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

Posted by Powee Celdran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

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

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

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

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


The Leading Characters: 

Irene Sarantapechaina “Irene of Athens”- Byzantine empress 

Charlemagne “Charles I the Great”- Frankish emperor

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

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

Tarasios- Iconophile Patriarch of Constantinople

Staurakios- Byzantine eunuch official and general of Irene

Aetios- Byzantine eunuch official of Irene

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

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

Theophano Sarantapechaina- Irene’s cousin

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

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

Leo the Armenian- Iconoclast Byzantine general

Bardanes Tourkos- Byzantine general, Irene loyalist

Louis I the Fair- Son and successor of Charlemagne

Krum- Khan of the Bulgars since 803

Harun al-Rashid- Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate

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


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

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

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Empress Irene of Athens

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

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Arabian coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Athens in the Byzantine era

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

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

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

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

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

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Flag of the Abbasid Caliphate, founded in 750

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

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

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

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Bulgar army, 8th century

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

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

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

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

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Map of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace Complex

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

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Byzantine female court fashion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Background Part II- Irene as the Empress-Regent          

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

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Tzykanion, Byzantine polo (art by Amelianvs)

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

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Patriarch Tarasios of Constantinople, appointed by Irene in 784

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

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Army of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate

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

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Coin of Irene and Constantine VI with Irene on the right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Inside Constantinople’s Great Palace

          

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

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Meme of Irene blinding Constantine VI, 797

           

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

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Coin of Empress Irene as the sole empress

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

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

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

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Frankish Empire fashion

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

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

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


The Climax Part I- Charlemagne and Irene’s Marriage        

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

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

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

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Charles Martel battles the Umayyads at Tours, 732

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

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

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

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Seal of the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne

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

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Pope Leo III, crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800

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

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Carolingian Minuscule

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

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

       

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

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Charlemagne crowned by Pope Leo III, 800

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

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Coin of Charlemagne as a Roman emperor

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

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

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

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Supposed marriage proposal between Irene and Charlemagne

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

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

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

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

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

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Sample of a Byzantine era grenade

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

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Empress Irene of Athens (art by HistoryGold777)

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

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Feasting in the Byzantine Empire

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

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Charlemagne in a Byzantine Loros

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

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

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

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Medieval wine making

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

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Omphalion, coronation square in the Hagia Sophia

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

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Irene and Charlemagne married

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

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Speculated map of Irene and Charlemagne’s united empire

 

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

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

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Irene exiled in Lesbos (in real history)

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

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

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

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Charlemagne and his son Louis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nikephoros I, Patriarch of Constantinople since 806

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

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

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

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

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

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Carolingian Frankish knights, elite army of Charlemagne

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

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Carolingian knight, 9th century

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

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

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

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Pliska, capital of the Bulgarian Empire, attacked in 811
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Byzantine forces defeated by the Bulgars at the Battle of Pliska in 811, in real history