil marry Eudokia as Michael wanted to still keep her closer to him, and Basil was in fact the closest person to him.

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Eudokia Ingerina, mistress of Michael III, wife of Basil the Macedonian

Unfortunately, the people in the government that Michael put all his trust to would not going to last long enough as in 865 his uncle Petronas had died and in 866 when Bardas was preparing for another the second attempt to retake Crete from the Arab pirates, Basil would show his true ambitions and here he falsely accused Bardas of plotting against Michael to take the throne from him and Michael as usual easily fell for this lie and had Basil execute Bardas which Basil successfully did, thus Basil replaced Bardas as Caesar and then even as co-emperor, though this the expedition to retake Crete never happened. In 866 as well, Eudokia would give birth to her first son named Leo and his birth was celebrated with races in the Hippodrome but it was unclear on who his father actually was whether it was her husband Basil or her lover Michael III, but this story would go with Michael III the Amorian as Leo’s father as Michael was closer to Eudokia more than Basil was and being unable to have children with his first wife, he thought that he could use Eudokia to continue his dynasty by having sons with her. Basil on the other hand was still ever more eager to rise up to power as already getting a taste of it, he could not stop and this meant him wanting to be able to achieve the most powerful position of the empire, which was that of emperor. One night in 867 as Michael III with Basil and Eudokia were at a dinner in a palace in the Galata District of Constantinople found across the harbor of the Golden Horn, with Michael as usual drinking to get wasted, hence his nickname “Michael the Drunkard”, Basil used Michael’s drunkenness to his advantage and so he went to Michael’s bedroom and broke the locks of the door and escaped to the Imperial Palace in the main part of the city. Michael being so wasted was carried to his bed but some hours later as the door’s lock was broken by Basil, assassins sent by Basil rushed into the room and stabbed Michael to death. Now because of this, it can be said that Michael III’s personality of being too trusting of others too much led to his downfall especially when putting trust in someone like Basil who happened to be a murderer with his own imperial ambitions. Following his assassination, Michael was quickly buried in a small church across the Bosporus wherein only his mother Theodora and sisters were allowed to attend his funeral, though later this year (867), Theodora too would die.         

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Kievan Rus’ (Varangian) longships in the Russian river systems
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Byzantine forces under Petronas and Michael III defeat the Arabs and Paulicians at the Battle of Lalakaon, 863
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Execution of Bardas Caesar, 866
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Michael III (right, in blue) makes Basil the Macedonian (left, in red) his co-emperor, Madrid Skylitzes
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Map of the Byzantine Empire (purple) in 867 at the rise of Basil I the Macedonian

   

Here in 867 following the assassination of Michael III, Basil I the Macedonian at age 56 after just 10 years of knowing the previous emperor was now the sole emperor of the Byzantine Empire. The situation happened to be quite embarrassing here as a simple peasant turned horse tamer and wrestler who not only had no formal education but in fact was an illiterate person became the sole ruler of the empire but despite being illiterate and uneducated, he was very intelligent and this was how he was able to find the right moment to usurp power and kill off Michael III, though everyone really just saw Basil as a man of great size, height, and physical strength and nothing more.

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Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886)

In order to justify killing Michael III, Basil told everyone he was just doing this to save the empire as Michael III true enough was an irresponsible drunk who could not trusted as if he continued ruling alone with his uncles Bardas and Petronas gone, then all the hard work that was previously done to improve the empire would easily be wasted away. However, Basil was not the first to take the throne this way as just 47 years earlier in 820 Michael III’s grandfather Michael II did just that by killing off Leo V in the Christmas Mass, therefore Basil I’s murder of Michael III seemed justifiable and nothing new to the people of Constantinople and the army, but also Basil’s usurping of power would also be justifiable as he was getting rid of the corrupt Amorian Dynasty which is what Basil’s biography written by his grandson, who will appear later would say about him. On the other hand, Basil also wanted to show that he did not really kill off the Amorian Dynasty by telling everyone basically that his son with Eudokia which was Leo was actually Michael III’s which in this story would be true making Leo an Amorian. Now just after becoming the sole emperor or Basileus of the empire, Basil I despite knowing very little about Church politics would show his hidden ability in politics when suddenly firing Photios from his position as patriarch and replacing him with the former now 70-year-old patriarch Ignatios who back in 858 was fired by Bardas and by firing Photios, Basil was actually doing this as an act be in good terms with the new pope in Rome Hadrian II who was just elected in 867 too and with Photios who was at odds with the Papacy removed, the pope in Rome and Byzantium would be in good terms again, and now with Photios ends the Photian Schism. Now when it came to ruling, Basil I wanted to show his subjects he was a devout Christian unlike his predecessor Michael III who was the opposite being quite disrespectful to his faith and debauched in lifestyle which shocked his subjects, but also to show that he was a just usurper rather than a bloody killer, Basil acted as a strong protector of the poor and lower classes from corrupt eunuchs and tax officials considering that he came from it, though a lot of Basil’s reputation as this was mostly exaggerated in his biography by his grandson.

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

On the other hand, Basil was also trying to make an image of himself as the new Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), the greatest Byzantine emperor so far and to imitate Justinian I he carried out the ambitious project of recodifying Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis itself or Code of Laws for the empire, and although Basil was illiterate all he could do was commission the recodification of Justinian’s laws and its translation into Greek and this new edition of Justinian’s code of laws would be known as the Basilika, though not named after him as its title actually means “Royal Laws” in Greek, and this would be the code of laws the Byzantines would use till the end of their empire. Like Justinian I, Basil also carried out ambitious construction projects although a lot of others before including the Magnaura school which taught astronomy, geometry, and philosophy was already established by Bardas previously so basically what Basil would do was to build a church that would rival Justinian’s 6th century Hagia Sophia cathedral in grandeur and this church built by Basil I was the Nea Ekklesia in the Imperial Palace Complex which although was not as large as the Hagia Sophia near it but had the innovation of having 4 domes surrounding a higher inner dome, thus the first Byzantine church in this new style and inside it would have some of the finest frescos and mosaics in a new style that emerged in this era following the end of the Iconoclast period. Like Justinian I as well, Basil I also came from humble origins except Justinian was highly educated while Basil still remained illiterate even deep into his reign that he would only use a mark rather than his signature in signing documents. Just like emperor Justinian I again, Basil I would also have some interest in restoring Byzantine rule to the west in which no emperor prior to him did since Constans II (r. 641-668) 200 years earlier- the lead character of chapter IV of this series. Basil I would show his interest in wanting to restore the Byzantine west in 870 when he allied himself with the current Carolingian Frankish emperor Louis II, the grandson of the Frankish Empire’s founder Charlemagne (r. 768-814) in fighting off Arab attacks in Southern Italy which happened to be successful as in 870 the Byzantine fleet in the Adriatic Sea was able to defeat an Arab fleet and afterwards annex the Dalmatian Coast (in today’s Croatia) as part of the Byzantine Empire in order to protect it thus making Dalmatia a Theme while the city of Bari in Southern Italy which previously fell to the Arabs in 871 fell under Louis II though after his death in 875 the Byzantines would take back Bari, and meanwhile the successful general who would be responsible for these victories in Italy was the Cappadocian Greek noble Nikephoros Phokas the Elder, though it would be his grandson mentioned later who would be the more famous person with the same name. At the same time as Basil II busied himself fighting wars in the west, the Paulicians of Tephrike in Eastern Asia Minor again came back into the picture and this time a bigger threat under a strong leader named Chrysocheir who succeeded Karbeas as the Paulician’s leader, and in 872 Basil himself personally led the army determined to crush the Paulician heretics in battle once and for all. When confronting the Paulicians in Eastern Asia Minor at the Battle of Bathys Ryax, Basil himself almost lost his life if not for one of his soldiers being the Armenian peasant Theophylact Lekapenos saving his life here, but at the end of the day the Byzantine forces still won the battle and Chrysocheir himself was killed while the entire Principality of Tephrike would be annexed into the empire, though the city itself would only be fully conquered and destroyed in 878. Back in Constantinople, Theophylact would be promoted to be a member of the emperor’s elite guard or Tagmata but he would have no so such ambitions, although his son who later appear would. Now with the Paulicians fully removed as a political power, the remaining Paulician believers would be forced to settle in other parts of the empire to prevent them from starting another rebellion and many Paulicians would end up fleeing north into the Balkan heartlands.

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Church of Nea Ekklesia in Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex, built under Basil I
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Basil I’s Byzantine army defeat the Paulician forces at the Battle of Bathys Ryax, 872

On the other hand, it seemed like Byzantine missionary activities were successful in Christianizing the Balkans that Photios being a politician needed to be restored as patriarch and so when the 80-year-old Patriarch Ignatios died in 877, Basil reappointed Photios as patriarch who at the same time would also be the teacher of Basil’s sons. The rest of the events however would turn out disappointed and even sad for Basil in the next years as first in 878 Syracuse which was the main city of Byzantine Sicily would fall to the Arabs and in 879 Basil’s son and co-emperor Constantine with his first wife Maria suddenly dropped dead therefore he had to make his youngest son with Eudokia Ingerina which was Alexander co-emperor and Alexander certainly was Basil’s son with Eudokia as he was born in 870 long after Michael III died which is why Basil favored Alexander more than Leo who was actually Michael III’s son, but on the other hand Basil saw Constantine’s death as divine punishment for killing Michael III.

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Emperor Basil I on his horse

In 880, there would at least be some success for the Byzantines as Nikephoros Phokas the Elder was able to recapture much of Southern Italy from the Arabs but in 882, Basil would be depressed again as his wife Eudokia had died and by being more depressed, Basil would become even more paranoid as the years would go by especially with Leo who he never believed was his son anyway that Basil would in some occasions physically beat Leo basically for no clear reason except that Leo was nothing like Basil who being very manly enjoyed hunting and sports while Leo was a serious scholar who enjoyed books and true enough Leo too did not see Basil as his real father and obviously- in this story’s case- Leo looked nothing like Basil who was large in size with a rough face but rather Leo looked more like Michael III being thinner and shorter with a finer face. At one point, Basil even suspected Leo of trying to kill him to avenge his father Michael III’s death when Leo was discovered holding a knife even if he had no harmful intention with it, though Basil being paranoid had Leo put in prison for this though it caused public rioting as Leo was actually loved by the public.

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Emperor Basil I in the Imperial Palace

Basil however thought of blinding Leo but was persuaded to not do it by Patriarch Photios while one story which would be true here says that a parrot sang to Basil telling him to spare Leo but Basil not listening killed the parrot by breaking its neck, although feeling guilty for killing the parrot, he still released Leo from prison here in 886 after a 3-year sentence and restored him as co-emperor. Now in the summer of 886 after getting some relief, the now 75-year-old Basil spent some leisure time going hunting in the woods in the Asian side of Bosporus but when hunting he ended up losing his hunting party getting stranded in the woods alone when a stag all of a sudden grabbed Basil’s belt with its antlers thus pulling him off his horse and dragging him for 16 miles through the woods as the story goes. Some hours later, the injured Basil was found by a man who cut him loose but still paranoid, Basil had the man killed for holding a knife in front of him and 9 days later, Basil would die on August 29 of 886 in his hunting lodge from the injury caused by the stag after a 19-year reign. Here, he died at least going such a long way from peasant to emperor who left behind many extravagant palaces and churches in Constantinople and more importantly a full treasury, but little did he know that he was the first and last of his Macedonian Dynasty.

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Basil I and Leo holding out a knife, Madrid Skylitzes
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Basil I and the parrot, Madrid Skylitzes
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Coin of Basil I (left) with his son Constantine and wife Eudokia (right)

Watch this to learn more about Basil I’s life and reign (Jabzy).


Leo VI the Wise, A Serious Scholar but a not so Successful Ruler (886-912)         

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After Basil I’s death, Leo VI known as “the Wise” came to the throne before turning 20 and despite him not actually being Basil’s biological son, he still became emperor as he was Basil’s legal son and the eldest surviving one. Basil I’s death caused by a hunting accident on the other sounded very suspicious and it may have seemed Leo was involved in it as at Basil’s deathbed, one of Leo’s closest advisors was present which was Stylianos Zaoutzes and it could have been him that poisoned Basil, but this cannot be entirely proven.

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Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) in his study

As for Leo, another reason for him to hate Basil aside from knowing that he killed his actual father which was Michael III, was that Basil forced him to marry a woman he did not like which was a pious and boring woman named Theophano Martinakia– and no, she is not the same Theophano that will be removed from this story- while Leo himself was already had a beloved mistress which was Stylianos’ daughter Zoe Zaoutzaina and when still alive, Basil banished Zoe in order for Leo to marry Theophano who he had no feelings for, again history repeats itself as Leo’s actual father Michael III had the same situation when forced to marry someone he did not love while actually had a lover which was Leo’s late mother that married Basil. Just right after becoming emperor, there is one historical evidence that shows Michael III was actually Leo’s father and this was when Leo in act of getting back at Basil ordered that Michael III’s body buried across the Bosporus in Asian side be reburied at the Church of the Holy Apostles, the imperial mausoleum with a funeral ceremony fit for an emperor. Leo though was not the sole emperor as his younger brothers Stephen who was also rumored to be Michael III’s son and Alexander who was actually his half-brother being without question Basil’s son were his co-emperors, although Leo at the end of 886 removed Stephen from his position as co-emperor and appointed him as Patriarch of Constantinople despite his young age, thus this would be the first of many inexperienced young family members being appointed as patriarch.

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Leo VI and his first wife Theophano Martinakia

With Stephen appointed as patriarch, the old Photios on the other hand was fired from his position as patriarch as Leo distrusted him despite Photios being the one that actually educated Leo but Leo turned on Photios for supporting Basil and the decision for Leo to marry Theophano who he hated, though Leo also wanted to be in good terms with the Papacy that distrusted Photios, though Photios would still live on until 893. Being the emperor, Leo was a dutiful ruler that attended every event that needed him whether it was chariot races or Church services and as a serious scholar he devoted a lot of his time as well as money and energy into intellectual matters and passing new laws. In 892 Leo completed the Book of Royal Laws or Basilika which Basil commissioned to update Justinian I’s law code, and although Leo hated Basil he still saw it was his duty to update Byzantine law, and being a learned scholar unlike Basil before him who was illiterate, Leo personally recodified the law by putting a few of his insights into it, but the biggest revision of the Basilika was that it had finally translated the laws made by Justinian I which were in Latin into Greek so that everyone could understand it as here Greek was already the official and majority language of the empire while Latin was only used for specific court purposes. Leo too had made a reform which was to centralize the power of the emperor and limit the power of the Byzantine Senate which was at this point very much useless, as due to the rise of the Thematic System and the powerful landed military magnates in the countryside, the senate became nothing more than a club of old and rich aristocrats advising the emperor, although Leo could not fully get rid of the senate as it was an ancient institution dating back to even before the Roman Empire was established. Leo had also been vocal about loose women and adultery in his laws but true enough he was a hypocrite as he himself had a mistress while he was already married, although Leo’s marriage to Theophano never worked out, not even very little and being tired of her marriage to a husband that did not care, Theophano in 893 decided to leave the palace and become a nun while Leo went back to his mistress Zoe.

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Simeon the Great, Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire (r. 893-927), son of Boris I, art by HistoryGold777

It also happened in 893 that Bulgarian Empire up north had a new ruler being Simeon better known as “Simeon the Great” who had been educated in Constantinople by Photios being Leo’s classmate too and was the son of the same Boris I who previously converted Bulgaria to Christianity back in 864, though here by 893 Boris was still alive except that since 889 he abdicated from power and retired to a monastery being succeeded by his eldest son Vladimir who attempted to restore Bulgaria to its old Pagan religion of Tengriism though failed greatly and in 893 was blinded by his father Boris coming out of the monastery but not wanting to return to power, Boris made his younger son Simeon who been back in Bulgaria since 888 as Bulgaria’s new ruler. Things at first seemed to be going well between Leo VI’s Byzantium and Simeon’s Bulgaria until Leo’s highest minister Stylianos Zaoutzes who was his lover Zoe’s father as previously mentioned schemed to have the Bulgarian merchants kicked out of Constantinople and moved to the empire’s second city of Thessaloniki where they would have to pay higher taxes to sell their goods which was part of Stylianos’ corrupt motives to make himself richer and Leo relying too much on Stylianos agreed to it in 894 which on the other hand backfired at him as the Bulgarians felt insulted, thus Simeon declared war on Byzantium. Simeon in 894 led his armies from Bulgaria into Byzantine Thrace in the south where the Byzantine forces were defeated but in response Leo not wanting to give him recalled Nikephoros Phokas the Elder, the empire’s most talented general from Italy to Thrace where he would crush the Bulgarians in battle but most of the success for the Byzantines here in 895 was mostly due to an alliance Leo made with a new steppe people that migrated from Russia to the north of the Danube known as the Magyars.

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Magyar warrior, late 9th century

The Magyar leader Arpad accepted the bribe money offered to him by Leo and attacked the Bulgarian Empire from the north successfully making Simeon abandon his invasion of Byzantium in the south as he had to deal with the Magyars north of Danube although shortly after Simeon was able to defeat the Magyars by allying himself with another group of nomadic horse people north of the Danube known as the Pechenegs, which were a much more difficult and ruthlessly warlike people. With the Magyars defeated in 895 by the Bulgarians, they were forced to flee further west until they came across the Pannonian plain which was once Roman territory wherein they finally settled down forming what would be Hungary whereas Arpad became its first ruler while for the Byzantines in 896, after losing their Magyar allies, they were severely defeated by the Bulgarians with the strength of their cavalry at the Battle of Boulgarophygon in Thrace, which at the end forced Leo to agree to paying a heavy annual tribute to Simeon to avoid war.           

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Leo VI reburies his father Michael III in the Church of the Holy Apostles in 886, Madrid Skylitzes
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Bulgarian cavalry defeat the Byzantine army at the Battle of Boulgarophygon in 896, Madrid Skylitzes
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Magyar people, end of the 9th century

In the meantime, in 897 Leo VI’s first wife Theophano who he never loved died in the monastery she retired to which for Leo gave him such joy and following Theophano’s death he immediately married his longtime mistress Zoe and proclaimed her the empress or Augusta and they would have two children together although both were daughters. Unfortunately, Leo’s happy marriage to Zoe would not last as just 2 years later (899) Zoe had died from illness and so did her father Stylianos but in the following year (900), as the 10th century opened, the Byzantine army scored a major success when defeating the army of the Arab Emirate of Tarsus in Cilicia- another breakaway emirate of the Abbasids- and even capturing the Emir of Tarsus but in 902 however, another great tragedy would happen for the Byzantines when Taormina, the last Byzantine city in Sicily fell to the Arab forces in a siege, thus all of Sicily would fall under the newly formed Arab Emirate of Sicily. While all the wars against the Arabs were happening, Leo in 900 chose to marry for the 3rd time despite 3rd marriages being considered illegal in Orthodoxy but Leo did it anyway just because he desperately needed a son to succeed him and his 3rd wife Eudokia Baiana was chosen by him in a bride show he organized, which here would be the last one recorded in Byzantine history and fortunately the 3rd wife Eudokia was able to give birth to a son in 901 thus Leo thought this would be his final marriage except that after giving birth, Eudokia dropped dead and so did their newborn son a few days later, now Leo would be greatly heartbroken.

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Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium (r. 886-912), art by Spatharokandidatos

Leo would suffer another misfortune again in 904 when he was almost killed in an assassination attempt carried out by a wrestler and when investigating it, it so happened that his younger and co-emperor half-brother Alexander was involved in it, therefore Alexander was removed from his position as co-emperor which would make him start holding a lifelong grudge on Leo as you will see but worse than this was that also in 904, Byzantium’s second city of Thessaloniki was besieged and brutally sacked by Arab pirates led by the notorious Leo of Tripoli, a Byzantine Greek taken as a captive to Tripoli (in today’s Lebanon) as a child wherein he was raised to become a fearsome pirate. Thessaloniki however was just raided but had not fallen to the pirates, but it was so severely damaged that Leo VI decided to avenge its sacking by doing the same to Tarsus in the southern coast of Asia Minor where this pirate fleet came from. The Byzantine raid on Tarsus in 906 was a successful one with many Arab prisoners taken except that the general sent to lead the mission Andronikos Doukas out of nowhere abandoned the mission as being from the distinguished aristocratic Doukas clan that had been in the Byzantine Senate since Emperor Constantine the Great established it in 330, he did not want his aristocratic pride hurt by taking orders from the fleet’s admiral Himerios who was lower than him in status, therefore Andronikos fled to the Abbasid’s capital to Baghdad itself where he would die in 910.

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Mosaic of Empress Zoe Karbonopsina, 4th wife of Leo VI

As for Leo after losing 3 wives, by 904 he took in a new mistress which was Himerios’ niece Zoe Karbonopsina, a woman with dark curly hair who was most famous for her distinct black eyes, hence her nickname Karbonopsina meaning “black eyes” in Greek and apparently in 905 they had a son which Leo named Constantine better known as Constantine Porphyrogennetos as he was born in the purple room of the imperial palace, the place only imperial family members had access to in order to give birth to imperial heirs to secure their legitimacy, thus imperial children born here had the title of Porphyrogennetos if they were males or Porphyrogenita for females, literally meaning “purple born” in Greek, and though many would use this title, only Constantine who will rule later on and play a major role in this story would be the only Byzantine emperor to use this title officially. Leo and Zoe were already planning to marry long before Constantine was born, but of course this not only being a 3rd but a 4th marriage was totally outrageous to the Orthodox Church that the current Patriarch of Constantinople here Nikolaos Mystikos, an imperial secretary and Leo’s former classmate who had been patriarch since 901 following Leo’s brother Stephen’s death totally objected to it, so instead Leo and Zoe were secretly married at the dead of night by a priest loyal to Leo but when Patriarch Nikolaos heard of it, Leo was banned from entering the Hagia Sophia despite being the emperor. Nikolaos however still reluctantly baptized Constantine in 906 but at the same time, Leo decided to return his half-brother Alexander as co-emperor for safety measures in case something happened to Constantine and in 907, Leo was able to get away with his illegal marriage to Zoe by firing the patriarch Nikolaos under suspicion of him siding with the rebel Andronikos Doukas, thus replacing him with the deeply spiritual monk Euthymios, who was Leo’s teacher in theology and spirituality when he was still young. On the other hand, Leo’s other motive in appointing Euthymios as patriarch was to again be in good terms with the pope Sergius III in Rome as Nikolaos being an outspoken politician was not trusted by the pope whereas a more spiritual leader like Euthymios was more favorable to the pope, again making this another situation in the Church rivalry between Constantinople and Rome, but at the same time the pope also needed Leo’s Byzantine military assistance in defending Southern Italy from the Arabs which is why Sergius III accepted Leo’s 4th marriage too. In 907 as well, Leo just like his actual father Michael III in 860 faced the same situation of the same Kievan Rus’ fleet of longships attacking Constantinople, except now the Rus were an official organized state in Eastern Europe but just like in 860 here, the Rus did not attack Constantinople itself, rather they just raided the riches in the churches and monasteries in the suburbs in typical Viking fashion and retreated back north to the Black Sea after receiving some bribe money from Leo.

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Handheld Greek Fire

Leo on the other hand after suffering so many military defeats despite not ever personally joining his armies himself in military campaigns learned from his mistakes and in 908 wrote and published a military manual himself based on reports by generals in which he carefully studied and came up with new tactics basing them on where his armies had failed and this new military manual is better known as the Taktika, though on the other hand Leo had some success in commissioning the invention of a portable version of the empire’s secret superweapon of Greek Fire which was to be hand held during sieges. In 910, Leo’s admiral Himerios would end up succeeding in attacking the Arab pirate fleet in the Mediterranean that he even went as far as attacking an Arab port in Syria and with this success Leo in 911 sent Himerios with 177 ships on another attempt to retake the island of Crete from the Arab Emirate of pirates there but before being able to finish off his siege of the emirate’s capital Chandax, he received word from the capital that the emperor fell ill and was close to death making him abandon the siege and rush back, thus another failed attempt to recapture Crete. On the return trip to Constantinople in 912, Himerios’ navy in the Aegean was surrounded and annihilated again by the same pirate Leo of Tripoli, although Himerios narrowly escaped, and when the news of the defeat of Himerios to the Arab pirates reached Leo VI in Constantinople the same day he died which was May 11 of 912. Leo VI the Wise died at only 45 due to a fatal illness that could not be cured, possibly cancer while his son Constantine was only 7 but at least Leo left behind a great cultural impact for Byzantium especially in the military manual and code laws he made which would play a vital role in Byzantine politics and warfare from here onwards, but otherwise if Leo had not published these books, he would just be remembered as a mediocre emperor that tried so hard to win battles but failed.

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Emperor Leo VI and his 4 wives, art by Powee Celdran
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Byzantine Taormina, Sicily falls to the Arabs in 902, Madrid Skylitzes
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Sack of Thessaloniki in 904 by Leo of Tripoli, Madrid Skylitzes
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Baptism of Leo VI’s son Constantine in 906, Madrid Skylitzes
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Euthymios appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople in 907, Madrid Skylitzes
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Kievan Rus’ 907 attack of Constantinople, from the Primary Chronicle
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Mosaic of Emperor Leo VI (kneeling down) in the Hagia Sophia’s door recreated

The Chaotic Regency and Romanos I Lekapenos (912-944)    

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On May 11 of 912 as Leo VI was on his deathbed, his half-brother and co-emperor Alexander was present and before dying Leo told him some prophecy saying “13 months and the devil’s time” although Alexander had no idea what it meant but true enough, he succeeded Leo as senior emperor as he was already co-emperor first since 879 long before young Constantine was. Now Alexander definitely had no parentage issues as Basil I was certainly his father with Alexander was born in 870, 3 years after Michael III’s death and a possible reason why Alexander hated Leo was surely because he was Basil’s legitimate son while Leo was not, thus the Macedonian Dynasty here would only consist of Basil I and Alexander whereas Leo VI and his successors who will appear afterwards were in fact from Michael III’s bloodline, the Amorians.

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Coin of Emperor Alexander

Alexander as Basil’s son resembled Basil in appearance a lot being tall and large in size with light colored hair and a beard which was opposite to Leo’s appearance and just like his father, Alexander was greatly passionate about hunting and sports though like Michael III, Alexander was a lazy drunk. This story now will go with the usual historical portrayal of Alexander as a lazy, debauched, childish, and incompetent ruler who’s only purpose to rule was to get revenge on his older half-brother for no good reason except that Alexander was co-emperor for 33 years never getting the chance to be a senior emperor and also because he was angry at Leo for removing him from his rank of co-emperor for just 2 years (904-906). Becoming emperor at 41 but already in bad health with bad teeth due to heavy drinking, Alexander thinking he would rule for long was the first emperor in the history of Byzantium to use the title of Autokrator or “self-ruling ruler” celebrating his end of 33 years only as co-emperor forgetting he actually had a co-emperor which was his 7-year-old nephew Constantine who Leo made co-emperor before his death, although Alexander here in 912 decided to castrate young Constantine to remove him from the succession but his advisors told Alexander to not do it as he had remained unmarried his entire life having not a single child and so young Constantine was instead locked up in a nunnery with his mother Zoe Karbonopsina who Alexander hated too for being Leo’s wife. Just a few months after coming into power, Alexander already showed how uninterested he was in ruling the empire and only ruling to damage Leo’s legacy which was seen when he fired all the competent ministers that were loyal to Leo such as the admiral Himerios and Patriarch Euthymios as well as discontinuing all of Leo’s policies just to get back at him. Now when it came to firing Patriarch Euthymios, Alexander restored the previous patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos who opposed Leo’s 4th marriage and Nikolaos too was driven with revenge for being removed from his position that in the trial organized to depose Euthymios, Nikolaos hired a giant wrestler to beat up Euthymios in public while the trial was happening, and at the end Euthymios was sent into exile as Nikolaos returned to his position.

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Nikolaos Mystikos, Patriarch of Constantinople (901-907/ 912-925)

Another rumor about Alexander in his reign was that some nights he would perform Pagan sacrifices in the Hippodrome as if he was asking the old gods for fertility as apparently, he was unable to produce children. As an incompetent ruler, Alexander did not pay attention to the frontiers that the main forces of the Abbasid Caliphate from Baghdad itself attacked Asia Minor and when Bulgarian ambassadors from Simeon came to Constantinople to collect the annual tribue Leo promised, Alexander in his usual drunken rage shouted at the Bulgarian ambassadors kicking them out of his presence and refusing to pay tribute, again as act of discontinuing Leo’s policies out of revenge. Over in Bulgaria when their ruler Simeon heard of Alexander refusing to pay tribute, Simeon feeling so insulted resumed war with Byzantium knowing he could easily defeat them considering Alexander’s incompetence. In June of 913 while Simeon was making preparations to attack Byzantium, Alexander was enjoying himself in the Polo field or Tzykanisterion of the Imperial Palace playing a game of polo or Tzykanion after some drinks of expensive Greek wine from Lesbos, but Alexander after playing a game of polo fell off his horse when suffering a heart attack and hours later, he had died. Apparently the 13-month prophecy Leo had told Alexander was true as after ruling alone for only 13 months, Alexander had died, thus here would die the last ruler of the Macedonian bloodline of Basil whereas the rule of the Amorians would continue with Leo’s son Constantine VII, and it was fortunate enough for the empire that Alexander died right here as if he ruled longer, the empire may have suffered more with his incompetence.          

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Mosaic of Emperor Alexander (r. 912-913) in the Hagia Sophia
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Patriarch Euthymios removed from office by Alexander in 912, Madrid Skylitzes
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Tzykanion, Byzantine polo (art by Amelianvs)

Right after Alexander’s death in June of 913, young Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos was crowned as the sole ruler empire as willed by Alexander, except being only 8-years-old meant that a regency council had to now rule for him led by Patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos while Constantine’s mother Zoe Karbonopsina was to stay out of it, again as willed by Alexander. The patriarch however hated the empress and did not see Constantine as a legitimate emperor as Nikolaos still did not approve of Leo and Zoe’s marriage and in this story’s case, he also did not see Constantine as legitimate because his father Leo was not a legitimate son of an emperor but an illegitimate son of a murdered emperor, therefore his successors were illegitimate so only a few days after the council was set up, Nikolaos banished empress Zoe back to the nunnery she was in. Patriarch Nikolaos and most of the Byzantine Senate too could not accept Constantine VII as their ruler and so they supported a rebel general who was putting his claim on the throne refusing to accept a child as his ruler, and this general was Constantine Doukas, son of the same general Andronikos Doukas that fled to Baghdad and died there 3 years earlier. Just a few days after Constantine VII was crowned emperor, Constantine Doukas and his army who had a lot of support arrived outside the walls of Constantinople ready to storm the city but just as he arrived, the city garrison loyal to young emperor charged at the rebel forces in open battle. Constantine Doukas seeing his side was about lose tried to escape but, in the process, he slipped off his horse and fell to the ground wherein the city garrison soldiers killed him by hacking him with their swords, thus his rebellion failed, though he was not the last of the Doukas clan as they will be featured heavily in the next chapter of this series. Patriarch Nikolaos in an act of protecting himself denied that he had any part in the conspiracy of Constantine Doukas that he even had anyone knew involved in the conspiracy executed and their bodies impaled on spikes outside Constantinople’s walls that he would gain such a brutal reputation for it.

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Tsar Simeon the Great of Bulgaria

Just 2 months after the failed plot of Constantine Doukas, it was Simeon and his Bulgarian army’s turn to arrive outside the Theodosian land walls of Constantinople but seeing the strength of the walls, he instead decided to attack and burn the farms outside it that Patriarch Nikolaos had to come out to negotiate peace with Simeon and here Nikolaos agreed to resume paying the annual tribute of Leo VI but also for young Constantine VII to marry one of Simeon’s daughters, although Simeon saw this as an opportunity to take over Constantine VII’s regency and rule both Byzantium and Bulgaria himself. The senate meanwhile disapproved of the patriarch’s deal with Simeon as none of them wanted a Bulgarian foreigner who they still saw as a barbarian- despite adopting Byzantine customs and religion- ruling the empire and so Simeon packed off and left as he got his tribute anyway but most of the senate was also displeased with Nikolaos’ brutality that in 914, they returned Empress Zoe back to the regency council getting her out of the nunnery although Nikolaos still stayed as patriarch when being threatened by Zoe to recognize her authority. In 915 when the Byzantines won a major victory over the invading Arabs in Southern Italy, Empress Zoe’s popularity grew but at the same time she also disapproved of her son Constantine marrying Simeon’s daughter as this deal was made by Patriarch Nikolaos who she hated and also because in her Byzantine arrogance Simeon was nothing more but a filthy barbarian. Simeon hearing of the empress turning down his offer in 915 resumed war with Byzantium that Simeon’s Bulgarian forces even briefly took the city of Adrianople until Zoe’s forces quickly took it back forcing Simeon to flee, thus Zoe again became more popular. Simeon on the other hand still continued his raids by going as far south as Byzantine Thessaly and Epirus in Greece between 915 and 916 then by 917 he returned to Thrace whereas Zoe was prepared to crush his forces by amassing a massive army led by the best generals of the empire which included John Bogas, the commanding general or Strategos of the Theme of Cherson, which was the remote Byzantine colony in the Crimea north of the Black Sea, the Cappadocian brothers Leo Phokas the Elder and Bardas Phokas the Elder who were the sons of the late and great general Nikephoros Phokas the Elder who had died back in 900, and Himerios’ replacement as the grand Droungarios or admiral the Armenian Romanos Lekapenos, son of the same Armenian peasant soldier Theophylact Lekapenos who saved Basil I back in 872. Now you may ask why all the empire’s top commanders were either Armenians or Cappadocians, and this is because by being raised in these parts being in the empire’s frontiers, these people had grown up to be tough soldiers.

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Pecheneg warrior, 10th century

Now the plan here was that the army led by the Phokas brothers would march north from Constantinople while Romanos with his fleet was to ferry both John Bogas and his troops from Cherson as well the Byzantines’ new Pecheneg allies from across the Danube to Thrace but John Bogas and Romanos would end up arguing, as again as usual Bogas being of high birth refused to take orders from Romanos who was of lower status and Romanos would only agree to ferry Bogas and his troops if Bogas were to bow down to his authority, though Bogas refused and the Pecheneg mercenaries as usual being difficult to handle were tired of waiting and not yet receiving their pay gave up and abandoned the Byzantines. Meanwhile, only the Phokas brothers and their army were left to confront Simeon’s Bulgar forces but while camping out near the port of Anchialos in Thrace along the Black Sea, Simeon and his forces caught them by surprise and charged right their camp and what resulted was a total massacre as barely any Byzantine soldiers survived it while many panicked and retreated as well believing Leo Phokas to be dead when seeing his horse gallop away without him, though it was unclear on what happened to Bardas here.

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Bulgarians defeat the Byzantines at the Battle of Anchialos, 917

Back in Constantinople, Zoe being so enraged blamed all the failures on the admiral Romanos Lekapenos who she even threatened to blind but Romanos’ powerful friends prevented her from doing so. Leo Phokas and his brother Bardas meanwhile survived the attack and fled to the Black Sea port of Mesembria where they took a ship back to Constantinople where Leo would meet up with Zoe who however saw no fault in Leo even if he was responsible for the massacre of his men as he was taking bath while Simeon charged at them. Instead of punishing Leo, Zoe even gave him an additional two armies to command and strike back at Simeon again but when facing Simeon’s forces again outside Constantinople, Leo was severely defeated but to protect his reputation and save her own as it had been damaged due to this defeat, Zoe decided to marry him and make him young Constantine’s regent but Constantine’s teacher Theodore disagreed to it believing this would remove Constantine from the succession, therefore Theodore wrote to Romanos to take over the regency and protect Constantine.

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Leo Phokas the Elder, Byzantine general

Zoe on the other hand asked the regency council to meet again only to find out that they all lost faith in her because of the defeat to the Bulgars at Anchialos and outside Constantinople that Patriarch Nikolaos had to return to running the regency from here on. Romanos however had turned out to have his own imperial ambitions which is why he was at odds with Leo Phokas and in 919, Romanos suddenly docked his fleet outside the Boukoleon Palace along the sea walls of Constantinople wherein he declared he was going to take over the regency while Zoe was asked to resign from it and retire and here the 14-year-old Constantine VII was married to Romanos’ young daughter Helena Lekapene to secure Romanos’ claim to the throne. Leo Phokas on the other hand who was across the Bosporus put his claim on the throne as well in rebellion against Romanos claiming that he was to save Constantine VII but before he was able to cross the Bosporus to Constantinople, Romanos sent him a letter denouncing Leo’s actions which made Leo’s men desert and as Leo tried to flee south into Asia Minor, Romanos’ men caught him and blinded him wherein he was paraded in Constantinople’s streets though his fate afterwards is unknown. In 920 then, Romanos made a deal with Patriarch Nikolaos to keep Constantine VII in power as long as Zoe was to be banished for good in which she did by retiring to the same nunnery she was kept in before for good this time. Later in 920, young Constantine VII was forced to crown his father-in-law Romanos as his co-emperor and just a few months later, Romanos I Lekapenos assumed the full duty of the empire’s senior emperor although Constantine VII was still kept in power but only in name whereas Romanos was to effectively run the empire claiming he was doing it for young Constantine’s protection.         

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The land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Land Walls), art by Powee Celdran
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Coronation of young Constantine VII in 913, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine army at the night before the disastrous Battle of Anchialos in 917, Madrid Skylitzes
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Capture and blinding of Leo Phokas the Elder by Romanos Lekapenos in 919, Madrid Skylitzes

When Romanos I Lekapenos took over the imperial administration in 920 not only as a regent or protector but as emperor, it was suspected that he would one day murder young Constantine VII except that he didn’t, rather he had more subtle ways of sidelining Constantine VII and making himself the supreme authority and this was by removing Constantine’s imperial authority even as he aged, thus it turned out the poorly educated admiral of low birth was actually an intelligent and cunning ruler. For the next years, Constantine VII would live in the shadows though still in the imperial palace keeping his title as emperor, except basically he was a political prisoner of his father-in-law Romanos I who had to keep watching his back being never really permitted him leave without Romanos’ approval, but Constantine would in fact enjoy his time by not having to perform his duties as emperor but instead doing what he grew up to love most, which were scholarly interests such as reading, writing, as well as painting and sculpting, basically Constantine was his father the scholarly Leo VI’s son.

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Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos of Byzantium (r. 920-944)

For Romanos, to make it seem like Constantine would be powerless, Romanos made his eldest son Christopher his co-emperor in 921 who was intended to be his actual successor and in 924 Romanos I made his 2 younger sons Stephen and Constantine co-emperors too, thus Constantine VII the rightful emperor became the least powerful of the 5 emperors with his name placed at the bottom of the coins issued by the 5 rulers. The threat of Simeon of Bulgaria however was still at large and not to mention at this time, the Bulgarian Empire here under Simeon was no longer the primitive warrior state of Bulgaria 2 centuries earlier that posed a threat to Byzantium, but a highly civilized major Orthodox Christian cultural and military power in its golden age the same way Byzantium was, and in terms of size, Bulgaria was the largest empire in Eastern Europe spanning from the west to east from the Black Sea to the Ionian Sea and north to south from the Carpathian Mountains in Central Europe to Central Greece, and its ruler Simeon was no longer like the Bulgarian khans of old but a full emperor in authority known as tsar in their language, literally meaning “Caesar” being the first Bulgarian ruler to call himself that. Simeon in 924 made another attempt to besiege Constantinople both by land and sea except this time getting himself allied forces from the Arab powers in the Middle East, Sicily, and North Africa which Simeon believed was enough to fully take over Constantinople. The Arabs however were intercepted first by Romanos before they could reach Simeon and Romanos won them over by even agreeing to pay tribute to them and when finding out his Arab allies never made it, Simeon was upset. Simeon however still made it to Constantinople but when arriving, Romanos chose to resolve the issue with diplomacy and here Patriarch Nikolaos who was still alive arranged for both rulers to meet up at a dock along Constantinople’s Golden Horn harbor. When seeing Simeon up close, Romanos I did not see a Bulgarian ruler in the traditional Bulgarian fur cloaks and fur hats but an emperor dressed in the same silks as the Byzantines did, although when they met face to face, there apparently was no violent tension brewing between them, rather it ended peacefully with Romanos agreeing to resume paying tribute to Bulgaria, also handing over to Simeon 100 silk robes as a gift. Afterwards, Simeon would never return as a physical threat except that in 925 he had the audacity to call himself not only tsar but “Basileus of both Bulgars and Romans”, literally emperor of both empires, though Romanos did not take it as an insult and instead he even joked about it saying that if he can, he would call himself “Caliph of Baghdad” without the Abbasid caliph’s approval. Simeon again not physically threatening Byzantium in 926 declared the Bulgarian Church independent from Constantinople, therefore creating a separate Patriarchate of Bulgaria though no matter how powerful Simeon was as tsar, his rule was still challenged first by his western neighbors being the Serbs (from present day Serbia) who Simeon defeated in 926, but the bigger threat to Simeon was his other more powerful western neighbor which was the Kingdom of Croatia ruled by its new king Tomislav who happened to be an ally of the Byzantines.

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Tomislav, King of Croatia (r. 925-928)

Though seemingly undefeatable, Simeon’s forces lost a severe defeat to the Croatian forces of Tomislav in 926 in what is now Bosnia, thus Bulgaria was forced to pay a heavy humiliating tribute to Croatia and in 927, the very much humiliated Simeon died from a heart attack in his palace in the new Bulgarian capital of Preslav and would be succeeded by his son Peter I as tsar who would happen to be a much weaker and less warlike ruler compared to his father. Peter I when becoming Bulgaria’s new tsar was also still young and wanting to rule in peace, he personally went to Constantinople to negotiate with Romanos I which was successful and as part of the deal, Peter married Romanos’ young granddaughter Maria, daughter of his eldest son Christopher with the new Patriarch of Constantinople Stephen II– who had succeeded Nikolaos after his death back in 925- marrying them and following this, a long 42-year period would last between Byzantium and Bulgaria, allowing the Byzantines to continue fighting their other deadly enemy, the Arabs.          

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Coin of Romanos I with his and his sons Christopher, Stephen, Constantine, and son-in-law Constantine VII’s (at the very bottom) names
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Court of Tsar Simeon in Bulgaria
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Map of the Bulgarian Empire (yellow) under Tsar Simeon, Byzantine Empire (pink)

As the effective emperor, despite the rightful Constantine VII still having the title, Romanos I Lekapenos may have completely seemed to everyone as a tough military man being quite uncultured, uneducated, and rough around the edges which is what his rather intellectually and artistically snobbish son-in-law Constantine VII would say about him seeing him every day in the palace, although Constantine as I would say never felt respected by his father-in-law as Romanos felt his son-in-law was not tough enough being a an artist and scholar and not a soldier and politician the way Romanos was. However, despite Romanos’ tough exterior, he was also someone with a big heart as when a brutal winter struck Constantinople from 927-928, Romanos I spent a lot of the imperial treasury in building porticos for Constantinople’s streets so that homeless would not die of the cold and also to make sure the people had enough food to last the winter. Following this winter when seeing how much damage it inflicted on the people, especially the small farmers, Romanos I decided to pass a law that was to forbid the wealthy and powerful landed aristocracy or the Dynatoi to buy land from these farmers thus taking it away from them but also for these farmers to not sell their land to their richer neighbors, though this was also part of an act to limit the landed aristocracy’s power as they produced the most troublemaking generals like the Phokas clan. In 931 on the other hand, Romanos I would suffer a great loss when his co-emperor son and intended heir Christopher died from an illness which Romanos mourned deeply most especially because there would be no one competent enough to succeed him when he dies as his other sons Stephen and Constantine despite them being co-emperors were rather good for nothing, therefore the only capable one was the rightful emperor Constantine VII, which was something Romanos could not accept.

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Theophylact Lekapenos, Patriarch of Constantinople (933-956) playing Tzykanion, art by Byzantine Tales

In 933, Romanos I as usual as the master of nepotism successfully schemed to make his 16-year-old son Theophylact, named after Romanos’ father be appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople which had happened to be a total embarrassment as for one Theophylact was a child who had no knowledge in theology, spirituality, and Church politics and second, his major concern was horses and playing Byzantine Polo that in one Easter he forgot to perform his duty as patriarch in celebrating the Eucharist as he had to be in the stables to watch his favorite horse give birth. Now when it came to military matters, this was where Romanos I was most successful at, although he did not personally lead the armies himself, rather the job was left to his close friend the general John Kourkouas who was from a lesser known aristocratic family, which Romanos preferred more thus making him the commander in chief or Domestikos ton Scholon of the eastern armies who back in 923 finally defeated the notorious pirate Leo of Tripoli in the Aegean Sea in which Leo would afterwards disappear from the historical record and in 932, John went as far as Lake Van in the border of Byzantium and Armenia capturing the trading town of Manzikert, thus giving the empire control of trade routes into Armenia and Central Asia. John Kourkouas however would score his greatest victory in 934 when finally achieving the Byzantine dream of capturing the city of Melitene (today’s Malatya, Turkey) in Eastern Asia Minor which then had been the seat of the breakaway Arab Emirate of Melitene that was a vassal of the Abbasids in Baghdad, though what would be very significant about this capture of Melitene was that it was the first time the Byzantine conquered an entire Arab Emirate and absorb it to their empire. Following the conquest of Melitene, the Byzantines immediately resettled Greeks and Armenians in the area into it before the Arabs could take it back but the capture of Melitene also sent great shockwaves to the Muslim world that the Emirates of Mosul and Aleppo both ruled by members of the Hamdanid clan would counter-attack and challenge John Kourkouas although by 940, the Arab Hamdanid general Sayf al-Dawla better known as the “Sword of Islam” and John would be recalled to their capitals but in 941, John returned to campaigning in the east although he had to immediately rush back, for he heard Constantinople was under attack again. Now in 941, Constantinople was for the 3rd time attacked by the army and fleet of the Kievan Rus’ coming from today’s Ukraine sailing down the Black Sea with their fleet of longships, except this time the Rus’ force was much larger and deadlier with 1,000 ships and 40,000 men with their Grand Prince Igor himself leading them.

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Igor, Grand Prince of Kiev (r. 914-945)

Having only 15 old ships in the capital, Romanos I patched them all up with the imperial secret superweapon of Greek Fire and charged them all out to attack the Rus’ longships with the eunuch admiral Theophanes in command of the 15 ships, and with the Rus thinking they could easily crush these 15 ships, they were proven wrong when all 15 of them blew out the powerful liquid fire which burned a number of the Rus’ ships and the Rus soldiers in fear of the sight of the fire jumped into the sea wherein many died from drowning due to the weight of their armor. After fleeing from the Greek Fire, the remaining Rus army escaped to the Asian shore of the Marmara where they committed great atrocities towards the Byzantine locals including crucifying them with nails hammered to their heads while as usual, the Rus nonstop pillaged the land. Soon enough hope would come for the Byzantines when their armies led by John Kourkouas and the same old Bardas Phokas the Elder, the younger brother of Leo Phokas who was blinded back in 919 rushed back to counter-attack the Rus, and at the end of the day the Byzantines were victorious as Theophanes with his navy also destroyed the rest of the fleet, thus the remaining Rus including their prince Igor returned home to Kiev. Now this major conflict between the Rus and Byzantines in 941 is where the graphic novel Theophano opened with the same admiral Theophanes defending Constantinople from the Rus, except here in this story the family of Theophano from Laconia in Greece would not come, thus the story returns to John Kourkouas who would resume his campaigns against the Arabs in the east where in 942 he would attack Aleppo in Syria, the seat of the Arab Emirate though would not be able to conquer it, but John would later on achieve what no Byzantine armies did for the past 3 centuries since all of Byzantine Syria and Mesopotamia was lost to the first wave of Arab invasions in the 630s during the reign of Heraclius (610-641), if you remember from chapter IV of this series. John here would go as far as capturing the important fortress of Dara, the same military fort both Byzantines and Sassanid Persians fought over countless times back in the old days almost 400 years earlier. Though while John Kourkouas seemed to be scoring a lot of victories in the east, Romanos I’s time as emperor was nearing its end, thus he was growing more depressed as the days went by.

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Map of the small states at the Caucasus border between Byzantium and the Abbasid Caliphate in the 10th century
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Byzantine forces under John Kourkouas capture Melitene from the Arabs in 934, Madrid Skylitzes
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Rus-Byzantine War of 941, Byzantine fleet uses Greek Fire against the Rus’ fleet, Madrid Skylitzes
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Rus-Byzantine War of 941, Byzantine fleet defeats the Rus’ fleet at the Sea of Marmara, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Rus outside Constantinople’s Walls, 941

Part II.

Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, and Intellectual Snob but Surprisingly Skilled Emperor (944-959)          

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For more than 20 years, the rightful emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos had been in the shadows although this whole time he had been busy with intellectual pursuits all while having a rather happy marriage to Romanos I’s daughter Helena who being her father’s only daughter when all his other children were sons did not have a lot in common with her father and brothers’ more manly interests, but rather like her husband, she also enjoyed the more sophisticated things.

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Emperor Constantine VII and Empress Helena Lekapene

Helena had turned to out to be the empire’s senior empress as well despite her only being the senior emperor’s daughter as this was due to the fact that her mother had already died a long time ago just 2 years after her father became emperor (922) and being the most powerful woman in the family as her father’s only daughter, she became the highest-ranking woman in the empire. Helena’s marriage to Constantine VII was indeed a very successful one that they were able to produce 6 children and unlike her father who had 5 sons and only one daughter, Helena with Constantine had 5 daughters and only one son named Romanos born in 938 as a Porphyrogennetos in the purple room too andnamed after his maternal grandfather the reigning emperor, and surprisingly Romanos was born with a twin sister named Zoe after her grandmother, Constantine VII’s mother Empress Zoe Karbonopsina who had died as a nun a long time ago. Now back to Romanos I, by the 940s he had grown increasingly depressed especially since his son and intended heir Christopher died despite it happening 10 years earlier and in his depression, Romanos I became most concerned with what we would all be worried about when reaching old age, which is about the afterlife and Romanos here was deeply bothered about it especially about the salvation of his soul and like Basil I mentioned earlier on as he was in his final years, Romanos I felt the same way in feeling he had been punished by God for what he did in the past which was taking over power from the rightful emperor. In 944 the Rus’ prince Igor I returned once again with his fleet except in the mouth of Danube River to the Black Sea this time threatening to have war with the Byzantines again, but Romanos this time was able to turn them away through diplomacy by sending them gifts. Back in the east, the general John Kourkouas continued his successful campaigns deep into Northern Mesopotamia, although he was still unable to capture the city of Edessa in 942 but instead the Arab authorities gave John a very important relic which had been in the city of Edessa’s possession since the 1st century AD and this was the Holy Mandylion which was a piece of cloth believed to have been used by Jesus Christ himself to wipe his face, therefore leaving an imprint of his features, and this was a relic of high value that the Byzantines always wanted to acquire.

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Image of Christ in the Mandylion

In 944, the Mandylion was sent over to Constantinople wherein a grand ceremony was held to enshrine it in the Hagia Sophia, though Romanos I was too ill and depressed to attend it so instead his sons and co-emperors Stephen and Constantine attended it and so did his son-in-law Constantine VII but when the ceremony happened, the brothers Stephen and Constantine could not see the face on the cloth but Constantine VII did, therefore he gained a vast amount of public support as everyone believed that by being able to see Christ’s face, he was destined to take back the throne. Romanos I later on true enough announced that his time was almost near as he was already 74, therefore he named his son-in-law Constantine VII his successor as senior emperor and not his sons Stephen and Constantine but when these two sons heard of this, they were greatly enraged and so in December of 944 to save their positions, both sons launched a coup against their father in which they broke into his bedroom while he was sleeping and here, both sons put him under arrest, dragged him to a boat, and sent him away to the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara to be a monk in a monastery there. For the next 2 or 3 weeks, both brothers Stephen and Constantine were basically in charge of the empire and now they turned to arrest their brother-in-law Constantine VII but failed as Constantine VII already had great public support and so being convinced by his wife Helena, Constantine VII in January of 945 struck back and arrested his brothers-in-law. The people of Constantinople meanwhile started hearing some rumors that Constantine VII had been killed by the brothers until Constantine VII himself came out to greet them saying he was all alive and well and that the brothers had been banished to no other than the monastery where they sent their father to. Both Stephen and Constantine Lekapenos ended up becoming monks too joining their father in monastery arrest and while Romanos I spent his last years thinking about his soul, his sons were still thinking of ways to return to power but at the end they never would, and Constantine VII now at 39 finally got his chance to rule alone after 32 years of being in the shadows despite keeping his title.

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Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of Byzantium (r. 913-959), sole emperor (945-959)

At 39, Constantine VII was tall but stocky with a long black beard and brown hair, though quite overweight as for the past 32 years he barely left the palace and instead remained in his study reading and writing as well as drawing and painting and in those years he had been kept away, he became most interested in court ceremonies and now as the sole emperor, he put a lot of attention into it as a way to make it seem like he was all-powerful to make up for all those years where he seemed powerless. Not surprisingly, Constantine VII held a strong grudge against his in-laws, the Lekapenos family especially towards his father-in-law Romanos I and his brothers-in-law seeing them as nothing more but uncultured and improper people or basically just trash despite being married to one, except that Helena as I said was nothing like her father and older brothers, although there were also some members of the Lekapenos family that Constantine VII still trusted as they were much like him in personality and interests and these were Helena’s younger brother the patriarch Theophylact Lekapenos who was still patriarch and Basil Lekapenos, the youngest though illegitimate son of Romanos I born 925 who now as an adult was castrated and turned into a eunuch by Constantine VII’s orders as a way to make Basil unquestionably loyal and unable to usurp power as he was to be Constantine VII’s personal chamberlain and bodyguard.

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Woodcarving of Christ crowning Emperor Constantine VII

As usual of emperors coming to power in this period in Byzantine history, Constantine VII began his sole rule by firing all those loyal to Romanos I including the highly successful general John Kourkouas who in 945 was dismissed from command as Constantine feared he would one day take the throne in the name of his friend Romanos I, and in return Constantine VII replaced all of Romanos I’s loyalists with people loyal to him such as the same old Bardas Phokas the Elder who in 945 replaced John Kourkouas as the supreme commander of the eastern armies and serving him would be his sons Nikephoros Phokas the Younger and Leo Phokas the Younger as well as their 30-year-old nephew John Kourkouas Tzimiskes, who was the son of their older sister and a grand-nephew of the same John Kourkouas who had been fired; and now this Nikephoros Phokas mentioned here who was named after his grandfather Nikephoros Phokas the Elder that was mentioned earlier, would be the more famous Nikephoros Phokas. The other loyal officials Constantine VII had appointed to run the government on the other hand were mostly eunuchs which included of course Basil Lekapenos but also other highly capable eunuch administrators like Joseph Bringas and Constantine Gongyles. Romanos I meanwhile had not died yet and in 947, his son Theophylact who was still patriarch here together with the eunuch admiral Theophanes who was still in command plotted to restore Romanos to the throne but the plot was quickly uncovered by Constantine VII who when hearing about it dismissed Theophanes from command for good, while Theophylact on the other hand was still kept as patriarch as he was entirely useless being nothing more but literally a clown who even performed theatrical acts when performing the liturgy which was very scandalous, and as mentioned earlier he was lacking in brains and cared more about horses than his religious duties. Romanos I on the other hand did not live long enough and in 948 he died as a monk in the monastery he was sent to.           

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The Mandylion brought to Constantinople in 944, Madrid Skylitzes
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Constantine VII (center) in ceremonial armor
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Map of the Byzantine Empire’s Themes (military districts) in Asia Minor, 10th century

Constantine VII as emperor could have been a really disastrous ruler as when the empire was still being pressured by Arab forces in the east as well as the seas by the Arab pirates of Crete and Cilicia while the administration at the same time was being dominated by corrupt eunuchs, Constantine VII had been preoccupied with his scholarly works which is how historians like John Skylitzes (10410-1101) portray him as, but at the same time this was not true of him as Constantine VII cared deeply about the administration, invested heavily on the army, dutifully read all documents given to him, and investigated all cases of injustices against the poor which is how historical records like Theophanes Continuatus portray him as, which is in fact the more reliable source.

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Constantine VII in his study, art by Spatharokandidatos

What is more true about Constantine VII was that he was simply the personification of this era, the Byzantine Renaissance as out of all the emperors of this time, he was the one who put the most attention into funding and promoting art, culture, and literacy as well as court ceremonies and true enough his own intellectual pursuits in writing books and compiling other works would totally show he was this era’s embodiment in cultural terms whereas Romanos I before him was somewhat the embodiment of this era’s military resurgence. Constantine VII now may have excelled in artistic and literary matters but in military matters he was not as you will see which makes him very much like his father Leo VI and just like his father, Constantine VII in 949 made another attempt to reconquer all of Crete from the Arab Emirate of pirates there, and here he planned a larger scale invasion even allying himself with Otto I, the King of the Frankish Empire’s successor Kingdom of East Frankia better known as Germany and the Emirate of Cordoba or Al-Andalus in Spain which were after all the mortal enemies of the Emirate of Crete as these pirates in Crete were after all exiles that tried to overthrow the ruling authority of Cordoba. The proposed military alliance with Otto I’s Germany and the Emirate of Cordoba never came to happen as both rulers had their own problems, so at the end it was only Constantine VII’s Byzantine forces under the eunuch Constantine Gongyles that were left alone to retake Crete and like Leo VI’s attempted reconquest of 911-912, this expedition in 949 was a disaster and failure not only because of Gongyles’ inexperience in military command that the Byzantine forces were massacred by the Arabs while they were sleeping but because the island of Crete had a rough terrain that made it difficult to conquer it, but either way the expedition was abandoned and Gongyles after barely escaping with his life retired from imperial service for good. Constantine VII on the other hand would not see this failed expedition of 949 to reconquer Crete as a great loss, rather he would still continue to do what he loved most which was writing books that by 950 he had already written and published 3 major literary works by himself and as a highly learned scholar, he was fluent in both Latin and Greek. Now before his reign as sole emperor in 945, Constantine VII already completed and published a biography on Basil I (Vita Basilii in Latin), which I have mentioned earlier and believing Basil I was his grandfather who he greatly idolized, Constantine VII portrays him as a heroic figure and defender of the poor from corrupt eunuch that demanded tax from them while Michael III who Basil killed was portrayed as the embodiment of all that is evil and corrupt, therefore Basil’s usurping of power was seen as necessary. Little did Constantine know on the other hand that Basil who he idolized so much was actually not his grandfather and that the evil Michael III he writes about was actually his grandfather and this was mainly because Constantine was too young to remember his father Leo being alive, but if Leo lived longer, Constantine would have known the whole truth- in this story’s case- that Michael was indeed his grandfather. However, much like his actual grandfather Michael III who he labelled as “the Drunkard”, Constantine VII was also a heavy drinker and heavy eater although he was still very respectful to others, took matters seriously, and was on time in attending court ceremonies unlike Michael III who was mostly neglectful.

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De Ceremoniis by Constantine VII

The other work Constantine VII wrote and published included a complete encyclopedia of the Byzantine court rituals and protocols which he was so obsessed known as De Ceremoniis in Latin which discusses in great detail the proper behavior for court ceremonies, coronations, baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc. and also about the proper attire to wear for such events and even about how to behave in church and in feasts, and this would be a very valuable source on Byzantine court rituals which would serve as a manual for all Byzantine emperors after him and for us today as our greatest source for information on Byzantine court life. Constantine’s other literary work De Thematibus meanwhile would be a very valuable guide to the geography and history of all of the Byzantine Empire’s provinces or Themes and this is believed to be the only work composed and compiled by Constantine himself as the rest were just commissioned by him, although for this story Constantine did in fact write all of these himself. The most important work of Constantine VII however is the De Administrando Imperio (DAI) which was literally a guide book to running the very complicated Byzantine Empire with all its politics while at the same time it was a diplomatic guide to all of Byzantium’s foreign neighbors such as the Arabs, Franks, Magyars, Serbs, Bulgarians, Pechenegs, and a lot more based on reports by imperial diplomats and in 952, this guide to the empire and beyond was published and presented to Constantine’s son and heir Romanos who was now co-emperor.

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Constantine VII’s De Administrando Imperio (DAI)

The DAI now was made to advise young Romanos and his successors after him on how to run the empire properly and part of the advice in this book was that Greek Fire was to be kept as a deep state secret as it had saved Byzantium countless times, and also that Byzantine imperial princes were discouraged from marrying any princesses from foreign powers unless they were from the Franks as this was part of Constantine VII maintaining friendly relations with the rising Frankish king Otto I. As part of Constantine VII’s foreign policy in impressing the Franks was that one time possibly in 949 when the bishop of Cremona in Italy Liutprand came to Constantinople being sent by Otto I, Constantine VII greatly impressed him with the grandeur of the imperial court as here Liutprand said he was greatly impressed seeing Constantine VII on his throne being lifted up by a mechanism that elevated the throne itself while the bronze lions that flanked the throne both roared like a real lion would and beside it, the golden birds in the artificial golden tree beside the throne sang.         

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Constantine VII on his throne with the mechanical lions and singing tree, art by Byzantine Tales

Back in the eastern frontier, things were doing well for the Byzantine armies under the supreme commander of the eastern forces Bardas Phokas the Elder but in 953 when battling the forces of the same Sayf al-Dawla who battled John Kourkouas earlier who now was the Emir of Aleppo since 945, Bardas who was now an old man was severely injured in battle while at the end of the day, Sayf’s Arab forces won and even retook the city of Germanikeia in Syria from the Byzantines. Following his injury and being too old to fight anyway being already in his 70s, Bardas retired from command in 955 and would be succeeded as the supreme commander or Domestikos of the eastern forces by his older son Nikephoros Phokas the Younger who was prior to that the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme, and Nikephoros now was a far more capable and ruthless general compared to his father who spent his entire life together with his younger brother Leo learning the art of war.

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General Nikephoros Phokas the Younger, art by Ancient City Lullaby

Nikephoros meanwhile was born in 912 in Cappadocia, the same year Leo VI died, and being part of the wealthy and powerful military clan of Phokas (plural: Phokades), he was destined to have a military career and Nikephoros would true enough be no exception to this as he trained all his life to be a soldier but what made him stand out was his purpose which was not only to fight for the empire or for territory and wealth but to defend the Orthodox Christian faith, and this is why throughout his entire military life, Nikephoros had an intense hatred towards Islam which makes him somewhat of a holy warrior or proto-Crusader as the actual Crusades would happen long after his time. All these years in military service made Nikephoros into a bloody killer especially towards Byzantium’s Muslim enemies that they would all fear his presence, but at the same time he was also a very disciplined holy man that lived life like an ascetic monk even being vegetarian in diet and before every battle would gather up his soldiers for prayer, therefore making him what would be a holy warrior, while brother Leo who was 3 years younger than him would very much just follow his older brother’s example except Leo was married.

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Sayf al-Dawla, Emir of Aleppo (945-967) and his court

As Nikephoros was the top commander in the east, he made his younger brother Leo and nephew John Tzimiskes his subordinate generals and while Nikephoros and Leo based themselves in the eastern border with the Arabs in Cilicia and Syria, John was assigned up north in the Armenian border defending it against the Arabs though in 956 when Sayf’s Arab forces struck John’s army, John being still young and not so experienced yet was defeated and therefore had to flee but later that year, Nikephoros and Leo struck back and won a victory over Sayf’s forces and in 957 Nikephoros would campaign deeper east into Syria and capture the city of Hadath while John on the other hand in 958 would manage actually to succeed not only in crushing Arab forces in battle but by actually recovering the city of Samosata in Mesopotamia from the Arabs while at the same time off the coast of Cilicia, an Arab fleet was destroyed by the Byzantines’ Greek Fire. It was also at around this time in real history when Theophano would come into the picture marrying Constantine VII’s son Romanos as was seen in the graphic novel, but in this story’s case it would not happen. In real history, Romanos as a child was married to Bertha, the daughter of the Frankish king of Italy Hugh (r. 926-947) although Bertha died soon after and so in around 957 with Romanos now grown up, he was free to choose his new wife and rather than choosing a powerful foreign princess or a daughter of a noble Byzantine family, he chose the young daughter of an innkeeper from the region of Laconia (the Peloponnese) in Southern Greece named Anastaso who despite being of low status was famous for her beauty and when hearing rumors about her, Romanos had her sent to Constantinople where she was renamed Theophano after marrying Romanos, although other sources say Theophano actually came from a noble family but of little importance, while her origins as an innkeeper’s daughter was just to malign her.

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Location of Laconia in Greece (red)

For this story however, let’s just say Romanos never heard of these rumors about this young woman in Greece, therefore Anastaso would not be become Theophano but rather would live a simple life as an innkeeper’s daughter in Laconia, never to be heard from again, therefore this would be the story’s greatest plot-twist. Other significant events that happened later on in the 950s with Byzantium under Constantine VII was that in 956 the mostly irresponsible patriarch Theophylact Lekapenos died from ironically falling off his horse as for his whole life he was dedicated to horses and following his sudden death at 39, he was replaced as Patriarch of Constantinople by Polyeuctus, a man who began out as a simple monk and when becoming patriarch he was the complete opposite of the fun-loving Theophylact as Polyeuctus was a serious scholar and man of strict morals except he was also very rude and arrogant as he would constantly challenge the emperor Constantine VII’s authority especially since he was the son of a controversial 4th marriage that Polyeuctus as strictly Orthodox never agreed to but also in knowledge of philosophy and religion knowing the emperor knew them well, while Constantine was not happy being challenged by the patriarch, except that he did not show it.

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Olga, Princess of the Kievan Rus’

In 957, the ruling princess of the Kieven Rus’ state Olga, wife of their former ruler Igor I who attacked Constantinople back in 941 but died in 945 came over to Constantinople though not to attack but to be baptized as a Christian by Patriarch Polyeuctus, thus would mark the beginning of the Christianization of the Rus’ state who like Bulgaria before also chose Orthodox Christianity. In Constantinople, Olga was seen as an exotic beauty with blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin and because of her beauty, the emperor Constantine even briefly fell in love with her but Olga prevented him from doing so by making Constantine her godfather at her baptism as a godfather and goddaughter could not be in a relationship and before returning north to Kiev, Olga as a Christian now took the name of Helena after the empress. Constantine VII on the other hand did not have much longer to live and in November of 959, right when was about to plan another campaign to reconquer Crete from the Arabs, he died in his bed at only 54 under mysterious circumstances that it was rumored that his daughter-in-law Theophano poisoned him thus giving her a bad reputation, however in this story with Theophano never coming into the picture, Constantine VII would still die here in 959 as it was surely most possible that he did not die from poisoning but rather from heart failure as Constantine was already unhealthy due to being overweight spending most of his life in his study and throne room barely moving while also eating and drinking very heavily and at only 54 he already looked like he was in his late 60s after living a life of stress especially back when Romanos I was his protector who any time could decide whether Constantine was to live or die. In real history, Constantine in 959 died at least having one grandson which was Basil, the son of Romanos and Theophano but here without Theophano around, Constantine would still die ruling the empire very competently leaving the empire with its cultural Renaissance and military might at a full swing.

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Emperor Constantine VII hosting a feast, art by Byzantine Tales
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Polyeuctus appointed as patriarch in 956, Madrid Skylitzes
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Princess Olga of Kiev in the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, 957

 

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Death of Constantine VII in 959, Madrid Skylitzes

The Climax Part I- Romanos II, the End of the Amorian Dynasty (959-963)          

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In 959, Romanos II at only 21 succeeded his father Constantine VII following his death and continuing the Amorian Dynasty despite not knowing the whole truth and still thinking he was from the line of Basil the Macedonian and not Michael III. Romanos II was very well trained by his father to succeed him as ever since 945 when Constantine VII became sole emperor, Romanos was already associated with his father on the throne as co-emperor and in addition, Constantine VII left behind to Romanos a complete manual in running the empire and its government which was the DAI.

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Emperor Romanos II of Byzantium (r. 959-963), son of Constantine VII, art by Byzantine Tales

The question now is if Romanos actually took his father’s advice in running the empire to heart or just wasted it away, and the answer is that he just wasted it away as he did indeed have capable advisors like the eunuch Joseph Bringas who put all his trust to in running the empire and more capable generals like Nikephoros and Leo Phokas as well as John Tzimiskes that he could put all his trust to, thus allowing Romanos to live the life of pleasure he so loved. Now Romanos being the pleasure-loving party-boy that partied all night and neglected his duties in running the empire but at the same time still having capable ministers running the government for him was exactly like his actual great-grandfather Michael III although unlike Michael III, Romanos would not get rid of his mother and sisters and lock them up in a convent. In real history however due to the influence of his wife Theophano, Romanos banished all of his 5 sisters from the palace including his mother Empress Helena and sent them all to a convent to become nuns as they were seen as threats, or if you go with the Theophano graphic novel, Romanos’ top advisor Joseph Bringas had accused Helena of poisoning her husband the late emperor therefore forcing her to commit suicide by having her poison herself when in fact Theophano poisoned Constantine VII being manipulated by Joseph, but in this story with Theophano not coming into the picture Romanos would not do anything to his mother and sisters and since he was unmarried he still needed an empress (Augusta) at side, therefore his mother would still keep her position as the Augusta until Romanos was to be married, and not to mention too Romanos inherited a lot from his mother especially his good looks and grace, though Romanos’ stocky figure was inherited from his father.

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Coin of Constantine VII and his son and co-emperor Romanos II

On the other hand, Romanos’ reasons for being hands off in the administration and neglecting mostly everything his father taught him in running the empire was not so much because he did not care and just wanted to party and sleep with other women but because he did in fact have some personal issues with his father and a lot of this had to do with how his father looked down on Romanos’ mother’s side, the Lekapenos family and his maternal grandfather Romanos I who Constantine VII saw as trash while Romanos was indeed close to his mother’s side especially to his late fun-loving uncle Patriarch Theophylact who did in fact influence Romanos’ pleasure-loving lifestyle, and as an act of rebelling against his father’s memory, Romanos chose to not take his advice and let Joseph the eunuch do everything as he was highly skilled at it despite being greedy and corrupt at the same time. Romanos having grown up practically raised by Joseph Bringas chose to have Joseph as his top advisor while his uncle Basil Lekapenos was put aside although he still maintained his position in the imperial court. Now Romanos II was not all neglectful and resentful towards his father as you may think as in 960 less than a year after becoming emperor, he decided to continue what his father failed to do before he died which was to recapture the entire island of Crete and so here, Romanos planned out a massive campaign to retake the island himself though with Joseph’s advice too, but Romanos having no military experience would not lead the campaign himself, instead he selected the empire’s rising star and most capable general Nikephoros Phokas to lead it, and true enough Nikephoros had been Byzantium’s most brilliant strategist general since Justinian I’s general Belisarius in the 6th century (who played a major part in chapter III). Romanos II then had to recall Nikephoros from the eastern front to Constantinople where the fleet of 1,000 warships or Dromons including 50,000 soldiers and 27,000 sailors would take off. Nikephoros then left behind his younger brother Leo and nephew John Tzimiskes to fight off the Arabs in the east as he was to face another Arab army which were the pirates of Crete and Nikephoros living his life to fight Arabs accepted the offer to lead the perilous Cretan expedition of 960 which would then last for about 8 months, although Nikephoros spending months on campaign already expected this.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry unload in Crete’s shore using ramps, 960

The entire fleet then arrived outside the city of Chandax which was the island emirate’s capital and when seeing the strength of its land and sea walls, Nikephoros had his men carefully inspect it and here he immediately came up with his strategy which was to not lift the siege no matter how much time went by. For months, the Byzantine forces kept firing arrows and weights from their catapults into the city, though it never succeeded and at one point just out of fun and as an insult, Nikephoros had a live donkey catapulted high up into the air and into the city, though to mention, another tactic Nikephoros used here was to catapult in to the city heads of its people relatives from outside the walls that had been killed, as a way to bring feat to them. The siege lasted until the winter where Nikephoros ordered his men to not lift the siege but use the winter to starve off the population inside and it was also here when ships from Constantinople arrived to restock the supplies for the army, but it was only when March of 961 came when the Byzantines would totally gain the upper hand. The emir of Crete Abd al-Aziz meanwhile was tired of being blockaded for months that he even wrote to Romanos II to order his men to abandon the siege though it did not work as Nikephoros was already so close to taking it. The next trick Nikephoros did was to have his men dig beneath the walls to make it collapse and with explosives planted beneath the walls’ foundations, the walls collapsed allowing the Byzantine army to pour in. After months of endlessly waiting to take the city, the Byzantine army lost all their patience and once they broke the walls of Chandax, they carried out a merciless sack of the city massacring anyone they found while the survivors were taken as slaves, mosques were destroyed out of revenge, and a lot of loot hoarded by the pirates over the years were recovered. By March of 961, not only Chandax but all of the Island of Crete fell once again back under Byzantine hands after 137 years of Arab control and numerous attempts to recapture it, thus the threat of these Arab pirates in the Mediterranean was done with for good and trade allowed to continue uninterrupted once again, while at the same time the emir Abd al-Aziz was taken as a prisoner and brought to Constantinople where he was paraded at the triumphal procession for Nikephoros Phokas and his army. The triumph in Constantinople meanwhile was not entirely held for the victorious general Nikephoros Phokas but for Romanos II who masterminded the whole expedition as he did not want Nikephoros getting all the credit, and here Abd al-Aziz was forced to bow down to Romanos II but was still allowed to live and retire peacefully despite not converting to Christianity, though he would never to come back to the picture again.

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Byzantine Dromon (warship)
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Territories of the Arab pirate Emirate of Crete (red), before 961
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960-961 Byzantine Siege of Arab held Chandax, Madrid Skylitzes
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Nikephoros Phokas’ Byzantine forces storm Chandax in 961, Madrid Skylitzes
Watch this to learn more about the life and career of Nikephoros Phokas (History Time)

By achieving the impossible in finally taking over Crete from the Arab pirates, Nikephoros Phokas would be forever remembered as the terror of the Arabs or simply the “Pale Death of the Saracens” referring to his brutal massacre of the Arab Muslim population of Chandax, although Romanos II too would gain a lot of popularity for achieving the reconquest of Crete. Nikephoros however right after celebrating his triumph was immediately sent back to the eastern frontier to continue the war against the more serious Arab threat of the Emir of Aleppo Sayf al-Dawla who like Nikephoros was striking back at Arabs was his counterpart striking back against the Byzantines for their successes, although Romanos too saw that Nikephoros may pose a threat to his power if he was to stay in Constantinople longer as Nikephoros had grown even more popular than the emperor for his recent victory.

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Lego Nikephoros Phokas (right) and his brother Leo Phokas (left)

In the meantime over in the eastern frontier, Sayf al-Dawla continued making his annual raids into Byzantine Asia Minor even winning a few victories in minor battles, although Leo Phokas who was left in charge there had managed to set a trap for Sayf in the Taurus Mountains where Sayf was going to pass when returning to Syria and there as his army marched through, the Byzantine forces under Leo ambushed them which was successful leaving only Sayf with 300 of his cavalry soldiers alive, although Sayf barely escaped the ambush with his prized Arabian horse he was riding killed in it. Sayf then escaped using one of his dead soldier’s horse and had even scattered his gold coins to allow his escape as Leo’s soldiers were busy picking them up. Nikephoros later on in 961 was back in Cilicia to continue his campaigns, although here was not intending to fully invade it but to make raids as his tactic in order to weaken the state for a full Byzantine invasion later on, though it was also in 961 when Romanos II’s mother Empress Helena died like in real history from natural causes. In early 962, Nikephoros and his army was able to capture the border between Cilicia and Syria where Nikephoros had the land burned to create a dead zone as a way to make it more difficult for Sayf to invade, although Sayf still managed to cross over to Cilicia but this allowed John Tzimiskes to attack Sayf’s capital of Aleppo in Syria directly while Sayf was not there to guard it. Sayf when hearing that the Byzantine forces reached his capital returned to defend it but when returning he was chased by John Tzimiskes and his forces to the Euphrates River wherein Sayf crossed into Mesopotamia whereas Nikephoros and Leo with their forces all surrounded Aleppo itself. For several months the Byzantine forces had besieged Aleppo and with Sayf absent from his capital, public order there collapsed that by December of 962 the city garrison had to surrender to the Byzantines. Just as they did in Chandax a year earlier, the Byzantine forces did the same to Aleppo looting the city and carrying out a brutal massacre on its Muslim Arab population and when seeing Sayf’s magnificent library there, the Byzantines knew that Sayf was not just a warrior but a highly cultured intellectual, although the Byzantine soldiers acting on Nikephoros’ orders did not spare the library out of respect, instead they burned it to the ground as part of Nikephoros’ strong grudge against Islam. The Byzantines then would only stop their brutal pillaging of Aleppo when they grew tired of it and at the end, they were able to capture over 390,000 silver dinars, 2,000 camels, and 1,400 mules thus the forces under the 3 generals Nikephoros, Leo, and John would head back west, while for the Arab world, the sack of Aleppo would forever ruin their power and prestige. Meanwhile over in the Balkans, another Byzantine general would rise to prominence the way Nikephoros Phokas did and this was Marianos Argyros who had previously gained success in Southern Italy winning many victories against the Arabs and in 962 he had defeated a major invasion of the Magyars into Thrace making him instantly a favorite and part of Romanos’ inner circle which was also because Romanos under Joseph’s influence soon grew to mistrust Nikephoros seeing him as a direct threat. In March of 963, as Nikephoros and his generals were in Cappadocia, news reached them that Romanos II had died and everyone was shocked as the emperor was only 25, therefore they suspected his scheming eunuch advisor Joseph Bringas of poisoning him. Now in real history, it is rumored that it was his wife Theophano that poisoned him like she did to his father as she had gotten tired of Romanos, although in this story with Theophano not being around, we will go with the other possible theory of Romanos’ death which was caused by an accident in a hunting trip whereas Romanos being drunk fell off his horse and down a ditch inuring himself, and when lying down back in Constantinople being badly injured, I would say Joseph Bringas poisoned him to finish him off, although as a eunuch Joseph could not be emperor so it was up for him to put another puppet on the throne except he did not know who, as for one he was someone who totally hated Nikephoros Phokas seeing his popularity as a threat, so here I would go with Joseph selecting John Tzimiskes as his new puppet emperor who Joseph believed could be easily manipulated, and true enough this could be why Joseph sent a letter to John in real history asking him to turn on his uncle Nikephoros and bring him in chains to Constantinople.

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Byzantine imperial shield coronation of Nikephoros II Phokas, 963

In real history however, Theophano having 2 young sons with Romanos, Basil and Constantine who were both already co-emperors needed a protector for them as she distrusted Joseph, therefore she sent word to the popular Nikephoros Phokas to make himself emperor to protect her sons, although here again with Theophano not being in the picture and Romanos II remaining unmarried and without children at his death, Nikephoros Phokas would set his eyes on the throne anyway using his popularity as an opportunity. The same would happen here too with Joseph Bringas sending John Tzimiskes a letter asking him to turn on his uncle Nikephoros and arrest him but like in real history, instead of turning on his uncle John would end up having their troops proclaim his uncle Nikephoros as emperor raising him on a large round shield, thus here ends the rule of the Amorian Dynasty that had ruled since 820 and only briefly interrupted with the reign of Basil I (867-886) and his legitimate son Alexander (912-913), and here begins the rule of the Phokas clan over Byzantium.   

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Leo Phokas’ army defeats Sayf al-Dawla in 962, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine forces capture Aleppo in 962, Madrid Skylitzes
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Death of Romanos II in 963, Madrid Skylitzes

Watch this video below to see Nikephoros Phokas’ life in Lego (from my channel No Budget Films).


The Climax Part II- Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969), From Hero to Zero          

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Here in August of 963 begins the highly eventful and action-packed 6-year reign of Nikephoros II Phokas, but before he could be officially crowned as emperor by the patriarch Polyeuctus, he had to make his way into Constantinople as Joseph Bringas had already taken control of the city refusing him entry. As Nikephoros and his army were camped outside the Bosporus at night, he sent his brother Leo to cross it in a small boat dressed as a port worker which he did and when reaching the docks of the European side of Constantinople, he gathered a large number of boats which he had sailed across the Bosporus to ferry the rest of the army and Nikephoros right across it again. At the same night as Nikephoros’ and Leo’s armies were crossing the Bosporus, their very old father Bardas who was still alive was inside the Hagia Sophia seeking refuge although here the people inside all rallied under him against Joseph Bringas who they all came to hate due to his corruption, although Joseph already sent Marianos Argyros who was in charge of the city’s defense to arrest Bardas as Joseph planned to get rid of the entire Phokas clan except for John Tzimiskes who here was his intended candidate, although true enough John as a strong general was not willing to be a puppet. Bardas however would not end up being arrested as Marianos before reaching the Hagia Sophia was injured by a heavy object thrown right at his head by a woman from the balcony doing this in rebellion against Joseph, and hours later Marianos would die from his head injury. At the same time, the eunuch Basil Lekapenos who had been put aside throughout Romanos II’s reign struck back in rebellion against Joseph bribing the population of Constantinople to turn on the corrupt and fat Joseph. Nikephoros and Leo with the forces eventually crossed the Bosporus and made it into Constantinople wherein the city garrison surrendered to them as they commanded a larger army and when getting into the center of the city, Nikephoros himself confronted Joseph in a fistfight in which Nikephoros won and when losing the fight as well as all his power influence when everyone turned against him, Joseph Bringas was banished from Constantinople for good, thus returning to his native land of Paphlagonia in Northern Asia Minor never to return again.

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Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas of Byzantium (r. 963-969)

The next day, Nikephoros was officially crowned as emperor by Patriarch Polyeuctus, although Polyeuctus never really supported him anyway, except that after seeing power shift twice from Constantine VII to Romanos II, then to Nikephoros in only 4 years he got tired of all this changing of emperors, so he crowned Nikephoros anyway who now was the sole emperor as here in this story there is no Empress Theophano around and her 2 that Nikephoros would have to rule for as their guardian. In this case, Polyeuctus also agreed to crown Nikephoros despite him having no ties to the previous ruling Amorian Dynasty because Polyeuctus knew the dynasty was ruined anyway as Leo VI long ago was not a legitimate son and Constantine VII was the son of a controversial 4th marriage, though only for the sake of legitimacy for Nikephoros to not be seen as a usurper, Polyeuctus would ask him to marry one of Romanos II’s sisters as in fact all 5 were still alive, and in this story, unlike in real history where Nikephoros married Theophano to legitimize his claim, here he would choose Romanos’ twin sister Zoe as his wife, as again Theophano would not be around here. Just like how Nikephoros in real history married Theophano despite never staying close to her as he vowed to stay away from women after his first wife and son died a long time ago and also because he wanted to live life like an ascetic monk, Nikephoros would do the same here too by marrying Zoe for political reasons only although as part of his ascetic lifestyle, he would mostly stay away from her, but it would be worse here as Zoe had no children whereas in real history Theophano already did, and Zoe would actually not have any children as Nikephoros would never stay close to her.

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General John Tzimiskes, nephew of Nikephoros II Phokas, art by Byzantine Tales

As the new emperor, Nikephoros made his brother Leo the head of the palace or Kouropalates and his father Bardas a Caesar as an honorary title, while John Tzimiskes succeeded Nikephoros as the top commander of the eastern armies. Now for weakening Sayf al-Dawla’s threat in the east, recapturing Crete, and finishing off the corrupt Joseph Bringas, Nikephoros II was highly popular when coming into power but his much younger nephew John Tzimiskes was even more popular mostly because of his good looks and supernatural abilities in horse riding and archery despite his short stature which is why he is known by his nickname Tzimiskes which as I forgot to mention is the Greek translation for the Armenian word for “short” thus hinting he is of some Armenian origin, and John Tzimiskes too aside from having good looks also had charm unlike his uncle Nikephoros who at 51 here in 963 was unattractive in appearance and being a veteran soldier was very rough around the edges, negative in personality, and had also lacked charm making him unable to connect with the population but only with his soldiers. Nikephoros as emperor true enough ruled the same way as he commanded his troops and rather than caring about pleasing his people, the first thing he thought about when becoming emperor was resuming the war in the east against Sayf al-Dawla. By the end of 963, Nikephoros launched another campaign against the Arabs of Cilicia although this time he remained in Constantinople while his brother Leo and nephew John Tzimiskes led the army and here John was able to strike the city of Adana forcing the Arab forces there to flee to a nearby hill where they made a last stand but ultimately lost when John wiped them out there. Sayf meanwhile began raiding Byzantine Asia Minor once again but did not last long enough as here in 963 as well, he suffered a stroke thus making him unable to fight in person which made him have to make a truce with Nikephoros II.

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Athanasios of Trebizond, ascetic monk and friend of Nikephoros Phokas

In 964, Nikephoros II’s popularity would already start dropping when he began to issue laws that was to limit land donations to the Church from the aristocracy thus making him unpopular with the Church, while he also continued the reforms of Romanos I and Constantine VII in limiting the aristocracy (Dynatoi) from buying land from the peasants. As a devout Christian, Nikephoros believed that the Church should not really possess worldly wealth and property which he was very vocal about, though despite this, he still gave property in the peninsula of Mt. Athos in Northern Greece to his friend the monk Athanasios of Trebizond in which Nikephoros even helped him financially construct and establish the Great Lavra Monastery which would over the years grow into a large monastic community.   

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Nikephoros Phokas enters Constantinople in 963, Madrid Skylitzes
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Monastery of Great Lavra in Mt. Athos, founded by Athanasios of Trebizond with funding from Nikephoros II

         

Between 964 and 965, Nikephoros II himself headed out east to continue his campaigns against the remaining Arab emirates in Cilicia and Syria to finally conquer them.

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Nikephoros II Phokas, “Pale Death of the Saracens”, art by Spatharokandidatos

In 965, Nikephoros announced that the sharing of the island of Cyprus between the Byzantines and Arabs in which the Arabs having one half of the island paid rent to the Byzantines, which they have done ever since the reign of Constans II in the mid-7th century would end and this meant that Nikephoros launched a massive naval invasion to recapture the Arab half of Cyprus. The expedition to retake all of Cyprus led by the general Niketas Chalkoutzes was then successful making all of Cyprus Byzantine again all while Nikephoros together with Leo and John continued their Cilician campaign. For several months, both the emperor Nikephoros and John Tzimiskes were besieging the city of Mopsuestia in Cilicia while Leo was busy besieging Tarsus, which here was another haven for Arab pirates the way Crete was before 961. By July of 965, the city of Mopsuestia completely fell to the Byzantines after the soldiers of Nikephoros and John dug beneath its walls making them collapse and when taking Mopsuestia, the Byzantine soldiers being the same ones that captured Crete and Aleppo did the same as they did there by carrying out another brutal massacre on the Arab Muslim population of Mopsuestia and taking the survivors as slaves. Following the fall of Mopsuestia, Tarsus too fell to the Byzantines in August of 965 where Nikephoros chased the remaining Arab forces of Tarsus with his Cataphract cavalry and following this, all of Cilicia fell into Byzantine control thus becoming a Roman province again.

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Nikephoros II Phokas in imperial robes holding a Byzantine curved sword (Paramerion)

Back in Constantinople, a major triumph was celebrated for the complete reconquest of Cyprus and Cilicia and here Nikephoros II began a tradition which was to parade the sacred Christian relics he captured in his triumphal parade, a new practice that Byzantine emperors would do from here onwards. Though John Tzimiskes was the hero of the Cilician campaign, just shortly after returning to Constantinople he was fired from command by his uncle the emperor and forced to live under house arrest in a small estate in Asia Minor for some unclear reasons, but for this story’s case it would be because Nikephoros II here started getting paranoid and envying his nephew to the point of seeing him as a threat to his power as it was John who gained a lot of popularity for his victories in Cilicia, and it would be here when John would eventually form a conspiracy to overthrow his uncle Nikephoros. Now Nikephoros may have been successful in fighting wars in the eastern front but in the west it was not really case as by putting all his attention and best troops in the east, the west meaning Byzantine Southern Italy was poorly defended with weaker forces and in 965 too, the Byzantines forces after being forced out of Rometta, their last outpost in Sicily would suffer a heavy defeat to the Arab navy at the naval Battle of Straits wherein many Byzantine soldiers died drowning in the sea and the survivors enslaved by the Arabs.

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Otto I the Great, King of East Frankia (936-962), Holy Roman emperor (962-973)

At the same time too, the Frankish king of East Frankia (Germany) Otto I who maintained good relations with Constantine VII before was now hostile towards Byzantium as in 962 he had been crowned by the pope as the first Holy Roman Emperor, and unlike Charlemagne back in 800 who was surprised to be crowned as a “Roman emperor” by the pope, Otto who spent his whole reign unifying Germany and Italy into one empire the way Charlemagne almost 200 years ago did, was really intent in being crowned as a “Roman emperor” which he used to challenge the authority of the Byzantine Empire especially in their holdings in Italy, which Otto had wanted for himself. Nikephoros as usual of him in 966 continued fighting wars in the east and this time having his men go all the way east to Mesopotamia again to raid the Arab held cities of Amida, Dara, and Nisibis but little did Nikephoros who never really listened to his people know that his people were tired of war and were content with how large and strong empire was already as more wars meant more taxes to pay for the food supply and salary of the soldiers. Nikephoros though was very strict in his tax policies that he constantly increased taxes to fund his military campaigns as in this story, he did indeed have the ambition like Justinian I 4 centuries ago to conquer the entire Mediterranean and make it a “Roman lake” again, except Nikephoros was forgetting that Byzantium’s armies despite being powerful was not as powerful and great in number as it was in the 6th century.

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Tsar Peter I of Bulgaria (r. 927-969), son of Simeon

Nikephoros’ aggressive policy would again show between 966 and 967 when he would end the 42-year peace between Byzantium and the Bulgarian Empire up north which began in 925 between Romanos I and the Bulgarian tsar Simeon, and by 966 Simeon’s son Peter I was still ruling Bulgaria and by not being very aggressive, Peter did not really succeed in blocking off Magyar raids into the Byzantine Empire and because of this Nikephoros wrote him a letter telling him to be more aggressive in dealing with the Magyars from the north as they were spilling in to Byzantine territory but Peter refused saying he was fine with what he was doing. According the contemporary historian of this time Leo the Deacon, Nikephoros insulted the Bulgar ambassadors Peter sent to him reminding them of their origins as nomadic barbarians from the steppes in which the Bulgars were, and in this story, this would be true while Nikephoros as well refused to pay tribute to Bulgaria, which again would resume the traditional war between Byzantium and their northern neighbor after 42 years. At the same time, a new power had been rising in Eastern Europe which was that of the Kievan Rus’ and since 964, this state had been ruled by their Grand Prince Sviatoslav I, better known as “Sviatoslav the Brave”, the son of the Kievan Rus’ grand prince Igor and princess Olga who had been mentioned earlier, and Sviatoslav unlike his mother who was baptized an Orthodox Christian was a Pagan like his father, and also a ruthless warrior who had the ambition to expand the Kievan Rus’ state by force using both the fearlessness of his Scandinavian ancestors and speed of the nomadic steppe people like the Huns, Magyars, Pechenegs, and Avars that had settled in Eastern Europe for centuries.

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Sviatoslav I, Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (r. 945-972)

Sviatoslav thus expanded his empire by force that in such a quick amount time with the speed and ruthlessness of his army, most of Eastern Europe was conquered that in 965 the power of the Khazar Khanate in Southern Russia that had been there for about 4 centuries was destroyed when Sviatoslav destroyed their major trading city of Sarkel along the Don River which the Byzantine emperor Theophilos helped build if you remember, and the Khazar’s capital of Atil located where the Volga River comes out into the Caspian Sea. Sviatoslav too set his eyes on Byzantine Cherson in the Crimea intending to conquer it to gain access to the Black Sea and when Nikephoros heard of Sviatoslav’s ambition to conquer Byzantine territory, he sent Sviatoslav money bribing him to attack the Bulgarian Empire instead in which Sviatoslav accepted the offer and rode to Bulgaria with such terror and what resulted from his attack was the near complete destruction of the Bulgarian state that the eastern half of Bulgaria fell under his rule. Sviatoslav though did not only conquer Bulgarian lands, he even went as far as spilling into Byzantine Thrace bringing such terror there as well, which shows that Nikephoros II was not really a skilled diplomat.

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964-965 Byzantine reconquest of Cilicia, Madrid Skylitzes
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Cataphract cavalry of Nikephoros II
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Coronation of Otto I as the first Holy Roman emperor by Pope John XII in Rome, 962
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Sviatoslav and his Rus’ army defeat the Khazars, 965

Meanwhile, back in the east Sayf al-Dawla had died in 967 due to complications caused by the stroke he got some years ago and his death would begin plunging the Islamic world into chaos as for many years he was the most powerful warlord and political leader that led the Islamic world. The death of Sayf was then an advantage to the Byzantines as it would allow his lands to easily fall to Byzantine rule but in Constantinople, Nikephoros II was growing more unpopular as the days went by not only because of his harsh tax policy but because he was not as invincible as everyone thought he was which was seen with his military defeats in Sicily and his failure to stop Sviatoslav from raiding into Thrace and his growing unpopularity even made him a target of some people who shouted insults at him or even threw stones at him as he passed, which made the emperor even more paranoid that he began arresting anyone who publicly insulted him.

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Greek stamp of Nikephoros II

Another reason why Nikephoros’ unpopularity was growing was because his troops in the capital had seemed to be undisciplined that in one occasion in 967, a fight broke out between his sailors and Armenian mercenaries in which civilians too got hurt in the process, though to prove to everyone that his soldiers were in fact very disciplined, Nikephoros had his soldiers perform marching drills in the Hippodrome, although the people misinterpreted these drills and when one idiot in the crowd shouted “the emperor wants to kill us!” everyone panicked resulting in a stampede where a large number of people either died or were hurt when exiting the narrow doorway of the Hippodrome. Nikephoros on the other hand did not make any apology for what happened as he had nothing to do with this stampede incident and instead of apologizing, he had another wall built for the imperial palace as he planned to now further distance himself from the people after what happened in the Hippodrome, but this ruined his relations with the public even more that some were already growing suspicious thinking that the emperor not being around even more was now plotting against them inside the palace. Though he was not a very skilled diplomat, Nikephoros at least succeeded once in diplomacy which was here in 968 when he annexed the Principality of Taron along Byzantium’s eastern border in Armenia into the empire when their prince Ashot III died as here Nikephoros promised Ashot’s sons high commanding positions in the Byzantine army in exchange for their principality to fall under the empire’s protection, although Nikephoros’ diplomacy would fail again with Emperor Otto I in the west. In 968, Otto I sent the same Bishop Liutprand of Cremona back to Constantinople after almost 20 years, except this time Liutprand was not impressed the way he was before in 949 when meeting Constantine VII. Here Liutprand was to ask Nikephoros to recognize Otto’s claim as “Roman emperor” and to also cede all of Byzantine Southern Italy to Otto who’s dream was to unify all of Italy under his rule, though in real history Liutprand returned to Constantinople to for a marriage alliance between Otto I’s son Otto II and Anna, the daughter of Romanos II and Theophano, except again with Theophano not in the picture and her children never being born, Liutprand would instead go to Constantinople looking for the right Byzantine princess for the Frankish prince Otto II. Like in real history too, Nikephoros here would insult Liutprand and Otto by calling Otto only a “king” and not “emperor” while Liutprand would also insult Nikephoros by referring to him only as the “Emperor of the Greeks” and not “Roman emperor” but would also write an insulting description of Nikephoros as an ugly, short, fat, and disgusting monster with pitch black skin and a disfigured face, although not to mention Nikephoros was somewhat ugly in appearance but not extremely ugly the way Liutprand describes him. At the end, Liutprand returned to Italy empty handed with his silks confiscated and no bride for young Otto II after insulting the emperor and as he even said, when dining with the emperor, Liutprand was forced to sit at the end of the long table and instead of being served lavish dishes like the rest, he was served rotten fish. Another factor that would make Nikephoros even more distant from his people was his depression as in 968 his father Bardas Phokas the Elder would die at the very old age of 90, and here Nikephoros too would start contemplating his death and who should succeed him as emperor as again in this story’s case his wife Theophano would not be around and so would her sons the co-emperors Basil and Constantine, and since Nikephoros despite being married to Romanos II’s twin sister Zoe in this story, they would not have any children together due to Nikephoros’ ascetic lifestyle and vow to stay away from women, so here he would decide that it would be up to his younger brother Leo who had a son, Bardas Phokas the Younger to continue the imperial bloodline. To distract himself from his feeling of depression after losing his father, Nikephoros now put his attention in carrying out his other ultimate dream in his eastern campaigns, which was to finally recapture the important Roman city of Antioch in Syria from the Arabs which had been under Arab control since the 630s when the Byzantines lost it to them, and although by here it was nothing much but a depopulated provincial city, it still had great importance to the Byzantines historically. For months, Nikephoros had been using the new wall he built for the palace as a military training ground to prepare his troops for the ultimate conquest of Antioch. Later in 968, Nikephoros himself returned east again where he had a fortress built near Antioch to block the city off from supplies and reinforcements and when returning to Constantinople in early 969, he left behind his general Michael Bourtzes with only 1,500 men to be in charge of besieging Antioch, although Michael was given orders by the emperor to not capture the city until the emperor ordered him to do so. As the months went by, Michael grew impatient and so he disobeyed the emperor’s orders and after tricking an Arab traitor soldier in the walls, the Arab garrison surrendered allowing the Byzantine forces to pour into the city whereas a fire later broke out which then led to the complete capture of Antioch. When returning to Constantinople though, Michael was not rewarded by Nikephoros for his victory, instead he was fired from command for disobeying the emperor’s orders and setting fire to Antioch. Now Nikephoros was not only hated by the common people for taxing and neglecting them, or by the Church for also taxing them and for demanding to Polyeuctus that his fallen soldiers killed by Muslims should be made martyrs, or by his friends in the aristocracy for limiting their power and land, but now by his generals who were closest to him as he had fired them for the smallest reasons, first John Tzimiskes and now Michael Bourtzes. After being fired from command, Michael met up with John Tzimiskes and John’s closest ally which was John’s brother-in-law the general Bardas Skleros, the brother of his late wife Maria Skleraina, and together they all agreed to kill Nikephoros and make John the new emperor.

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Basil Lekapenos the eunuch, art by Ancient City Lullaby

In real history though, Theophano was said to have taken part in this conspiracy by revealing to John and his conspirators the way into the palace and where her husband the emperor slept as she and John had an affair, but in this story since Theophano is not in the picture, John who also would not have an affair with Nikephoros’ wife here Zoe would have to bribe the workers in the palace to reveal to him a secret passage, although here the eunuch Basil Lekapenos who had been powerful under Nikephoros would also betray the emperor and side with John, and he too would reveal to the conspirators the way into the palace. On the night of December 10-11 of 969 when Nikephoros was sleeping deep inside the palace, John Tzimiskes would sneak out of the estate he was banished to right across the Bosporus together with Michael Bourtzes and 2 other assassins and take a small boat across the Bosporus to the seaside Boukoleon Palace where they heard the emperor was sleeping in. In real history Theophano had a part in it by leaving the door of her husband the emperor unlocked to allow the assassins to kill him, but here with Theophano not around it would be harder for John and his assassins to do the job so instead as they reached the seaside palace by boat, they would have to bribe some of the palace workers to show them the way and as it would turn out, these palace workers were not really loyal to the emperor and had already been informed by Basil Lekapenos that John and his men would come in at any time. On this extremely cold night, Nikephoros said his usual evening prayer before sleeping as he always did while John and his men were lifted up into one of the palace’s windows by a basket manned by some of the palace workers who then showed them the way to the emperor’s bedroom but when entering, they saw no one sleeping on the bed but when looking left they would actually see the emperor sleeping on the floor on a fur blanket wearing rags.

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Assassination of Nikephoros II Phokas by John Tzimiskes on the night of December 10-11, 969, art by Spatharokandidatos

The moment they saw the emperor sleeping, no one hesitated and they all slashed him with their swords all at the same time, although Nikephoros would still wake up due to the pain and seeing his nephew John among the assassins, Nikephoros was heartbroken to see his nephew betray him but John did not hesitate, instead he berated his uncle about how heartless he was to fire him from command when he had done nothing wrong and as Nikephoros was slashed multiple times by the assassins, John gave his uncle the killing blow by stabbing him in the neck. The imperial guard or Tagmata from the other end of the seaside palace rushed to the scene as apparently the screams of Nikephoros as he was being slashed was very loud but when getting into the palace’s inner courtyard it was too late as above them, they saw John Tzimiskes in the balcony holding Nikephoros’ severed and bloodied head with blood dripping down to the lower floor and here John announced that the tyrant emperor was dead and that he was their new emperor. The Tagmata panicking here when seeing their emperor dead did not know what to do and so they all just acclaimed John as their emperor, although minutes later Leo Phokas rushed into the scene believing his brother to be dead therefore thinking it was his turn to be emperor but here, when getting into the courtyard the Tagmata already being loyal to John seized and arrested Leo throwing him out of the palace. In real history however, Theophano put on her purple imperial dress and brought her sons with her right at this moment when Nikephoros had been killed thinking she would now marry John, but in this case without Theophano around, the empress Zoe would rush into the scene in her sleeping dress and would be very shocked at what happened as she had no part in the plot and seeing all the blood and her husband dead despite never really being close to him, she would collapse. The next day, like in real history, Patriarch Polyeuctus would be in shock about Nikephoros’ assassination even if he never really liked Nikephoros but since this was an act of murder done by an uncrowned person which was John, it was totally unacceptable, but Polyeuctus being tired of all this changing of emperors and seeing no one else left to take the throne especially since Theophano is not here and so are her young sons, he would just agree to make John emperor anyway on the condition that he married Nikephoros’ widow Zoe, execute the assassins with him, and give Nikephoros II a proper burial at the Church of the Holy Apostles while Basil Lekapenos announced to everyone in the capital about what happened. Nikephoros II Phokas, the brilliant strategist and military hero of the 10th century who even had the legacy of writing and publishing a military manual but failed as a politician thus died the way he lived, which was a violent one, but at least he died in the simple life he lived by sleeping on the floor, though for his religious accomplishments and fighting for the Orthodox Christian faith, Nikephoros II would become a saint.

Watch this to learn more about Nikephoros II’s interaction with Liutprand of Cremona (Voices of the Past).

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Hippodrome of Constantinople, art by Ediacar
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Construction of the extra wall for Constantinople’s Imperial Palace under Nikephoros II, art by Byzantine Tales
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Michael Bourtzes captures Antioch in 969, Madrid Skylitzes
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Bukoleon Palace, site of Nikephoros II’s assassination in 969
Watch this to see the assassination of Nikephoros II in Lego (from my channel No Budget Films).

John I Tzimiskes, the Conclusion to this 10th Century Epic

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Nikephoros II Phokas here like in real history died violently at 57 similar to how Michael III 102 years where this story began died and now here, John I Tzimiskes rose to the throne at 44 on the condition that he was to execute the other 2 assassins with him except Bourtzes as if to look like John had no part in the plot to murder the emperor at all, and also to give a big percent of his money as a donation to small farmers and to construct a home lepers, though in this story Polyeuctus would have to make John marry the empress Zoe to continue the dynasty. In real history however, Polyeuctus agreed to crown John Tzimiskes only if he banished the empress Theophano to the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara for good as here the blame on Nikephoros’ death was all put on her, and John not wanting to share power anyway agreed to banish Theophano even if they had an affair, but here in this story without Theophano there would be no condition that John would have to banish anyone and with her sons not being around here as the already crowned co-emperors, John would not have to share power with anyone. In real history, John was indeed forced to marry another one of Romanos’ sister and the one the he did not choose but was chosen for him by Polyeuctus was Theodora who was someone unattractive but intelligent compared to Theophano, though here in this story since Zoe was not suspected in any way to be part of the murder of Nikephoros the way Theophano was in real history, Zoe would be spared but forced to marry John. On the other hand, Theophano in real history may have not seemed to have any part in the murder of her husband Nikephoros II but was only used a scapegoat by Polyeuctus as she was an ambitious woman in a time when ambitious women were looked down upon, therefore she was banished, though it was by the time John Tzimiskes became emperor following the exile of Theophano where the idea of Theophano being part of the plot was promoted according to present day historian Anthony Kaldellis.

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Emperor John I Tzimiskes of Byzantium (r. 969-976), art by Oznerol-1516

Now since the main plot of this story ends with the assassination of Nikephoros II, where the graphic novel Theophano had ended as well, we will basically just fast-track the next 5 years of Byzantium under John I Tzimiskes before we get to the ultimate conquest of Bulgaria. Now at the beginning of 970, just about a month after John I became emperor, Patriarch Polyeuctus had died after seeing a change of emperor 3 times in only 10 years and following his death, John appointed his friend the ascetic monk Basil Skamandrenos as the new patriarch who as John’s friend would totally recognize him as the legitimate emperor, although the biggest challenge for John when coming into power would be his uncle Leo Phokas who was still around and even after being arrested at the night of his brother Nikephoros’ assassination, Leo at some point in 970 would break free and rebel, attempting to seize the throne to avenge his dead brother but John would immediately put down Leo’s rebellion and banish Leo and his sons to the island of Lesbos in the Aegean for good while Leo’s son Bardas Phokas the Younger who was here stationed in Cappadocia would be arrested and imprisoned there. Now as emperor, John would start off finishing everything Nikephoros II could not but also clean up all the mess he created and by this, John at first like his uncle Nikephoros not being so interested in the state’s administration would leave behind the eunuch Basil Lekapenos in Constantinople to be in charge of the finances while John would immediately set off to campaign against Sviatoslav in Bulgaria and finish him off for good and afterwards conquer Bulgaria itself which had already been weakened by Sviatoslav’s Rus’ invasion, and to lead the troops in battle, John would appoint his brother-in-law Bardas Skleros as the new top commander of the Byzantine forces while Michael Bourtzes would be put back in charge in the east. For the campaign against Sviatoslav in Bulgaria, John I however only had 12,000 soldiers with him although they were all veteran elite forces including Cataphracts and the Tagmata, but Sviatoslav’s army was much larger in number as he allied himself with the Magyars and Pechenegs north of the Danube as well as with some Bulgarian Boyars (aristocrats). The campaign at first began with some difficulty for the Byzantines until they were able to trap Sviatoslav’s forces at a mountain pass where they would eventually lose to the Byzantine forces led by Bardas Skleros at the Battle of Arcadiopolis, thus the undefeatable Sviatoslav was defeated for the first time having to leave Thrace and fall back north to Bulgaria. Though making some progress against Sviatoslav, John I got word from Asia Minor that Bardas Phokas escaped prison and proclaimed himself emperor in the name of his uncle Nikephoros II using the troops there still loyal to Nikephoros II and when hearing of this, John briefly abandoned the Bulgarian campaign sending Bardas Skleros to Asia Minor to deal with Bardas Phokas.

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Bardas Phokas the Younger, Byzantine general, son of Leo Phokas the Younger, art by Akitku

At the end, Skleros was able to win by diplomacy by having men dressed up as beggars to convince Phokas’ men to turn on him and join John’s army wherein they will be rewarded, thus they defected to the imperial army while Phokas left with only 300 men fled to a castle where he eventually surrendered to Skleros knowing he would not win. Bardas Phokas was then exiled to the Aegean island of Chios while his father Leo in Lesbos was blinded, never to return again. With Bardas Phokas dealt with, John with Bardas Skleros later on in 971 resumed the Bulgarian campaign this time with 40,000 men marching north through the mountain passes while their fleet sailed up the Black Sea to attack Sviatoslav’s forces at the Danube. When reaching the Bulgarian capital of Preslav, John had burned it to the ground to force the Rus’ forces to surrender it to them and at the end, the Byzantines were able to seize Preslav wherein among the Rus’ hostages in the citadel, they found the Bulgarian tsar Boris II, who succeeded his father Peter I after his abdication and retirement to a monastery the previous year.

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John I Tzimiskes and Grand Prince Sviatoslav (on the boat) meet at the Danube, 971

John then allowed Boris II to be spared promising him too that the Byzantines were there to not conquer Bulgaria but liberate them from the Rus, although after liberating Preslav, John I renamed the city Ioannopolis after himself. John with his forces then headed up to the Danube where Sviatoslav was, and after defeating Sviatoslav’s forces in at the Battle of Dorostolon, Sviatoslav now being outnumbered with the Byzantine fleet blocking off the mouth of the Danube into the Black Sea to prevent his escape then finally surrendered to John I without a fight. Both John I and Sviatoslav then met in person along the Danube where Sviatoslav surrendering to John agreed to never attack Byzantine territory again in exchange for his people, the Rus to freely trade in Constantinople and before Sviatoslav departed by boat, he was given food and supplies by the Byzantines. John I however did not keep his word to Boris II who he took as a prisoner to Constantinople where John proclaimed that he had conquered Bulgaria while Sviatoslav on his way back to his capital of Kiev was betrayed by his Pecheneg allies who ambushed him here in 972 while he was crossing the Dnieper River back to his lands, and after he was killed, Sviatoslav’s skull was made into a drinking cup, like what happened to the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I back in 811. 

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Coronation of John I Tzimiskes in 969 by Patriarch Polyeuctus, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine forces under Bardas Skleros defeat Sviatoslav’s Rus at the Battle of Arcadiopolis, 970
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Final defeat of Sviatoslav to John I Tzimiskes at the Battle of Dorostolon, 971

          

In 972, John I had declared he had conquered the Bulgarian Empire up north making it a Byzantine Theme while the Bulgarian tsar Boris II and his brother Roman were brought to Constantinople as captives and paraded at John I’s triumphal procession, although Boris II was allowed to live in Constantinople as the Bulgarian tsar in exile while Roman was castrated to make sure their bloodline died out. Although John I thought he had conquered all of Bulgaria, the northern and western portions of the Bulgarian Empire (today’s Western Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia) was not fully put under Byzantine rule, and here over the years a resistance would grow to restore to the Bulgarian Empire led by the aristocratic Cometopuli clan which was of Byzantine Greek and Armenian origins. After thinking he had conquered all of Bulgaria, John I returned to where Nikephoros II failed, which was in foreign policy with the Holy Roman emperor Otto I and so in 972, John I did what Nikephoros II failed, which was to give Otto a Byzantine bride and the person John chose for Otto I’s son Otto II like in real history was his young niece from the Skleros clan- his late wife’s family- also named Theophano who later on in 972 travelled all the way to Germany and married the young Otto II, thus settling peace between Byzantium and the new Holy Roman Empire of Germany and Italy.

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Theophano Sklerina, niece of John I and wife of the future Holy Roman emperor Otto II

The threat of Otto I to Byzantium’s imperial power would then be over in 973 when Otto I died while his son the new Holy Roman emperor Otto II would not be as much of a threat to Byzantium as his father was and in fact with his marriage to Theophano, the Holy Roman Empire would even adopt some Byzantine cultural practices including the use of the fork for eating, which the Franks at first laughed at. Now with the threat of Sviatoslav over, a third of Bulgaria captured, and the issue with the Holy Roman Empire settled, John I returned to finishing off his uncle’s eastern campaigns which was now easier for the Byzantines following the death of Sayf al-Dawla back in 967 which weakened these Islamic Arab states, although despite these states in the Middle East including the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad weakened, a new Islamic power had been arising which was that of the Fatimid Caliphate which were believers of Shia Islam, the other sect of Islam which believed their ruling caliph should be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, and in 969 the Fatimids had already conquered Egypt making it their base where they would start posing a threat to the Byzantines.

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Emperor John I Tzimiskes tapestry

John I later in 972 marched into Mesopotamia once again although not for long as he returned to Constantinople leaving his general Melias to be in charge while John continued his uncle’s reforms of limiting the power of the landed aristocracy and giving more power to the small farmers. In 975, John I returned to leading the army himself and this time deep into Syria which the Byzantines could now achieve after the reconquest of Antioch and in one swift campaign, John and his forces were able to do what the Byzantine forces did not in over 300 years which was in recapturing the Syrian cities of Emesa and Damscus which was the capital of the old Arab Umayyad Caliphate that died out in 750, and following this John I was able to reach as far south as Lebanon recapturing the cities of Baalbek, Tripoli, Sidon, Byblos, and Beirut, before reaching the Sea of Galilee recapturing Tiberias and Nazareth for the Byzantines, though his campaigns would end right here before being actually able to retake the ultimate prize of Jerusalem that had not been under Byzantine hands since it fell to the Arabs in 637. John I had then returned to Constantinople in January of 976 where he suddenly died in which most sources blamed the eunuch Basil Lekapenos for poisoning him, and in this story’s case it would be true as John had confiscated some of Basil’s ill-gotten lands and wealth and in revenge Basil poisoned him. Now in real history with John I dead in 976 at the age of 50, Romanos II and Theophano’s eldest son Basil II was already 18 here therefore being of legal age to rule alone in which he did although still under the influence of his grand-uncle Basil Lekapenos, while Theophano had returned to the palace sometime here. In this story’s case, since there is no Theophano and therefore no Basil II, and John I too despite being married to Romanos II’s twin sister Zoe would not have any children with her as he also chose to barely stay with his wife, so here before John I died, he wrote his will proclaiming that his brother-in-law Bardas Skleros was to succeed him as emperor as they had family ties, and following John’s death Bardas immediately came to power without any challenge.              

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Triumph of John I Tzimiskes in Constantinople following his 971 conquest of Bulgaria, Madrid Skylitzes
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Meme of John I failing to retake Jerusalem due to his sudden death in 976
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Map of the Holy Roman Empire (red) at Otto I’s death, 973
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Byzantine Empire (purple) at John I’s death, 976

In this story’s case with Bardas Skleros as the new Byzantine emperor, some things that did happen in real history whereas Basil II finally succeeded John I but a lot would be different too. What would be the same here in the reign of Bardas Skleros was that like in reality, the Bulgarian brothers Boris II and Roman, who happened to be great-grandsons of Romanos I Lekapenos- through his granddaughter Maria’s marriage to their father Tsar Peter I if you remember- would escape captivity in Constantinople in 977 and make their way into the still independent 2/3 of the Bulgarian Empire, although like in real history Boris II here would get killed by his own Bulgarian troops mistaking him for an enemy, though Roman like in reality would survive after proving his identity.

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Samuil of the Cometopuli, military leader of the Bulgarian resistance against Byzantium, Tsar of Bulgaria (997-1014) in real history

Although back in the Bulgarian Empire, Roman would not really rule himself as he had been turned into a eunuch and at the same time during their absence, the new ruling dynasty of the Cometopuli rose up in resistance to the Byzantine conquest, and though Roman would only be a figurehead ruler as he was from the dynasty of Krum that dated back to 803, the real power over Bulgaria was at the hands of Samuil, the youngest of the Cometopuli brothers and a military genius. Now in real history, it would take another 40 years for Byzantium under Basil II to fully annex the Bulgarian Empire into Byzantium as Basil II had to deal with civil wars and usurpers in Byzantium itself such as Bardas Skleros who in 976 after Basil II came to power declared himself emperor in opposition to the legitimate emperor Basil II but more so to the power behind Basil II which was Basil Lekapenos who was still powerful. In real history, Bardas Skleros rebelled after Basil Lekapenos fired him from his position as the supreme commander of the eastern forces while also releasing the rebel general Bardas Phokas from his imprisonment in Chios to strike against Skleros, although Skleros in real history had a stronger position as he was able to confirm an alliance with the small time Armenian, Georgian, and even Islamic rulers near Byzantium and true enough Skleros defeated Phokas’ forces that were loyal to the emperor Basil II in two battles, but in the third one Skleros was defeated in which his soldiers even believed him to be dead after he lost in personal combat to Phokas.

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Basil II, Byzantine emperor in real history, son of Romanos II and Theophano, art by Justinianus the Great

Skleros however had escaped to Baghdad to seek refuge there with the Abbasid Caliph where he would plot an invasion of Byzantium all while the emperor Basil II here had grown up and had shown that he did not want to be a weak ruler or puppet to his grand-uncle Basil Lekapenos anymore and so in 985 he accused Basil Lekapenos for conspiring with the rebels and then fired and banished him for good, and in 986 Basil II himself led the army against Bulgaria but was defeated at the Battle of Trajan’s Gate by Samuil’s forces due to Basil II’s inexperience. This defeat made Basil II have a lifetime grudge against Bulgaria making it his ultimate goal to conquer it for good, though this defeat made Bardas Phokas lose faith in the emperor and turn against him that in 987 he called Bardas Skleros back from Baghdad to join forces with him against Basil II.

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Vladimir I the Great, Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus’ (r. 980-1015)

In real history, Basil II made an ultimate alliance with the new Prince of the Kievan Rus’ Vladimir I, the son of Sviatoslav in 988 which provided Byzantium military aid with over 6,000 Varangian (Rus and Scandinavian) warriors to join in the imperial service as the elite bodyguard force of the emperor, in exchange for Vladimir to convert to Christianity as also part of the deal to marry Basil II’s sister Anna who was such a great prize to marry for being a Byzantine princess as twice when offered a marriage, she refused it. With the help of these large sized and fierce Varangian warriors now in the imperial service as the legendary Varangian Guard, Basil II was able to defeat the rebellion of Bardas Phokas in 989 wherein Phokas here fell off his horse due to a seizure and died, thus ending his rebellion. Although the rebellion of Bardas Phokas the Younger ended, Bardas Skleros now an old man succeeded Phokas as the leader of the rebellion against Basil II, but eventually the cause of the rebellion had been weakened and in 991 Skleros surrendered to Basil II without a fight and died peacefully just days later.

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Varangian Guard soldier, introduced to Byzantium in 988 in real history

The full conquest of Bulgaria in reality however would only take place 2 decades after Basil II put down all opposition against him, as Basil had to conclude peace with the Islamic powers including the rising Fatimid Caliphate in order to launch a full-scale invasion of Bulgaria without distractions while over in Bulgaria, Roman died in 997 and without any heirs was succeeded by Samuil as the full tsar. The Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria in real history would then only be completed in 1014 when Basil II won a decisive victory of Samuil’s forces at the Battle of Kleidion and by 1018, all of the Bulgarian Empire was conquered, thus Byzantium having all of the Balkans would be at its greatest extent of territory in almost 400 years. Now in this story’s case on the other hand without Basil II ruling and beginning out badly due to his inexperience in military matters, Bardas Skleros having more military experience despite being not a very competent planner as the Byzantine historian Michael Psellos (1017-1078) said, he would act much quicker in subduing all opposition against him and the Bulgarian threat than Basil II did in real history. First of all, Bardas Skleros soon after coming into power in 976 would execute Basil Lekapenos on charges of poisoning John I Tzimiskes, although like in real history Bardas Phokas the Younger would actually be released from Chios by Basil Lekapenos before Lekapenos would be executed, and back in action Phokas would launch a massive rebellion against Skleros, although Skleros would do the same here as he did in real history by allying with the Armenians, Georgians, and Islamic powers against Phokas. For this story, I would just say that Skleros as the legitimate emperor chosen by John I to succeed him would eventually defeat Phokas the same way he did in real history after winning two battles, and as Skleros would have more support from the Byzantine senate and the aristocracy, Phokas in this story would be defeated in 979 wherein Skleros would kill him in single combat. Being a more capable military commander, Skleros unlike Basil II in real history would therefore not ask for a military alliance with the Kievan Rus’ prince Vladimir I in exchange for Vladimir to convert himself and his people to Orthodox Christianity, therefore there would be no Varangian Guard in the Byzantine army to assist Skleros in conquering Bulgaria, although for the next chapter of this series, the Varangians would play a big role- spoiler alert! Skleros in this story instead would lead the Bulgarian campaign himself beginning 980 and unlike Basil II in real history who would take 3 more decades to conquer Bulgaria, Skleros here would take around only 7 years as Bulgaria was already weak here unlike in real history where they were able to regain strength after defeating the Byzantines in 986. Here, Skleros would instead win a number of victories and would penetrate deep into the Bulgarian heartland which is now the Central Balkans and by 987 would capture the Bulgarian’s capital of Ohrid. In this story, Samuil himself leading his forces would be slain in battle by Skleros’ men in 987 while Roman not being actively leading the empire would end up captured and executed by Skleros, thus before 990 the Bulgarian state that had troubled Byzantium for over 300 years since 681 would be wiped off the map and all of the Balkans south of the Danube under Byzantine rule again after 4 centuries, thus Byzantium before the turn of the 11th century would become a superpower respected and feared by all around them. As for Bardas Skleros, his date of death is unknown but he would be the one to establish the new Skleros Dynasty and by having sons it would live on to ensure a powerful and highly influential Byzantium. Now, it is only in the long-term where you could see how the empress Theophano not being around would have an impact in Byzantine history and this was not only because her son Basil II would not be around as even without Basil II who did achieve the ultimate goal in eventually conquering Bulgaria and becoming known as “the Bulgar-Slayer”, the Byzantines would still conquer Bulgaria anyway, in fact even much earlier but more because of her daughter Anna’s marriage to the Kievan Rus’ prince Vladimir I.

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Anna Porphyrogenita, daughter of Romanos II and Theophano and wife of Vladimir I of Kiev, in real history

Now this marriage between Anna and Vladimir was a very crucial one as not only did it give military support to Byzantium but this began the mass conversion of the Kievan Rus’ state that would eventually be Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to Christianity, and Anna who being Theophano’s daughter was the one that made this happen, therefore this was Theophano’s major role in history. Although even without Vladimir’s marriage to Anna, the Rus’ may still convert to Orthodox Christianity as true enough Vladimir had been searching around for world religions and when given the choice between Islam, Judaism, Catholic Christianity, and Orthodox Christianity, he chose Orthodoxy as he heard from his ambassadors about the riches of Constantinople and the impressiveness of Orthodoxy’s main cathedral of the Hagia Sophia, therefore he chose Orthodoxy believing it was the religion of the powerful, which means even without marrying Anna, Vladimir may still convert his state to the religion of the Byzantines, therefore becoming a Byzantine ally. Not to mention, Theophano was also vital for being the mother of Constantine VIII, the brother and co-emperor of Basil II who would continue the dynasty through his children that would rule the empire until 1056 in real history. Either way, without or without Theophano around, Byzantium after conquering Bulgaria would again be a world power like it was under Justinian I in the 6th century both militarily and culturally, except not as powerful as it was under Justinian I as then it had the whole Mediterranean, but here by the end of the 10th century by having all of the Balkans, all of Asia Minor, and all the way south to the Levant as well as to Southern Italy in the west, the Byzantine Empire would be a major power respected and feared by all, and by conquering all of Bulgaria, other powers would dare not bother to mess with Byzantium or they would suffer the same fate as Bulgaria and be wiped off the map.   

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Armies of Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas clash with each other in 979, Madrid Skylitzes
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Bardas Phokas (left) as Byzantine emperor, Madrid Skylitzes
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Emperor Basil II and the Varangian Guards, in real history, art by Amelianvs
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Byzantines under Basil II defeat the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion, 1014 in real history
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The Byzantine Empire (red) at its apogee, at Basil II’s death in 1025, in real history

Watch this to learn more about Emperor Basil II (Kings and Generals).

Our story will now end here where the eventful action-packed roller coaster of the 10th century ends whereas in this story’s case Byzantium had gone a long way from an empire on the verge of extinction threatened on all sides to its apogee a medieval superpower respected and feared by all around it. In the last the last 3 chapters of this series set between the 7th and 9th centuries, Byzantium went through a rough time of constant invasions from the Arabs in the east or the Bulgarians in the north, political instability, and a lot more including the destruction of icons or Iconoclasm, thus giving the Byzantine Empire and its society a dystopian setting, and at the end, nothing may have seemed to work to reverse all the setbacks and misfortunes the Byzantines had been facing, but at the end, this whole Byzantine Dark Ages did not go on forever and little did the Byzantine people or their rulers know their empire would once again have a revival. Of course, the revival of the Byzantine Empire in cultural and military power known as the Byzantine Renaissance did not all happen in an instant, it in fact took some time, good leadership, the right reforms, diplomacy, some luck to achieve it, and even a bit of borrowed foreign influences such as the sophisticated intellectual culture the Byzantines borrowed from the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th century. It also did not just take some years, decades, or a century, it did in fact take 2 centuries for the Byzantines to consolidate their position as a military and cultural power, and this why the 9th century played significantly in this chapter when it was supposed to be exclusively for the 10th– as this series focuses on one century per chapter- as you cannot tell the story of the 10th century better known as the military and cultural revival century without telling about the origins of this revival which took place in the 9th century. On the other hand, this revival or renaissance of the Byzantine Empire which happened gradually over so many years was not something one person was responsible for doing but rather the work of many people and their efforts put together. For this Byzantine Renaissance to be possible we have to thank the people mentioned in this story like Emperor Theophilos in the 9th century for adopting Arab influences and using state money to promote Byzantine sophisticated culture, Empress Theodora for putting an end to Iconoclasm once and for all in 843 which thus brought a sense of unity to the empire’s identity, Patriarch Photios for using the spread of Orthodoxy to secure alliances with people beyond the empire, Emperor Basil I despite his humble origins and lack education for finally having the guts to expand the empire east, Leo VI and his son Constantine VII for showing that emperors were not only powerful as military leaders but as sophisticated and learned scholars that could prove Byzantium is also superior in culture, Romanos I Lekapenos for putting the empire’s new military might into action and making reforms that would benefit not just the aristocracy, Nikephoros II Phokas despite his failure in diplomacy and political skills for showing that Byzantium was no longer an empire that fought to defend itself but could fight to conquer lands far beyond their borders, and John I Tzimiskes for also showing that the Byzantine army was now an undefeatable war machine. Now the person removed from this story which was Empress Theophano, wife of Emperor Romanos II and Nikephoros II afterwards happens to be not very vital at all in the Byzantine Renaissance, but if you look closely she does have a role and this was to add to the complexity and scheming side of the Byzantium for her part in being involved in both her husbands and father-in-law’s deaths, whether it may or may not be real, but either way her part shows some more color and drama to complete the story of the Byzantine Renaissance, thus making Byzantium more “byzantine” meaning complex. After all, this story set in the 10th century just shows how “byzantine” Byzantium was, but on the other had with all this power struggles and schemes, this also still shows that the traditions of the ancient Roman Republic still live on even if Rome has been long gone and replaced as Byzantium. Anyway, even without Theophano, the period of the Byzantine Renaissance from the 9th to 10th centuries is still ever more colorful especially with all the murder plots, legitimacy issues, marriage scandals, scheming eunuchs, military rebellions, superior weapons and war tactics, diplomatic solutions, and the obscure but interesting Byzantine court ceremonies and practices all mentioned in this story. In addition, I also chose to label the dynasty ruling in the 10th century where Leo VI, Constantine VII, and Romanos II were part of as the Amorian Dynasty from 820 continued going with the historical speculation of Leo VI being Michael III’s son to add some more intriguing element to the colorful story of the Byzantine Renaissance, though in the end it still would not matter whether it was under the Amorian or Macedonian Dynasties when the Byzantine Renaissance happened, because all it would matter at the end was how great or colorful these Byzantine emperors were and not what dynasty they belonged to, and true enough the people that proved the strength of Byzantium in this time like Romanos I, Nikephoros II, and John I were not from the ruling dynasty but had only married into it. The process to achieve the complete Byzantine Renaissance at the end of the 10th century thus was rather a tricky one that involved a lot of blood and dishonesty, but the end result was very rewarding for Byzantium as after 3 centuries of being in the Dark fighting for its survival while also being insecure in their imperial position with the rise of a new empire in the west being that of the Franks, Byzantium would become the military power that had been able to strike back against the Arabs after 3 centuries of having to defend its borders against them, the power that dominated Eastern Europe culturally and spiritually by being the one that influenced most of the Eastern European powers like the Bulgarian Empire and the Kievan Rus by spreading Orthodox Christianity to them as well introducing to them an alphabet that would still be used up to this day, and lastly being the cultural superpower that was able to win over the rising Holy Roman Empire and rather than feeling threatened by the rise of them as Byzantium was in 800 with Charlemagne’s coronation, Byzantium by the end of the 10th century was able to even influence them in imperial court culture.

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Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 976-1025), to return in the next chapter of this series

Now in real history, it would be in 1018 when Emperor Basil II becoming known as “the Bulgar-Slayer” conquered the entire Bulgarian Empire when Byzantium would be at its greatest territorial extent again since 4 centuries earlier before the rise of the Arabs, and therefore a power respected and feared by all around them, but again as I mentioned earlier it did not really need Basil II to achieve this as any other competent military emperor in which this era had many of, in this story’s case being Bardas Skleros instead of Basil II would also achieve this. Anyway, this has been an extremely long chapter and I would say that it could have even been longer if I went into so much detail in describing each of the lead characters’ stories but since this story spanned a longer amount of time than the other chapters in this series did and so many interesting lead characters, it was only right for me to give each of these lead characters the equal amount of attention, therefore writing this story in something more a of a fast-tracked documentary in style which just goes with almost everything really being what they were in reality except for a few twists here and there, and only at the very end do things become really different without Emperor Basil II who is in fact Byzantium’s longest reigning emperor. In the next chapter of this Byzantine Alternate History series, this Byzantine Golden Age continues at the beginning of the 11th century and following the conquest of Bulgaria in 1018 by Basil II, the Byzantine Empire will for once enjoy a time of peace and stability, but not for long as again the “cold war” situation with the west becomes worse and in the east, a new and unexpected enemy will rise and replace the Arabs, and this is when we say goodbye to the Arabs as Byzantium’s traditional enemy and say hello to the Turks who will threaten Byzantium in the east and another new enemy being the Normans in the west, and in 1071 will be the beginning of Byzantium’s permanent decline when they suffer an ultimate defeat to the Turks of the new Seljuk Empire at the Battle of Manzikert, but the next chapter will explore an alternate history scenario of what if the Byzantines won this battle, and how different history would be because of this. Well, this is all for Chapter VII of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!   

Byzantine History for Everyday People- Reactions to Quotes from Byzantine History by 5 Different People (Special Edition Article)

Posted by Powee Celdran

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Byzantine Time Traveller logo

Welcome back to the Byzantium Blogger! As for now, I will be taking a break from the overly lengthy and informative Byzantine Alternate History series as I have now completed the 3rd chapter of my 12-part series. To break my streak of consecutive Byzantine fan fictions, I have decided to come up with another special edition article that is basically a fun activity that also involves the history of Byzantium as I for this year, I had also planned on doing interactive articles wherein I get the chance to interview others on their thoughts on Byzantine history, and now looks like I have finally got the chance to do this! In this activity, I had shown my friends who aren’t so familiar with Byzantine history quotes by famous people of Byzantine history or from Byzantine era texts, asking for their own reactions to it in order to know how they see the world of Byzantium, and this article will be exactly just that. Surprisingly, a lot of them seemed like they totally got these quotes even if they were said centuries before our time but it was also no surprise that they did not get or had a very different interpretation of what some of these quotes said by these Byzantine era people centuries ago actually meant. This article will consist of 4 different quotes which is one from the 6th century emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), his wife Empress Theodora, from the military manual Strategikon by the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602), and from the speech of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453) in his last moments before the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire itself on May 29, 1453. Now, Byzantium or the Eastern Roman Empire- or basically the Roman Empire itself continued- has a 1,100 year-long rich history full of fascinating and colorful figures, victories and defeats, wars and intrigues, and so much more and it was for these reasons that someone like me got so passionate about it and because of my now 2-year long unending passion for it, it was only fitting for me to ask some of my friends who keep wondering why I am so obsessed with Byzantium to read these quotes from the Byzantine era itself and see how they would react to them. I myself am not a Byzantine history scholar, academic researcher, or historian but only an entrepreneurship student that had suddenly come to the point of becoming so passionate about Byzantium that it became a part of my life and to further enhance my passion for it, I wanted to share it with my friends and a lot of others I know, who aren’t so familiar with it and for these reasons I have made this activity for these friends of mine, just so that they get themselves familiarized with the fascinating history of Byzantium. Now for this article, what I basically did- as you will see below- is that I listed 4 quotes and for each of them, I asked the same 3 questions “What is your understanding of this quote?”, “What message do you think it was trying to convey?”, and “What relevance, if any, does this quote have to today’s world?”, then afterwards I had asked all of them 2 bonus questions about what they think about Byzantium.  

The quotes as you will see will appear in this kind of large text font.

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

In order to further enhance my passion for Byzantine history and make it know to my friends and the rest of the world, I have created a number of social media accounts for my Byzantine history passion. Follow me, the Byzantium Blogger on social media:           

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Related Articles from my site The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Series Chapter III- Justinian the Great

A Review, Analysis, and Casting for the Graphic Novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale

My Byzantine Journey (2019-2020)

War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic

The Complete Genealogy of the Emperors of Byzantium


Before I move on to the Byzantine quotes and the discussion on them, I would first like to introduce the 5 friends- together with their ages put in a parenthesis () beside their names in which I have interviewed here. The 5 of them are between the ages 18 and 28. This article will feature the 5 of them and their reactions and understandings to these quotes that will appear below. All of these 5 people that will be interviewed here despite not knowing so much about Byzantium have already had some experience in Byzantine history related media as all 5 of them have had a part in the Byzantine history Lego epic film I had written, produced, and directed last year “War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic” (2020), click the link below to watch it!

War of the Sicilian Vespers (2020), Lego Byzantine epic by No Budget Films

Miguel Abarentos (23)- He is a graduate of marketing (2019) and a former schoolmate of mine in college. Currently, he is a live streamer for PC games in his Twitchchannel HybridNinja wherein he does live streaming for PC games every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Miguel has also contributed to my films for my Youtube channel No Budget Films by sending me some footage of battle scenes from League of Legends which I have used for some of my films. He also voiced a number of characters for my Lego films, most notably the fictional Byzantine general Stephanos Raoul for both Lego epics Summer of 1261 (2019) and its War of the Sicilian Vespers (2020) and now continues to support my channel by streaming my films in his weekend live streaming in his Twitch channel. By getting to know me, Miguel has also started to be inclined to get to know more about Byzantium.  

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Hybrid Ninja Twitch channel logo

Felipe Chuidian (28)- He is a graduate of entrepreneurship (2019) and a former schoolmate of mine in college. Felipe is a Play Station and basketball fan but also someone who is interested to know a bit more about Byzantium. Felipe has also contributed to my channel by voicing a number of characters for my Lego Byzantine films last year including War of the Sicilian Vespers and The Imperial Epilogue.

Mario Puyat (22)- He is currently studying film (2nd year) in the same college I study in and is a film and pop culture enthusiast. Mario is a big fan of the Star Wars, Marvel, and DC universes but when getting to know me, he somewhat had developed an interest for Byzantium as well. He also contributed a lot to my channel by being a co-producer for my 2020 Lego Byzantine epic War of the Sicilian Vespers wherein he also voiced its leading character Andronikos II Palaiologos who later became Byzantine emperor succeeding his father Michael VIII Palaiologos- who I voiced- and for the films follow up The Imperial Epilogue, Mario also reprised his role as Andronikos II, this time as an old man. In the future, Mario plans to direct films as well as write novels and movie scripts. (Instagram: @mariopuyatrewreplays)

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Real Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (left) vs Lego version (right), Lego character voiced by Mario Puyat

Geno Roy (21)- He is currently studying psychology (3rd year) though not in the same college as I am, though I have already known him for a much longer time. Geno is a big film and pop culture enthusiast as well as a photographer and has contributed a lot to my channel especially in my Byzantine Lego films by being the behind-the-scenes photographer for the Lego character pictures, while at the same time, he had also been part of the extra voice cast for a lot of my films. You can also see the pictures Geno took for my Lego Byzantine characters side by side with their respective historical characters on Bored Panda. (Instagram: @roy_geno)

Carlos Francisco (18)- He is currently a senior high school student who I have known for a very long time and has been contributing to my channel ever since 2016. Carlos is a very big fan of pop culture especially Marvel, Star Wars, and Cobra Kai but has also started an interest for Byzantium through me. He has made a major impact for my channel for a consecutive 5 years now as a co-producer, videographer, photographer, and set assistant for my Lego films and for my Byzantine films, he is notable for voicing the old monk and scholar character Georgios Doukas for the 2019 Lego Byzantine epic Summer of 1261 and its 2020 sequel War of the Sicilian Vespers. (Instagram: @itscarlosfrancisco)

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Lego Byzantine character Georgios Doukas, voiced by Carlos Francisco

The Quotes

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I.          

The first quote mentioned here is one that came from perhaps Byzantium’s most influential emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) who’s name is synonymous with the Byzantine Empire. Justinian I- who was the main focus of my previous article- is best remembered for his ambitious projects in restoring the Roman Empire by retaking the Western Roman provinces of Italy, North Africa, and Hispania putting them back again under Roman control, from the imperial capital Constantinople.

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

Justinian is one of the few Byzantine emperors whose legacy still lives up to this day as seen with the cathedral of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople still standing today in its 6th century form built under Justinian and in legal matters, Justinian is best remembered for issuing the Corpus Juris Civilis or “Body of Civil Laws” in 529 which was to be the empire’s standard code of laws and it is still used up to this day as the basis for the legal systems of many countries. Justinian the Great ruled a total of 38 years seeing the Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent but his reign was one of constantly fighting against the odds wherein he faced a number of devastating wars, economic crisis, a pandemic known as the “Plague of Justinian” in 542, and several natural disasters but with his wisdom and strong rule, he was able to keep his massive empire together. This quote below is something Justinian the Great would have stood by which is something from his code of laws.

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Quote by Emperor Justinian I

Freedom is the natural ability of everyone to do what he likes, unless it is prohibited by law or by force.

-Emperor Justinian I the Great

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The Hagia Sophia, built under Justinian I
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Detailed map of the Byzantine Empire at its fullest extent under Justinian I, 555 (gold)

Q&A

Powee Celdran (PC): What is Your understanding of this quote?

Miguel Abarentos (MA): This quote is a no brainer. It’s basically saying that we all have freedom in nature, and that rules and regulations restrict us from doing a lot of things. Like for example killing a person. Everyone is free to kill but rules say, you kill, you go to jail. Hence freedom is restricted.

Felipe Chuidian (FC): God gave us free will and intelligence. We have freedom to do anything for as long as we are not breaking laws of man and God.

Mario Puyat (MP): Everyone really has freedom to do what he/she wants even to please themselves. But if what they want is too harsh or mean, illegal, or abuses the idea of freedom than there should be some limitations.

Geno Roy (GR): Everyone is free to do what they want unless there are authorities that have the tendency to prohibit it.

Carlos Francisco (CF): You can do anything but there will be consequences or free will isn’t really free.

PC: What message do you think Emperor Justinian I was trying to convey here?

MA: That if you give humans too much freedom, there will be chaos. I can tell by the fact that he said “freedom to do whatever he likes”. Technically that also involves cruel things like killed, forced sex, and etc. with rules and regulations that put that to halt and I agree as of right now, we only have a degree of freedom but not to a full extent like a lion if they kill their kind, they would not be subject to human law.

FC: We enjoy freedom but we must also take into consideration others and most importantly our Creator.

MP: That everyone has freedom to do what they want, but if it will lead to danger or something harming the law then that is a bad form of freedom, or abusing freedom.

GR: Everyone can be free unless there are prohibitions that start.

CF: That people are under a rule.

PC: What relevance, if any, does this quote have to today’s world?

MA: Yeah, it does! So easily, remove rules and regulations and give humans full extent of freedom, oh boy!

FC: In today’s world where everyone does what gives pleasure, it is important to realize that we are accountable for every action we do.

MP: It has relevance with maybe speaking out anything political.

GR: The relevance it would have in today’s world would be all citizens can be free to do what they want to do in the country but they have to follow the governments orders.

CF: That there’s still rules to follow.

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Justinian I enters the Hagia Sophia for the first time, 537

Watch Dovahhatty’s episode on Justinian the Great here:


II.         

The next quote here is this time from Emperor Justinian I the Great’s wife Empress Theodora (500-548), originally an actress of low birth who later fell in love with Justinian who was 17 years older than her before he became emperor. Despite having humble origins- and so did Justinian- together with her husband, they were strong and decisive rulers. Theodora’s strong personality by solving a problematic situation by force happened in a fateful event in 532 when the chariot racing political factions of the Byzantine Empire, in the imperial capital Constantinople turned on Justinian for his reforms which seemed unpopular for them becoming what would be known as the Nika Riot as the rioters shouted “Nika!” meaning “conquer” in Greek.

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Empress Theodora (center) with her court ladies

Each day the riots got worse and worse turning into total violence and destruction as the rioters burned their way through the capital destroying several important landmarks. Justinian thought the situation was hopeless as the rioters proclaimed another man named Hypatius as emperor and so he thought that they must flee the palace and possibly retake the capital but Theodora stepped in with a speech encouraging Justinian to send the army to mercilessly kill the rioters in order for the couple to remain in power and at the end, Justinian listened to her and 30,000 rioters were killed, thus the couple was spared and had remained in power. This rather complicated speech by Empress Theodora which these 5 people will react to says, which however only 2 out of the 5 have had something to say about it.  

My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions.

In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born to this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress.

If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.

-Empress Theodora, 532

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Theodora convinces Justinian to crush the Nika Riot, 532

Q&A

PC: What is your understanding of this quote?

MA: I actually have no idea what to say about it aside from gender double standards that a woman can’t be in a man’s position and then there is also reference of financial status that the rich should live and the poor should not.

FC: The one speaking is a woman, who in her time is forbidden to speak up. She is not free to express herself but she finds it vital to make a statement especially for those who do not have a voice.

MP: (no answer to this particular quote)

GR: (no answer to this particular quote)

CF: (no answer to this particular quote)

PC: What message do you think Empress Theodora was trying to convey here?

MA: She (Theodora) would rather die as a royal than get dethroned and live because at least you die a high status instead of living as a low status.

FC: She sees the need to fight and not to flee.

MP: (no answer to this particular quote)

GR: (no answer to this particular quote)

CF: (no answer to this particular quote)

PC: What relevance, if any, does this quote have to today’s world?

MA: It seems to only be relevant to arrogant rich people. Honestly, at least that’s what it feels like.

FC: In today’s world, we need to take courage and not be afraid even if it costs us our lives.

MP: (no answer to this particular quote)

GR: (no answer to this particular quote)

CF: (no answer to this particular quote)

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Empress Theodora artist’s rendition (art by JaneArts)
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Justinian and Theodora inspect the aftermath of the Nika Riot, 532

III.           

This next quote is from the military manual known as the Strategikon of Maurice, one of the best sources for Byzantine battle tactics and military formations. This military manual was written in around 600, though it is debated whether it was written by the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) or just attributed to him but considering Maurice being a soldier emperor and in fact the first emperor to actually lead his troops in person in over 200 years since Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395), it is most likely Maurice wrote it.

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602)

The Strategikon was made to codify new battle tactics developed in this era of constant war and emergence of new enemies unknown to the Romans before and it consists of 12 chapters which focus on specific topics relating to war such as formations, ambushes, baggage trains, training drills, strategies for generals, military maxims, instructions for sieges, surprise attacks, and most importantly the characteristics and battle tactics of the enemies the Byzantines fought in the late 6th and early 7th centuries such as the Franks and Goths of the west, Avars and Slavs of the north, and Sassanid Persians of the east. This book makes a point that in order to defeat an enemy, you must know their culture and battle tactics and part of this suggested that it was best to fight the Slavs across the Danube by attacking them during winter, and though this may be a successful tactic in repelling the Slavs, this caused the emperor Maurice his downfall being an unpopular instruction to his soldiers which led to them to rebel in 602 thus deposing and executing Maurice and his sons.

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The Strategikon of Emperor Maurice

The Strategikon may have been successful in helping the Byzantines fight several enemies that raided the highly exposed borders of their massive empire at this time but little did the Byzantines know then that soon enough they would face an unlikely enemy from the desserts of the south, the Arabs which the Strategikon makes no mention of their fighting styles and true enough the Arabs did expand so greatly that they have been a constant pain for the Byzantine for the next 3 centuries almost bringing an end to Byzantium. Though Byzantium was to face the fatal threat of the Arabs, the Strategikon true enough still proved to be an effective manual for battle tactics for the next centuries of the empire’s existence, especially since the Byzantines no doubt had to keep fighting wars without end which they became known for, yet they fought smart thanks to the instructions of the Strategikon. One quote from this manual which is a good glimpse on how the Byzantine armies fought smart, meaning staying in formation and not charging out courageously, in which the 5 of the interviewees will respond to says:

Do not fall back, do not advance ahead of your standard. This is what a brave soldier does. If you leave your standard, you will lose. Do not charge out impetuously, do not break ranks.

-Strategikon of Maurice

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Manuscript of Maurice’s Strategikon

Q&A

PC: What is your understanding of this quote?

MA: As a soldier, don’t push your limit. Don’t play like you’re an experienced general. Always play it safe.

FC: It means soldiers are being advised to stand their grounds.

MP: I guess don’t retreat, don’t go ahead, go at the same pace as your fellow soldiers. Go together.

GR: Always stick to any standard that you have so that you can be more dominant as you go on.

CF: Balance your behavior, or balance is the key.  

PC: What message do you think the Strategikon of Maurice was trying to convey here?

MA: It feels more like you’re being told to know your place in order to live but at the same time, don’t look down on yourself, hence the “do not fall back”.

FC: Simply bravery meaning following orders.

MP: About being and charging together amongst your fellow soldiers and not going alone. Pretty much teamwork.

GR: To always show strength as a soldier.

CF: There is no good or bad.

PC: What relevance, if any, does this quote have to today’s world?

MA: It is for people who think they can suddenly surpass an experienced individual.

FC: In today’s word, we are asked not to lower our standard otherwise we lose.

MP: If people want to rebel or fight back like to their government or anyone else, it would be together, not alone.

GR: People should have standards to increase their confidence in today’s world.

CF: It is relevant when it comes to situations like balancing moods.

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Early period Byzantine soldiers in training (art by Amelianvs)

Watch the latest animated documentary on Maurice’s Strategikon by Kings and Generals here.


IV.           

This last quote for this article is an excerpt from the final speech of the Byzantine Empire’s last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453) addressing his soldiers on the early morning of May 29, 1453, the day the Byzantine Empire ended as Constantinople fell to the army of the Ottoman Turks led by their sultan Mehmed II.

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Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453), the last Byzantine emperor

The Byzantine Empire survived centuries of wars and new enemies one after the other invading thus weakening their empire and out of all the enemies they faced from the Persians, to the Arabs, Bulgars, Rus, to the Seljuks, and Crusaders, the one that would spell the end for the Byzantines were the Ottoman Turks. In the last years of Byzantium, the Ottomans rapidly grew their empire in Asia Minor before expanding into Europe and true enough they had expanded all the way deep into the Balkans leaving Constantinople alone but still, Constantinople was the ultimate prize and by the 1450s it was definitely possible as the 1,100-year-old capital, Constantinople was already surrounded by Ottoman territory. The young Ottoman sultan Mehmed II came to power in 1451 and was totally driven to begin his reign by taking Constantinople and to do this, he first simply asked the reigning Byzantine emperor Constantine XI if he could easily surrender the city but the emperor refused as knowing the end of Byzantium was inevitable, he would rather end it in a more honorable way by putting up a fight rather than shamefully surrendering thus Mehmed II launched a massive attack on Constantinople’s impregnable walls fating back to the 5th century which here 1453 proved ineffective against the cannons the Ottomans had built.

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Ottoman sultan Mehmed II captures Constantinople, May 29, 1453

Constantine XI with only 7,000 men in which only 2,000 were Byzantines and the rest being Italian and other Western European (Latin) mercenaries strongly resisted the Ottomans for over 2 months but the end was true enough unstoppable. Constantine XI knowing the end was to come, as recorded by his advisor George Sphrantzes, made an encouraging speech thanking all his soldiers, both local and foreign for their support, and reminding them all they are fighting and dying for a noble cause, the great legacy of the 1,100-year Byzantine Empire. This excerpt from this famous speech in which the 5 interviewees will respond to says:

Consider then, my brothers and comrades in arms, how the commemoration of our death, our memory, fame and freedom can be rendered eternal.

-Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, 1453

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Remains of the Byzantine Empire (purple) in 1450
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1453, the final siege of Constantinople and fall of Byzantium to the Ottomans

Q&A

PC: What is your understanding of this quote?

MA: Basically, even though their bodies are mortal and will die, their accomplishments are immortal and will be forever recorded in history. I would say “if I will die, I am going to die historic”.

FC: The person (Constantine XI) here is like a soldier telling his comrades that their death will be considered everlasting.

MP: It’s like how his teammates or fellow soldiers in arms when they reach their death, the memory of those soldiers and their fame and freedom that came with them will always be with them. So, when they die, everything they had including their love, memory, fame, and freedom died with them. They weren’t alone.

GR: This quote talks about how people can strengthen their eternity.

CF: When one ends, the other begins.

PC: What message do you think Emperor Constantine XI was trying to convey here?

MA: That our accomplishments will never be forgotten.

FC: I think that when saying it, Constantine XI was ready to die.

MP: They weren’t alone when they died, since they were buried with their love, memory, fame, and freedom.

GR: That it is essential to depend on eternity.

CF: With everything, I (Constantine XI) will have a legacy.

PC: What relevance, if any, does this quote have to today’s world?

MA: To motivate people into leaving a mark in the world, so even when they die, they will not be forgotten for what they did

FC: We need not be afraid to die if we have lived well.

MP: If people die or get put in jail for what they did, they did it with honor.

GR: Our freedom can always lead to eternity.

CF: A lot of legends nowadays are gone but their legacy will be honored.

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Last moments of Emperor Constantine XI, May 29, 1453
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The Ottomans capture Constantinople, May 29, 1453

Watch this video from Eastern Roman History to get the full final speech of Constantine XI Palaiologos in 1453.


Bonus Questions

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PC: Would you imagine yourself living centuries ago in the age of the Byzantine Empire? If yes, then how do you think your life will be living in those times?

MA: I am not sure, based on my personality, I don’t think I would be fighting in the olden militaries.

FC: No, because I don’t think I would be able to survive fighting with war and I wouldn’t really go around the world that frequently.  

MP: Not really, I wouldn’t imagine myself in those times.

GR: No.

CF: Nope, I can’t imagine that, sorry.

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Life in Byzantine Constantinople (art by Amelianvs)

PC: Would the 1,100-year history of the Byzantine Empire which includes epic battles, civil wars, political intrigues, interesting emperors and empresses, and fascinating cutting-edge inventions be something of interest to you?

MA: Yes, it would be, if someone were to make a movie put of it, I wouldn’t mind giving it a watch

FC: Yes, it would be something of interest to me. I would also like to know more about these things.

MP: Maybe the Romans with their battles but not the Byzantines even if they are more or less the same.

GR: Yes, if ever I travel to a European country, it would be a pleasure for me to be familiar with them.

CF: Yes, these kinds of things make history more interesting. It gives us new ideas and thoughts of things in life.  

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Byzantine armies- Cataphract cavalry (art by Ana Cagic)
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Byzantine art recreated- Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) and his wife Empress Anna of Savoy (art by Powee Celdran)

And now as the Q&A section with my 5 friends has come to an end, let me now share you my own thoughts and reactions these said quotes by these famous Byzantine era people. For the first quote said by Justinian I, I surely agree that we all have free will but there must be something like the law control it because our free will can sometimes go out of hand. As for the speech of Theodora, like the rest of my friends, I agree it is a complicated passage but from my understanding I would say that it totally makes sense that when faced with a difficult situation, yet you want to get through with it, you must act on it quick and with force and just like Theodora I agree that it is better to die free or doing what you like or in Theodora’s case die as ruler rather than live in fear or in Theodora’s case live your life in defeat. For that particular quote from Maurice’s Strategikon on staying in formation, I would totally agree that this quote best defines Byzantine military tactics as for them winning battles meant staying in formation and fighting in an orderly and disciplined manner and not by striking first or heroically and sometimes this quote makes sense especially when it comes to teamwork done in group projects. Now with the last quote, I only chose to use one part from Constantine XI’s final speech in which I think is the most touching part of this dramatic speech as in that part, I could see how he sees that even if they are dead, the legacy of their empire will live on and from this particular part of his speech, I can totally relate to it because people even when long gone will be remembered forever like Constantine XI and when saying this speech, he could already see his future long after his death as even though he and the Byzantine Empire are gone, his bravery and sacrifice displayed in the final battle against Ottomans would remain one of the most remembered moments not only in Byzantine but world history as one of history’s most dramatic last stands. On the other hand, I would say that my friends who are not very familiar but starting to get to know something about Byzantium have actually got a good understanding of the gist of these quotes from Byzantine times even if they might have not completely and thoroughly understood the full context of them. As for the bonus questions, they have no relation to the 4 quotes mentioned above, but before finishing off I thought of asking them these questions as a way to test if they surely know the Byzantine history I always talk about and to know if they actually are interested to learn about it. It was quite a surprise to me that these 5 friends even if they have no previous experiences with Byzantine history and rather live in their own worlds that they have some kind of inclination to get into Byzantine history that was I did and so I recommended a few sites to check out online as well as Facebook groups focusing on Byzantine history for them to join as well as videos on Byzantium to watch in my channel No Budget Films as well those from Eastern Roman History, or my favorite one Dovahhatty and also to listen the very well researched and written History of Byzantium Podcasts. These sites include the likes of The Byzantine Legacy, Byzantine Tales, and Byzantine Real History as for the FB groups, these include Roman and Byzantine History and Byzantine Real History (BRH) which they took into consideration as well.        

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Constantinople, Byzantine Imperial capital

And now I have come to the end of this special edition interactive article. When reading this, you could now see that the reason for it was not just to break the streak of the lengthy and expansive short stories featuring the endless universe of Byzantine history but to again reconnect with my friends. For the past 3 months, ever since I started my Byzantine history Instagram account, followed by my Facebook page, then Patreon, then Twitter, life has been very busy nonstop posting Byzantine history content online which includes my blog articles written in the past months in order to grow my online accounts to increase awareness on the forgotten yet fascinating history of Byzantium. Along the way, I have met- only virtually and not personally- many great friends from different countries who also have a fascination with Byzantium but in the process, I also did not want to leave my friends who I’ve known for much longer behind as well as my old interests and hobbies in pop culture prior to my Byzantine interest so the best solution I came up with to both stay on track on my Byzantine journey yet still reconnect with my old friends was to get them a bit involved in Byzantium; hence this activity was created. Again, I have to say that I am surprised that my friends who live in their own worlds actually feel some kind of inspiration to like Byzantine history and I certainly appreciate that. On the other hand, when doing this article, I have also come to discover when reading through these said quotes and my friends’ responses to them that a lot of what has happened in Byzantium and what we have learned from these people back then do still have some relevance in today’s world. The Byzantine Empire may be long gone but its legacy still lives on and this include the wise words said here that we can still take into consideration and true enough what Constantine XI said in his final speech about their legacy living on throughout the centuries, it is truly evident. Now, as the first quarter of 2021 comes to an end, I have also made this article to mark the end of the first quarter and beginning of the second, so this means at every end of a quarter, I would definitely come up with other interactive special edition articles like this featuring interviews with friends or other Byzantine history enthusiasts. Well, this is all for this special edition article and before I finish off, I’d like to thank my 5 friends for handing over some of their time to be interviewed about their thoughts on Byzantium for this article and of course I would like to thank all of you viewers for reading this and I hope you got what my friends were saying here! This is Powee Celdran, the Byzantium Blogger, thank you all for viewing!    

Byzantine Alternate History Series: Chapter III- The Empire Strikes Back; Justinian the Great Saves his Empire from the Plague and Personally Joins his Campaigns

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 6th century AD. This story will begin with events that have happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses. Fictional scenarios in this story will be marked by footnotes (1). This will be an extremely long article!

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter II- 5th Century

Keep cool and you will command everyone” -Emperor Justinian I the Great (482-565AD)

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Welcome to the third chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in the second chapter of my alternate history series, I discussed the events leading up to the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century (476 AD) and how their twin empire, Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire played a part in the western empire’s story. At the same time, the previous article discussed a lesser-known event in the year 472 that could have helped save the Western Roman Empire from meeting its end just 4 years later and other what if scenarios such as if the Western Roman Empire survived 476, if the last competent Western Roman emperor Anthemius was not killed off in 472, and if in the Eastern Empire the unknown child emperor Leo II who died at only age 7 in 474 instead lived long enough to succeed his father Zeno as emperor. The last article too discussed a possible scenario of an epic world war between the two Roman Empires and their foreign allies against a massive Barbarian Alliance. However, in this new chapter of the alternate history series, again as I said about the background of this series I am making, there will be no continuity from the previous story (chapter II) to this one, so this story will begin with real history taking its course wherein the Western Roman Empire actually fell in 476 leaving the Eastern Roman Empire as the only surviving Roman Empire, now better known as the “Byzantine Empire”. Also keep in mind that this article will be very long because it will cover possibly the most eventful reign in Byzantine history, which is that of its most influential emperor Justinian I the Great. This story will be set in the 6th century AD, where under Emperor Justinian I the Great, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire would be at its greatest extent when North Africa, Italy, and Southern Spain for a time returned to Roman rule from Constantinople, the eastern empire’s capital after they have for a time fell to the hands of several barbarian powers. The Eastern Roman Empire on the other hand was never expected to regain the lost western provinces but this would soon enough become possible when Emperor Justinian I came to rule the eastern empire in 527 but at the same time, his reign was not all victory and imperial glory as we all remember, as it was also one of military and natural disasters but as a capable ruler, Justinian managed to face all the odds and die ruling the massive empire he had dreamt of. It is also timely that I wrote this article because as the COVID-19 pandemic is happening right now, this story will cover the pandemic then known as the “Plague of Justinian” in 542 which was named after Justinian himself who in fact was a victim of it but survived. Also, just recently, my favorite history related Youtube channel Dovahhatty just released his full feature video on Justinian the Great, and I should say that this story will be based a lot on Dovahhatty’s retelling of Justinian and his personality as he sees it. Now, Byzantine history cannot be told without telling the story of its most influential ruler Justinian the Great (aka. Flavius Petrus Sabbatius) who is one of history’s few rulers who came from humble origins but has left behind a very strong legacy in many aspects that are still live on up to this day and some of his greatest legacies include the complete codification of Roman law that still lives on to this day as the basis for the legal systems most countries use and the impressive structure of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople built in the 6th century which is still in its full form today. Having achieved so much in his lifetime, Justinian would not only be remembred as “the great” but as an Orthodox saint as well for doing his part to defend the faith.

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

As emperor though, Justinian’s greatest feat was the carefully planned reconquests of the lost Western Roman provinces through his policy of what is known as “Intervention Imperialism” or finding reasons to justify a conquest of place especially if it had to do with defending the Orthodox Christian faith, which this story will be covering a lot of, together with the men responsible victories which were particularly his generals Belisarius and Narses, but at the end were all of Justinian’s ambitious conquests of North Africa, Italy, and Hispania worth it? In real history, despite these lands once again returning to Roman rule, it did not really last long as while Justinian ambitiously was masterminding the reconquest of the former Western Roman provinces, another war was being fought in the east with the empire’s long-time mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire and after Justinian’s death in 565, no matter how much lands were conquered it would be all downhill from here as the empire would undergo a chronic war with the Sassanid Persians in the east and face new enemies raiding into the empire from north such as the Slavs, Avars, Lombards, and more. Others blame Justinian for the downfall of the Byzantines’ imperial power due to his overly ambitious reconquests that drained the empire’s economy thus weakening it, but I would say it was not entirely his fault because there were things that happened which could not be controlled by Justinian no matter how powerful and talented he was, for instance the plague in 542 which undid most of his hard work and almost destroyed the Byzantine economy. Justinian too was one of a one of a kind exceptional ruler and only he could manage a very large empire no matter the odds as his successors in real history, were not as capable as he was. Not to mention, Justinian too, if considering all the Byzantine emperors until 1453 as “Roman emperors”, Justinian would be the last Latin speaking Roman emperor, which leads some to say that the age of Imperial Rome ended with him. In this story however, I will try to change the course of history by creating a fictional scenario of Justinian as emperor finding solutions to fight the plague of 542 by using it as a biological war to destroy the constant headache of the Sassanid Empire in the east since in the entire history of Rome’s wars against the Sassanids, there was no way the Romans could win by military force so I believe that if a biological war was used through the plague against the Sassanids, then the Romans (Byzantines) could end up victorious giving them more time to totally focus on their reconquests of the west. In addition, this story will also tackle one of Justinian’s mistakes which was not properly naming his successor. At the same time, Justinian no matter how energetic and hard-working he was as emperor earning him the title “the emperor that never slept” was a complete “palace emperor” who never left Constantinople in his reign no matter how much his empire expanded, but here I believe that if Justinian took part in his own ambitious conquests himself and got to know his nephew and successor Justin II a bit more by personally training him in his military campaigns in Italy, then then I believe that empire would stand stronger after Justinian’s death. Coincidentally, since this story is about how Byzantium strikes back to regain the west, it was fitting that I used the same title as Star Wars Episode V “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). Now, if Justinian I was able to control the plague, train his own successor, and join his own military campaigns, would the Golden Age of the Byzantine Empire he worked so hard to attain still live on or were Justinian’s ambitions just plainly worthless?     

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this story is set in the 6th century following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be now referred to as Byzantines.

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The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent by 555 under Emperor Justinian I the Great
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Byzantine era Constantinople, capital of the empire

This article here is the first story in this 12-part series wherein I am working in collaboration with another fellow Byzantine history enthusiast and in this case, I put together this story with the help of my friend, Instagram user who prefers to call herself Justinianus Østromerriket (follow her on Instagram @justinianusthegreat), a Byzantophile or enthusiast of Byzantine history but more significantly as her username and Instagram profile pic suggests, she is an enthusiast of Emperor Justinian I the Great and his ambitious project known as the Renovatio Imperii or “Imperial Restoration” in Latin as stated in her bio. To give a brief background of Justinianus, she has been a fan of Byzantine history ever since the age of 15 and is currently 19 and a student of chemistry, but her true passion is Byzantine history and art. Aside from being a Byzantine history enthusiast, Justinianus is also an artist who makes illustrations of Byzantine characters in her own style, both through handmade drawings and digital art using the software Ibispaint; her artworks of 6th century Byzantines such as Justinian I will appear in this article too. Justinianus too dreams of being a Byzantinist in the future and to visit the places on earth where the Byzantine legacy is very strong including Turkey, Greece, and Italy.

Similarly, what we have in common is that we are both young in age and not academics or historians but we share a strong passion for Byzantine history and want to create some buzz for it and I am honored to do my very first collaboration article with her. When starting my Byzantine history Instagram account Byzantine Time Traveller very early this year, Justinianus was one of the first to follow me and apparently it had turned out that we see Byzantine history in the same way which is more or less a strong passion, so we came to work together in creating this story by doing our own role-playing of 6th century Byzantine history through Instagram chat for the past month and a half and here in this role-playing chat, she played as Justinian the Great himself and as I should say, she totally gets into his character very well, so the cool-headed and wise yet scheming personality and unknown side of Justinian that this story will tackle will be more or less her take of it. This alternate history story was created in our Instagram role-playing, as here in this story there will be events that did not happen in real history, most notably an elderly Justinian joining his military campaign in Italy himself while at the same time in this role playing, Justinianus had filled in the gaps by telling the unknown stories of Justinian’s own origins story, private and family life, and source of his ambitious dreams in both hers and my own point of view and since history does not record much about Justinian’s early life as well as private life, this fan fiction story will do just that even if it may not entirely be accurate to real history, just as how Dovahhatty told it in his most recent video. Our role-playing scenario will take place in the second half of this story set in Justinian’s later reign beginning in the year 550AD following the death of his beloved wife, Empress Theodora wherein Justinian from the hopeful and ambitious emperor he was earlier on in his reign becomes a bitter and sad old man thinking all his hopes were crushed especially due the recent plague until meeting a mysterious general and former wrestler named Andreas who will inspire Justinian to join in the conquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths together with the generals Belisarius and Narses as the conquest of Italy nears its end and almost coming into a victory for the Byzantines. This story though will begin giving a background story to Justinian, his rise to power, and his early reign which will mostly be all based on historical facts, then it will proceed to the main part which will be on the Plague of Justinian beginning 541, then the climax will begin in the year 550 when the plague still around, but at least Justinian has managed to control it, and to get himself over the grief of losing Theodora, he decides to join his army in Italy together with his nephew Justin who he decides to train to be his successor as he is the only choice left as Justinian’s intended heir which was his cousin Germanus had just died. Overall, this story is more of a fan fiction re-write of history than a what-if story but it also includes a what if scenario, especially if Justinian properly trained his nephew who would eventually succeed him, the what if of Justinian using his own intelligence to destroy his mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire with the plague. The age old problem of succession was surely something that eventually ruined the great legacy Justinian worked so hard on as in real history, he did not properly name his successor so instead the throne was left to his nephew Justin, his sister’s son who lacked the experience in running an empire while at the same time was hot headed but the worst part was that in 565 when coming to the throne, he inherited an extremely massive empire when having no experience in ruling it and as emperor Justin II’s own impulsive actions led to the war against the Sassanids in the east resuming when refusing to pay tribute to them, thus all the war and pressure of running an empire made him insane and unfit to rule that he had to abdicate, thus Justin II’s reign ruined everything his uncle worked so hard on. Now if Justin II was only properly trained by no other than his uncle Justinian the Great who would give him the advise “stay cool and you will command everyone” as the quote by Justinian himself says right at the top of this article, then I believe he would have been as great as his uncle in ruling the empire and this story will rewrite history that way.

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Detailed map of the Byzantine Empire at its fullest extent under Justinian I
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Guide to the late Roman army’s structure (by Powee Celdran); this article contains a lot of terms of late Roman army units.
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Guide to the Justinian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 518-602 (by Powee Celdran)

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter II- Preventing the Fall of the Western Roman Empire 4 years in Advance

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part1 (330-1000)

The Story of 3 Plagues Across Centuries

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Constantinople: The Queen of Cities and its Byzantine Secrets

The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect

Justinian the Great Related Videos:

Unbiased History: Byzantium II- Justinian the Great (Dovahhatty)

Unbiased History: Byzantium I- The Eastern Empire (Dovahhatty)

Emperor Justinian I (Thersites the Historian)

Justinian I’s Wars (Thersites the Historian)

Justinian the Great: Reconquest and its Legacy (Eastern Roman History)


This story will be extremely long as it spans the reign of Justinian I which was a total of 38 years wherein he was 45 when he became emperor in 527, and 83 at his death in 565, something very unusual for people at their time. This story will be basically focusing on Justinian I as its lead character while it will go in detail as well in going through his thoughts and personality which a lot of it happens to be missing in real history and in addition, this story too will contain some flashbacks of his earlier life told in his perspective. As the main character of this story, Justinian is surely a fascinating character to write about as despite coming from humble origins as a simple peasant in the Balkans born as Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, he had a dream that he never let go of which was not only to be an emperor but to be the best and have a great legacy worth remembering up to this day and no matter how much odds he faced in his reign including a devastating pandemic that nearly destroyed his empire’s economy, a prolonged endless war to retake Italy, and a large number of natural disasters, he was able to achieve so much.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great action figure

Though Justinian is this story’s lead character, his nephew and successor Justin II will also play a major part in the story’s second half since a lot are not very familiar with the man who directly succeeded Justinian to the throne and here, Justin would be at first the stereotypical young, hot-tempered, and ignorant man who will go through a journey to be trained to become a wise and strong leader like his uncle by his uncle Justinian himself. History though does not mention what kind of relationship Justinian had with his nephew Justin but this story will do its best to tell that part of history (in a highly fictionalized form). This 12-part series too includes a fictional or unknown historical figure who will have a story built around him right in the middle of all these events, and here it will be Andreas, who appeared in real history as a Byzantine wrestler and soldier serving the general Belisarius back in the Sassanid War of 530 and though history does not mention what happens to Andreas after, in this case he rises up to become a general and personally fights with Justinian himself in the case of this fan fiction when Justinian himself goes over to Italy and in our role-playing, I had the chance of playing the character of Andreas as well as Justin II. Famous people of this age such as the generals Belisarius and Narses, the Ostrogoth king Totila, the Sassanid ruler Khosrow I, and the contemporary historian Procopius will be covered and so will their back stories. The historian Procopius, who was a Byzantine senator and secretary of the general Belisarius meanwhile is another interesting figure being a man with two sides as at first he wrote two books- Wars and On Buildings recording the reign of Justinian I in such great detail with such great praise of him and his administration but at the same time, he secretly he wrote his book The Secret History which totally slanders the image of Justinian as an incompetent and insane ruler while at the same time exposing his wife Empress Theodora’s life as an actress and her sex scandals exaggerating her as a former prostitute. In this case, just like in Dovahhatty’s most recent video, Procopius for ruining his emperor’s image out of pure envy will be this story’s villain together with the Ostrogoth and Sassanid rulers Totila and Khosrow I as Justinian is the protagonist, but no matter how much Procopius has tried to destroy Justinian’s reputation, his works remain a very valuable source of this era and Justinian’s reign as well as on the history of the late Roman age for the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. This story will be more Byzantine centric despite covering some of the happenings with the Ostrogoths of Italy, Visigoths of Spain, and Sassanid Empire though at the same time it will be a mix of the genres of adventure, drama, comedy, romance, politics, and war though no matter how detailed this story will go in the characters and their lives, I would not bother too much in explaining the political structures of the time, such as the imperial system of Byzantium and the names of the provinces of the empire. And of course, I have to say that when it comes to writing an alternate history story for 6th century Byzantium, it is impossible not to do this story of Justinian I as 6th century Byzantium was literally dominated by Justinian I and no one else but in the wider world, I’d say the 6th century was a very challenging time with so much happening especially since this is when Western Europe entered the Dark Ages while Byzantium stood at its finest as the bastion of Greco-Roman civilization.     


The Leading Characters: 

Justinian I- Byzantine emperor

Justin II- Heir apparent and future Byzantine emperor, nephew of Justinian I

Flavius Belisarius- Byzantine general

Narses- Byzantine eunuch general

*Andreas- Byzantine general and former wrestler (real named character but with not much story, his story was expanded here)

Theodora- Byzantine empress, wife of Justinian I 

Vigilantia- Sister of Justinian I, mother of Justin II

Procopius of Caesarea- Chronicler of Justinian I’s reign, secret antagonist 

Sophia- Niece of Theodora, wife of Justin II, future Byzantine empress 

John (Ioannes) the Cappadocian- Finance Minister of Justinian I

Germanus- Cousin and original heir apparent of Justinian I

Matasuintha- Wife of Germanus, former Ostrogoth princess 

Liberius- Elderly Byzantine general

Tribonian- Jurist of Justinian I’s court

John (Ionnes) the Sanguinary- Byzantine general in Italy 

Totila- Ostrogoth King of Italy (541-552) 

Athanagild- Visigoth rebel leader in Hispania and later king 

Khosrow I- Shah of the Sassanid Persian Empire 

Character Images Below of Selected Characters from this Story, Illustrated by Powee Celdran

(Credits to AmelianvsAkitku, G. Rava art, Ravesne, Slifer621, Androklos, Foojer, and Justinianus for their art on this era which are featured here.)   

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (yellow), Ostrogoths (red), Visigoths (blue), Sassanids (green) 


I. Part One

The Background- Before Justinian (The Real History)

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Ever since 395, the Roman Empire had been permanently split in half between east and west and while the Western Roman Empire faced catastrophe after catastrophe of barbarian invasions that totally weakened its power while the Eastern Roman Empire better known as the “Byzantine Empire” based in the growing imperial city of Constantinople, founded by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in 330 still stood strong due to its geographical position as it also controlled several provinces rich in resources such as Egypt, Syria, and those in Asia Minor. The western empire on the other hand had faced the worst and even though it was able to defeat the army of the invading Huns in 451 at the Battle of Chalons with the help of their former enemy, the Visigoths of Gaul, the end was already inevitable. In 472, the assassination of the last competent western emperor, Procopius Anthemius, who was in fact a Greek from the Byzantine Empire was the event that spelled the end for the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna. 4 years later in 476, the Western Roman Empire died out in a whimper when the barbarian Ostrogoth general Odoacer deposed the last western emperor, the puppet Romulus Augustus and instead of claiming the throne as emperor, Odoacer instead chose to just make himself “King of Italy” as the western empire at this point basically only consisted of Italy. In what was for the Romans the turbulent and dreadful 5th century, Gaul and Hispania were lost to the Visigoths, North Africa to the Vandals, Pannonia to the Ostrogoths, while Northern Gaul fell to the Franks, and Northwest Hispania fell to the Suebi while the eastern provinces on the other hand very much remained intact, though the 5th century too wasn’t entirely all great for the east as it too would have suffered the fate of the western empire’s collapse if it were not for the determination of strong rulers like Leo I (r. 457-474) and Zeno (r. 474-491). The emperor of the east at the time the Western Roman Empire was abolished and turned into the Kingdom of Italy was Zeno, son-in-law of Leo I married to Leo’s daughter Ariadne and following Leo I’s death in 474, his grandson who was Zeno and Ariadne’s 7-year-old son Leo II became the emperor or Augustus being directly related to Leo I though his father Zeno as his co-emperor basically ruled the empire for him but towards the end of 474, young Leo II died from a local epidemic in Constantinople making his father succeed him but shortly after in early 475, Zeno was usurped by his wife’s uncle Basiliscus out of popular pressure as Zeno being an Isaurian, a primitive non-Hellenized and non-Romanized citizen from the mountains of Asia Minor originally named Tarasis Kodisa but renamed Zeno to make his name more acceptable to the civilized Greek speaking people of Constantinople. In the one year the general Basiliscus usurped the eastern throne (475-476), his incompetence in fact made him turn out to be even more unpopular than Zeno and when the army sent by Basiliscus to hunt down Zeno in Isauria defected to Zeno’s side as they consisted of Isaurian warriors, they marched back to Constantinople and deposed Basiliscus who was exiled to Cappadocia wherein he died of starvation the next year when being locked up in a cistern.

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Zeno the Isaurian, Byzantine emperor (r. 474-475/ 476-491), illustration by Powee Celdran

Though Zeno came back to power in 476, he still remained as unpopular as he was in his first reign and most of this was due to not coming in time to save the western empire from falling to the hands of Odoacer. When coming back to power, Zeno received the crown of the last western emperor Romulus Augustus who was sent into exile wherein Zeno accepted it acknowledging that the Western Roman Empire was no more though the King of Italy Odoacer was to still answer to Zeno the way the western emperors previously were to answer to the eastern emperors who were their superiors. It was now here in 476 with the loss of the western empire that the Eastern Empire as the only surviving Roman power would be the “Byzantine Empire”. The western empire here may have died out as Italy fell to Odoacer but there were still a few Roman territories in the west namely Dalmatia under the governor Julius Nepos who previously the western emperor (474-475) appointed by Leo I and in Northern Gaul ever since 461, there was a surviving breakaway Roman state known as the “Kingdom of Soissons” ruled independently by a general named Syagrius. However, these 2 breakaway Roman states in the west did not last as in 480, Julius Nepos was assassinated giving Odoacer the opportunity to invade Dalmatia annexing it into his Kingdom of Italy and in 486, the Kingdom of Soissons fell to the new Kingdom of the Franks when Syagrius was defeated in battle by the Frankish king Clovis I. Back in the Byzantine Empire, Zeno’s reign was not only troubled by riots every week as well as usurpers left and right but by a troublemaking Ostrogoth mercenary commander ravaging Thrace named Theodoric Strabo so to combat Strabo, Zeno had the King of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Pannonia Theodoric the Amal, better known as “Theodoric the Great” as well as a new raiding enemy in the Danube being the Bulgars attack Strabo but Strabo managed to beat the Bulgars, though he soon enough met his end by falling off his horse into a spear and with Strabo’s death, his men joined the army of Theodoric the Amal who thus united the Ostrogoths and soon enough became a problem for Zeno himself going as far as making plans to start a rebellion within the Byzantine Empire and establishing his own kingdom there.

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Theodoric the Amal “the Great”, King of the Ostrogoths (r. 475-526)

It was also in the reign of Zeno where this story’s protagonist Flavius Petrus Sabbatius was born, and before being known as “Justinian”, this story will call him first as “Petrus”. Now Petrus was born on May 11, 482 in the village of Tauresium somewhere in the Balkans (today North Macedonia) to a simple family of peasants, his mother’s name was unknown while his father was a low-ranking military officer also named Sabbatius but not much is said about him in history, so soon enough in this story’s case he would die possibly in battle. Petrus was a Roman citizen of Thracian and Illyrian origins and coming from a rural area, he did not grow up educated as a child though when it came to language, he was a native Latin speaker coming from a Latin speaking area which is why as emperor, he would be the last Latin speaking one, the rest after him all being native Greek speakers. Before Petrus was born, his uncle Justin, the brother of Petrus’ mother migrated to Constantinople to serve in the army after fleeing an attack on their village by barbarian hordes- in this story’s case the Foederati army of Theodoric Strabo- sometime in 473. History does not say when Justin travelled from his village to Constantinople, but here we will put the date 474 wherein Justin arrived at Constantinople and at the same time, we will go with the version of Dovahhatty’s first Byzantium series video wherein Justin arrives at Constantinople to join the army at the exact time Emperor Leo I was dying in January of 474 from dysentery.

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Tauresium, Macedonia, birthplace of Justinian, 482

Justin was born back in 450 and was 24 by the time he arrived in Constantinople with a few friends and as it is said, Justin and his friends came to Constantinople as refugees with nothing but the clothes on their backs and when arriving, they soon enough started a business of selling bread to support themselves and the worst part was that they were doing this in these times of difficulty when Basiliscus usurped Zeno and Zeno took back the throne from Basiliscus1. Eventually, Justin joined the elite palace guard force or Excubitors under Zeno but never got far yet up the ranks. Though Zeno was unsuccessful in Church matters, he was successful in dealing with the new troublemaker King of the Ostrogoths Theodoric the Amal and first to satisfy Theodoric, Zeno in 488 gave him the position of Magister Militum or supreme commander of the army in a certain area but Theodoric would still continue being problem that he almost came so close to besieging Constantinople though Zeno here with the help of his wife Ariadne made a deal with Theodoric asking him to leave and head to Italy instead and be Odoacer’s problem as here Zeno started feeling Odoacer would be problem when hearing Odoacer was planning to invade the Byzantine Empire so to stop this, Theodoric immediately headed west with his army to attack Odoacer at his capital, Ravenna.

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Eastern Roman Excubitor (elite palace guard)

As emperor meanwhile, Zeno remained unpopular till his death in 491 due to his Isaurian origins seeming uncivilized to the people of Constantinople, his failure to prevent the western empire’s fall and to keep the Church unity together, and because of his thuggish style of ruling wherein he chose to always strike first thus spending his reign picking fights with everyone rather than using peaceful solutions except with Theodoric. Zeno was at least able to stay in the throne up to his death at age 66 without losing it another time, though his death was not entirely peaceful as it was caused by his epilepsy which he had developed later on in life though a 12th century legend says that Zeno was died by being buried alive by the people seeing an opportunity to kill him when Zeno fell sick, which had been Dovahhatty’s version of Zeno’s death. No matter how unpopular Zeno was as emperor, he was able to save the eastern empire from a full-scale invasion of Theodoric the Amal- who in 491 continued besieging Odoacer at Ravenna- and was able to clean up the political instability that plagued his reign. Since the previous story’s outcome does not continue here wherein Zeno and Ariadne’s son Leo II lived on, in this case here since Zeno and Ariadne had no more children following Leo II’s death, it was up for Ariadne to choose the new emperor and the man she chose was one of the Silentiarii or the court secretaires that worked directly for the empress and knowing this man named Anastasius quite well, Ariadne chose to marry him. Meanwhile with Zeno dead, the people shouted in the streets demanding “give us an Orthodox emperor, give us a Roman emperor” for they were tired of violent rulers which the past 3 being Leo I, Basiliscus, and Zeno were and at the same time they did not want a thuggish Isaurian who compromised with heretics which was Zeno and true enough, the people got what they wished for as their new emperor Anastasius I was well refined man, intelligent, energetic, and cool headed, but also a skilled economist opposite of the warrior Zeno was, and already 60-years-old, Anastasius was still very handsome, tall, and fit with one eye blue and the other one black which is why he has the nickname Dicorus meaning “mismatched eyes”, in other words he had heterochromia. 

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End of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus surrenders to Odoacer in Ravenna, 476
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Constantinople, Eastern Roman Imperial capital
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Legend of Zeno’s death by being buried alive, 491
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The world after 476, Odoacer’s new kingdom in Italy (brown)

Anastasius was born in the port city of Dyrrachium (today’s Albania) in 431 and was a speaker of Latin and here in this story, going with Dovahhatty’s version, when Anastasius’ mother was pregnant with him, she was struck with a curse but mostly overcame it before giving birth to him but the remains of this curse would stay with Anastasius later on in life and it affected him by secretly being a Monophysite in faith which was unpopular especially with the people of Constantinople which made them previously hate Zeno as he sided with them and thinking Anastasius would be pure Orthodox, little did they know that he was a Monophysite heretic deep inside.

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Anastasius I Dicorus, Byzantine emperor (r. 491-518)

At this time, politics in Constantinople was represented by 2 chariot racing teams, the blues and greens and though they cheered for their respective colors during races in the Hippodrome, these factions stood for two different ideologies; the blues stood for the ancient traditions, Orthodox faith, and conservative values while the greens stood for more radical values and the Monophysite faith and Anastasius as a secret Monophysite strongly supported the greens but shortly after becoming emperor, there had been a more legal candidate for the throne, Zeno’s younger brother Longinus who Ariadne previously considered marrying and Zeno’s Isaurian troops still in the city went on a rampage- as they usually did when drunk- in early 492 by bribing off both blues and greens to riot and proclaiming Longinus as their emperor though Longinus’ rebellion failed and he was exiled to Egypt but this led to the outbreak of war against the Isaurians. For the next 5 years, the Byzantine troops of Emperor Anastasius besieged the remaining Isaurian troops at their strongholds in the mountains of Isauria in Asia Minor and in this Isaurian War, Justin who would later be emperor rose up the ranks becoming a general, but here he too would suffer a fatal war wound on his chest. With the Isaurian War over in 497, Justin now promoted to a general returned home to his village in Tauresium seeing his nephew, his sister’s son Petrus for the first time and here Justin decided to adopt him and take him to Constantinople to be educated in the best of ways. It is not clear though when the young Petrus Sabbatius (Justinian) was brought over to Constantinople but it was clear that he was born as a peasant in the village of Tauresium though when creating this story through our role-playing, Justinianus here claims that the young Petrus travelled with his uncle Justin to Constantinople at age 15. No matter what version may be the right one here, Justin being uneducated and in fact illiterate saw hope for his nephew seeing he had potential to be a highly educated person who would bring pride to their family. When moving into Constantinople, Petrus would not only become highly educated, he would develop a dream like no one else had, a dream to restore the provinces of the west that fell to barbarian powers back to Roman rule, a dream to make the Roman Empire great again like it was when it was the supreme world power in the 2nd century. It was in Anastasius I’s reign when the dreadful 5th century ended and so did the 6th century begin in what everyone thought would be hopeful and when ruling the empire, Anastasius’ top priority was the economy so it would one day have enough funds to regain the lost western provinces.

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Follis coin issued by Anastasius I

In reforming the economy, Anastasius made policies to make sure everyone paid taxes in coin and to do this he had to devalue the currency in order to make coins of lesser value which led to the creation of the bronze coin or Follis so that everyone could pay up. In addition, he also abolished the unpopular tax for everyone who passed by Constantinople, abolished the unpopular tax that hurt the poor, but to literally save up, Anastasius cracked down on spending on games and public entertainment, which made him quite unpopular. In the meantime, Theodoric the Amal successfully took over Ravenna from Odoacer in 493 and after a failed negotiation, Theodoric killed Odoacer in front of everyone in the palace, thus Theodoric took over Italy founding his Ostrogothic Kingdom under the Amal Dynasty, his dynasty. Back in the east, when everyone thought the new century would be a hopeful one, Byzantium’s eastern neighbor the Sassanid Persian Empire in which they had always been paying tribute to for the longest time to avoid war demanded the Byzantines to double the tribute paid to them as the Sassanids ran out of funds to defend their northern borders against the same nomadic Huns that terrorized both Romans and Persians in the 5th century and here the Huns happened to be the Hephthalites or “White Huns”.

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Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths kills Odoacer in Ravenna, 493

Anastasius meanwhile refused to pay double to the Sassanid ruler or Shah Kavad I claiming that he needed to save money, though this triggered a massive war with the Sassanids at the Byzantine-Sassanid border which would be known as the “Anastasian War” named after the emperor which began in 502 when Kavad’s forces invaded Byzantium taking over the cities of Theodosiopolis and Amida in Armenia and this was the first full-scale Roman-Sassanid War since the failed campaign of Emperor Julian in 363. The Byzantine generals that led the armies against the Sassanids were Justin, Celer, Vitalian, and Anastasius’ nephew Hypatius and no matter how hard both sides fought, the war resulted in no conclusions and in 506, the Byzantines and Sassanids signed a peace treaty that only achieved reverting to having the same borders since the war started 4 years earlier. With the war over, Anastasius had the fortress of Dara at the Sassanid border in Syria constructed to further fortify it. While the war happened against the Sassanids in the east, the empire’s Danube frontier in the Balkans were left exposed allowing new enemies, the Slavs and the Bulgars to invade so in 507 to further protect Constantinople from their raids, Anastasius ordered the construction of the Anastasian Wall spanning from the Marmara Sea to the Black Sea which was a structure similar to Hadrian’s Wall in Britain.

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Diptych of Anastasius I, victory over the Sassanids, 506

It also happened in 507 that over in Gaul, the Franks led by their king Clovis I had defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Vouille killing the Visigoth’s king Alaric II, thus taking over Southern Gaul and the Visigoth’s capital, Toulouse forcing the Visigoths down to Hispania which they would continue holding on to as most of Gaul fell to the Merovingian Frankish Kingdom. With Clovis’ victory at the battle, Anastasius seeing some potential in him as a Roman ally awarded him the title of Patrician and Honorary Consul and hearing of the Visigoths’ defeat to the Franks, the Ostrogoth king of Italy Theodoric fearing the expansion of the Franks made the fallen Alaric II’s son Amalaric the King of the Visigoths in Hispania being a puppet of Theodoric as Theodoric wanted to rule an entire Gothic Empire of Visigoths and Ostrogoths and with his puppet Amalaric in charge of Hispania, Theodoric now had control of Italy and Hispania.

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

Back in the Byzantine Empire, the now old Anastasius’ Monophysite side, which left its mark in his black eye, would be clearly shown when he deposed the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople in 512, though this again caused massive riots by the people and with his turn to the Monophysite faith, the general Vitalian rebelled in 513 taking over most of Thrace in the name of Orthodoxy and would turn out to be a difficult target to fight but in 515, Vitalian’s threat was taken care of as he went into hiding and it also happened in 515, that Anastasius’ wife Empress Ariadne had died. Anastasius himself had no sons except for an illegitimate one killed in a riot years ago so it was left to either of his 3 nephews Hypatius, Pompeius, and Probus to succeed him but being indecisive on who to choose, one day in 518 he summoned all of them to a room in the Imperial Palace and in there he hid a letter beneath one of the couches with the word Regnum or “reign” and whoever sat on it would be the next emperor, but none of them did so Anastasius changed the rule saying that the first person who enters the room the next day will succeed him, and that person was Justin, now the commander of the Excubitor palace guard force. The 87-year-old Anastasius I had died on July 9, 518 and was succeeded by Justin who now went from simple peasant to emperor, the true rags to riches story of the century while his nephew Petrus would now be ready to enter civil service after years of extreme education. Anastasius died after ruling the empire for 27 full years and with him died the dynasty of Leo I founded back in 457 but he had left behind a full treasury and together with the stability the empire achieved at the death of Zeno back in 491, the upcoming emperors had all they needed to make the Eastern Roman Empire a world power and other than stability and funding, all that was needed was one man with the drive and here Petrus was one step closer as his uncle Justin was now in power.            

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Map of Europe, 510 during the reign of Anastasius I (Byzantium in yellow)
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Reconstruction of the Anastasian Wall of Thrace, built in 507
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Franks defeat the Visigoths at the Battle of Vouille, 507

In 518, the world changed when the 68-year-old Justin I, a peasant became the Eastern Roman emperor and according to the most notable source of this era, the historian Procopius (who will appear later on), Justin as a peasant in origin was illiterate, uneducated, and unrefined only knowing about war as in career he was nothing but a soldier and though this historian Procopius speaks in such a biased way to the Justinian Dynasty, he seems to be telling the truth here about Justin since having no formal education, the old Justin I was certainly unrefined in character but as emperor he still wanted to do his part in ruling and knowing he cannot rule the empire alone, he depended highly on highly skilled advisors and among them was his now 36-year-old nephew Flavius Petrus Sabbatius who with his uncle now becoming the emperor he was adopted as his uncle’s successor and from here on, his name would be forever changed to Justinian meaning “son of Justin”.

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Justin I, Byzantine emperor (r. 518-527) by Dovahhatty

The truth behind Justin becoming emperor was that he used the bribe money given to him by Anastasius’ chamberlain to bribe to soldiers to acclaim the chamberlain as emperor, but Justin listening to his nephew’s advice used the bribes to pay off the soldiers to name him emperor and soon enough, Justin at a meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople, senate, and city council he was recognized by all as emperor and crowned at the Hippodrome. Just 9 days after coming into power, Justin had his potential rivals assassinated and at the same time, the same general Vitalian who rebelled against Anastasius I returned to Constantinople but was soon enough assassinated by the orders of Justinian fearing Vitalian might rebel against Justin as well. The new emperor though lacking education was a devout and fundamental Orthodox Christian and as emperor, the policies he issued himself all had to do with strengthening the faith of Orthodoxy and persecuting the heretical Arian and Monophysite Christians in the army and state but perhaps his greatest achievement shared with his nephew Justinian in 519, the final resolution of the Acacian Schism with the Church of Rome that lasted for 36 years. In his uncle’s reign, Justinian got his chance to rise up the ranks as first he succeeded his uncle in his position as the head of the palace guard force or the Comes Domesticorum, he was then elevated to the rank of patrician, and then consul in 521 and around this time, Justinian finally met the love of his life, the actress Theodora after he spent all his life alone studying jurisprudence, theology, and Roman history day and night on how to be a great emperor, receiving first rate education in Constantinople.

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Justinian as a young man studying, by Dovahhatty

As a young man, Justinian was quite hot tempered especially as an overly enthusiastic fan of the blue faction in the chariot races and being a leading member of the blues faction, a female friend of his who was a belly dancer named Macedonia who served as an informant for him informed him of a young woman of extreme beauty and perfect shape, an actress from the blue faction named Theodora who was her friend whom she met in Antioch. Now the origins of Theodora are conflicting as the 12th century historian Michael the Syrian claims she was born in Syria while another source claims she is a Greek-Cypriot from Cyprus, though in this story’s case, Theodora was originally from Cyprus and a speaker of Greek born there in 500 during the reign of Anastasius I. Theodora’s father Acacius was a bear trainer for Constantinople’s green faction but he died when she was very young leaving her unnamed mother to raise her 3 daughters and Theodora was the middle child as she had an older sister Comito and a younger sister Anastasia and when they were all very young, their mother desperate for work presented them to the leader of the blue faction to accept her and her daughters as actresses for their faction and from here on Theodora would become a strong supporter of the blues. Now again, the historian Procopius had usually slandered Theodora in her years of being an actress as a prostitute sleeping with men of high and low birth and performing sexual acts on stage as a mime actress, although what this meant was that in that time, actresses were seen as equivalent to prostitutes and were at the bottom of society unlike today where actresses have turned into international celebrities with the best treatment.

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Theodora as an actress by Jean-Benjamin Constant

At 16, Theodora travelled to North Africa and later to Antioch where she grew closer to the Monophysite faith and in 524, she finally met Justinian in Constantinople and in only a few days they fell in love, and for Justinian here, this was the first time in his life that he would be in love with someone, yet he was already 42 years old2! Now the existing law said that patrician men- in which Justinian was at their rank now- could not marry women from outside their rank which included actresses but Justinian knowing that Theodora was destined to be his empress convinced his uncle to pass a new law which decreed that reformed actresses can marry men outside their rank if approved by the emperor and Justin being old and having no legal experience just passed this new law through his nephew’s guidance and this here was Justinian’s first experience in drafting laws which he would be most famous for later on. As for the emperor Justin, he continued paying tribute to the Sassanids and tried maintaining peaceful relations with the Ostrogoth King of Italy Theodoric the Great that Justin even took in Theodoric’s son-in-law Eutharic to Constantinople and made him a consul in 519 though he died in 522. Though the actual war with the Sassanid shah Kavad I was at a halt, the Byzantines and Sassanids resolved to fighting proxy wars that involved religion and Justin as well as his nephew Justinian were always at it to defend Orthodox Christianity and one of them involved a faraway land in the south of the Arabian Peninsula known as the Kingdom of Himyar (today Yemen), a Sassanid client state wherein the contemporary chronicler John Malalas (491-578) claimed that Byzantine Christian merchants there were robbed and put to death by their Jewish king and seeing the torture victims return to Constantinople, Justin listening to his nephew Justinian’s advise3 sent word to the Christian king Kaleb I of the Kingdom of Aksum in Ethiopia to invade the Himyarite Kingdom.

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King Kaleb I of Aksum

In 525, the Himyarite Kingdom was destroyed when Kaleb I crossed the Red Sea with the help of Byzantine ships and invaded Himyar annexing it to Aksum and making it Christian. Back with the Sassanids, the shah Kavad I asked if his youngest 12-year-old son Khosrow be adopted by Justin to secure his legitimacy over Khosrow’s older brothers who Kavad did not favor though Kavad also believed that if his son were adopted by Justin then Khosrow would inherit both Sassanid and Byzantine empires as Kavad knew that Justin had no male heir, but little did Kavad know that Justin’s nephew was destined to succeed his uncle. Now the one thing many may not know about was that Justinian had something like a step-brother which would later be his Persian mortal enemy ruler Khosrow although Justin did not adopt Khosrow as a son but instead as a barbarian hostage, and Justin’s treatment of Khosrow insulted Kavad making him begin making preparations to wage war against Byzantium again. Nothing much is said about the time when Justinian grew up with a step-brother he so despised so this part of the story will be made up here and since Justinian was way older than the teenage Khosrow, they had never really gotten along as Justinian was already too busy in actually running the empire for his uncle except that young Khosrow here would learn the art of statecraft the Byzantine way in Constantinople. Since the schism with the Papacy in Rome was already solved back in 519, between 525 and 526, the pope John I visited Constantinople to re-crown Justin I then spending Christmas and Easter with him but when returning to Italy later, Pope John I was immediately thrown in prison by the now extremely paranoid King Theodoric for the reason of favoring the Byzantine emperor over Theodoric, the pope would then die within only a few days of being in prison.

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Pope St. John I

Now Theodoric was an extremely devout Arian Christian and he ruled his Kingdom of Italy very successfully even more than it was under Odoacer before him as if it were like the Western Roman Empire again in terms of culture considering Theodoric grew up in Constantinople educated by the general Aspar who basically controlled the empire before his death in 471, except the people of Italy who were mostly Roman resented the rule of Theodoric especially since he and his army were Arian Christians while most of his people were Catholic-Orthodox and now at an old age, the paranoid Theodoric began persecuting Orthodox Christians in his kingdom in order to assert the dominance of his Arian faith in it though in 526, Theodoric the Great died and was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric, the son of Theodoric’s daughter Amalasuintha and the same Eutharic who died in Constantinople in 522 and with Theodoric’s death, the Ostrogoths of Italy lost control over Visigoth Hispania. Around the same time as Theodoric’s death was the massive earthquake of Antioch I 526 that came close to destroying the entire city and killing some 250,000 people though Justin here responded by sending money to have the city rebuilt in which its process would take years. Justin however only named Justinian his successor in April of 527 as Justin was already close to death, though Justinian had already been running the empire for quite some time as Justin had already gone senile and on August 1, 527 the 77-year-old Justin I died of his war wound from back in the Isaurian War of the 490s and now it was Justinian’s time to rule as the sole Roman Augustus with Theodora as his empress.

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Map of the Sassanid Empire (yellow) beside the Byzantine Empire (blue)
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Map of the Himyarite Kingdom (right in red) annexed to the Kingdom of Aksum (left), 525
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Theodoric the Great’s Kingdom (pink), Burgundian and Vandal Kingdoms (dotted), Byzantine Empire (purple)
Theodoric enters Rome in the year AD 500
Theodoric the Amal “the Great” in Ravenna

The Early Reign of Justinian I (527-540)

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It was here on August 1, 527 when Justinian I came to the Byzantine throne ruling as a “palace emperor” since for all these years he had trained to be emperor, he met talented people along the way that he knew could run the empire without him having to be everywhere and these talented men he met along the way included a brilliant young general named Flavius Belisarius who here at only age 22 was appointed as Magister Militum or master of the army. Belisarius was born in 505 in Thrace (part of today’s Bulgaria) and like Justinian, was of low birth but already at a young age, he joined the army and soon enough his talents were recognized by both Justinian and his uncle Justin who was still emperor then.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great (aka Flavius Petrus Sabbatius)

Belisarius though only became an active commander 3 years later in 530 but prior to that, he had come up with a totally innovative development for the army, the creation of the Bucellarii cavalry unit and making them the core of the army and these cavalrymen were equipped with both composite bows and lances in battle. Right when Justinian came to power in 527, Belisarius now appointed as a general was assigned with a legal assistant and secretary, which is this story’s villain Procopius, a Palestinian Greek from Caesarea born in 500 who would later study law at the academy of Berytus (Beirut) and later at Constantinople and though he admired the talent of Belisarius, he envied Justinian for becoming emperor and not him as Procopius thought that if Justinian who was of low birth could become emperor, and so could Procopius, and in the case of this story, this is why Procopius would slander Justinian and anyone close to him in the works he wrote.

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Flavius Belisarius, Byzantine general

It also happened that when Justinian succeeded Justin to the throne, the Sassanid shah Kavad I forced the people of the Kingdom of Iberia (Georgia) at the border of the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires to convert to Zoroastrianism but their king back then fled to Justin I’s Byzantium to make peace though this here insulted Kavad who was later even more insulted when his son Khosrow was adopted by Justin not as a son but a barbarian hostage so in retaliation against the Byzantines, Kavad invaded through Syria and when Justinian became emperor, he immediately sent his generals Belisarius and Sittas east to defend the border. Sittas is someone of obscure origins but together with Belisarius, they had met and became friends with Justinian serving under him as part of the Excubitor imperial guard force in Justin I’s reign and just like with Belisarius, Justinian too saw great talent in Sittas. Initially, Belisarius and Sittas’ forces were defeated by the Sassanids but not giving up, they both expanded their army with the use of Hunnish mercenaries as well as the barbarian people from the far north (probably Scandinavia) which were the Heruli, as well as the Arab people that lived at Byzantium’s border at the Arabian desert which were the Ghassanids who by Justinian’s orders converted to Christianity. Belisarius knew that the Sassanids and in fact all enemies of the empire would lose to fear due to the presence of the Huns as it had been tried and tested in history such as when the Western Roman general of the 5th century Flavius Aetius effectively used them to defeat the barbarian invaders in Gaul and seeing how much fear the Hunnish cavalry could bring, Belisarius made these Huns occupy half of the cavalry with the other half being his Bucellarii.

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Belisarius’ Bucellarii cavalry

When heading east, the army split up with Sittas heading to Armenia to fight the Sassanid forces there while Belisarius was to head to Syria where the main forces of Kavad attacked from. In 530, Belisarius and his men set themselves up at the same fortress of Dara built by Anastasius I two decades ago. According to Procopius, before the battle began, the Sassanids sent one of their strongest warriors to challenge Belisarius in single combat but rather than Belisarius, his slave who he personally trained in combat to be a wrestler named Andreas fought and killed this Sassanid warrior and killed another one the next day, and though this may be fictional, in this story’s case it was true and here Andreas rather than being a slave was a simple warrior from the mountains of Isauria working under Belisarius and his feat in single-handedly taking down two of the toughest Sassanid warriors made him make a name for himself. The actual battle soon enough began when the Sassanid forces mostly consisting of their Cataphract cavalry and their allies, their client kingdom being the Lakhmid Arabs of the desert to the south of them charged at Belisarius’ men but Belisarius responded by just laughing as he had his men already dig up trenches to prevent the cavalry from clashing on them and when the Sassanids got trapped in the trenches, the Huns and Heruli cavalry of Belisarius charged straight at the Sassanids, thus the Byzantines and their allies won the Battle of Dara despite this day being extremely hot (45 oc).

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Sassanid and Byzantine forces clash at the Battle of Dara, 530

At the same time as Belisarius won this decisive victory, Sittas in the north won another one against the Sassanids at the Battle of Satala in Armenia and both victories further infuriated Kavad so in retaliation, Kavad sent 20,000 of his cavalry forces to attack the now vulnerable Antioch that had just been devastated by the 526 earthquake. Before the Sassanids arrived in Antioch, Belisarius had his men counter-attack them, though some of the older officers that envied his talent charged ahead without orders and got crushed by the Sassanids here at the Battle of Callinicum in 531 leaving Belisarius to take care of the battle but still failed as these officers had already ruined it. Belisarius at least survived while the Sassanid forces had to return east to their empire as their ruler Kavad here in 531 had died. Belisarius then returned to Constantinople while Justinian with Kavad’s death was relieved that he could send his step-brother Khosrow who he despised so much back to his empire to die as Khosrow’s older brothers were all staging a civil war against him.

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Khosrow I, Shah of the Sassanid Empire, unknown step-brother of Justinian I

Now in the past years that Khosrow had lived in the imperial palace of Constantinople, despite not being treated as part of the imperial family, he saw it with his own eyes how much gold was left behind in the treasury by Anastasius I which he then saw as the best way to cripple Justinian and his ambitions which Khosrow already knew Justinian had. In 531 when Khosrow returned to his empire, he managed to defeat all his brothers and ruled the empire even stronger than is father did after learning some empire management skills from the Byzantine court and knowing how much gold the treasury had, he demanded that Justinian pay him 11,000 pounds of gold a year as this was to be an “eternal peace”, and Justinian here agreed to it as long as the Sassanids used it to pay off the Huns at the northern border to keep them further away from the Byzantines.

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Map of the Battle of Dara, 530
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The Fortress of Dara, Byzantine-Sassanid border

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Dara, 530 (Kings and Generals).       

Back in Constantinople, Justinian had a pretty good start as emperor and even if he did not need to be on the battlefield, he knew he could count on his generals like Belisarius and Sittas as well as a barbarian named Mundus, the son of the king of the Gepids, the Germanic tribe settling in Pannonia (Hungary) who in fact was even a descendant of the Scourge of God Attila the Hun from the 5th century. The Gepids here had made peace with Justinian by sending Mundus to him to be appointed as Magister Militum and was charged with fighting off the raiding Slavs and Bulgars in the Balkans and when Belisarius was demoted after his failure at the Battle of Callinicum in 531, Mundus replaced him as commander of the eastern forces.

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6th century power couple, Justinian I and Theodora

Justinian meanwhile still continued spending all day and night at meetings, reading up on new strategies, studying his empire’s borders, and inspecting Constantinople seeing what new buildings had to be built that he barely had any time for parties or for a little fun all while his younger sister Vigilantia was his polar opposite. Now, no one would really know that Justinian did indeed have a sister but this story here will try to tell a bit more about her even if history does not say much and in this version, Vigilantia, born in 490, came to Constantinople with her mother some months after Justinian did back in 497, though being only 7 when she moved, she was too young to experience the hard life of a peasant unlike Justinian who did as he was already 15 when he moved to Constantinople. Unlike Justinian who was hard working and ambitious, Vigilantia was a wasteful glutton who spent all day drinking, partying, and sleeping with other men- at least in this version- though she had married a man named Dulcidius, possibly an aristocrat and would have 3 children, the eldest son named Justin the Younger born in 520 in Constantinople and was named after his grand-uncle and founder of the dynasty Justin, the second one being Marcellus, and a daughter named Praejecta. Shortly after becoming emperor, Justinian already launched one of his greatest projects in which he would be most remembered for throughout the ages, the Corpus Juris Civilis or “Body of Civil Laws” completed in 529 by a talented jurist he appointed named Tribonian who had extensive knowledge of Roman laws all the way back to the first emperor Augustus Caesar (r. 27BC-14AD) and this compilation of all laws going back to Augustus’ reign was to codify all Roman laws into one book by removing all conflicting laws and making them all consistent to each other; this book would then be divided into 3 parts first being the Codex which would be all the laws issued by Justinian, the Digest consisting of laws from the past emperors, and the Institutes which would be a handbook for all students of laws.

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Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis

Some of the laws made by Justinian here forbade civilians from carrying weapons like axes and spears as they could incite rebellion with it but this happened to be unpopular with many of rural citizens who live to carry weapons, while other laws here stated that no one could make rivers or lakes their private property. These laws at the same time highly favored Orthodox Christians and was to convince all to convert to Orthodoxy as it disapproved of the beliefs of Arians, Monophysites, Pagans, and Jews and Justinian himself indeed hated the Jews for feeling they were above everyone else especially in economic matters and part of his policy was to ban Jews from the army as the army was really made up of Christians- mostly Orthodox- fighting for their faith, on the other hand Justinian had also closed down one of the empire’s last Pagan academies in Athens to stop the spread of their beliefs that contradicted Orthodoxy while at the same time he issued laws for teachers to teach history in the form of Christian propaganda.

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Stamp of Tribonian presenting the Code of Laws to Justinian, 529

Justinian not having any ties to the aristocracy of the empire appointed people based on merit and absolute loyalty to him and not by connections and wealth and these included the jurist Tribonian and the finance minister John the Cappadocian, a man of low birth from Cappadocia in Asia Minor but with strong administrative skills and ruthlessness as well and no matter how corrupt he was by torturing rich tax payers forcing them to pay and this sure indeed filled up the treasury more especially since Justinian was to pay 11,000 pounds of gold a year to Khosrow. For the longest time, the rich including Jewish merchants had found ways to get exempted from paying taxes while the poor were usually hurt and Justinian knowing what it was like coming from the lower classes of society knew that the rich could no longer escape this privilege, though this surely made him unpopular with the rich. As for Theodora now as empress, feeling insecure because of her low birth, she wanted to assert her power by strongly promoting court ceremony practices making everyone that met her bow down lying face-down on the floor in front of her and her husband and to kiss their rings and that none could question her, only she could.

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Justinian I and Theodora at the imperial court

People that met her and Justinian no matter how high in society they were including senators had to wait in line in a stuffy room in the palace before it was their turn and with such difficulty just to meet the imperial couple, these said officials and senators felt like they were treated as slaves. On the other hand, Theodora took part in almost every meeting Justinian had advising him too in legal matters that Justinian called her his “partner in his deliberations” and part of Theodora’s acts as empress was in making Justinian issue laws that further protected women’s rights especially for actresses like her before. Meanwhile in early 532 at the same time as Justinian and Khosrow settled peace, the chariot races began civil unrest in Constantinople when the blue and green factions continuously beat each other up in the streets and for inciting such violence, Justinian ordered the blue a green faction leaders hanged but the execution true enough failed for 2 leaders who later hid in a church while the mob rushed to Hippodrome for a day of a another chariot race wherein Justinian and Theodora sat in the imperial box but to their surprise the entire mob shouted “Nika!” or “victory!” over and over again, though Justinian at first did not bother, instead he tried negotiating with them but it did not work.

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John the Cappadocian, Finance Minister of Justinian I

The mob then in a rampage burned everything in Constantinople, liberated prisoners, and damaged property and part of the buildings burned included the old Hagia Sophia church and the Baths of Zeuxippus, one of the structures that predated Byzantine Constantinople in 330. Wanting to get over the violence, Justinian asked the mob what they wanted and they demanded that John the Cappadocian and Tribonian who they all saw as corrupt be fired though when getting back to the palace, Justinian found out that a number of senators had paid off the people to riot so in return he fired these senators and spoke to the people again that he too fired John and Tribonian in which he actually did not and as the people continued rioting, Justinian resorted to threatening to kill them all if they did not stop. The people true enough did not stop and even chose to elevate the old Hypatius, nephew of Anastasius I as emperor who almost came to power in 518 if he sat on the chair with the note but here Hypatius did not want the throne although once he was lifted in the streets, he had a change of heart.

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The Green Faction of Constantinople at the Hippodrome, by Akitku

At the palace, Justinian was more terrified of what was to come that advisors told him to just let go of the throne, leave Constantinople, and take it back one day but Theodora stepped in convincing Justinian that the riot needs to be dealt with once and for all. At this time, Mundus who was in charge of the east returned to Constantinople while Belisarius was in the city too and here another court official of Justinian, the Armenian eunuch Narses who in this story’s case according to Justinianus was originally a slave from Armenia born in 478- like in real history- and bought by Justinian during his uncle’s reign. Narses now possessed a great amount of natural intelligence but lacked education and here in 532 he was assigned to bribe off some of the rioters most of them being blues while Belisarius and Mundus were tasked to put the Hippodrome on lockdown before they send their troops inside it. With the rioters trapped in the Hippodrome, Belisarius’ and Mundus’ men including Hunnish mercenaries killed up 30,000 rioters in a single day while the leaders either got their property and wealth confiscated, exiled, or executed, and Hypatius here was executed while John and Tribonian were reinstated to their positions. Seeing Constantinople in ruin, Justinian was sad but at the same time saw the ruins of the city as an opportunity and making the most of the destruction, he ordered that the city be rebuilt in a grander scale like never before, and the building here he so desired to rebuild was the church of the Hagia Sophia.

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Justinian I and Theodora surrounded by senators and courtiers
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Chariot racing in Constantinople
Slaughter in the Hippodrome at Constantinople in AD 532
Massacre of the 30,000 at the Hippodrome ending the Nika Riot, 532
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Justinian and Theodora inspect the aftermath of the Nika Riot, 532

Watch this to learn more about the Nika Riots, 532 (Invicta).

         

Over in the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa based in Carthage, their king Hilderic, the son of the Vandal king Huneric (r. 477-484) and the grandson of the Vandal Kingdom’s founder Genseric (r. 428-477) was an ally of the Byzantines and when coming to the throne in 523, he maintained friendly terms with Justin I and later with Justinian following Justin’s death. Hilderic happened to be a half-Roman, his mother was Eudocia, the daughter of the Western Roman emperor Valentinian III (r. 425-455) and a granddaughter of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) making Hilderic one of the last descendants of the Theodosian Dynasty, and the Vandal Kingdom despite being a barbarian power adopted Roman customs and were most famous for their navy as the rulers of the Western Mediterranean waters.

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Hilderic, King of the Vandals of North Africa (r. 523-530)

The Vandals had been Arian Christians like many of the barbarian powers, but Hilderic due to his Roman half tolerated the Orthodox-Catholic religion in his kingdom which angered his cousin Gelimer who in 530 deposed and imprisoned Hilderic which angered Justinian in Constantinople even more as Hilderic was his friend who had come to Constantinople a few times before. Gelimer responded to Justinian telling him to mind his own business as North Africa was not his kingdom and as for Justinian, this was a perfect excuse for him to start a war as his reign was marked by the policy of “Intervention Imperialism” meaning that he would invade a land when they were at conflict with each other wherein he would take the side of one faction. To put it short, Justinian despite having the dream to take back all the western provinces the Romans lost to the barbarians would invade these lands if given any reason to do so unlike other rulers of the past who would strike first and invade all because they wanted to, but for Justinian, he thought invading when there is a perfect reason was the smart move. In the past, there had been two attempts to reconquer the Vandal Kingdom and return it to Roman rule and both failed, first was in 460 when the western emperor Majorian (r. 457-460) built a fleet in Southern Hispania but had never even left the port as traitors in his army convinced by the Vandal king Genseric burned the fleet before it even left and in 468, the eastern emperor Leo I launched a fleet of 1,000 ships carrying 100,000 men to invade Carthage but before the battle, the fleet’s commander Basiliscus- who usurped the throne in 475- agreed to a peace with Genseric resulting in half the fleet destroyed and the mission failing. Justinian here in 533 now knew he wouldn’t fail especially since he assigned Belisarius for the job and that he had a full treasury due to John the Cappadocian’s efforts.

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Gelimer, King of the Vandals (r. 530-534), by Slifer621

To test Belisarius’ ability, he was only assigned with 15,000 men and even more made the bread supply for the army moldy which was to test even how strong the health of the soldiers was and though a few suffered food poisoning, they survived it which was a sign that the whole army was in good health. Before the fleet left Constantinople, Belisarius had a bad start when two drunk Hunnish mercenaries killed a soldier but Belisarius quickly had these Huns executed and the mission proceeded as the fleet sailed west directly to Carthage. At the same time, Justinian funded a revolt in the Italian island of Sardinia which was under the Vandals to scatter the Vandal army in order to make Belisarius meet little resistance in North Africa and before arriving in the area of Carthage, Belisarius settled in Ostrogothic held Sicily first to resupply as Justinian persuaded the regent ruler Amalasuintha who he was in good terms with to use the island and from there, Belisarius quickly proceeded to North Africa landing there and crushing the Vandal forces. Hearing Belisarius had arrived, the Vandal king Gelimer killed Hilderic in prison thinking Belisarius might reinstate him and afterwards ordered his army of 25,000 men to attack Belisarius’ forces at the salt flats outside Carthage in what would be the Battle of Ad Decimum.

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Belisarius and his army in North Africa

Here, Gelimer divided the army with his brother to attack Belisarius on both sides of the salt flats but the brother was soon enough killed by Belisarius’ Bucellarii which therefore distracted Gelimer when the main battle came and as he grieved his brother’s death, Gelimer’s forces were soon easily crushed by Belisarius’ 15,000 men causing Gelimer to flee west as Belisarius without any resistance proceeded to Carthage and took over it taking over the palace right in time for the feast prepared for Gelimer’s victory but since Gelimer had lost, Belisarius sat at the throne for the feast. When taking over Carthage, Belisarius ordered his men not to plunder or kill anyone as Justinian wanted to show the local Roman people of Carthage that the Eastern Romans were to be seen as their liberators not oppressors and true enough when Belisarius took over Carthage, the people cheered as they despised living under the rule of the Vandals, especially Gelimer. However, Gelimer was still around and had grouped up with his other brother Tzazo who was previously in charge of Sardinia but kicked out when the Byzantine captured it and together, they marched to Carthage attempting to take it back, but Belisarius and his men charged out of Carthage clashing again with Gelimer at the Battle of Tricamarum at the end of 533 and again Gelimer lost his brother as Tzazo was killed in battle.

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Byzantines take over Carthage from the Vandals, 533

Gelimer attempted to flee to the mountains of Numidia but realized he was in hopeless situation, so instead he turned himself into the Byzantines as Belisarius allowed him to be spared, though Belisarius came in too late to save their ally Hilderic who had just been killed in prison. As 533 ended and 534 began, Belisarius had won the war, recovered all the wealth the Vandals looted from back in 455 when they sacked Rome including the Menorah stolen from the Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70AD. Though the Vandal Kingdom had been destroyed after only less than a century of existing and put under the direct rule of the Byzantines, the parts of North Africa further inland were under independent Moorish states that refused to be ruled by the Byzantines so to deal with them, another general named Solomon was sent to fight them in battle which later in 534 was able to crush the Moors and annex their lands all the way to what is now Morocco to the empire as Belisarius returned to Constantinople to celebrate his triumph. In 534, Northwestern Africa was annexed to the Byzantine Empire and now connected by land to Egypt while Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands too were annexed, the Vandals thus were expelled from North Africa eventually fleeing back to where they came from in today’s Germany. Back in Constantinople, Belisarius was given a triumph and in fact the first one in ages wherein he and his army marched through the city’s main street or the Mese with the spoils of war from North Africa including the Menorah while Gelimer too was paraded here and brought before the feet of Justinian and Theodora wherein Gelimer feeling angry for losing his kingdom whispered to Justinian “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” but was told to shut up, but at least he was able to retire and live out his entire life in Asia Minor. All the wealth taken from the Vandals in North Africa now allowed Justinian to complete his greatest project, the new Hagia Sophia or “Church of Holy Wisdom” in only 5 years since construction began in 532.

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Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, architects of the Hagia Sophia

In December of 537, with all the wealth taken from North Africa, the complete structure of the Hagia Sophia including its massive dome was completed under the architects Anthemius of Tralles, a Greek-Egyptian and Isidore of Miletus, though the interiors were still bare at its completion as it would take many more years to fill in the mosaics but when entering for the first time, Justinian said out loud “Solomon I have outdone you” referring to the long gone Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem known for its size and beauty and that Justinian’s new creation had outdone it. Now, I would say the hidden meaning to this phrase of Justinian reflected his negative feelings towards the Jews and by building the Hagia Sophia, he could prove that Christianity is more superior but back to the Jewish Menorah, Justinian did not agree to keep it in the Hagia Sophia as it was a Jewish relic, instead he shipped it back to Jerusalem, its original place.

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Map of Justinian I’s Vandalic War, 533-534
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Map of the Battle of Ad Decimum, 533
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Belisarius charges at the Vandals in North Africa
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Belisarius defeats the Vandals at the Battle of Tricamarum, 533
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Hippodrome of Constantinople

 

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Hagia Sophia of Justinian I, constructed 532-537
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Justinian I enters the Hagia Sophia for the first time, 537

Watch this to learn more about Justinian I’s Vandalic War, 533-534 (Kings and Generals).

North Africa may have been restored to Roman rule, but that wasn’t Justinian’s main objective, his main objective was to reconquer Italy, particularly Rome as the fact that the city of Rome, where Roman civilization all began was not under Roman hands was humiliating. For Justinian, he had no reason to invade Italy as its regent ruler Amalasuintha as a loyal ally to him as she heavily practiced Roman customs though it was her son Athalaric that was actually the ruler in name although he did not take his duties seriously and turned to drinking, then in 534 the 18-year-old Athalaric was killed by the Ostrogoth nobility and was replaced by his uncle Theodahad, a nephew of Theodoric the Great. Amalasuintha was later assassinated in her bath later in 535 and this here finally gave a reason for Justinian to invade Italy especially since Theodahad rejected Roman customs making the local Roman population more and more angry thus wanting to be ruled once again by Roman, which was Justinian. In the eastern empire, some of the people of the older generations were alive before the west fell in 476 and therefore wanted to see the west restored to Roman rule, and Justinian was more than happy to please them.

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Theodahad, King of the Ostrogoths (r. 534-536)

Now Justinian began his reign quite unpopular that he was almost overthrown in the Nika Riot of 532 but after his conquest of North Africa in 534, he gained the respect and love of all his subjects and putting Italy back under their rule made him think he would gain their respect and admiration even more. Justinian in Constantinople was later informed of Amalasuintha’s death and Theodahad’s usurpation by an official named Liberius, one of the local Romans of Italy living under Ostrogoth rule that had been alive even before 476 and at this moment, Liberius was one of the many Romans who were alive when the western empire was still around, therefore as an old man, he wanted to die seeing his land under Roman rule again. After receiving Liberius, Justinian knew exactly what to do so again he sent Belisarius on another mission, this time to finally retake Italy and in 535, he departed Constantinople by sea this time with only 7,000 men as the rest of his army was needed to secure North Africa although Justinian also sent Mundus who was in charge of Illyria at this point to invade Italy by land first by recapturing Dalmatia, which was still under the Ostrogoths. 536 was then and odd year, and here Procopius who had joined Belisarius again as his secretary writes that in this year, a thick layer of smoke covered the sky and blocked the sun yet he had no idea what caused this, indeed made this year a bad one of the harvests. Only modern studies explain exactly what caused this event, which happened to be that volcanoes around the world erupted and the wind carried the ash the away causing this unnatural event to happen, but no matter how odd this year was, Belisarius continued to push on with the ambitious reconquest of Italy.

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Ostrogoth Kingdom flag

As for the barbarian general Mundus in 536, he succeeded in taking back Dalmatia from the Ostrogoths but was killed in battle, although his troops still managed to secure their hold there. Belisarius on the other hand swiftly retook Sicily and Southern Italy but the mission had to be aborted for a moment as news reached Belisarius that some of his soldiers in North Africa together with the surviving Vandals rebelled and named one of their own officers named Stotzas as emperor so Belisarius had to rush back to North Africa and here, he easily crushed the revolt forcing Stotzas to flee deep into the Numidian desert. Belisarius then rushed back to Italy to resume his main objective and luckily his troops still held on to what they have retaken so they proceeded to take back the port city of Naples but was proven too hard to be recaptured especially with very limited men but one day, the same old Isaurian wrestler Andreas from Dara4 found an open waterway at the aqueduct which led straight into the city so Belisarius had the hole widened and true enough the Byzantines were able to reclaim Naples with little resistance.

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Belisarius’ army in Italy

Due to Theodahad’s failure to stop the Byzantines’ advance, he was usurped and killed by an Ostrogoth noble named Vitiges who was married to Amalasuintha’s daughter Matasuintha thus ending Theodoric’s Amal Dynasty but as king, he too feared Belisarius’ advance. In Rome itself, Pope Silverius too was tired of having to take orders from the Ostrogoth king, so he sent word to Belisarius inviting him to capture Rome and without a fight, Rome was retaken and put under Roman rule again, but Vitiges was still out there but Rome was no longer the imperial city it was as years under the Ostrogoths as well as 3 attacks on the city in the 5th century (410, 455, and 472) made it a shell of its former self but Belisarius made sure it was to be rebuilt. Vitiges meanwhile marched his army to retake Rome and went as far as cutting off the aqueducts to stop the water supply for the people inside but Belisarius with his brilliance resolved to make a mill on the Tiber River using two boats and was indeed successful in providing grain supply for the people inside. This siege of Rome then went on for an entire year (537-538) and as the Goths tried every trick they could to take the city such as by throwing their dead soldiers to the river to destroy the grain mills or by using siege towers, Belisarius used any trick he could find such as building a chain at the river to stop the bodies and shooting flaming arrows at the siege towers.

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Belisarius’ ship mill, Rome

Vitiges meanwhile was tired of the fighting and as all his men slaughtered by Belisarius’ Bucellarii stationed outside the Aurelian Walls, he tried to negotiate with Belisarius but Belisarius just laughed as he wouldn’t agree to a surrender as he wanted the extermination of the Ostrogoths. After a year, the siege ended as thousands of reinforcements sent by Justinian under a younger general named John the Sanguinary broke the siege forcing Vitiges and his forces to flee using the Milvian Bridge, the same place Constantine the Great won a great victory in 312 where most of Vitiges’ men were slaughtered again by Belisarius’ Bucellarii. As Vitiges fled north to the capital Ravenna, John and his forces headed north to pursue Vitiges and managed to reclaim the city of Rimini wherein he was alter surrounded by Ostrogoths.

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Vitiges, King of the Ostrogoths of Italy (r. 536-540)

More reinforcements however came under the palace bureaucrat Narses, who now had been fully trained to be a general despite being already 60 here and unlike Belisarius who displayed such charisma to his men, Narses was more of a massive sized man with a very uninteresting personality, mostly a skilled manager in terms of military logistics; simply more like a robot doing his job, considering that in this story’s case according to Justinianus, he was slave that was bought, freed, and trained to become a general. Despite both Belisarius and Narses at odds with each other, they both relieved John who was trapped in Rimini surrounded by Ostrogoths by completely surrounding the Ostrogoth forces while Belisarius here lit several campfires in the hills to make it look like they had a bigger army but true enough did not to scare the Ostrogoths while the Byzantine fleet blocked the sea as well and so the Ostrogoths were again defeated and John being saved chose to thank Narses rather than Belisarius who did more than Narses did.

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Narses, Byzantine general

The rest of the Italian cities meanwhile such as Milan (Mediolanum) revolted against their Ostrogoth overlords inspired by the victories of the Byzantines so they requested Belisarius for reinforcements but the Byzantines were too outnumbered to send forces to all these Northern Italian cities. With the people of Milan rebelling, the Burgundians now under the Franks invaded Italy from Gaul to besiege Milan but the people there lacking an army could not hold out against the Burgundians so when getting word of this, Belisarius being too busy in reorganizing Roman control to the parts of Italy that had just been retaken sent John to reinforce Milan and attack the Burgundians but refused to as he only took orders from Narses, although soon enough John caught a fever delaying the mission thus further weakening the people of Milan who then had no choice but to reason with the Burgundians. The Burgundians on the other hand did not agree to the terms and when the gates of Milan were opened to them, they sacked the city killing almost everyone and almost razing the city to the ground while the Burgundians’ overlords, the Franks themselves invaded Northern Italy (the Piedmont region) too but after pillaging the countryside, decided to retreat to Gaul as there was nothing left for them in Italy anyway.

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Burgundian army

In 539, after hearing of the sack of Milan, Belisarius wrote to Justinian the whole story that a lot of it was due to John taking orders from the less effective Narses and in return, Justinian recalled Narses to Constantinople while John was to now follow orders from Belisarius alone and now coming so close to taking back the entire Italy, only Ravenna was left under the control of Vitiges as Milan following the sack was ceded to the Byzantines anyway. Tired again of Belisarius constantly winning victories, Vitiges resorted to the ultimate trick of sending envoys to the Sassanid Empire asking Khosrow I to break the eternal peace with Justinian by resuming the war so that the Byzantines would have to pull out of Italy. Back in Italy, Belisarius got word of Khosrow attacking again so he decided to rush the attack on Ravenna before he would be recalled to the east and Vitiges in fear once again came up with another trick, this time asking Belisarius to accept his surrender and at the same time offering Belisarius the position of the “Western Roman Emperor” restored and Belisarius wanting the fight over accepted it, marched into Ravenna but instead of taking the throne, Belisarius arrested Vitiges as well his wife Matasuintha and here in 540 all of Italy was again put under Roman rule and Justinian’s dream finally achieved and Belisarius once again returned to Constantinople as a hero parading Vitiges and Matasuintha in his triumph though despite Italy taken back, the war left it in ruins which could still be repaired.

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Map of Justinian I’s Byzantine Reconquest of Italy (Gothic War), 535-540
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Procopius’ description of the 536 Dust-Veil
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Belisarius enters Rome and meets Pope Silverius, 536
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Belisarius defending Rome from the Ostrogoths, 537-538, by Amelianvs
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Belisarius’ campfires outside Rimini
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Milan (Mediolanum), attacked by the Burgundians in 539
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Belisarius and Narses arguing on the Italian Campaign, by Amelianvs

Watch this to learn about the Siege of Rome, 537-538 (Kings and Generals).


The Plague Years (540-550)             

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Though Italy had been retaken, Khosrow getting word from the Ostrogoths to attack the Byzantine Empire already made preparations and after only 8 years broke the eternal peace given the reason that the Armenian border people were not satisfied with Justinian’s rule and when the Byzantine forces were sent there to crush the rebellion, the general Sittas from the Persian war a decade ago was killed here in 539 fighting the rebels. Now while the 5-year war at Italy was happening, both Justinian and Khosrow did their own thing whereas as Justinian and Theodora worked on rebuilding Constantinople from the damage caused by the Nika Riots and in the process, they had ordered the decorating of the Hagia Sophia with mosaics and according to Justinianus playing Justinian, she says the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics took over 2,000 men to assemble working 24/7 day and night with one shift consisting of a thousand workers from all over the empire, at the same time too, Justinian ordered the construction of a triumphal column in the square known as the Augusteum outside the Hagia Sophia which had an equestrian statue of him.

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Assembling of the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics

At the same time, Justinian had sent explorers to the far-off places of the world such as Scandinavia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Central Asian steppes, and India to give him reports while at the same time he sent Christian missionaries to convert the people of Nubia south of Egypt. Khosrow meanwhile in this 8-year “eternal” peace tried to imitate Justinian’s Byzantium making his rule mirror that of Justinian’s in terms of sophistication but when asked by the Ostrogoths to invade Byzantine territory in 540, Khosrow broke this “eternal” peace and invaded Syria, capturing Antioch which still had not yet recovered from the 526 earthquake, and enslaved its people, bathed in the Mediterranean himself, and bribed off chariot races in different eastern cities to make the green faction win just to backstab Justinian who had been backing the blues his whole life. Khosrow though did not stay long enough as after asking more tribute money from Justinian which Justinian accepted, Khosrow returned to his empire but was now all set to launch another massive scale war against the Byzantines all while Belisarius was still in Italy. Belisarius was still able to bring Vitiges and Matasuintha to Constantinople wherein Vitiges died shortly after and Matasuintha was then married to Justinian’s cousin, the general Germanus.

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Column of Justinian I with his equestrian statue outside the Hagia Sophia

Belisarius though only remained in Constantinople for 2 weeks5 as the war had already broken out with Khosrow so again, Belisarius was sent to another campaign again with his Bucellarii and Huns and the area the way would take place in would be in Lazica (Georgia), the kingdom Khosrow wanted to annex in order to gain access to the Black Sea to launch an invasion of Constantinople and here Belisarius was to block Khosrow’s invasion. In 541, a political rivalry grew between Theodora and the finance minister John the Cappadocian and as usual with Theodora always wanting to succeed, she had Belisarius’ wife Antonina meet with John to frame him for plotting against Justinian and Theodora and as Justinian discovered this so-called plot of John, he punished John by sending him to Egypt forcing him to be a priest just to please Theodora. At the same time as John arrived in Egypt, something mysterious meanwhile had occurred there at the Mediterranean port of Pelusium wherein one sailor in a ship delivering wheat harvested from the fields of Egypt to Constantinople and this one ordinary day, this sailor felt some pains in his head, arms, and legs but thought it would go away if he just slept it out but at night he could not sleep as he started experiencing nightmares and as he woke up his eyes turned red and not only did he feel these symptoms, the rest of the crew did as well. At this exact same day, they saw a ship crash straight into the harbor of Pelusium and when this crew went to investigate the ship, they saw the entire crew all dead with black spots on their bodies and soon even the crew investigating died of this sickness. In a matter of weeks, this plague had spread across Egypt through the grain shipments and soon enough to all cities across the Mediterranean such as Jerusalem, Antioch, and a lot more when ships containing grain supply headed that way as little did the people at the port know that the ships carrying off the grain supply carried the fleas that caused the illness. 

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Justinian I of Byzantium and Khosrow I of the Sassanid Empire, by Justinianus
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Empress Theodora with Antonina (Belisarius’ wife, left), and Sophia and Vigilantia (right)
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Kingdom of Lazica (Georgia) map
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Port of Pelusium, Egypt
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The Plague begins with sailors in Egypt, 541 by Dovahhatty

       

Back then in the 6th century as this plague spread wherein people quickly started feeling ill, vomit blood, rot from the inside and then died went on, no one knew what it exactly was or what caused it, neither did doctors know the cure for it, and true enough they also caught the illness and died. Procopius here writes that this plague originated in Pelusium, Egypt but modern studies show that it originated far away in the Tian Shan Mountains of Central Asia in Western China as the plague at this time also affected China, India, and the Sassanid Empire and here as Belisarius was preparing to battle the Sassanids in 541, he was met with no fight at all as the Sassanid soldiers were affected by the plague with most of them dying from it.

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Belisarius in the Lazic War against the Sassanids, 541

This plague then was transmitted by fleas that sucked the blood of rats and transmitted it to people when biting them and these fleas then had developed inside the warehouses in Egypt wherein harvested grain had been kept for so long allowing rats to infest it, as well as fleas. The year 542 began in a very normal way for Constantinople as Justinian and Theodora did their thing by continuing the passing of laws, the workers still worked 24/7 on the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics, Narses returned to working in the palace training Justinian’s young nephews Justin and Marcellus to be skilled administrators6, while Justinian’s sister Vigilantia who hadn’t been mentioned in a long time still did as she pleased, stuffing herself up at feasts and drinking all night without a care as her brother worked so hard to keep their empire working but everything changed when the grain ships arrived at the port of Constantinople.

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Roman-Byzantine grain ship by Kate Eller

At first, people no matter who started experiencing light fevers but were advised by doctors in the city market to just not think about it as it will pass and for some, they were able to get over the fever but for others it was worse causing them to fall into a coma while others developed some acute dementia wherein, they were imagining that people were attacking them making these people jump into the waters of the Bosporus and Marmara to save themselves. The doctors then were most worried about these symptoms of dementia as they have never seen or heard of something like this before but when it came to people’s symptoms such as the swollen spots in their bodies, doctors were curious to know about it so they decided to open up the corpses of those who died from this illness (autopsy) and here they discovered that there was bacteria inside these wounds and it was this bacteria that killed the victims but they also found out that if they cut off the bacteria from the patients, the patients would be cured but would soon enough die days later due to the loss of blood.

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Transmission of the Plague of Justinian

As doctors too got infected by cutting up the plague sores, they decided to cover themselves up in full protection cloaks and masks which turned to be working out well for them. In only a few weeks, thousands in Constantinople began dying from this plague that by March of 542, as Procopius had said there had been 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a day in Constantinople alone and the only ones that remained and would forever remain uninfected were the stylites, the hermits living above columns. It was only here when Justinian began to respond to the crisis as at this point, he knew it was not only in Constantinople but in the entire eastern part of his empire and this when he sent word to all the governors around the empire to put all the cities under lockdown forbidding people from leaving their houses in order to stop the spread of the plague but little did Justinian know that the plague did not pass on so much from human to human but from flea to human and when finding out about its source being fleas, he had the a number of grain warehouses set on fire but the plague still kept spreading, and at the same time had the lockdowns lifted after a month as it too did not do anything to stop the plague.