Most Favorite to Least Favorite- Ranking the 12 Centuries of Byzantine History

Posted by Powee Celdran

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Welcome back to the Byzantium Blogger! As for now, I will be taking a break from the extremely long but informative Byzantine Alternate History series in which I have progressed very far, at this point I have completed the 8th chapter of this 12-part series. To break my consistent streak of Byzantine fan fiction articles now that I am in between chapter VIII and chapter IX of my series, I have decided to come up with another more entertaining special edition article which will mark the end of the 2nd quarter of this year 2021. Previously 3 months ago, I did another special edition article marking the end of the first quarter of this year wherein I asked 5 of my friends to give their own point of views on quotes quoted by Byzantine era people to see what these ancient quotes mean these days. This time, my special edition article to mark the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd quarter of this year is a more personal one which will be a list ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantine history (4th-15th centuries) from my point of view from 1 being my most to 12 being my least favorite one. Now as may would know, the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire lived on for an exact 1,123 years (330-1453), meaning 12 centuries of stories to tell and within these 12 centuries were a series of ups and downs wherein the empire at some points would be a dominant power then at some points lose it and have to fight to defend its borders and then once again become a power again, and so the cycle goes on. Basically, the Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire itself continued except being based in the east with Constantinople as its capital throughout its 1,100-year existence- except for a brief period of time between 1204 and 1261 when the capital fell under the rule of the Latin Empire or basically the Crusaders- and throughout these 1,100-year existence there are a lot of stories to be told. Now out of the 12 centuries of the Byzantine Empire’s existence, some really had a lot of exciting moments within them while some had important turning points in world history, but some just had less stories to tell compared to others. For this article, I will rank the 12 centuries from my personal best to worst according to how eventful these centuries were. I will both put a summary of each century but will evaluate them by describing why I find each century more interesting or less interesting based on everything I have learned about Byzantine history in the past 2 years that I have been reading up on it, therefore this article is mostly based on my insights and did not involve heavy research. In my opinion, I find centuries filled with action-packed events as the more interesting, fascinating, and memorable ones compared to those that had less happening, and so here I would place the more eventful centuries on the higher tiers of this ranking and the less eventful ones on the lower ones. In the history of Byzantium however, each of its 12 centuries of existence had a lot of events happening, although some centuries may have just been more eventful than others. Now to find out which centuries I find more fascinating and which ones I find less fascinating, you will have to find out by scrolling down the list, and before beginning, the previous 8 chapters of my alternate history series will be linked to the respective centuries they are set in, except for the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries as I have not yet written any alternate history chapters yet for these 4 mentioned centuries. In addition, each century that will be ranked on this list will be guided by images of important events that took place in these respective centuries, in which most of these images would be Byzantine fan art made by either myself or other Byzantine history fans that do art related to it.

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

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


 

1. The 10th Century           

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

My personal favorite out of the 12 centuries of the Byzantine Empire’s existence has to be the 10th century or the century of the Byzantine Renaissance, which is at the same time a very popular era in Byzantine history that is also fascinating to a lot, and there are just so many reasons to say why this century happens to be so popular among Byzantine history fans such as myself. First of all, if there were to be any century in Byzantine history that had so much happening both within the empire and beyond, it is the 10th century which featured Byzantium under the Macedonian Dynasty entering a golden age of military and cultural dominance over the known world while at the same time, this century shows exactly just how complex Byzantium was especially in politics and succession which makes Byzantine history ever more fascinating. The intriguing roller-coaster of the 10th century begins with the reign of Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) wherein Byzantium is still fighting to defend itself against various attacks by Arab powers, which is then followed by a complicated succession crisis after Leo VI’s death where his son the young Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos is placed under regents all fighting each other for power all while Byzantium is threatened by their next-door northern neighbor, the Bulgarian Empire ruled by Tsar Simeon the Great. As the 10th century progresses, the complicated situation of Constantine VII’s regency is taken care of in 920 when the ambitious low-born admiral Romanos Lekapenos takes over the throne not to depose but protect young Constantine VII who he actually turns out to sideline, but even though he may seem to be a usurper, Romanos I ruled the empire well as during his 24-year reign (920-944), he was able to end the war with Bulgaria through the diplomacy while the Byzantines too had totally managed to turn the tide of war against their Arab enemies in the east to the offensive but Romanos I unfortunately did not stay in power forever as in 944 he was overthrown by his sons who were then overthrown by the legitimate ruler Constantine VII who then becomes the sole emperor.

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

Constantine VII’s reign as sole emperor (945-959) is also one of my favorite moments in Byzantine history as Constantine VII as emperor had shown a great example that Byzantium at this time was not only a military power but a cultural one which was perfectly demonstrated by the emperor himself being an intellectual who published 4 books himself about the Byzantine Empire’s history, court etiquette, and governance system while at the same time, he was able also able reveal to the world how Byzantium was a superior sophisticated culture by impressing foreign diplomats by sitting on a mechanical throne that lifted itself up while the mechanical lions beside it projected an actual sound of lion and the fake birds on the golden tree next to it sang. Constantine VII after his death in 959 was succeeded by his son Romanos II who despite ruling very quickly (959-963) had a lot of accomplishments in his reign which were although achieved not really by him but by his successful generals such as the brothers Nikephoros and Leo Phokas and their nephew John Tzimiskes who successfully crushed the powerful Arab armies a number of times in Cilicia and Syria while at the same time in 961, Nikephoros Phokas was able to reclaim the entire island of Crete itself from the Arabs after a long and brutal campaign.

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Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969)

The second half of the 10th century gets even more exciting when Nikephoros II Phokas becomes the emperor himself in 963 after marrying the empress Theophano, the wife of the late emperor Romanos II who died earlier that year, and in Nikephoros II’s reign Byzantium expands even more by conquest that a large number of territories they had lost over the past 3 centuries to the Arabs including the region of Cilicia, the island of Cyprus, and the city of Antioch itself are taken back by the Byzantines, thus forever weakening the Arab powers that had threatened Byzantium for the past 3 centuries. Nikephoros II as emperor was a brilliant general and strategist but nothing more as he failed as a politician in terms of pleasing his people and in foreign policy that when failing to negotiate with the Bulgarians, war between them resumed. Due to his harsh taxation policies and growing unpopularity, Nikephoros II in 969 was assassinated in his sleep by his nephew the general John Tzimiskes who then succeeded his uncle as emperor who just like his uncle was more or less a warrior emperor but at least succeeded more as a politician. John I Tzimiskes as emperor (969-976) was successful in fighting wars against the new power of the Kievan Rus’ army that had invaded Bulgaria which he defeated resulting in most the Bulgarian state itself to be absorbed into Byzantium and following this, John I returned to campaigning in the east winning more decisive victories against the Arabs again but before returning to Constantinople in early 976 he suddenly died.

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Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer of Byzantium (r. 976-1025)

John I after his death in 976 was succeeded by the legitimate ruler Basil II, son of the previous emperor Romanos II and Empress Theophano, and would be the last ruler of the 10th century, although his early reign was not really stable as he was challenged by the ambitious rival generals Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas who believed that Basil II was unfit to be emperor due to being raised in the palace. Basil II however proved them wrong and in 989 after making an alliance with the Kievan Rus’ Empire that provided him with an army of 6,000 warriors which would become the Varangian Guard, Basil had defeated Bardas Phokas and 991, Basil II’s rule would be fully secure following the surrender of Bardas Skleros allowing Basil to grow the empire even more that by the time the next century began, the Byzantines had managed to conquer the entire Bulgarian Empire itself. Though the 10th century ended before the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria finished, the Byzantine Empire at the end of the 10th century was a dominant military and cultural power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe that the entire Kievan Rus’ Empire (consisting of what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) fell under Byzantium’s sphere of influence by adopting the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantium, while at the same time, their rival empire which was the Holy Roman Empire in Germany looked up to them in terms of culture, and in the south the Arab powers that once threatened Byzantium were now the ones threatened by Byzantium’s growing power.

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

Overall, I would say the 10th century had the complete set of everything that would define the history of Byzantium including epic battles, ambitious yet brilliant generals with unique strategies like Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes, sophisticated and superior technology unheard of in the Middle Ages including the superweapon Greek Fire and mechanical thrones, superior intellectual culture in Constantinople, a decadent imperial court rich in luxury, lots of violence including blinding and assassinations, scheming eunuchs behind the throne, and ambitious women in power such as the empress Zoe Karbonopsina who ruled as regent for her young son Constantine VII in the complicated regency period (913-920) and Empress Theophano who was the wife of two emperors Romanos II and Nikephoros II, both who they say she had killed. It is for all these reasons why I would say it is the century in Byzantine history that fascinates me most, and other than all these reasons that I had mentioned above, what makes this period fascinating too was that there was never any dull moment in this century as every step of the way was action-packed and most of them were all the wars the Byzantines fought as they were not only fighting against one enemy but many including Arabs, Bulgarians, the Rus, and Pechenegs while at the same time there was a lot going on in this century especially in foreign relations as here Byzantium made contact with the various powers of the time including the Holy Roman Empire and a lot more. Now by having so much going on all in one century, I would also say that the 10th century is really the century that defined Byzantium the same way the 15th century or Renaissance was for Italy, the 16th century for Spain, the 17th for the Dutch, 18th for France, and 19th for England, and true enough it is also the 10th century where Byzantium gets a lot of attention in visualized media even centuries ago as the famous illustrated manuscript the Madrid Skylitzes specifically focuses a lot on the events of the 10th century and even up to this day, a lot of Byzantine related media such as the recent graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale is set in this period, and so are some of my Lego films including The Rise of Phokas (2019) and Killing a Byzantine Emperor (2019). 

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Emperor Constantine VII hosting a feast, art by Byzantine Tales
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Nikephoros Phokas enters Constantinople in 963, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Rus’ fleet outside Constantinople’s Walls, 941

To learn more about Byzantium in the 10th century, read Chapter VII of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

2. The 5th Century           

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Roman Empire 5th century map, dissolution of the west (red).

For second place, I would put the 5th century which was the second century of the Byzantine Empire’s existence but also a very crucial point in their history as it was in this century when the Eastern Roman Empire was already a concept as a separate empire from the Western Roman Empire based in Constantinople, while the 5th century was also the century when the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium became the sole Roman Empire itself following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Now the story of 5th century Byzantium until 476 is basically told as a story of two parallel empires which are the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople and its twin satellite empire the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna wherein one empire (the east) is strong but still struggling to survive against the massive invasions of barbarian powers while the other one (the west) is weak and dying without any chance to live long anymore unless fully dissolved or absorbed into the eastern empire. The 5th century however happens to be more famous for the story of the Western Roman Empire which is already at a breaking point as when the century begins and progresses, the western empire is ruled by incompetent rulers like Honorius (395-423) and Valentinian III (425-455) while most of the empire is already falling apart being invaded by several barbarian people that have wither settled in it or invaded from beyond including the Visigoths who take over the Western Roman lands of Gaul and Hispania, the Burgundians and Franks that take parts of Gaul, and the Vandals that take over North Africa, while here the Romans completely lose control of Britain at the beginning of the century.

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Battle of Chalons, 451

While several barbarian powers take over territories of the Western Roman Empire, a larger threat is yet to arrive which was Atilla the Hun and his rapidly growing Hunnish Empire which is not only a threat to the Eastern and Western Roman Empires but to these barbarian powers too, thus the Western Romans and some barbarian powers like the Visigoths, Burgundians, and Franks join forces against Atilla’s Huns and together led by the Roman general Aetius they manage to achieve the impossible in defeating Attila’s forces at the Battle of Chalons in 451, and after Atilla’s death in 453 the Huns from being the terror of the world simply vanished as a major threat. Despite the Western Romans’ victory over Atilla, the following years were not as favorable anymore as in 454 they lost their greatest general Aetius who was assassinated by the emperor Valentinian III out of envy and in 455 Valentinian III was assassinated which leads to conflict with the new power of the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa under their King Genseric who also in 455 launches an invasion on Rome and sacks it. The 5th century saw two major attacks on Rome itself first by the Visigoth king Alaric I in 410 and in 455 by the Vandals in which both forever weakened the power of Western Rome, although after 455 there were still some emperors that had the ambition to save and revive the weakened Roman Empire and reconquer their lands the barbarians took from them and these emperors included the capable soldier Majorian (457-461) and the Eastern Roman aristocrat Anthemius (467-472) but sadly both never achieved their dreams as they were in fact both puppets of Ricimer, the ambitious barbarian general in Roman imperial service who was responsible too for killing both of these emperors for being too ambitious and not being his intended puppets.

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End of the Western Roman Empire with the surrender of the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus to Odoacer, 476

After Anthemius’ death in 472 it was all downhill for the Western Roman Empire which was now only reduced to Italy, thus it was only a matter of time that the western empire would disappear and just 4 years later in 476, one small event brought the Western Roman Empire to its complete end and this was simply when the barbarian general Odoacer marched into the empire’s capital Ravenna and forced the last Western emperor Romulus Augustus to surrender which he did and so ended the Western Roman Empire which was replaced by Odoacer’s personal Kingdom of Italy. Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman Empire had a much different story in the 5th century which was as I would say more or less not as exciting in the century’s earlier half but more exciting in its second half. The earlier part of the 5th century did not have much happening for the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium except for the rule of the incompetent Arcadius (395-408) where the century begins although he did not really live long enough and following his death in 408 he was succeeded by his young son Theodosius II who later grew up to be a more competent ruler who ruled for a full 42 years (408-450), and in his long reign he was able to achieve a lot as a peace loving palace scholar emperor and his achievements included the construction of Constantinople’s massive land walls named after him even though he did not really have much of a part in building it, but in his reign he also compiled a code of laws for the empire, established universities, and oversaw a major Church Council.

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Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450)

It was also in Theodosius II’s reign when Atilla was expanding his empire but wanting to get away from any major conflict, Theodosius II agreed to pay heavy tribute to Atilla annually, which however only made Atilla’s army stronger that despite their agreement, Atilla still invaded Eastern Roman territory but turned away when failing to besiege Constantinople‘s walls which already proved to be an effective defense system for the Byzantine capital. Theodosius II’s long rule came to an end when he died from a horse-riding accident in 450 and having no sons, he was succeeded by the general Marcian who married Theodosius II’s sister Pulcheria and as emperor, Marcian oversaw the major Church Council of Chalcedon in 451 and when dealing with the major threat of Atilla, he unlike Theodosius responded to it with force by sending armies to invade Atilla’s base in Central Europe itself which then contributed to Atilla’s downfall in 453. After Marcian’s death in 457, he was succeeded by Leo I the Thracian who being only a common soldier was appointed as emperor by Aspar, the powerful barbarian general serving the eastern empire who happened to be the actual power behind Marcian and Theodosius II before him. The story of the 5th century for the eastern empire then gets more exciting during Leo I’s reign (457-474) as Leo was someone who may have seemed unambitious and useless as an emperor being only a commoner by origin but as his rule progressed, he actually turned out to be ambitious yet ruthless with a strong desire to be independent that in 468 he launched a major invasion of the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa itself by sending 1,000 ships to punish the Vandals for sacking Rome in 455, though at the end this invasion failed but Leo I still succeeded in making himself an independent ruler with his own dynasty by killing off his power hungry puppet master Aspar in 471. Leo I was later succeeded by his son-in-law and general Zeno after Leo’s death in 474 and for me Zeno is one of the most interesting emperors of Byzantium and he is one of the reasons too why the 5th century makes 2nd place in this list.

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Zeno the Isaurian, Byzantine emperor (r. 474-475/ 476-491), art by myself

As for Zeno, he was originally an outsider as he was an Isaurian chief named Tarasis Kodisa coming from the people of the mountains of Asia Minor that the people of Constantinople saw as primitive and uncivilized and basically because of his origins, Zeno was not accepted by his people that his rule was challenged countless times by ambitious generals that one time between 475 and 476, Zeno was in fact completely overthrown by Leo I’s brother-in-law Basiliscus who Zeno later overthrew himself. In addition, Zeno was also the Eastern Roman emperor in 476, the year the Western Roman Empire was abolished, therefore Zeno became the first emperor to rule the Eastern Roman Empire as the sole Roman Empire and throughout his reign, his position and that of the empire was left very challenged both internally and externally and the biggest threat here happened to be the Ostrogoth Kingdom of the ambitious king Theodoric the Great, although Zeno succeeded in overcoming Theodoric by turning him away from Byzantium and instead having him invade Italy. Zeno at the end at least managed to die in 491 peacefully without being ousted from power again but more importantly he left the eastern empire more stable than how he had founded it, although Zeno with his wife Ariadne had no children so after Zeno’s death Ariadne married the finance minister Anastasius I who as the next emperor was even far more successful especially in the managing the economy. Now, I would put the 5th century as my 2nd place in this list not only for the Eastern Roman Empire’s story but for the combined stories of both Eastern and Western Roman empires as one, as the 5th century was crucial for both and even though the earlier part of the century for the Byzantines is not as interesting for me, the story of their twin western empire was and following the fall of the western empire in 476, it is the story of the east that becomes more exciting, therefore to sum it up this entire century was basically eventful and action-packed, although not the same way the 10th century was in terms of being totally action-packed every step of the way.

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Mosaics of the Galla Placidia Mausoleum in Ravenna, made in the 5th century

For both east and west, the 5th century saw so many memorable events of all kinds take place such as wars, religious debates and Church Councils, interesting emperors, bizarre stories such as men living above columns known as the Stylites, and cultural innovations including lavish construction projects in Constantinople from colorful mosaics to massive city walls. The more important part of the 5th century however was the drastic change of geography of the old Roman Empire into the several barbarian kingdoms of the Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Suebi, Vandals, and more, therefore this century being the transition of the Roman era into the Dark Ages for the west leaving Byzantium as the only Roman power left alive is a very crucial point in world history and thus because of how dramatic things had changed in this century, I consider it my 2nd favorite one out of the 12 centuries of Byzantium’s existence.  

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The 5th century land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Land Walls), art by myself
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King Gaiseric and his Vandal army sack Rome, 455
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The world map after 476 with the Byzantine Empire (red) as the surviving Roman Empire

To learn more about Byzantium in the 5th century, read Chapter II of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

3. The 6th Century           

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Detailed map of the Byzantine Empire at its fullest extent under Justinian in 555 (gold)

If there was one century that everyone will come across when hearing about the Byzantine Empire which always features on general history books when briefly discussing Byzantium, this is the 6th century and this is because of no other than the reign of Byzantium’s most influential emperor Justinian I the Great (527-565) that took place here. The 6th century was then the first full century of the Byzantine Empire being the sole Roman Empire as previously mentioned, the Western Roman Empire came to an end in the previous 5th century, but it also happened that in the 6th century, the Eastern Roman Empire recovered the lands that were once part of the western empire although instead of restoring the old western empire, these lands came under the rule of the eastern empire from Constantinople.

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

Now, I would say that no doubt the 6th century is a very fascinating part of Byzantine history especially considering that the reign of Justinian I when all the century’s highlights took place was a long one lasting for a full 37 years. It is basically the reign of Justinian I (originally Flavius Petrus Sabbatius) that puts the 6th century in the top 3 of my list, as in his reign, almost every step of the way had a story to tell from the massive Nika riot in Constantinople that almost overthrew him in 532 which then had to be dealt with such brutality, to ambitious construction projects in Constantinople, loads of reforms, the devastating plague of 542 that wiped out so much of the empire’s including Constantinople’s population wherein Justinian himself was a victim of it but still survived, and so much more. In his reign, Justinian I had two major legacies that still live on up to this day and this includes his Code of Laws or Corpus Juris Civilis that still serves as the basis of most countries’ legal systems up to this day and the other one being no other than the impressive Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople with its massive dome which did in fact only take 5 years (532-537) to build its structure, yet it is still intact up to this day. Another great legacy of Justinian I were his ambitious military campaigns to reconquer the lands that were once part of the Western Roman Empire in order to bring them back to Roman rule and in his reign, Justinian I managed to reconquer all the entire Vandal Kingdom of North Africa, all of Italy from the Ostrogoth Kingdom, and Southern Spain from the Visigoths, and the even more fascinating thing about this was that first Justinian conquered by intervening in their political struggles and that Justinian himself did not have to go himself to any of these campaigns but just stay in the palace. Other than his conquests, Justinian I was also known to have had made contact with parts of the world very distant to the Roman sphere of influence such as Sub-Saharan Africa wherein he had sent Christian missionaries to and China wherein he sent monks to learn the secret of silk making which resulted in the monks smuggling silkworms from China leading to the creation of silks in Byzantium itself.

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Court of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora

Another thing that made Justinian I’s reign very eventful were the people behind his rule which included his wife Empress Theodora, the finance minister John the Cappadocian who managed to make the empire’s economy a strong and wealthy one, the jurist Tribonian who was responsible for codifying Roman law of the past thus creating the famous code of laws, the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus who were responsible for the building of great structures like the Hagia Sophia, the historian Procopius who gives us a very detailed source of this time, and the generals Belisarius and Narses who were responsible for expanding the empire through war in the years-long conquests of North Africa and Italy. By the time Justinian I died in 565, the Byzantine Empire was a very massive one basically covering the entire Mediterranean stretching west to east from Southern Spain all the way to Syria and north to south from the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine all the way down to Egypt, but with all the wars and plague that had brought too much damage by killing off a large number of people and severely weakening the economy, this massive empire would soon enough prove to be too difficult to manage considering how large it was, therefore making it exposed to future invaders as well.

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Emperor Justinian I of Byzantium and Shah Khosrow I of the Sassanid Empire, by Justinianus

Another thing that makes Justinian’s reign more action-packed therefore putting more story into the 6th century was Byzantium’s chronic war with its traditional enemy in the east which was the Sassanid Persian Empire which during Justinian’s reign was ruled by Shah Khosrow I, an equally ambitious ruler who despite being paid off by Justinian to not attack in order for the Byzantines to focus on their conquests in the west still attacked Byzantine borders from time to time. On the other hand, the 6th century had a lot more than just Justinian I’s reign and these were the events before and after his long reign, although I would say it is only Justinian I’s reign that makes the 6th century a very interesting one for me as the events before and after it were still dramatic ones but do not fascinate me much.

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

Anyway, the events that had taken place before Justinian I came to power in 527 were not as exciting but very important especially in setting the stage for Justinian’s epic projects to expand the empire as first of all, the emperor who ruled at the beginning of the century which was Anastasius I- the successor of Zeno- was responsible for strengthening and enriching the economy with his smart economic policies which later made Justinian’s ambitious projects possible, and though Anastasius I’s empire was already threatened by the Sassanids in the east, the Byzantines were still able to successfully fight them. Anastasius I died in 518 at the age of 87 leaving the empire’s economy strong and rich, but the problem was that he did not have a clear succession plan by having no sons, so instead he was succeeded by the commander of the palace guard Justin I who was Justinian’s uncle and even though Justin I as emperor coming from humble origins was illiterate, he was able to still rule well especially in protecting the Orthodox faith of the empire, therefore gaining the support of the pope in Rome, although behind Justin I’s power was really his nephew Justinian who in 527 succeeded his uncle following his death. On the other hand, the latter part of the 6th century following Justinian I’s death in 565 was for me more or less disappointing especially to see how all the hard work of Justinian to expand his empire disappeared when new barbarian invaders came in such as the Lombards who in 568 just 3 years after Justinian’s death invaded Italy making their own kingdom only just a few years after the Byzantine reconquest of it from the Ostrogoths was completed, while in the Balkans new invaders such as the Slavs and Avars appeared, and in the east the war against the traditional enemy the Sassanid Empire under Shah Khosrow I intensified.

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

The more disappointing part however after Justinian I’s death was that his successors were not as capable as he was, and this included his nephew and immediate successor Justin II who without a clear solution but also having a weakened economy decided to stop paying tribute to the empire’s neighbors including the Sassanids which then made things only worse as seen when the Byzantines started losing a lot of lands to them. The mistake at the latter part of the 6th century however happened to be that the empire left behind by Justinian I was so large and defending so many borders proved to be so difficult that Justin II ended up turning insane that in 574 he had to abdicate passing the throne to his palace guard commander who then became Emperor Tiberius II who however proved to be a much more capable emperor than Justin II before him. Although Tiberius II was a competent emperor, he still could not solve all the empire’s problems at the same time so while he was busy continuing the war against the Sassanids in the east, the Balkans were left exposed therefore allowing the Avars and their Slav allies to invade it, while at the same time he too lacked enthusiasm in ruling.

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602)

After his death in 582, Tiberius II was succeeded by his general and son-in-law Maurice who was a far more competent emperor than his two predecessors, and as emperor Maurice set a new standard for emperors to personally lead the army in battle himself, therefore he spent most of his reign campaigning against the Sassanids in the east and against the Avars and Slavs in the Balkans. Although he was a capable general, Maurice was weak in economic policy but at least he still managed to solve the problem of having provinces very distant from Constantinople which were Italy and North Africa in which he made them semi-independent provinces known as Exarchates where their own rulers somewhat ruled independently except still answering to the emperor in Constantinople. Now, what I would say makes the 6th century a very fascinating one is that it had a lot of exciting moments especially in warfare as the Byzantines at this time were fighting a variety of enemies from the powerful organized armies of the Sassanids, to the barbarian kingdoms of Western Europe, and even the nomadic people of the steppes such as the Avars, Huns, and Bulgars while at the same time they also made contact with distant lands like China, and it was also a century of great cultural innovations especially seen with the ambitious projects of the Hagia Sophia and a lot of structures around the empire including the mosaics of Ravenna in Italy. Although the 6th century had a lot of moments that I find very exciting and dramatic, not all of it was, as this century also had a lot to do with religious controversies especially between the Orthodox, Arian, and Monophysite faiths and a lot about economics as well which I don’t find very fascinating, but overall the 6th century was still one with so much happening and drama which is why I consider it as my 3rd favorite.

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World Map, 555AD, Byzantium under Justinian I (purple)
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Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I with his generals Belisarius and Narses, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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The Hagia Sophia, built under Justinian I
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Massacre of the 30,000 at the Hippodrome ending the Nika Riot, 532
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The Plague of Justinian hits Constantinople, 542
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The Byzantine Empire in 600 (green) and Sassanid Empire (orange)

To learn more about Byzantium in the 6th century, read Chapter III of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

4. The 13th Century          

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Map of the aftermath of the Byzantine Empire after its fall to the 4th Crusade in 1204

Despite the 13th century being the century wherein the Byzantine Empire disappeared for half of it (1204-1261), I still count it as one of my favorites for a number of reasons. The 13th century was one of if not the most turbulent time for the empire and also the beginning of its end as when the century began, the terrible 4th Crusade that was aimed at the Byzantine Empire was launched which in 1204 managed to capture Constantinople itself, thus temporarily ending Byzantine rule establishing the new Latin Empire with Constantinople as its capital.

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Seal of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-1261)

Following the fall of Constantinople to the Latin (Western European) army of the 4th Crusade, the geography of what was once the Byzantine Empire totally changed as Constantinople and it surroundings fell under the Latin Empire, Greece fell under various Latin nobles from the west, Crete and a number of islands to the rule of the Republic of Venice, while the Byzantine people as well divided themselves once their capital fell thus creating their own separate states including the Despotate of Epirus in Western Greece, the Empire of Nicaea in Western Asia Minor, and the Empire of Trebizond along the Black Sea coast in the far eastern corner of Asia Minor. Among the 3 successor Byzantine states which were the Empires of Nicaea and Trebizond, as well as the Despotate of Epirus, it was the Empire of Nicaea that was the most successful of them, therefore it remained as the legitimate successor state of the Byzantine Empire, so basically the story of Byzantium for half of the 13th century was the story of the successor state of the Empire of Nicaea. What I find very fascinating about the 57-year period of the Byzantine Empire in exile as the Empire of Nicaea in the 13th century was that despite them being so fatally defeated that they even lost their capital to the Crusaders, the Byzantines still had it in them to rise up again and one day direct their attention to reclaim their capital. Even in its earliest days, the Empire of Nicaea under its first ruler Theodore I Laskaris from 1205 to his death in 1221 already came up with a clear plan to put the pieces back together and form a state strong enough to one day make an attempt to reclaim the old capital and doing this required a lot of hard work, alliances, and good timing.

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Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicaea/ Byzantium (r. 1222-1254)

The real success for the empire of Nicaea however came during the reign of John III Doukas Vatatzes (1222-1254), Theodore I’s successor and son-in-law and as the emperor of Nicaea, John III was able to make the exiled Byzantium as powerful as it was when the Byzantines still held Constantinople by turning the tide of war against Byzantium’s Latin occupiers as true enough the Latin Empire of Constantinople had turned out to be a failed state, also John III gave his people a time of peace and economic growth. John III in fact almost succeeded in recapturing Constantinople in 1235 with assistance from the 2nd Bulgarian Empire’s tsar Ivan Asen II but failed in doing so when mistrust erupted between them but also when seeing that they had no way to break into the walls. The rest of John III’s military campaigns were mostly successful especially against the rival Byzantine power of the Despotate of Epirus that he was able to successfully reclaim the city of Thessaloniki from them, but other than military campaigns John III invested heavily in promoting Greek culture in the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea that his reign would begin what would be the Greek cultural revival of Byzantium as well as the birth of the medieval Greek identity. Though John III ruled somewhat with an iron fist, he was also a well-loved ruler and that when he died in 1254, he was mourned by almost all his subjects, though the sad part about his death was that he was not able to live long enough to see Constantinople back in Byzantine hands. John III’s son and successor Theodore II Laskaris however only ruled for 4 years (1254-1258) and was not as successful as his father, while also did not prioritize the reconquest of Constantinople, although after his sudden death in 1258 the Empire of Nicaea was taken over by the ambitious noble and Theodore II’s greatest rival Michael Palaiologos who made his message clear to everyone which was to take back Constantinople from the Latins. The Empire of Nicaea’s army was then able to successfully recover Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 by surprise when attacking at the dead night, but to their surprise, most of the Latin army was away, therefore the Latin Empire came to an end and the Byzantine Empire was restored as Constantinople was recaptured. Now, again what makes the 13th century a fascinating one for me were the stories of the two strong emperors that dominated this century which were John III Vatatzes who ruled the exiled Empire of Nicaea for a full 32 years and Michael VIII Palaiologos who finally managed to recapture Constantinople in 1261 and restore the Byzantine Empire after 57 years of disappearance, and what both rulers had in common was that they persisted and made Byzantium persist despite the challenging times.

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

As for Michael VIII, despite restoring the Byzantine Empire, he faced so many difficulties immediately after taking back Constantinople. In Michael VIII’s 21-year reign (1261-1282), the restored Byzantium was threatened on all sides by various enemies including the Turks and Mongols, as well as the still surviving Latin powers in Greece established back in 1204 following the 4th Crusade and the rival Despotate of Epirus too that still continued to pose a threat to them even if the Empire of Nicaea became the Byzantine Empire again, although the most dangerous threat to Michael VIII’s restored empire was the new ambitious French king of Sicily Charles of Anjou who took over Sicily in 1266 and from there made it his goal to launch another invasion on Byzantium with the ultimate goal to take Constantinople back from the Latins. Now what makes Michael VIII an interesting character was that he was someone that would do all it took to save his empire especially through diplomacy even if there were dirty tactics involved such as turning against his allies and paying off people to rise up in rebellion known as the “Sicilian Vespers” which was in fact how he managed to get the ultimate threat of Charles of Anjou away from him as before Michael’s death in 1282, he paid off the people of Sicily to rebel against their French overlord Charles of Anjou which then succeeded in overthrowing the French overlords who were replaced by the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon, an ally of Michael VIII. On the other hand, Michael VIII’s may have ruled with an iron fist too much with very rash decisions such as his attempts to submit Byzantium to the pope in order to be allies with the rest of Western Europe, although this created such unrest among his proud Orthodox subjects which caused Michael to lose so much of his popularity.

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium

Michael VIII however responded with such brutality to all those that opposed his policy to reunite the Byzantine Church with the Latin Catholic Church that he imprisoned and even executed many of his subjects for opposing it, but at the end his intentions were still good which was to save his empire even if this would mean taking the greatest of risks such as submitting to the more powerful Latin Church despite great opposition by his people as he believed that it would be only by joining forces with their enemy being the western world that Byzantium could be saved. Basically for me, it is just John III’s and Michael VIII’s reigns that I find fascinating about the 13th century and the rest not so, though for me, the last years of the 13th century happen to be nothing more but disappointing as Michael VIII’s son and successor Andronikos II Palaiologos who ruled in the last years of the 13th century was a nothing much but a weak and incompetent emperor, although Michael VIII was in fact also to blame for leaving behind to his son such a troubled and bankrupt Byzantium, as in his reign Michael VIII had spent so much on war and bribing other powers to not attack while also by putting too much attention on the west and the Balkans, he neglected Byzantium’s borders in their heartland which was Asia Minor, therefore by the time Andronikos II came to power, he would have to face the consequences of his father’s decisions and over-spending. On the other hand, the 13th century was one of the periods in Byzantine history that I put a lot of attention to that I in fact made two major Lego films set in this era focusing on important events of the century and these films include Summer of 1261 (2019) focusing on the Byzantine reconquest of 1261 and War of the Sicilian Vespers (2020) focusing on the conflict in Sicily which the Byzantines assisted the Sicilians in overthrowing their French overlords in 1282.     

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Constantinople falls to the 4th Crusade, 1204
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Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, art by FaisalHashemi
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Map of the restored Byzantine Empire in 1261 (yellow)
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Rebellion of the Sicilian Vespers, 1282

5. The 11th Century              

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The Byzantine Empire at Basil II’s death in 1025 (white) with new annexed territories by 1055 (red)

The 11th century was no doubt one of the most action-packed centuries in Byzantine Empire which saw it be at its height of power when the century began then all of a sudden drastically fall from it, therefore the Crisis of the 11th Century comes in, although this century again ends with Byzantium strong again, therefore the 11th century is the one century which shows the usual pattern of Byzantium going up then down then up again in terms of power and influence.

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Emperor Basil II the “Bulgar-Slayer” (r. 976-1025)

The 11th century began with the Byzantine Empire under Emperor Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty as the dominant power of Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean in the Middle Ages and following the ultimate Byzantine conquest of the Bulgarian Empire in 1018, Byzantium and its army was feared by all that no one would dare attack Byzantium or else suffer the same fate as Bulgaria. The period of great power and influence Byzantium had held over the world however did not last long as after Basil II’s death in 1025 it would be all downhill from here despite Byzantium still being a massive empire that covered the entire Balkans going east all the way to Armenia while in the west still keeping most of Southern Italy. The downfall of Byzantium following Basil II’s death in 1025 was also due to how large the empire stretched making it already impossible to maintain a large enough army to defend all its borders although things still would have been better even if Byzantium held a large amount of territory if they had better leaders in the 11th century, but unfortunately the Byzantines did not. Most of the emperors that succeeded Basil II were weak rulers that tolerated having a corrupt court run by scheming eunuchs while a number of ambitious generals from powerful military aristocratic families many times rebelled and tried to claim the throne. Now while corruption reigned in mid-11th century Byzantium and so did economic problems that for the first time in their 700 years of history their standard gold coin or the Solidus was devalued, new and unexpected enemies came into contact with the Byzantines and these included the Normans in Italy which were just mercenaries that the Byzantines happened to underestimate as true enough it turned out they were there in Italy to stay and conquer it while in the east, a new power arose which the Byzantines never saw coming and this was the empire of the Seljuk Turks who the Byzantines first battled with in 1048 although still defeating the Seljuks.

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Seljuk Turks ride from the steppes into Asia Minor

In 1056, the long-ruling Macedonian Dynasty came to an end with the death of the last Macedonian ruler Theodora, the niece of Basil II and what followed her death was some political instability until 1057 when the strongman emperor Isaac I Komnenos came to rule the empire promising to return it to its military glory in the time of Basil II, although Isaac I’s reign ended too soon as he abdicated in 1059 due to illness leaving the throne to an unworthy successor which was Constantine X Doukas who made the worst decision ever in disbanding the eastern army to save up on funds right when the Seljuks were threatening Byzantium’s eastern borders. After Constantine X’s death in 1067, his wife Empress Eudokia married the capable general Romanos Diogenes who in 1068 became Emperor Romanos IV right when the Seljuks made constant riads into the Byzantine heartland which was Asia Minor without orders from their leader the sultan Alp Arslan. In 1071, Romanos IV tired of the Seljuks raiding the empire declared war on them even if their sultan Alp Arslan’s intention was never to really fully invade Byzantium but just take a part of it in order to gain access to conquer his ultimate goal which was Egypt.

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Defeat and capture of Romanos IV by the Seljuks, 1071

The forces of Romanos IV and Alp Arslan clashed at the fatal Battle of Manzikert in 1071 in which Romanos IV was defeated and captured although spared but when returning to Constantinople, he was betrayed as the imperial court declared him deposed therefore replacing him with his stepson Michael VII Doukas. Romanos IV was then blinded in 1072 dying shortly after although the next emperor Michael VII proved to be a very incompetent one, and due to his weak leadership, a number of ambitious generals rose up to claim the throne and with all this chaos, Norman mercenaries turned warlords created their own states in Byzantine Asia Minor itself while the Seljuks due to their victory at Manzikert freely raided and occupied lands in Byzantine Asia Minor. Michael VII eventually abdicated in 1078 and was replaced by Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates who was in fact much worse as due to his old age, he could not really do anything to save the empire from deteriorating that almost all of Asia Minor already fell under Seljuk rule, though in 1081 Nikephoros III was ousted from power by the much young and ambitious general Alexios Komnenos, nephew of the previous emperor Isaac I, and as emperor Alexios I promised to restore the empire to its greatness once more.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)

Alexios I began his reign fighting off a Norman invasion finally defeating it by 1085, then in 1091 he defeated a massive Pecheneg invasion. The 11th century ends with Alexios I calling for military assistance from Western Europe to help him reclaim Asia Minor from the Seljuks, but in return he got the First Crusade which was never really loyal to him, though at the end despite the Crusaders claiming for themselves lands in the Middle East, they at least pushed back the Seljuks relieving Alexios I and Byzantium from its ultimate extinction. Now, I would say that the 11th century featured so many events that were not only crucial for Byzantium but for world history in general such as the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria in 1018 and the significant defeat the Byzantine army faced at Manzikert which then turns out to be the most significant turning point of this century, as this defeat exposed that the once feared and all-powerful Byzantine army was in fact vulnerable, but this defeat that also led to the Seljuk occupation of Asia Minor more importantly led to the Crusades to become a thing which would be the major story for the next 2 centuries in world history. It is because this century had such crucial events such as the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and the Great Schism before that in 1054 which finally separated Byzantium from the west culturally and spiritually that I find this century very fascinating, but also because it featured a lot of epic battles and the famous Varangian Guard consisting of Nordic mercenaries serving in Byzantium protecting its emperor. On the other hand, unlike the 10th century that preceded it, the 11th century was not all action-packed and memorable every step of the way, but instead had a number of exciting yet suspenseful moments such as of course Manzikert and a lot of other battles before it but it also had its share of disappointing moments especially its repetitive cycle of having one incompetent emperor after the other wherein one able emperor comes in between them but does not stay too long, while this century also featured a lot of economics and religious struggles again which makes it have some not so interesting parts for me. The 11th century however was one of the few centuries in Byzantine history that was action-packed from beginning to end despite a few dull and disappointing moments in between, which why I still consider it one of the more purely fascinating ones in Byzantine history but still not one of my plainly most fascinating ones.

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Empresses Zoe (left) and Theodora (right) in the palace, art by Eldr-Fire
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Painting of the fateful Battle of Manzikert between the Byzantines and Seljuks, 1071
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Map of the expansion of the Seljuk Turks and their empire (yellow), in the 11th century
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The First Crusade, 1095-1099
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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, art by Diogos_tales

To learn more about Byzantium in the 11th century, read Chapter VIII of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

 

6. The 4th Century               

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Map of the Roman Empire under Constantine I, 330

The 4th century is considered to be the first century in the history of Byzantium as this was when Constantinople was founded as the Roman Empire’s new capital by the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great, however the real history of the Eastern Roman Empire being the Byzantine Empire only begins in 395 where the 4th century ends, therefore the rest of the 4th century more or less is just the introduction period to the actual main body of Byzantine history that fully begins in the 5th century following it. Although since the 4th century still counts as part of Byzantine history basically because this was when Constantinople was founded and had become the new capital of the Roman Empire, I am putting it on this list. Now the 4th century as I would say was more or less a very eventful one filled with exciting, action-packed, and even dramatic moments which then makes it for me a very fascinating one, although I am only placing it on #6 of this list because as I mentioned earlier it is not really part of the main history of Byzantium and therefore still more or less part of the history of the original Roman Empire before Byzantium, but also because for some reason the history of the 4th century has many gaps as it is only the important events here that are mostly recorded, therefore I cannot appreciate it as much as the other centuries. From beginning to end, the 4th century had a lot of significant moments as when the century began, the Roman Empire was still under the experiment known as the Tetrarchy with 4 divided parts ruled by 4 different emperors which seemed to do well until 305 when this system’s founder Emperor Diocletian retired, therefore creating chaos leading into civil war as a result of the other rulers of this system wanting more land and power.

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Roman emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), founder of Constantinople

The empire was then thrown into chaos until one of the rulers of the Tetrarchy which was the western emperor Constantine I defeated all his rivals over the span of 18 years (306-324), and by 324 after fighting an on-and-off civil war against all his imperial rivals in the western and eastern portions of the empire, he became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire deciding to turn the backwater port town of Byzantium along the Bosporus Sea between Asia and Europe as the Roman Empire’s new capital seeing it as a strategic location, and in only 6 years the small port town was transformed into an imperial capital which was inaugurated in 330. Constantine I known as “the Great” of course had made a lot more of achievements than founding Constantinople and therefore the Byzantine Empire and restructuring the Roman army, and a lot of his major achievements had to do with making Christianity the dominant but not official religion of the Roman Empire as in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan that finally gave toleration to Christians after centuries of persecution, then in 325 Constantine I organized the First Church Council at Nicaea that formally set the official doctrine for Christianity and condemned the teachings of Arianism as heresy, though it was only shortly before his death 337 that Constantine I was baptized as a Christian.

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Council of Nicaea, 325

Although Constantine I ruled the entire Roman Empire alone, after his death the empire was divided among his 3 sons that were basically all at odds with each other and at the end, only the middle son Constantius II ruling from Constantinople survived his two brothers therefore ruling the whole empire alone until his death in 361 and without any son to succeed him, Constantius II passed the throne to his younger cousin Julian despite not trusting him. Julian’s 2-year reign (361-363) was one of the most interesting moments of the 4th century as he was the last Roman emperor willing to return to the glory days of Ancient Pagan Rome that he in fact was a Pagan himself although he did not rule long enough to achieve his goal to return the empire to its glory days of the past as in 363, he was killed in battle against the Sassanid Persian Empire while campaigning in the Sassanid heartland itself.

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Emperor Julian (r. 361-363), art by Amelianvs

The Roman army however survived and returned to empire and in 364, a new emperor came to power establishing a new dynasty which was the soldier Valentinian I who when coming to power split the empire in half with him ruling the western half and his younger brother Valens ruling the eastern half from Constantinople. Valentinian I the Great ruled successfully managing to defeat a number of barbarian tribes invading the western half but in 375 he died from a burst blood vessel caused by his own anger while failing to negotiate with barbarian tribal leaders at the empire’s Danube border. Meanwhile, the eastern half of the Roman Empire ruled by Valens, a sudden massive migration of barbarian Goths poured into the eastern half’s Danube border in 376 which later proved to be too uncontrollable by Roman authorities in the Balkans leading to war against the Goths resulting in the Roman army defeated by the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 wherein Valens himself was killed. The death of Valens and the victory of the Goths put the eastern half of the empire into chaos without any emperor sitting in Constantinople until the next year came when the general Theodosius came to power as the Eastern Roman emperor and in his reign, he focused on containing the pillaging Goths which he succeeded in except that he was only able to take care of the problem only by allowing the Goths to settle within the empire as Foederati or defeated soldiers forced to serve their conquerors in exchange for being kept alive.

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Emperor Theodosius I the Great (r. 379-395)

As emperor, Theodosius I known as “the Great” being a devout Christian prioritized making Christianity the empire’s dominant religion and true enough in 380 he declared Nicene Christianity which was established back in 325 as the official religion of the Roman Empire and began persecuting those who opposed it. Theodosius I too had dealt with two large civil wars in his reign in which he managed to defeat both and after defeating the second one in 394, he became once more the sole ruler of the whole Roman empire except only for a few months as in early 395 he died permanently dividing the empire in half leaving his older son Arcadius to rule the eastern half which was the Byzantine Empire and the younger son Honorius to rule the western half. Now, the 4th century more or less was full of exciting and memorable moments in different fields especially in warfare as it featured important and climactic battles whether in Roman civil wars such as the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 and Frigidus in 394 or in battles against barbarians such as Strasbourg in 357 and Adrianople in 378 while at the same time, it was a very crucial period especially for the history of Christianity as this was when it first became both a dominant faith and an official state religion. Although, the 4th century had a lot of important and exciting moments, it was only known for major moments and nothing much in between which is why I place it as #6 on this list which is in fact not very low, but even though this century may just be one notable for important events, it was still a very crucial one in world history as it saw the transition of what was Classical Ancient Rome into the Byzantine era as well as the era of Christendom, therefore I would say that this century would be most fascinating to Roman history enthusiasts, especially if they want to be introduced to Ancient Rome’s continuation which is Byzantium.

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Constantinople, Eastern Roman Imperial capital, founded in 330
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Constantine I civil war victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, 312
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The Roman Empire divided among Constantine I’s sons Constantine II, Constans I, and Constantius II following Constantine I’s death, 337
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Emperor Valentinian I (r. 364-375, center) with his Palatini legions, art by Amelianvs
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Defeat of the Romans to the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople, 378
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The Roman Empire divided between east (purple) given to Arcadius and west (red) given to Honorius at Theodosius I’s death in 395
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Map of all Barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire, 100-500AD

To learn more about Byzantium in the 4th century, read Chapter I of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

7. The 12th Century         

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (red) during the reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180)

The 12th century is often remembered as the century of the Crusades wherein Byzantium did in fact play a major role in it, as true enough before the century began the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos requested military aid from Western Europe to help him drive away the Seljuk Turk occupiers from the Byzantine heartland Asia Minor but in return what he got was the First Crusade.

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

The Crusader army that came to aid Byzantium may have not kept their word in returning the lands they conquered to Byzantium and instead claimed these lands as their own but in return the Byzantines simply allow this to pass, therefore the 12th century was another period of Byzantium’s revival while also a challenging time as the empire had to battle different enemies on sides such as the Crusaders, Seljuks, Normans, and Hungarians. Most of the 12th century was then defined by what was the “Komnenian Restoration” which was a period of the Byzantine Empire’s revival in military and cultural power after it had lost most of it in the previous century due to the 11th century crisis and the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert in 1071, and most of the efforts to restore the empire to the old glory it had during the late 10th century and early 11th century were due to the reigns of 3 consecutive long-reigning strong visionary emperors in a straight line of succession which were Alexios I (1081-1118), his son John II (1118-1143), and his son Manuel I (1143-1180). These 3 Komnenos emperors may have had a strong vision to restore the empire, although their policies to revive the empire’s glory were a bit too ambitious, required so much funds, but also involved bullying other nations to submit to the authority of Byzantium as was seen with the new Crusader states in which these emperors demanded a lot from them including forcing them to pay tribute and to recognize Byzantium as their overlords, while the same thing too can be said to how the Komnenos emperors acted towards the Kingdom of Hungary. In the Byzantine Empire itself, the 3 long-reigning Komnenos emperors did in fact do a lot to restore the invincible power of the Byzantine army, strengthen the economy, and reclaim most of Asia Minor which was in the previous century lost to the Seljuks.

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Emperor John II Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1118-1143)

Alexios I’s son and successor John II mostly spent his 25-year reign away from the capital in military campaigns against Hungary in the Balkans and the Seljuks in Asia Minor, although his reign also saw the new age of revival for the empire take shape. John II’s son Manuel I meanwhile did the same ambitious projects as his father and grandfather did before him, except that he was far more ambitious that his constant wars throughout his 37-year reign drained the empire’s funds. Manuel I just like Justinian I in the 6th century put all his attention to restoring the empire and again reconquering the west which they have lost which in his reign was seen with his attempt to reconquer Italy which however failed.

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

Manuel I’s over ambitious campaigns and spending would also later on cause the downfall of the empire and therefore the end of the Komnenian restoration and part of the reasons that caused the downfall of his dynasty and of the empire was his decision to have war with their ally Venice which then only made Byzantium and Venice bitter enemies for the next centuries to come, while at the same time Manuel I was also too fascinated with the culture of Western Europe that he even tried introducing it to Byzantine society which at the end did not work out well, therefore only causing division among his people. The most disappointing part however was that in 1176, the Byzantines again suffered a heavy defeat to the Seljuk army in Asia Minor therefore ending this age of restoration, thus Manuel I in 1180 died without seeing his dreams achieved but the worst part that was to come was that his son and successor Alexios II was only a child therefore under the regency of his mother Empress Maria of Antioch who was unpopular due to her western heritage that her regency caused internal conflict in the empire which resulted in the empress and her son the emperor overthrown and executed by Manuel I’s anti-western cousin who became Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos.

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Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1183-1185), art by Skamandros

The new emperor Andronikos I turned out to be nothing but a bloody and paranoid ruler that just ruled out revenge executing, torturing, and exiling everyone who was associated with the previous regime of his cousin Manuel I who he hated, but at the end Andronikos I too had met a bloody end in 1185 being tortured to death by the people that put him in power 3 years earlier as they switched their support to his relative, the young charismatic politician Isaac Angelos who then became emperor following this revolution. The new emperor Isaac II Angelos however was not what his people expected as rather than being the strong ruler promising to save the empire from collapse, he was one ruler that again faced so many difficulties on all sides especially usurping generals that questioned his legitimacy as they too saw he was unfit.

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Emperor Isaac II Angelos of Byzantium (r. 1185-1195/ 1203-1204)

Isaac II however still had still managed to drive off a large Norman invasion of Byzantine Greece in 1185 but unfortunately this was only one of his few successes as the rest of his reign was filled with disaster and some of it caused by his own inept policies such as the Bulgarian uprising of 1185 that led to the breaking away of Bulgaria from Byzantium once again thus creating the 2nd Bulgarian Empire which was mostly due to Isaac II’s heavy taxation allegedly to pay for his lavish wedding ceremony while he too dealt with the arrival of the 3rd Crusade in Byzantium terribly by being skeptical about letting them through which at the end did not solve anything but instead only led to conflict with the Crusaders. Isaac II however at least knew he was responsible for creating such trouble including the Bulgarians’ declaration of independence that Isaac II in fact made many attempts to take back Bulgaria with force which however failed many times, but when finally launching a massive invasion to finally reclaim Bulgaria in 1195, Isaac II unfortunately did not succeed as he was overthrown and blinded by his jealous older brother who then became the next emperor Alexios III Angelos who proved to be even more incompetent than his brother, thus putting Byzantium down a path that will lead to its temporary collapse in 1204 when Constantinople was captured by the Crusaders. Now, I would say that the 12th century was in fact a very eventful and exciting one though I still do not consider it as one of my top picks as for me it is really a mixed century with equally fascinating but also equally disappointing moments. The part I find interesting and worth talking about for the 12th century is definitely the earlier part of it with the empire undergoing a time of restoration under the rules of the 3 ambitious and competent Komnenos emperors Alexios I, John II, and Manuel I, while the second half for me is nothing more but disappointing especially to see all the greatness of the empire fade away through a series of incompetent rulers including Andronikos I, Isaac II, and Alexios III. It is basically for the reason that this century that was supposed to be defined by the age of the restoration of Byzantium’s imperial glory ended so disappointingly why I don’t count this century as one of my favorites, but since it was one that had a lot of excitement including battles, political intrigues, and most importantly more significant contact made between Byzantium and the western world mostly because of the Crusades, this century is still something that fascinates me a lot when talking about the entire history of Byzantium in general.

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Byzantine defeat to the Seljuks at the Battle of Myriokephalon, 1176
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Isaac II Angelos’ rise to power, 1185

8. The 15th Century          

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Map of the reduced Byzantine Empire in 1450 (purple)

The 15th century being the last century of the Byzantine Empire’s existence is best defined by one event which was the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 with the epic siege of Constantinople, so basically the 15th century story of Byzantium was only half a century as in the second half of it, the Byzantine Empire was already gone. Now, I would say that the 15th century was very exciting and eventful in different parts of the world as by this point the kingdoms of Europe were already much more powerful than they were in the past centuries but for Byzantium it was the other way around as instead of the major power it was when the rest of Europe was still forming, Byzantium was now the one weak and reduced and by the time the 15th century began, Byzantium was basically just Constantinople and its surroundings as well as a few Aegean islands and the region of Southeast Greece known as the Morea.

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Flag of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century

In the region of where the Byzantine Empire was however, the main story was no longer Byzantium but the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe that already sent shockwaves to the kingdoms of Western Europe to fight them back considering that the Ottomans from being a small power just a century ago was able to defeat and conquer both Serbian and Bulgarian Empires. The reduced and dying Byzantine Empire meanwhile in the 15th century was just a backwater state entirely surrounded by the Ottomans that it was only going to be a matter of time that the capital Constantinople itself would be captured by the Ottomans therefore finishing off Byzantium for good.

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Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) with his family

Fortunately the last emperors that ruled Byzantium in the 15th century which were Manuel II Palaiologos (1391-1425) and his son John VIII Palaiologos (1425-1448) were competent rulers that still managed to keep the Ottomans away and still keep their dying empire alive and a lot of their success in keeping Byzantium alive despite being surrounded by the Ottomans was through diplomacy and true enough both Manuel II and John VIII made several trips to Europe asking for financial aid and alliances from various rulers there. John VIII in 1448 however died without any sons to succeed him and so it was his younger brother that succeeded him as Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos in 1449 who was then the last Byzantine emperor.

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

In 1451, just 2 years after Constantine XI came to power, the young Mehmed II came to power as the Ottoman Empire’s sultan and he had the ultimate goal to begin his reign by conquering Constantinople to get it out of the way in order to push through with the complete Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. In 1453, Mehmed II thought of asking Constantine XI to simply surrender Constantinople to him without a fight so that the Ottomans could already take their ultimate prize in exchange for Constantine XI to be spared, but Constantine XI not wanting to shamefully surrender his city refused and so the Ottomans laid siege to Constantinople which lasted for 2 months. The Byzantines and their western allies defending the walls however fought bravely and resisted for 2 months strait but at the end they proved to be outnumbered and the Ottomans having more advanced weapons such as cannons were finally able to break through the 1,000-year-old walls of Constantinople for the first time and on May 29 of 1453, the last Byzantine emperor vanished in battle while the victorious Ottomans took over Constantinople making it their empire’s new capital, thus ending the 1,123-year history of Byzantium.

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Ottoman sultan Mehmed II captures Constantinople, 1453

On the other hand, Byzantine history did not yet fully end in 1453 as the other parts of the empire still under Byzantine hands resisted but in 1460 Mehmed II was able to capture the last Byzantine holding in Greece which was the Morea held by Constantine XI’s brothers and in 1461 Mehmed II too conquered the last remaining Byzantine break-away state which was the Empire of Trebizond founded back in 1204 in the eastern edge of Asia Minor along the Black Sea, thus this event in 1461 marked the final end of the Byzantine story. Now I would say that the 15th century was a very action-packed one with all the battles with the Ottomans but also a very tragic one considering it was the end of Byzantium and true enough the siege and fall of Constantinople was no doubt this century’s biggest story and one of my all-time favorite moments in Byzantine history as it showed the Byzantine Empire not ending quietly but with a bang. However, it is only the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 that I consider the only major highlight of the century while the rest of the events were not as memorable for me especially seeing how the Byzantine Empire grew to be so insignificant, therefore with nothing else but 1453 being its major highlight, I would not consider the 15th century or more specifically the last century of Byzantium as one of my top picks when ranking all 12 centuries in Byzantine history.

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1453, the final siege of Constantinople
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Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, May 29, 1453

9. The 9th Century           

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Byzantine Empire in the 2nd half of the 9th century (yellow)

If I there was one century in Byzantine history that may have had a lot of important as well as exciting moments but with equally dull and uninteresting moments, it is the 9th century. First of all, I would say the 9th century had a lot of important moments and highlights worth remembering and a lot of them involved Byzantium’s interactions with the rest of the world around them such as the proposed marriage between Byzantium’s empress Irene and the newly crowned Frankish emperor of the west Charlemagne in 802 which never happened, the crushing defeat the Byzantines suffered to their northern neighbor the Bulgarian Empire in 811 at the Battle of Pliska wherein the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I himself was killed in, the Bulgarian war that followed, the fall of Byzantine Crete and Sicily to the Arabs, continued wars against the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, the first attacks of the Kievan Rus on Byzantium, and the beginnings of the Byzantine Renaissance as well as its cultural and military revival at the latter part of the century. The first half of the 9th century basically saw Byzantium at a low point still in its Dark Ages having to defend itself both against the Arabs in the east and the Bulgarians in the north while within the empire the controversy of Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons still lived on.

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Emperor Theophilos, Byzantine emperor (r. 829-842)

It is only as the 9th century progresses when the Byzantine story gets more interesting which is when Michael II becomes emperor in 820 after assassinating his predecessor Leo V thus founding the Amorian Dynasty, while in the reign of his son and successor Theophilos (829-842) the Byzantine cultural Renaissance was already taking shape and despite losing heavily to the invading Arabs in battle, Theophilos invested a lot of money into making Constantinople a cultural and educational center. Things then get even more action-packed in the latter part of the century under Theophilos’ son and successor Michael III (842-867) and even though he was ineffective as an emperor, a lot had happened in his rule such as the final end of the Iconoclast controversy in 843, the mission of St. Cyril and St. Methodius to convert the people of Eastern Europe to Orthodox Christianity which was organized by the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios I, the Kievan Rus’ first attack on Byzantine territory in 860, the conversion of Bulgaria to Orthodoxy, and the rise to power of the unlikely peasant and wrestler Basil the Macedonian who after becoming close to Michael III killed him in 867 and became the new emperor Basil I establishing the long-lived Macedonian Dynasty that survived until the 11th century.

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

The reign of Basil I (867-886) saw Byzantium once again rise up to become a strong military power as well as a cultural one, therefore laying the foundations for the actual Byzantine golden age in the following century. Now the reason why I am putting the 9th century far down on this list ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantium compared to the 10th century that followed it which is my personal best being #1 on this list is because the 9th century compared to the 10th that followed was definitely not action-packed every step of the way but it had a lot of exciting and memorable moments too. These memorable moments though that the 9th century had to offer mostly had to do with its relations with other powers such as the Bulgarians, Rus, Arabs, and the west and true enough a lot of important moments took place in this century that are worth telling regarded Byzantium’s foreign relations and these included the mission of St. Cyril and Methodius which has a more intriguing angle to it as their mission was not plainly one for spirituality but politics as this was a cold war situation wherein Byzantium competed against the Western Catholic Church to see who would convert the still Pagan people of Eastern Europe first, and at the end the Byzantines won it.

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

The battles against the Bulgarians were exciting moments as well as already at the beginning of the century Byzantium was already engaged in war with them while the century also ended with Byzantium again at war with Bulgaria in which Bulgaria was much more powerful under its greatest ruler Tsar Simeon, while also the conflicts between Byzantium and the Arabs had a lot more excitement here as it was in this century when the Byzantines first turned the tide of war against the Arabs to the offensive when for the first time the Byzantine army in the 860s did not just fight to defend its borders from Arab raiders but in fact raided deep into Arab territory. On the other hand, it is only in the external situation that makes the 9th century exciting for me as internally, the Byzantine story was not very much exciting as a lot of the stories here had to do with complicated court politics and religious issues, although the internal issues of this century only gets more exciting in the latter part of century such as Basil I’s rise to power and the questionable parentage of his son the future emperor Leo VI who came to power in 886 as it is still debated whether he is actually Basil I’s son or the previous emperor Michael III’s. For me, the 9th century had more not so exciting if not dull moments compared to its more exciting and dramatic moments which is why I do not consider it as one of my favorite centuries, but other than that I still find the 9th century a period that has a lot of interest for me as the 9th century set the stage for the Byzantine Renaissance including its military and cultural golden age that took place in the following century which is my all-time favorite of the 12 centuries in Byzantine history.

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Aftermath of the Battle of Pliska in 811, Khan Krum of Bulgaria uses Emperor Nikephoros I’s skull as his drinking cup
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Michael III (right, in blue) makes Basil the Macedonian (left, in red) his co-emperor, Madrid Skylitzes

To learn more about Byzantium in the 9th century, read Chapter VI of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

10. The 7th Century          

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II

The 7th century was definitely a major turning point for the Byzantine Empire as this was the end of the old Roman era and the beginning of their Dark Ages, and a lot of this had to do with the final defeat of their traditional eastern enemy the Sassanid Persian Empire and the unexpected rise of a new power which were the Arabs that in such a quick amount of time took over the entire Middle East as well as half of the Byzantine Empire’s territory. The 7th century is often described as a dark time for Byzantium and was already dark right when this century began when in 602 the emperor Maurice was executed by the usurper Phocas thus ending the great Justinian Dynasty and the age of Antiquity in general and beginning what would be the Dark Ages. The execution of Maurice and Phocas seizing the throne led to war breaking out with the Sassanid Empire in the east as its ruler or shah Khosrow II was an ally of Maurice although he also had the ambition to invade Byzantium and using the execution of Maurice as an excuse, Khosrow II declared war on the Byzantines.

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Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), art by Skamandros

Phocas however was overthrown and executed by Heraclius in 610 who became the emperor and as emperor he turned all his attention to fighting off the Sassanids and finishing them off for good whereas the Sassanids too had gained the upper hand and invaded a large percent of Byzantine territory including Syria, Egypt, and even laying siege to Constantinople in 626 with the help of the Avars and Slavs who at the same time were also invading the Byzantine Balkans. Heraclius at the end managed to defeat the Sassanids in 628 and reclaim all Byzantine territories lost to them but despite his victory, a large percent of the army was destroyed and the imperial treasury emptied out from the war, therefore meaning that another war would mean the end of Byzantium. True enough, just right after the war with the Sassanids came to an end, just some years later a new unexpected power arose and expanded with such speed with nothing to stop it, and these were the Arabs in the form of their first empire which was the Rashidun Caliphate and their invincibility was already shown when defeating the Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 and defeating the Sassanids too that same year. Following the ultimate defeat of the weakened Byzantine army to the Arabs in 636, the Byzantines in the next few years lost all of their territories in the Middle East including the important cities of Antioch and Jerusalem, thus Heraclius died in 641 seeing everything he restored to the empire fall apart due to the Arab conquests.

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Emperor Constans II of Byzantium (r. 641-668), art by myself

Heraclius’ reign was followed by that of his grandson Constans II (641-668) who in his reign saw all of Egypt fully fall to the control of the Arabs as well as the first Arab naval attacks and raids deep into imperial territory in the east. Though coming to power only as a minor, Constans II would later on prove to be a decisive ruler that held the empire together in such a challenging time and he had also created the new Thematic System or Themes thus restructuring the old Byzantine provinces into smaller ones run by the army in order to strengthen its defenses against the constantly raiding Arabs. Constans II although saw that Constantinople was in a dangerous position as it was vulnerable to the naval attacks of the Arabs and so he decided that the capital should be moved to Syracuse in Sicily where he even set himself up from 663 to 668 thinking that if the east would fall, he could rebuild Byzantium in the west but his plans never came to happen as he was assassinated in his bath in Syracuse in 668. Following Constans II’s death, he was succeeded by his son Constantine IV who despite being still young was a successful ruler and from 674 to 678 successfully defended Constantinople from its first siege by the Arab armies with the use of the new superweapon of Greek Fire.

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

It also happened in the late 7th century in 680 wherein the Bulgarians first appeared and settled in Byzantine lands forming their state and Constantine IV despite his success against the Arabs failed to contain the Bulgar raiders. Following Constantine IV’s death in 685 he was succeeded by his son Justinian II who although had the intention to revive the old glory of Byzantium and defeat all its enemies was too ambitious that his constant fighting off wars led to empire being further weakened while he too had a very oppressive ruling style which led to his downfall in 695 where he was overthrown by the senate, army, and people wherein his nose was cut off and therefore sent into exile afterwards. The 7th century then ended terribly for the Byzantines as the overthrow of Justinian II in 695 threw the empire into anarchy which would see a change of emperor 7 times in the course of 22 years and in this time, the Byzantines too suffered the great loss of losing their last territory in North Africa which was Carthage to the Arabs in 698.

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Emperor Justinian II (r. 685-695/ 705-711), art by Amelianvs

Now, it is no doubt that the 7th century was a very crucial turning point in Byzantine history considering the fall of its old enemy being the Sassanids and the rise of a new one which were the Arabs, the creation of the Thematic System, the invention of Greek Fire, and countless wars everywhere which makes it a very eventful and exciting one. The 7th century for me no doubt had a lot of exciting moments worth remembering and a lot of it had to do with wars such as the full-scale Byzantine-Sassanid War from 602 to 628, the conflict with the Arabs, and the sieges of Constantinople first in 626 by the Sassanids with their Avar and Slav allies and from 674 to 678 by the Arabs, therefore this century is something that would interest war enthusiasts. At the same time, the rulers of this century which was mainly the Heraclian Dynasty being the emperors Heraclius (610-641), Constans II (641-668), Constantine IV (668-685), and Justinian II (685-695) were very interesting and colorful characters as well. The downside of this century however was that everything usually seemed so one-sided which was mostly because it had so much wars from beginning to end that the history of this century would in fact go from exciting to becoming already too tiring and repetitive in story. What makes this century less interesting too aside from that it did not have much to tell except wars, and if not wars its other stories had a lot to do with abstract religious debates such as the controversial new Monothelite doctrine that Heraclius and Constans II supported but was finally declared a heresy by Constantine IV. What makes the 7th century a bit too one dimensional as well was that there were no other interesting characters except for its emperors who were all strong military men, therefore no other interesting stories such as cultural innovations and ambitious women except for Heraclius’ wife Empress Martina who however only had a very brief role in this century at the time of Heraclius’ death in 641. If not for the exciting battles and new inventions like Greek Fire and Thematic System, the 7th century story of Byzantium is more or less disappointing considering how much territory they had lost including half of it which fell to the Arabs, most of the Balkans which fell to the Avars and Slavs and later on the Bulgarians, most of Italy to the Lombards, and all of Byzantine Southern Spain to the Visigoth Kingdom. Despite all the disappointing moments and one-dimensional kind of story that defined the 7th century, I still find it fascinating as it was a major turning point in their history but I would consider it as one of my least favorites for the reason that it did not have much stories to tell except of warfare.

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Greatest extent of the Sassanid Empire (orange) under Khosrow II, by 622
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Defeat of the Byzantine forces (left) to the Arabs (right) at the Battle of Yarmouk, 636
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Byzantine and Arab fleets clash with each other at the Battle of the Masts, 655
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Greek Fire used for the first time at the 674-678 Arab Siege of Constantinople

To learn more about Byzantium in the 7th century, read Chapter IV of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

11. The 14th Century

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Byzantium in 1350 (blue)

The 14th century which is the 2nd to the last century of Byzantium’s existence was no doubt one of its most disappointing ones especially considering how reduced and weakened the Byzantine Empire became due to the damage of the 4th Crusade in the previous century and even though the empire was restored in 1261 by Michael VIII Palaiologos, it was already too late for Byzantium to become a world power again. The 14th century is often the overlooked century in Byzantine history which many history books only make a very quick mention of or if not do mention the century as if it did not exist and true enough it is overlooked for many reasons, thus making this century be known as the “forgotten century”.

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Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1282-1328)

First of all, the 14th century already began terribly for Byzantium as during the reign of Andronikos II Palaiologos when the century began, the empire was close to bankruptcy due to the great amounts of money his father Michael VIII spent in his reign (1261-1282), therefore without much funds the army had to be disbanded but it had happened in such a bad time as a new enemy rose up in Asia Minor which were the Ottomans that may have started out only as a small power in Asia Minor but after winning a number of victories in Asia Minor, they soon enough kept expanding. The reign of Andronikos II was also a very disastrous one due to a major mistake of hiring an unruly band of Catalan mercenaries in 1302 to strike back at the Ottomans which only ended in failure when the Catalans turned on the Byzantines due to lack of pay and as a result of it pillaged Byzantine lands in Thrace and Macedonia burning it to the point of turning it into a desert. The incompetence of Andronikos II’s rule would lead to his downfall as in 1321 his grandson also named Andronikos rose up in rebellion and in 1328 succeeded in overthrowing his grandfather following a 7-year civil war.

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Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1328-1341)

In his reign, the new emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328-1341) vowed to revive the Byzantine Empire and make it at least a significant power in the Balkan region again and so he spent most of his reign in military campaigns which however had mixed results as most of Greece including the rebel Byzantine states of Epirus and Thessaly were returned to Byzantium through Andronikos III’s conquests although he failed when battling the new power of the Ottomans in Asia Minor, thus proving that the Ottomans were now growing far too powerful. Andronikos III at least succeeded in making Byzantium a power in the Balkans but he died too soon in 1341 before seeing his dreams fully achieved, therefore it would be all downhill after his death. The following years after 1341 would be the worst for Byzantium as Andronikos III’s lack of a succession plan led to a civil war between the faction of his young son Emperor John V Palaiologos led by his mother the empress Anna of Savoy who was the late emperor’s wife and Andronikos III’s closest friend and advisor the general John Kantakouzenos.

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Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Byzantium (r. 1347-1354)

The civil war ended in 1347 with John Kantakouzenos victorious therefore being crowned as Emperor John VI but this civil war was nothing more but devastating that it totally bankrupted the empire while both sides getting foreign alliances only allowed these foreign powers to take over land such as the Serbian Kingdom of King Stefan IV Dusan which as a result of the civil war took over most of Byzantine Greece and became the Serbian Empire while the Ottomans that backed John VI here finally gained their first territories in Europe as a reward for helping John VI win the war. The other tragedy that further struck Byzantium too was the plague of Black Death in 1347 which further weakened the empire and its economy. The rest of the century too featured more civil wars such as the one in 1354 wherein John V came back to power overthrowing John VI and later on in John V’s reign again, he had to fight a civil war against his son Emperor Andronikos IV in 1373.

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Emperor John V Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1341-1391)

A large part of the 14th century saw Byzantium under the rule of John V Palaiologos from 1341 to his death in 1391 but with many gaps between his reign as he was removed from power 3 times and although he was not blind to the difficulties his empire was facing, he was ineffective in solving them. The 14th century then ended with the Byzantine Empire reduced only to Constantinople and its surroundings which were all surrounded by the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire while other the Byzantine territories they still held such as Thessaloniki, the Morea in Southeast Greece, and the Aegean islands were disconnected by land to the capital. Now the Byzantine story of the 14th century is nothing more but disappointing as the more exciting stories of this century had to do more with the other powers that Byzantium either allied with at this time or fought against such as the Ottoman, Serbian, and 2nd Bulgarian Empires, and the Italian naval republics of Venice and Genoa. The 14th century is definitely more or less the story of the Ottomans as it saw the Ottomans go from a small state at the Byzantine border in Asia Minor to an empire that had both Europe and Asia, yet by the end of the 14th century the Ottomans had in fact crushed both the Serbian and Bulgarian Empires that were just previously this century’s dominant powers.

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire

When it comes to the Byzantines’ story in the 14th century during its twilight years, it nothing more but disappointing seeing all the wealth and luxury that once defined Byzantium all disappear while its stories feature a lot of defeats and disasters as well as internal conflicts, and although stories of civil wars, political intrigues, blinding, poisoning, and scandals make Byzantine history interesting, this is not the case for the 14th century as here all these mentioned incidents happen to often that it already becomes too tiring to hear, therefore making this century’s story less memorable. On the other hand, having interesting characters such as Andronikos III, Anna of Savoy, John Kantakouzenos, as well as the Serbian king turned emperor Stefan IV Dusan and the Ottoman sultan Orhan give a bit of excitement to the century but other than that, I would say this century is not a very memorable one which is why I am ranking it very low in this list. Additionally, this century has a lot of importance especially in studying what led to the fall of Constantinople and ultimate end of Byzantium in 1453 as this century was really the story of the Ottoman Empire’s rise, therefore I would say that this century telling the story of how Byzantium’s end came to be adds some interesting element.

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Byzantine art recreated- Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) and his wife Empress Anna of Savoy (art by Powee Celdran)
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Stefan IV Dusan, Emperor of Serbia (r. 1346-1355), previously King of Serbia
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Map of the spread of Black Death (1347-1351)
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Ottomans defeat the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389

12. The 8th Century           

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The Byzantine Empire in 717 (purple)

Last on this list of ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantine history from my personal best to worst is the 8th century which is no doubt the least interesting century in Byzantine history for me and it is for a lot of reasons. First of all, the 8th century lacked a lot of sources describing the century as well as the reigns of its emperors in detail while most of the sources of this century are one-sided ones that portray most of its emperors as bloodthirsty monsters, therefore it seems to be hard to appreciate this century’s story. The 8th century already begins with Byzantium in a state of anarchy in which I mentioned earlier had a change of emperor 7 times in 22 years and part of this anarchy period from 705 to 711 was the second reign of the deposed Justinian II who ruled his second reign only to have revenge on those who overthrew him before that his reign ended up just becoming a gore fest in which he himself was executed at the end of it in 711. The worst part about this time of anarchy was that the Arabs now in the form of the Umayyad Caliphate used the chaos in Byzantium to their advantage to launch a massive invasion on Constantinople itself.

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

In 717, the anarchy period ended when the general Konon came to power as Emperor Leo III and here he successfully defended Constantinople from the Arabs afterwards he restored order by creating his own dynasty. Leo III may have been a successful emperor in battle but his policies turned out to be disastrous for Byzantium and this was specifically Iconoclasm or the declaration to destroy religious icons which he thought would save the empire from its setbacks but at the end only created division among his people and even worse, the first schism with the west which led to the separation between the Byzantine Orthodox Church and Latin Catholic Church. This major controversy of Iconoclasm true enough even led to civil wars in Byzantium such as the one following Leo III’s death in 741 which was between Leo III’s son and successor Constantine V who strongly stood for Iconoclasm and his general Artavasdos who was against it, in which Constantine V was victorious at the end of it in 743 thus blinding Artavasdos.

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

Constantine V in his long reign (743-775) strongly enforced Iconoclasm in the empire believing it will save the empire from falling apart, though at the same time he was a very popular emperor for winning many battles against both enemies of the empire which were the Arabs in the east and Bulgarians in the north. By the time of his death in 775, Constantine V left the empire much stronger than his father founded in 717 while Constantine V too had the legacy of reforming the army and the Thematic System, however his son and successor Leo IV did not really prove to be effective as he only ruled for 5 years until his death in 780. The 8th century gets only more eventful after 780 when the empire was under the regency of Leo IV’s wife Empress Irene ruling for their young son Constantine VI as at this time Iconoclasm comes to its end in 787 and 10 years later in 797 Irene comes out victorious in the conflict against her son who she blinds here, therefore making her the first woman to rule Byzantium alone.

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

Now what I find very one-sided and uninteresting about the 8th century was that most of it was just seen as Byzantium only fighting to defend itself against the Arabs in the east and Bulgarians in the north while everything else just included internal struggles including civil wars, court intrigue, and of course Iconoclasm which was just nothing but a useless and divisive policy that went on for so long without resulting in anything good except for countless of tortures, blinding, exiling, and destruction of valuable art. On the other hand, the 8th century for me still had a few exciting and memorable moments such as the full-scale Arab siege of Constantinople from 717 to 718 wherein the Byzantines managed to defeat the Arabs with the use of Greek Fire, as well as through some help from the Bulgarians in the north, and a brutal winter that destroyed the Arab army as winter was alien to them while the other only exciting part of the 8th century was Irene’s reign as regent and later as sole empress at the end of the century and nothing more. Now if not for these two moments I find memorable about the 8th century, the rest were plainly nothing but a forgettable gore fest as it featured so much violence and infighting which for me makes the 8th century not a period that interests me a lot. At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, the 8th century basically lacks sources to tell it in such a colorful way, but if sources mentioning that era were not so biased then possibly, I would appreciate it more but since we only get a one-sided story of the 8th century which for me tells it in such an uninteresting way, I have to put the 8th century in the bottom of this list as my personal worst century in all of Byzantine history.          

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The 6 emperors of the Byzantine 22-year-Anarchy (695-717)- Leontios (top-left, r. 695-698), Tiberius III (top-middle, r. 698-705), Justinian II Rhinotmetos (top-right, r. 705-711), Philippikos Bardanes (bottom-left, r. 711-713), Anastasius II (bottom-middle, r. 713-715), Theodosius III (bottom-right, r. 715-717), art by myself
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Victory for the Byzantines with Bulgarian aid against the Arabs in Constantinople, 718
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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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Empress Irene (r. 797-802), art by myself

To learn more about Byzantium in the 8th century, read Chapter V of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

And now I have come to the end of this list, and before I finish off, I have to say that when it comes to ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantine history, it is quite a difficult job as basically they all had their moments, except some were just more eventful than the others. Those that I have ranked in the highest numbers of this list such as the 10th, 5th, 6th, and 13th centuries were for me the centuries that had a lot of memorable and exciting moments as well as interesting characters from beginning to end while those ranked at the middle had mixed exciting moments but also dull ones while it is only the 14th and 8th centuries that I personally find less interesting although they too till had some interesting moments and characters. Basically, all these centuries show that Byzantine history was one big roller-coaster of ups and downs with many challenges which makes their history nothing more but totally interesting. Now, this article did not really have so much research involved as it just plainly involved my own thoughts and knowledge on the history of Byzantium. This entry is more or less a break from my extensive alternate history series in which I would want to share to you all my thoughts on the different centuries in Byzantine history. Anyway, this is all for this article on ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantine history from my personal best to worst, this is Powee Celdran the Byzantium Blogger, thank you all for viewing!

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 6th century AD. This story will begin with events that have happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses. Fictional scenarios in this story will be marked by footnotes (1). This will be an extremely long article!

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

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

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

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

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

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

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

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

The Story of 3 Plagues Across Centuries

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Constantinople: The Queen of Cities and its Byzantine Secrets

The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect

Justinian the Great Related Videos:

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

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

Emperor Justinian I (Thersites the Historian)

Justinian I’s Wars (Thersites the Historian)

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


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

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Emperor Justinian I the Great action figure

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


The Leading Characters: 

Justinian I- Byzantine emperor

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

Flavius Belisarius- Byzantine general

Narses- Byzantine eunuch general

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

Theodora- Byzantine empress, wife of Justinian I 

Vigilantia- Sister of Justinian I, mother of Justin II

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

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

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

Germanus- Cousin and original heir apparent of Justinian I

Matasuintha- Wife of Germanus, former Ostrogoth princess 

Liberius- Elderly Byzantine general

Tribonian- Jurist of Justinian I’s court

John (Ionnes) the Sanguinary- Byzantine general in Italy 

Totila- Ostrogoth King of Italy (541-552) 

Athanagild- Visigoth rebel leader in Hispania and later king 

Khosrow I- Shah of the Sassanid Persian Empire 

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

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

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


I. Part One

The Background- Before Justinian (The Real History)

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

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

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

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

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

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Tauresium, Macedonia, birthplace of Justinian, 482

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

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Eastern Roman Excubitor (elite palace guard)

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

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

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

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

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

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Follis coin issued by Anastasius I

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

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

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

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Diptych of Anastasius I, victory over the Sassanids, 506

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Justinian as a young man studying, by Dovahhatty

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

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Theodora as an actress by Jean-Benjamin Constant

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

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King Kaleb I of Aksum

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

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Pope St. John I

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

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

The Early Reign of Justinian I (527-540)

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

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Emperor Justinian I the Great (aka Flavius Petrus Sabbatius)

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

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Flavius Belisarius, Byzantine general

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

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Belisarius’ Bucellarii cavalry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6th century power couple, Justinian I and Theodora

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

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Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis

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

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

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

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Justinian I and Theodora at the imperial court

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

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John the Cappadocian, Finance Minister of Justinian I

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

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The Green Faction of Constantinople at the Hippodrome, by Akitku

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

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

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

         

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

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

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

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

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

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Belisarius and his army in North Africa

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

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Byzantines take over Carthage from the Vandals, 533

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Ostrogoth Kingdom flag

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

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Belisarius’ army in Italy

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

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Belisarius’ ship mill, Rome

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

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

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

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Narses, Byzantine general

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

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Burgundian army

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

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

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


The Plague Years (540-550)             

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

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Assembling of the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics

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

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

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

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

       

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

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Belisarius in the Lazic War against the Sassanids, 541

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

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Roman-Byzantine grain ship by Kate Eller

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

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Transmission of the Plague of Justinian

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

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Stylite hermit

In the next few months, the death toll just kept rising in Constantinople and across the eastern provinces that Justinian had to pass new decrees to handle the plague and these included forcing people to wear masks- which many just chose to die rather than be forced to do something inconvenient by the state, assigning people to search houses for dead bodies each day, and to assign people to the city gates to count the number of dead carted out each day. Seeing the death toll in Constantinople rising himself, Justinian further issued an order that people must wear name tags at their wrists so that if they died away from their homes, they could be identified. With the weeks going by, the death toll still continued rising that bodies had to be buried in mass graves but with no more space left for these mass graves, dead bodies had to be kept inside a military fortress across Constantinople’s Golden Horn harbor but again with so much dead, rooms in this fortress were filled up the ceiling and among the victims was the jurist Tribonian who made Justinian’s code of laws back in 529, and though in real history the plague killed him, in this version Justinianus gives an alternate ending to Tribonian wherein he actually survives the plague but became very weak.

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Death toll of the Plague of Justinian, 542

Though not exactly said in real history but still definitely in the year 542, in which in this story’s case would be in June, the 60-year-old Justinian himself after inspecting the dead from the plague got a fever and in the next day started vomiting and having the same lymph nodes over his body then fell into a coma, thus he tested positive for the plague. He then remained at his bed not moving a muscle and as his fever kept rising, his doctors concluded that even the most powerful of people could still catch it. Theodora meanwhile did not catch it and so did Justinian’s sister Vigilantia, her sons and daughter, and everyone else in the palace but little did Theodora know that she actually caught the plague but was one of the very few rare asymptomatic cases of it- at least in this story.         

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Victims of the Plague of Justinian, 542
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The Plague of Justinian hits Constantinople, 542

Before the plague hit Constantinople, things did not go very well in Italy which had just been retaken by the Ostrogoths as the governor assigned to Ravenna named Alexander was corrupt when using the war funds given to him by Justinian to fund his own personal expenses making the defeated Ostrogoths scattered around Italy uniting under a leader from one of their own named Totila in 541. Though Vitiges was taken to Constantinople wherein he died, the Ostrogoths were still around in Italy and now under Totila they had grown even stronger and at first, they took back the city of Verona for themselves afterwards defeating the forces of Alexander at the Battle of Faventia wherein Alexander fled never to be heard from again.

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Totila, restored King of the Ostrogoths of Italy

Totila and his Ostrogoths won a few more victories before proceeding south in 542, ready to undo everything Belisarius achieved in the past years and although he still failed to take back Rome, he convinced many both Ostrogoths, Roman locals, and even Byzantine soldiers to defect to his side as he convinced them through lies that the Byzantines and Justinian were corrupt when it was only Alexander that was. The plague though hadn’t hit Italy yet but back in Constantinople, Justinian himself was near death that his sister Vigilantia who he was hardly close to him stood by his bedside and so did her 3 children who barely knew him as well7 and of course Theodora and other palace officials including Narses and Liberius were by his bedside too and seeing the worst possible scenarios to come, they were already deciding on who was to succeed Justinian.

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Justinian I as a plague victim, by Dovahhatty

While in a coma, Justinian got a shocking dream which was that Italy again completely fell to the Ostrogoths and this woke Justinian up8 and true enough the first thing he heard when waking came from Narses9 telling him the Ostrogoths have been starting to regain control of Italy under Totila. Justinian had realized he fell into a coma for a month10 but was at first too weak to do anything though as he soon started gaining the control to get out of bed but he came to realize one thing here and this was an effect of the plague which was that his voice changed wherein he started talking with a lisp11, although he at least luckily survived. Theodora here told Justinian that she handled the empire by herself and had successfully prevented all power struggles assuring everyone he would still live but for a total of 6 months including his one-month coma12, Justinian was bedridden and unable to run his empire. By December of 54213, Justinian fully recovered while the plague too had subsided in Constantinople at least, due to the fact that thousands died each day that by this point, there had been about 200,000 deaths in Constantinople alone while in the rest of the empire, the plague still kept spreading. The now recovered Justinian again took a tour of Constantinople fearing he wouldn’t get it again but instead of seeing people suffering from it, he saw dead lying everywhere with their wounds open and puss leaking as well as dead parents holding on to their children that were still alive. On this plague of 542, the contemporary historian John of Ephesus (507-588) writes a more dramatic story of the plague compared to Procopius’ more factual version as here John writes that in the eastern provinces of the empire, there had been villages with only one child surviving, herds of cows running off into wild with no one to herd them, roads completely empty, and ships stuck at sea as their entire crews were dead.

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Aftermath of the Plague of Justinian, 542

543 then would be the worst year ever for the Byzantines as though the plague struck in 542, in 543 all the mess had to be cleaned up one by one by a newly recovered Justinian but despite all the hardships, letting go of all his ambitious projects was the last thing he wanted but with all the damage caused by the plague especially on the economy, considering the extreme death toll on the people of the empire that created a scarcity of workers and many businesses to shut down, all Justinian could do was to put all his projects on hold and resume them another time. First of all, many of the workers who have worked in decorating the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia had died of the plague so Justinian had to put the construction on hold, for the army many had suffered died from it too so he had to now resolve to hiring mercenaries from distant lands not affected by the plague, and as for taking back Italy, Justinian decided that at this point it was not important and would return to it another time. In 543 as well, the Plague of Justinian that had plagued the eastern provinces in 542 had totally become a pandemic when ships arrived in Italy bringing the plague there, soon enough it had spread to the Frankish Kingdom in Gaul when ships arrived in Marseilles, later on in Visigoth Spain and Byzantine North Africa as well, and by 547 it had reached Britain now controlled by different Saxon rulers. Now if the Byzantine Empire and the rest of Europe was hit hard, the Sassanid Empire was hit even harder by the plague that Khosrow did not want to continue his war with Byzantines fearing that his soldiers might pass on the plague to him but over in Byzantium, Justinian knew that with Khosrow now idle, this was the perfect opportunity to attack the Sassanids, not by force but by bringing the plague there.

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Sassanid Empire flag

Here is when history literally changes as in reality, the war between Byzantium and the Sassanids would continue up to 562 without achieving much results again. Prioritizing the western reconquests again, Justinian now decided to get the plague away from his empire by closing the entire eastern border with Sassanids and sending loads plague victims as well as the infected grain supply over to the Sassanid Empire, definitely enraging Khosrow14 but being too paranoid of the plague, Khosrow was now hopeless in facing this new threat from Justinian. Though the Byzantine Empire survived the plague, 1/3 of its entire population died from it but for the entire world, the plague claimed 10% of its population according to modern studies.

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Map of the spread of the Plague of Justinian
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Total death toll of the Plague of Justinian in the Byzantine Empire (1/3 of the population), by Dovahhatty

In 543 as well, Totila managed to retake Naples and again using his tricks to get people to his side, he spared all its citizens when in fact all he wanted was to rule Italy for himself. Justinian in 544 recalled Belisarius from the Persian border- as in this story’s case, the war with the Sassanids was no longer ongoing- and sent him to Italy invading by sea from the south again, except this time Justinian was now growing more jealous of Belisarius’ previous victories and the fact that he had the plague and Belisarius did not as I would think so and due to Justinian’s growing envy, he did not provide Belisarius with funds this time especially since he was using them for the plague’s relief effort in helping citizens affected by it so Belisarius here had to pay for his own soldier’s food and equipment.

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Flavius Belisarius in the 540s, by Amelianvs

Procopius too joined Belisarius again this time and had recorded that this long war and the plague created a great famine in Italy but despite everything happening, Belisarius focused on cleaning up Italy from the Ostrogoths and Totila meanwhile laid siege to Rome again, and like Vitiges before took almost 2 years and only by December of 546 was Totila able to retake Rome for the Ostrogoths when he bribed off Belisarius’ Isaurian troops to let them scale the walls at night and when taking over the city, Totila here showed his true intention to completely level the city and afterwards he proceeded south to hunt down the last of the Byzantines including the same old John the Sanguinary who pained Belisarius years earlier. With Totila away from Rome, Belisarius meanwhile used this as an opportunity to retake it again and by the spring of 547, Belisarius took back Rome once again, though Totila returned but failed to take back Rome, instead he took over the other cities nearby such as Perugia.

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Belisarius re-enters Rome, 547 by Amelianvs

Belisarius now was short of supplies so he had no choice but to return to Constantinople to ask for supplies from Justinian himself but true enough, it was actually Theodora that had now planned to recall him for it was her that was jealous of him and suspicious that Belisarius due to his popularity will one day be acclaimed emperor by the people thus overthrowing her and Justinian. When Belisarius arrived back in Constantinople in 548 however, he was met with a shocking surprise, which was that Theodora had died. Back in 542, Theodora in this case happened to be an asymptomatic victim of the plague but this did not mean the disease would one day have a toll on her life as by this point in 548, she grew extremely weak due to contracting cancer being a long-term effect of the plague and on June 28, she died at age 48. Though before Theodora died, she arranged for her niece Sophia, the daughter of her older sister Comito and the late general Sittas to marry Justinian’s eldest nephew Justin. Now Sophia who in this case was now 20 at this point and had grown up to be very beautiful just like her aunt Theodora was back in her day in the 520s except Sophia unlike Theodora who was an actress, Sophia was a high-society young lady15. Justinian was deeply affected here as the love of his life had died that in this story’s case, Justinian became vegetarian as eating meat and fish would remind him of his days with Theodora enjoying a full meal.

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Last days of Empress Theodora, 548

Though the plague was still going on and off in Constantinople, Justinian decided for once to give up on spending on the plague efforts and instead pour in a lot of gold for a lavish funeral for Theodora and despite how many times Theodora and her Monophysite point of view gave Justinian headaches, there was no other woman than her but strangely the couple despite being married for more than 20 years never had any children but by arranging Justin and Sophia’s marriage, Theodora here considered Justin to be their successor and even if Justinian was not close to him, Theodora thought he was the best choice only because he was the eldest nephew. Now at the funeral at the Church of the Holy Apostles, thousands of mourning citizens- especially women who all thanked her for passing laws protecting their rights- gathered outside while only family members as well as the Patriarch stayed inside for the ceremony and in attendance inside included Germanus with his Ostrogoth wife Matasuintha, Vigilantia again with her 3 children who were now all grown up, Theodora’s sister Comito and her daughter Sophia, and of course Justinian himself who was teared up so much that no one recognized him anymore16. Belisarius who had not trusted Theodora and vice-versa out of respect attended the funeral and so did Narses, Liberius, and Tribonian who in this case survived the plague.

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

Justinian being so heartbroken refused to speak to anyone, even Belisarius who had been urgently asking for supplies but soon enough when Justinian was able to speak again, Belisarius decided he did not need to ask for help anymore as now he had grown tired of war and had wanted to retire which Justinian accepted. The retirement of Belisarius was another heavy blow for the grieving Justinian as his most competent and trusted general had to go but at least his second most trusted general and younger cousin Germanus was still around who Justinian now counted on to finish off the reconquest of Italy but in this case, if Justinian were to name his own successor at this point, he would have chosen Belisarius17 but since Belisarius retired, Justinian considered it to Germanus or if not Germanus’ son with his first wife also named Justin but later on in 548, a jealous Armenian general named Artabanes and in this story’s case secretly with Procopius and John the Cappadocian who returned from Egypt following Theodora’s death hatched a plot to kill both Justinian and Belisarius in favor of Germanus. On the other hand, Germanus despite being overly talkative18 was completely loyal and had no intention to take the throne and eventually, it was the other Justin and this case with Justinian’s nephew Justin that uncovered Artabanes’ plot reporting it directly to Germanus who then had the Excubitor palace guards arrest Artabanes who instead of being imprisoned was sent to his death to fight against Totila in Italy with a very small army. In this case, Justinian still had not known of Procopius’ secret plotting19 while John the Cappadocian would remain unpunished, although he would die at this point in history (around 549) like in real history. At the same time back in Constantinople, Justinian’s nephew Justin and Theodora’s niece Sophia married in a not so lavish ceremony in the Hagia Sophia as Justinian still depressed over Theodora’s death and still spending on the plague’s relief effort could not spend on such festivities20. Justinian though considered Germanus as his heir even if Theodora earlier on backed Justin and this was because Justinian saw that Germanus had great skill and that his children will carry the blood of both the Justinian and Ostrogoth Amal Dynasty of Theodoric the Great due to Germanus’ marriage to Matasuintha. Germanus was appointed to lead the continued Italian campaign replacing Belisarius but in 550 when Germanus was still in Thrace, he too contracted the plague that still lived on and died while Matasuintha was still pregnant with their child. With Germanus gone, Justinian replaced him with the now 85-year-old Liberius who was sent to Sicily but due to his age, never achieved much except pacifying the island.

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Justinian I at the funeral of Theodora, 548 by Dovahhatty

Watch this to learn more about the Plague of Justinian (Invicta).


 

II. Part Two

The End of Justinian’s Wars (The Climax, 550-555)- In collaboration with Justinianus

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In the year 550, Justinian was now a sad old man at age 68 and now already 2 years after Theodora’s death, he was still extremely bitter also because the plague ruined his dream, he worked so hard on that he sat all day in the palace’s dining hall drinking and eating food that were of course plant based but one day an old general came, and this was the Isaurian wrestler Andreas who after many years was promoted to become a general. Now this is part of the story wherein our role-playing will come in full form and when creating this story, Justinianus came up with the idea of the vegetarian aging Justinian and due to the plague still happening, the wearing of face masks which Justinian I this case had been wearing one since the plague of 542.

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Justinian I as an old man and plague victim, 550 by Amelianvs

Andreas after serving Belisarius for many years in the Sassanid border, North Africa, Italy, again in the Sassanid border, and again in Italy went to greet Justinian but at first Justinian did not really have any idea on who he was until Andreas introduced himself and his story in the past 2 decades and as both Justinian and Andreas share some drinks of wine, Justinian begins to lighten up and ask Andreas what he has been up to though Justinian still sad tells Andreas how much the plague ruined all his plans and how Theodora’s death made him not want to think about anything anymore. Andreas however gave some hope to Justinian telling him that at least his code of laws made ages ago was something successful and that Hagia Sophia was a definitely a beauty like no other despite the mosaics still unfinished as Justinian only ordered the decoration of the mosaics to be resumed just a year ago21. The next day, Justinian and Andreas met up again and feeling some more relief after getting know Andreas, Justinian takes him for a tour around Constantinople as Andreas having been in the battlefield for years never really got the chance to fully see the imperial capital and even better, this time seeing all its secrets with the emperor himself. The first place the pair head to is the square with Justinian’s column known as the Augusteum beside the Hagia Sophia Basilica Cistern just near the Hagia Sophia which Justinian had just completed and this here was a water supply supported by hundreds of columns taken from the abandoned and destroyed Pagan temples across the empire.

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Basilica Cistern, Constantinople

After this, Justinian brought Andreas over to the now repaired Baths of Zeuxippus that had been destroyed by the Nika Riot in 532 which Andreas remembers being in it helping Belisarius kill off the rioters with his bare hands. Justinian in his usual sadness tells Andreas that it was there in these baths where he and Theodora, still an actress dated privately after they had met back in 524 and Justinian back then being already a high-ranking official in the empire could close down the baths just for him and Theodora to bathe together without seeing them having their intimate moments. In the present setting however, Justinian stopped speaking once he remembered the days he spent with Theodora there and remembering his daily routine to visit Theodora’s tomb, he took Andreas to the Church of the Holy Apostles where Justinian as usual knelt down and wept. At night, both dined at the great palace’s dining hall again where Justinian showed to Andreas his newly developed hobby of writing and singing Orthodox hymns and for Andreas, Justinian surely had a great voice that sang with so much passion yet sadness at the same time. The next day, the pair toured Constantinople again seeing how dead the city had become after the years of plague and by this point, effects of the plague were still felt but at least with 8 years since the height of plague having gone by, people were now more hopeful.

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Belisarius as a senator, 550

Andreas then asks to see Belisarius who was now retired from the army, although a senator but later that day, Belisarius himself returned to the palace and though in real history, Belisarius was no longer active after 548, here in this case in 550, regained the feeling of wanting to lead his troops again especially since he was only 45 here while all the other generals in charge of the campaign like Liberius and Narses were so much older than him. Narses on the other hand was already 72 at this point and had already been sent to Italy to replace Liberius in full command of the troops but lacking full Byzantine soldiers as well as the Bucellarii and Huns Belisarius commanded, Narses in Italy resorted to hiring barbarian mercenaries from the lands northeast of Italy, and these people were the Lombards. Back in the palace, Justinian again fell back into his depression staring out into a window while Andreas and Belisarius were catching up and seeing Justinian spaced out, Belisarius whispers to Andreas how Justinian made him fight Italy without providing funds the last time although Belisarius tells Andreas it was all Theodora’s fault and luckily, she had died. Justinian though had been staring out into that window for about 2 hours now and here Belisarius asks him why and Justinian first still does not speak but after a while he says “I miss her so much”. Belisarius then tells Justinian that he should come with him and Andreas to the high-end tavern next to the palace to get relieved of his sorrows. The 3 men head to the tavern wherein the emperor himself actually shows up in a tavern and here Justinian orders some wine and so does Belisarius but Andreas as a tough mountain orders a barbarian drink known as “mead” and here the 3 have a nice and friendly conversion about the wars they have fought in the past years. Justinian here is happy to talk about how much the Sassanid Empire of Khosrow who is still alive is just totally falling apart from the plague that Justinian brought over to the Sassanids intentionally. As they continued drinking, Andreas gives a speech convincing Justinian to not let go of the dream he has been working to achieve as it is for the good of the empire while Belisarius gives a toast saying “to Italy!” making it clear that they want to resume the war and here Justinian after drinking some wine with friends agrees saying something he never would’ve said. For his entire reign, no matter how hard Justinian worked, he was a palace emperor that never left Constantinople even if Italy and North Africa were retaken but now, at his old age he agrees to go to Italy and finish off the war against Totila. The next day, Justinian with Belisarius and Andreas as well as Justinian’s remaining family members attend a Mass at the Hagia Sophia for the good luck of their mission while Belisarius departed ahead by fleet. As for Andreas, it would take 3 more weeks to assemble his army and here he swore to Justinian that he will personally stand by his side in Italy. Justinian later asks his nephew Justin to meet him at the throne room though Justin comes in with a bad mood thinking it is a waste of time though Justinian asks him to accompany him to Italy but Justin refuses saying he hates travelling but Justinian tells him to consider it as it would be good training for Justin to be an emperor or else Justin would end up a useless glutton like his mother, so Justin then considers the offer. 3 weeks have then passed and Justinian with Andreas head over to their ship as now a fleet of 80 ships were set to again invade Italy though Justinian here feels nervous especially since he’s never been on a long trip by sea before. When at sea, Justinian constantly feels sea sick and here Andreas asks about Justinian’s early life he’s heard of and how he travelled to Constantinople for the first time from his village whether it was by sea or land and Justinian said it was by land. Justinian talks about how hard life was in the Balkans wherein barbarians constantly raided his farm which is what gave him his life-long hatred towards them fuelling his desire to conquer their lands. It was only in 497 at age 15 when Justinian back then as Petrus first met his uncle Justin who returned to his village now with some wealth promising him a better life in Constantinople and together, they travelled for kilometers by foot and then by horse. It was during Anastasius I’s early reign when Justinian settled in the capital having top-grade education provided by his uncle who was then already the imperial guard’s commander. At this time, his sister Vigilantia who was then 7 with their mother followed up and also here, Justinian despite not getting to meet Anastasius in person met his wife Empress Ariadne22.

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Empress Ariadne, daughter of Leo I, and wife of Zeno and later of Anastasius I

Now I would say what inspired Justinian’s great dreams was meeting the aging empress who was the wife of the former Zeno and daughter of the former emperor Leo I and she did have the honor of seeing the Western Roman empire still around while her father was emperor of the east with the great western emperors like Majorian and Anthemius being her father’s co-emperors and she too had the honor of meeting Anthemius himself when he was still in the east. Now this case wherein young Justinian had met Ariadne may be totally made up but I’d say this was a great source of inspiration for young Justinian especially since he met someone who was there to see the days when there was still hope for the west and it was her that inspired him to dream big. Back in the present setting, Justinian felt a bit of frustration when Andreas reminded him of his peasant background but Andreas told him in return to not see it that way as despite his low birth, Justinian was able to achieve a lot and so Justinian admitted here that he never thought he would go this far.     

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

 

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Diagram of Byzantine Constantinople’s Imperial District featuring the Hagia Sophia, Imperial Palace Complex, Hippodrome, and Polo Field

At this point, history is again totally altered wherein the palace emperor Justinian the Great himself finally leaves Constantinople and travels by sea for a total of 3 weeks to Italy, the land he always dreamed of holding on for the empire. Now I would say that if Justinian was so fixated in putting Italy back under Roman hands, his intentions would only be very fitting if he actually went to Italy himself to see the land where Roman civilization all began and so in this case, he actually goes to see his cultural motherland. Justinian though may have had no Roman-Italian blood but being a Roman citizen of Illyrian and Thracian blood from the Balkans and a native Latin speaker, Italy and more particularly Rome itself was seen as his spiritual home. Now after 3 weeks at sea, the fleet carrying Justinian arrived at the Bay of Naples in Italy while Belisarius, in this case arrived much earlier on in Italy’s eastern coast to meet up with the same general John the Sanguinary who pained him over the years who here was still commanding the troops in Italy.

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6th century Byzantine infantryman, by Foojer

At this point in late 550, Naples had already been liberated from the Ostrogoths but just a year earlier, Rome which Belisarius took back again fell again to Totila who using Belisarius’ return to Constantinople managed to once again retake Rome and sack it. When in Naples, Justinian here personally gave orders to his soldiers in taking back Rome and with so passion in his speech, he encouraged them that they are doing this to preserve the great legacy of Rome, of the great emperors of the past like Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Aurelian, and Constantine and after making his speech, Justinian remembered the words the people shouted when wanting victory “Nika!” even if it reminded him of the horrors of the 532 riots, but all the soldiers too shouted the same thing. Justinian accompanied by Andreas and their Excubitor guards marched north to Rome and Justinian having no experience in fighting battles told Andreas he’d just stay at their camp in Janiculum Hill overlooking Rome while Totila who was not in Rome at this time had its walls strengthened to make any Byzantine attempt to retake it impossible but Andreas remembering how he helped Belisarius recapture Naples almost 2 decades ago when the Gothic War in Italy began by using a tunnel, he remembered that the walls could be breached if his men dug beneath it. Andreas’ men including his Heruli mercenaries dug deep beneath the Aurelian Walls and in only a few hours, a part of the walls collapsed and when Justinian woke up from his nap, he noticed that the walls were breached and seeing it, he had a change of heart, thus he mounted his horse and together with the Bucellarii cavalry charged straight into Rome and to their surprise, Totila’s forces were very limited but still eager to face off the Byzantines, the Ostrogoths charged in a frenzy but were all slaughtered by the arrows fired by the Bucellarii as they rode with full speed while Justinian too managed to kill a number of the Ostrogoths before making it to the Roman Forum where Andreas planted the Byzantine banner to signal victory. Now in real history, Rome only returned to the Byzantines once again when the Gothic War ended in 552 but here by the end of 550 with Justinian fighting the battle himself, Rome came back to Byzantine hands much earlier on thus turning the tide of the Gothic War to the Byzantines’ favor.

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Trajan’s Column, Rome

Justinian was overjoyed now that he had finally seen Rome, the eternal city that ruled the greatest empire of its time- in which in reality he never saw- and when in Rome, Justinian and Andreas headed to the Column of Trajan which was now neglected and seeing it, Justinian told Andreas how Trajan has been such an inspiration to him ever since Justinian was barely an adult studying Roman history. What really inspired Justinian most about Trajan was that in his reign (98-117AD), the Roman Empire was at its greatest extent north to south from Britain to Egypt and west to east from Portugal to the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea and Justinian here wanted to achieve just that for his own empire and now with Rome taken back and all of Italy almost theirs again, he knew he could achieve his lifelong dream before he died. As Justinian mentioned his imperial dreams, Andreas reminded him of the question of succession and Justinian here said that he had it under control as he asked for his nephew Justin to come over to Italy in order to train to be an emperor. With Rome back under their hands, Justinian now thought of visiting Ravenna which here was still under Byzantine hands as the Ostrogoths were still scattered around Italy.

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The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Emperor Trajan, 117AD

Now in 551, both Justinian and Andreas travelled north to Ravenna and would stay there for a long time, especially since Justinian had to fix the Byzantine administration of Italy, which was based there and during their stay in Ravenna, Justinian finally saw the mosaics in the church of San Vitale which he had commissioned years earlier which were to depict him and his court together with Belisarius, Narses, John the Cappadocian, senators, priests, and Excubitor guards by his side while across it was the one of Theodora and her court and seeing it, Justinian was in tears especially since he saw Theodora’s face and when seeing his own portrait, he too remembered the good times as he looked very young in it, remembering his early days as emperor when he was still attractive despite being over 40 but now at this point at 68, he was looked far different as he gained so much weight while his hair turned gray, and face started enlarging due to age and seeing Andreas, Justinian told him he will commission of mosaic of him in Ravenna as well- which had never happened in reality due to Andreas not existing anymore after 530.

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6th century Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The pair later toured Ravenna seeing it so dead after years of war and plague and in their walk, they also took a look at the beautifully decorated Mausoleum of the Western Roman empress Galla Placidia, the daughter of the last united Roman emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) and seeing more of Ravenna, Justinian was amazed at how beautiful the mosaics were but was disappointed in remembering its shameful history under the incompetent western emperors that resided there like Honorius (r. 395-423) and Valentinian III that contributed to the fall of the west.

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Mosaics of the Galla Placidia Mausoleum, Ravenna

It was here in Ravenna where Justinian discovered there was a hidden plot against him all along by Belisarius’ secretary Procopius who was in Constantinople at this time and it was through Andreas where Justinian learned of it as the two were staying in Ravenna. Andreas here told Justinian that Procopius was plotting in a more subtle way which was that he was writing a secret book to slander Justinian and Theodora known as the Secret History which is a very biased account on Justinian’s reign and was only discovered in the 16th century and only made public in 1623, and this source is what gave many others a negative perspective on Justinian’s reign and Theodora’s sexual activities but on the other hand, Procopius in his main source on Justinian’s reign and the history of the Western and Eastern Roman empires entitled Wars, he remains the most valuable source as is very factual here. The truth however was that Procopius strongly envied Justinian for becoming emperor despite coming from humble origins as Procopius thought that if Justinian coming from nothing could come to power23, so could he but not wanting to fall out of favor with the imperial court, Procopius did not want to make his intentions clear so his solution was to write them all down somewhere for no one to see it.

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Procopius’ Secret History

Justinian meanwhile never knew of this work by Procopius but in this case, when being revealed of it by Andreas, he knew that Procopius was not to be trusted and what further angered him was how Procopius said Justinian walked around the palace at night in the form of monster similar to a Hydra and worse for Justinian, Theodora the love of his life was slandered. Andreas here told Justinian everything Procopius had told him and one of this- as Procopius did in fact write in is Secret History– was a slanderous accusation on Theodora in her earlier life as not only an actress but a prostitute wherein she performed a very explicit act of Leda and the Swan wherein Theodora as an actress stripped off all her clothing lying on the ground placing bird feed on her naked parts for the swans to feed on; of course this cannot be proven true because Procopius had not yet met Theodora when she was an actress and in this story’s case with Justinian knowing Theodora as an actress, he knew this was all an accusation.

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Theodora as an actress performing the act of “Leda and the Swan”

Andreas further tells Justinian24 that Procopius told him that he saw Theodora already as empress in the palace when at functions with other women dressed in something very explicit which Justinian never knew about and this outfit that she dressed in was a very lose dress that looked like it could easily slip off and had exposed too much skin leaving her shoulders completely bare (this here is the outfit Theodora is seen wearing in a 19th century painting by Jean-Benjamin Constant that inspired her look in the game Civilization V and Dovahhatty’s version of her). Justinian on the other hand was a man of strong Orthodox Christian morals but when hearing about all of this about Theodora, he accepted it as she was already gone and this was to be stuck in the past but surely- in Justinianus’ version- he never knew of this dress as he only knew Theodora like him wore purple robes decorated with jewellery but when hearing of it, Justinian knew that this could be a new fashion trend for future women considering that Justinian had just sent monks to the far away empire of China, known to them as Seres to smuggle silkworms in order for the Byzantines to manufacture their own without spending so much on imports.

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Empress Theodora in the so-called dress as described by Procopius, by Jane Arts (inspired by Jean-Benjamin Constant’s painting)

Justinian after hearing everything about Procopius was enraged especially hearing what was said about Theodora so he decided he had to punish him when returning to Constantinople but at the same time, he got word that his nephew Justin was going to arrive in Ravenna and the next day, both Justinian and Andreas headed to the harbor to greet Justin. Justinian at first nicely greets his now 30-year-old nephew but Justin rudely answers back that the sea trip made him seasick and that he has no purpose in Italy and therefore just wants to return to Constantinople but Justinian tells him that his first candidate for succession Germanus had died and wanting to honor Theodora’s choice of naming Justin his successor, Justinian believed that this mission in Italy will train Justin to be a strong ruler like his uncle and not a degenerate like his mother25. In the next few days in Ravenna, Justin begins developing a bond with his uncle that he was never really close to as real history too never mentions their bond and here Justin bonded with his uncle by accompanying him during meetings with government officials and military commanders in Ravenna. After a while Justinian remembered his sister Vigilantia who he had not seen and spoken to since Theodora’s funeral back in 548 though Justin tells his uncle that his mother was all fine and still stuffing herself as usual and Justinian hearing about this had some sense of relief.

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Justin II, Justinian I’s nephew, selfie style portrait, by Justinianus

Meanwhile, it had already been 16 years since the Gothic War of Italy had started and just as the Byzantine reconquest of Italy had resumed, the same old general John the Sanguinary with his subordinate commander Valerian were to engage the fleet of Totila in the Adriatic Sea just outside the city of Rimini and to assist the Byzantine forces in attacking the Ostrogoths by land, Justinian decided to head south from Ravenna to Rimini with Andreas and Justin and this mission was to train young Justin in military matters. As the Byzantine fleet engaged the Ostrogoth fleet off the Italian coast, the Byzantines had easily won a victory as they had more naval experience than the Ostrogoths, though ship rams weren’t much used anymore here by the 6th century, so instead, both fleets battled each other by boarding each other’s ships. As the naval Battle of Sena Gallica was fought in 551 like in real history, Justinian and his men entered Rimini which was still under Byzantine control awaiting an attack from the Ostrogoths and Justinian recalling his earlier years as a member of the Excubitor palace guard force remembered the basics of sword combat which he would then use here while for Justin, it was the first time he would use a sword though both Justinian and his nephew here had not put on any armor. Justinian meanwhile did not know much about fighting in open battle so he simply told Justin to just follow Andreas here and so the fictional battle begins at this moment as the Ostrogoth army begins firing arrows at them. Justinian not skilled enough to face open battle hides inside a weapons’ storage room while Andreas orders the city gates to be sealed and for their archers to continuously fire back at the advancing Ostrogoths while Justin decides to have the ballistae at the city walls to fire back at the Ostrogoths.

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Ostrogoth army, 6th century

Meanwhile, in the hills surrounding Rimini several campfires were lit to make it look like a larger Byzantine army was going to clash at the Ostrogoths but again this was Belisarius pulling out the same old trick he did before exactly here years ago and this forced many of the Ostrogoths to flee, although some still stayed behind and managed to scale the walls. Justinian meanwhile got out of the building to check what was happening and as an Ostrogoth charged at him, Justinian killed him with his sword. Afterwards grabbing his spear and throwing it, killing another Ostrogoth. A number of arrows then fired towards Justinian but despite his old age, he managed to block them while running to pick up a shield inside the same building he came from while Andreas ordered his men to form a shield wall to block off the arrows. As Justinian headed inside the building to grab a shield, the building due to the Ostrogoths’ flaming arrows caught fire and as the flames continued burning the building, Justin as well as Andreas ran straight inside to rescue Justinian and Justin here was able to escape before the ceiling collapsed but Andreas was trapped inside, however a few minutes later Andreas jumped out and fell unconscious at the ground. At around the same time, the Byzantine fleet destroyed the Ostrogoth fleet while in this case, Belisarius outside routed the rest of the Ostrogoths, though Justinian and Justin were at a panic despite their victory as Andreas was knocked out unconscious. Justin then called for doctor for Andreas and Andreas was then brought to Rimini’s governor’s villa to be healed.

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Emperor Justinian I and his men mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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Empress Theodora and her court mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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Drawing of Theodora’s hidden dress according to Procopius (in this story), by Powee Celdran
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Naval Battle of Sena Gallica, 551, Byzantine victory over the Ostrogoths

 

Andreas rested for the next 2 weeks but was at least relieved hearing that the Ostrogoths had been beaten by Belisarius while Narses on the other hand who was already in Italy was continuing the fight and the search for Totila. Justin on the other hand was sent to join both Belisarius and Narses who now at least began getting along with each other especially since the troublemaking John was no longer with them and was instead sent back to Constantinople after his recent naval victory. For a much longer time now, both Justinian and Andreas were doing nothing as the wounded Andreas still had to recover from his burns while Justinian in his spare time wandered off to see the Italian countryside and coastline and seeing the countryside gave Justinian memories of his simple childhood in the Balkans while the coastline gave him memories and here he began to think how far he went in life from just a simple peasant boy in a remote part of the empire to now coming so close to ruling the known world. When meeting Andreas again, Justinian full of inspiration said he is the emperor to be “luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan” or Felicior Augusto, melior Traiano in Latin but knowing he could not achieve the dream alone, Justinian considered turning the Franks of Gaul to his side despite them planning an invasion of Italy before though when thinking if the Franks ever turned against them, he even considered a Roman reconquest of Gaul, though history never specified if Justinian aimed to take back Gaul from the Franks.

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Ruins of Aquileia, original city destroyed by Attila the Hun in 552

The year 551 then had passed and now in 552, Andreas was fully recovered from the accident that almost caused him his life and so it was time they headed to Aquileia together with Justin who had returned to them in order to face off the Ostrogoths one more time and after a long ride north, they had arrived in the ruined city of Aquileia right at the 100th year anniversary of when Attila the Hun destroyed it (452) though Justinian also remembered that nearby there was growing community in a lagoon founded by the survivors of the attack on Aquileia (today’s Venice). At Aquileia, the 3 with their small army were met with nothing, instead heavy rain started pouring while at the same time a messenger told them that Totila had headed west so the rest of them decided to escape Aquileia through the sewers as the rain was pouring and due to city being totally destroyed, there was no roof to hide under. The rains got stronger and stronger and so did the wind, thus Justinian concluded this was the worst storm he’s seen in his entire life but not wasting time, all of them including the old emperor crawled through the city’s abandoned sewers despite them almost drowning but at least they were able to get out alive exiting at a farm whereas the sky had already cleared. Justinian thought that everything was over until a spear flew at his direction thus seeing another Ostrogoth army charge at them, Justinian then grabbed that spear and threw it back at the Ostrogoths.

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Ostrogothic cavalry

Andreas saw that it was impossible to face this great number of enemies but luckily, he saw a spare carriage which he had Justinian board with him as Andreas drove it while Justin sat behind firing arrows while the rest of the army was to mount the horses stolen from the Ostrogoths. The carriage sped through the Italian countryside for kilometers running over as many Ostrogoths as possible while here Justin suddenly discovered he was skilled with a bow26 while Justinian realized he totally missed on life as he spent so much time indoors and, in the city, when experiencing so much action in this chase. Soon enough, the Hunnish cavalry of Belisarius was spotted and here they were totally crushing the Ostrogoth forces and soon Belisarius himself was spotted doing as he always did, slashing every Ostrogoth that he came across. With the Ostrogoths almost defeated, Andreas stopped the carriage while he together with Justinian and Justin jumped off rolling in the grass of the Italian countryside (in which this would be in the area of Bologna).

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Byzantine general Narses, 552

The Byzantines here had won this fictional battle which totally weakened the Ostrogoth forces but Totila had not lost yet, however at the same time another major battle occurred (factual this time) somewhere in Umbria in the village known as Taginae wherein Totila now intent to take the Byzantine throne dressed in the gold armor and purple cloak of a Byzantine emperor led a surprise charge at the army of Narses but the 74-year-old Narses ordered his men mostly consisting of Lombard mercenaries to stay still and wait for the Ostrogoths to charge at them and with his massive size and intimidating presence, Narses was able to crush and rout the Ostrogoths by having his army assemble in a crescent-shaped phalanx formation and in the Ostrogoths’ escape, Totila was killed by the Byzantine forces. Back in the north of Italy, Belisarius after this fictional victory got word of Narses’ victory and Totila’s death making him more energized to continue the war however Andreas stepped up and told Belisarius that the emperor himself was tired after this battle they have gone through.

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Totila before the Battle of Taginae, 552

Though Totila was killed, his son Teia succeeded him as the King of the Ostrogoths without a capital and with the Ostrogoths still around, Belisarius told Justinian here that they must station the army all over Italy to enhance their presence and finally finish off the Ostrogoths once and for all by killing of Teia. Justinian, Justin, Belisarius, and Andreas remained at the army camp in this part of Northern Italy for weeks and here messenger came giving word to Belisarius that the Franks hearing about the defeat of Totila were planning to invade Italy to avenge Totila and here Justinian knew that the Franks true enough betrayed him but Justinian knowing that the Franks being barbarians despite being Catholic-Orthodox and not Arian would always take the side of their fellow barbarians so here he did not bother to plan an invasion of Gaul anymore as the war Italy plus the plague effort had already drained the treasury but he still had enough funds for another small reconquest and this would be Visigoth Hispania or at least just the southern coast of it for Justinian. Ever since 549 when the Visigoth king Agila came to power, as a fanatical Arian, he had been persecuting his Catholic-Orthodox subjects causing a rebellion led by a Visigoth noble named Athanagild who supported the oppressed Catholic-Orthodox citizens there even though just like Totila he was eyeing the throne and so here in 552, news got to Justinian that Athanagild was crowned king despite Agila still reigning and seeing this conflict as a reason to defend the Orthodox Christian faith, Justinian agreed to help Athanagild but also because Justinian knew that if he retook Southern Hispania this would create a buffer zone to prevent the ambitious Visigoths from invading Byzantine North Africa knowing that a century ago, the Vandals that took over North Africa crossed the narrow strait from Hispania. The problem now was who to send to reconquer Hispania as Belisarius and Narses were both needed to clean up the mess in Italy while Justinian feeling tired decided to return to Constantinople so without any more choices Justinian asked his nephew Justin to be the one to go over to Hispania with the assistance of the now 87-year-old Liberius and since Liberius was too old to actually lead his men at front, the job was up to the now 32-year-old Justin27. At first Justin with tears objected saying this war in Italy traumatized him- in which this kind of trauma would define his reign in real history- but Justinian with such encouragement told him that to be a great emperor means to face his fears even if means dealing with them with such ruthlessness and here Justinian told his nephew about the time he almost lost to fear yet almost lost his life at the Nika Riot 20 years ago whereas Justin was only 12 here, therefore not at all involved in the events. Back then in 532, when seeing the intensity of the riot to overthrow him, Justinian kept negotiating with them to the point of threatening them with death and when nothing worked, his advisors even told him to just leave the city and let the people’s candidate Hypatius take the throne while Justinian could just one day take back the throne but Theodora stepped up in front of Justinian and his entire court with a very strong and motivating speech ending with the phrase “the royal purple is noblest shroud” meaning that she’d rather die than lose throne and Justinian here took this advice to heart and conquered his fear by having Belisarius, Narses, and Mundus end the violence with violence.

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Theodora convinces Justinian to crush the Nika Riot, 532

20 years later in 552, Justinian was still living with that fear28 but this event only made him wiser and so here he told Justin to remember that event when he feels he is about to lose and that Justin should not lose as he has the best and strongest men of the empire with him at all times being Justinian, Belisarius, Narses, and Andreas. Here would also be when Justinian would say one of his most his most famous  lines “keep cool and you will command everyone” to Justin as a word of advice. Feeling some encouragement, Justin nodded at his uncle and was told to remain in Italy with Belisarius and Narses until Liberius arrived from Constantinople while Justinian with Andreas by his side was to tour the rest of Italy to see the damage of the war in order to study on how to rebuild it from the ashes before heading back to Constantinople.

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Byzantines defeat the Ostrogoths at the Battle of Taginae, 552, by Amelianvs

Watch this to learn more about the final part of Justinian I’s Italian Conquest (Kings and Generals).

 

After the 17-year Gothic War plus the plague, Italy had turned into a depopulated wasteland that was beyond repair but I believe that if Justinian were there to see the aftermath of the war, he would know how exactly to deal with it although the damage was beyond his control but what he could do to repair Italy is to make sure it will one day be repopulated in this case, seeing the ruins of Italy, Justinian will allow people from more populated parts of the empire like Egypt and Syria to come over to Italy to settle as well as loyal barbarian allies wherein they could settle down as citizens. Before heading back to Constantinople, Justinian and Andreas visited Rome one more time and after a 3 week journey by sea, they finally arrived back in the capital and Justinian now being old, went first to Theodora’s tomb to pay his respects, then to check on the progress on the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics seeing the one with himself already completed, and then finally to bed without doing anything else for 2 full weeks as he now believed that 25 years of hard work since coming to power in 527 had finally paid off despite the reconquest of Italy not completely over and one more mission to back Hispania yet to come but Justinian knew he had done his part in growing the empire and it was now up to his generals and Justin to finish the job.

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Mosaic of Justinian I in the Hagia Sophia

After his 2-week break, Justinian met with the very old Liberius- although history is unclear on which general led the reconquest of Hispania beginning 552 but the contemporary historian Jordanes says it was Liberius- and in this story, Justinian asked Liberius to serve the empire once more by heading to Italy first to meet up with Justin and then sail to Hispania. In real history though, Justin had stayed in Constantinople this whole time and so did Justinian of course still ruling as a palace emperor but 552 was also a major year for Justinian back in Constantinople as this was when the monks sent to China finally arrived with the ultimate prize, silkworms. In this story’s case, as Justinian returned to Constantinople, the monks who were originally sent as missionaries to India but later discovered the silk to be from what is the Empire of China, the distant highly advanced empire the Romans have been hearing for centuries. Hearing from the monks of this distant land as superior as the Byzantines to culture, Justinian was highly fascinated but what struck him more was the treasure they brought home and these monks revealed it by pulling it out of their bamboo canes, and here were the silkworms that could produce the finest silk. With the economy ruined from the plague and the war in Italy, Justinian thought the best solution was for the Byzantines to build silk factories and farms in the empire in order to produce their own high-quality silk without having to import them from the Sassanids who imported them from China and in this case with the Sassanid Empire on the verge of collapse due to the plague, there were would be no one to import these silks directly from anymore.

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Silkworm in a mulberry bush

The monks told Justinian the whole process of making silk which they saw for themselves in China and that these worms would grow in mulberry bushes in which the empire had many of and so Justinian ready for this new ambitious project had mulberry bushes planted across the empire and silk factories built in the distant rural places of the empire so not many would uncover this secret process of silk making. Another issue Justinian had to deal with back at home was course Procopius where in this story’s case he discovered the lies Procopius spread about him and here Justinian confronted him ordering him to burn the Secret History and here Procopius showed his villainous side saying that he indeed deserved the throne. Andreas who was with Justinian here in Procopius’ house tried to kill Procopius but to punish him Justinian just confiscated this book and had Procopius exiled to the Crimea north of the Black Sea to live his entire life while Justinian himself took this book of lies and burned it himself.

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Procopius of Caesarea mosaic

Now Justinian here would not have Procopius executed as his previous book Wars wrote about Justinian’s reign very well and factually but Procopius still needed to answer for his false accusations, but in real history, Justinian never knew of Procopius’ accusations and Procopius lived until 570, 5 years passed Justinian’s death. However, the sources for Justinian’s later reign after 552 would no longer come from Procopius but from another contemporary Greek historian here named Agathias who was an eyewitness to all these events in the 550s. Italy meanwhile was still as impoverished as ever and the war still not over but in 553, Narses won one more victory against the Ostrogoths at Mons Lactarius in Southern Italy where the last King of the Ostrogoths Teia was killed, thus earning Narses the title “Hammer of the Goths” and finally the war was over, though the last of the Ostrogoths would go into hiding in the mountains of Italy. As for Justinian in 553, he could now fully function again but the loss of Theodora still saddened him but it was here in 553 when he headed an important Church Council known as the 2nd Council of Constantinople to once again solve the schism with the Monophysites which never really came to any results.

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The Hagia Sophia fully completed
Monks present silkworms to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian
Justinian I receives silkworms from monks coming from China, 552
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Silk production in 6th century China
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Justinian I at the 2nd Council of Constantinople, 553
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Final defeat of the Ostrogoths to the Byzantines at the Battle of Mons Lactarius, 553

Watch this to learn more about silk production in Justinian I’s Byzantium (Kings and Generals).

 

In Italy, Justin and had already departed by sea to Hispania the moment Liberius arrived later on in 552 and this case Belisarius still remained in Italy together with Narses beyond 553 but when thinking the war was all over, the Franks from Gaul invaded Italy in late 553 promising to help the Ostrogoths but were too late, though it not matter anyway as they still wanted a war with the Byzantines. The Franks split themselves up into two groups though the first one when marching south all suffered the plague as it had returned in Italy wherein a large number of them died while the other group charged at Narses’ army at the Volturnus River in Southern Italy where here in this story with Belisarius joining Narses, the phalanx of Narses’ men held back the Franks while Belisarius’ Bucellarii cavalry rushed and destroyed them all, thus Italy was spared from the Frankish attack though some Franks would join the remaining Ostrogoths in their holdouts.

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Frankish army, 6th century

Now over in Hispania, the Byzantine fleet with Liberius and Justin in this story’s case with a smaller army that came from Narses’ men in Italy arrived in what is now Malaga in late 552 and for the next year fought beside their ally Athanagild against Agila’s forces in the civil war. History though does not record much about the Byzantine reconquest of Southern Hispania except that they were supported by Athanagild and his rebels while Liberius in 553 returned to Constantinople when the Southern coast was already taken back. Since there is not much records on this conquest of Visigoth Hispania, I would not explain much about it anymore except that Justin now gaining some confidence continued leading his very small army in battle using the knowledge he learned when fighting in Italy and of course keeping to heart the advice his uncle gave him during their time in Italy. The moment the Byzantines had taken the southern coast of Spain in order to block the Visigoths from crossing over to North Africa, Athanagild felt betrayed as he only wanted the Byzantines’ help not for them to take land but since Agila was still around, Athanagild still acknowledged the presence of the Byzantines there.

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Athanagild, rebel leader and King of Visigoth Hispania (r. 554-567)

Now if Italy may have been severely damaged by the wars, Hispania was still fresh and Justin here saw that Hispania could be the new frontier for many Byzantines to settle in as it was fertile, spacious, and very significant to Roman history as this was where the great emperors like Trajan and Hadrian originated in. By 554, the Byzantine reconquest of Hispania was over and having at least the southern coast, Justinian in Constantinople ordered the conquests to stop for he had what he already wanted and here Justin would return alone to Constantinople now celebrated as a hero while Liberius at age 89 also died this year in Constantinople. In 555, the supporters of Agila fearing the success of the Byzantines in the south turned on and assassinated him defecting to Athanagild who now became King of the Visigoths. Now in 555, Justinian’s ambitious reconquest of the Meditrranean known as the Renovatio Imperii was all over and now he could focus on securing peace all over his empire. At this point, the Byzantine Empire controlled the entire Mediterranean again as a “Roman lake” and had spanned north to south from the Crimea in Ukraine to Egypt and west to east from Southern Spain to Syria but no matter how large the empire was again, it was in ruin as the plague and wars took the lives of countless that by 555, the population of the empire had dropped by a million since Justinian came to power in 527.

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Byzantines defeat the Franks at the Battle of Volturnus in Italy, 554
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Byzantine Province of Spania (purple), conquered in 554
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World Map, 555AD, end of Justinian I’s conquests (purple)

 

The Last Years of Justinian, Aftermath, and Conclusion (555-565)

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With North Africa, Italy, and some of Hispania under Roman rule again, Justinian could finally enjoy life at his old age with his remaining family members and focus on keeping the peace. The moment all the reconquests were over, Justinian no longer cared about fighting wars as that time had passed and luckier for him 555, at least in this story’s case, he finally received the most relieving news ever from the Sassanid Empire, which was that Khosrow had contacted the plague and died, though in real history the war against Khosrow went on until 562 while Khosrow himself lived until 579. In this case though with Khosrow dead and the plague still ongoing in the Sassanid Empire, there was no more Sassanid Empire as the death of Khosrow broke the empire apart into smaller states ruled by Khosrow’s sons all at war with each other and still suffering heavily from the plague and Justinian here can be indirectly credited for destroying the Sassanid Empire by sending plague victims and fleas there.

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Mosaic of the old Justinian I in Ravenna

The final dissolution of the Sassanid Empire that pained the Romans for 3 long decades had come and Justinian with a sigh of relief turned to his new hobby as an old man which was the farming silkworms and the making silks which in a few years became mass produced and a major export of Byzantium. In addition, in this story at least, the monks back in 552 gave Justinian a gift of Chinese herbs which were given to doctors and true enough these proved more effective in healing people who were still affected by the plague as by this point, the plague still kept coming on and off which still deeply worried Justinian since he wanted the population of the empire to grow but the plague’s victims were usually newborn babies. To ensure a population growth to his damaged empire, Justinian working with old jurist friend Tribonian again issued laws to encourage families especially in rural areas to keep producing children. Tribonian meanwhile would die in 556 from the long-term effects of contracting the plague28 while Belisarius too returned to Constantinople again and this time to fully retire in his estate in Thrace.

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Byzantine made silk using the Chinese technique

With everything now settled down, Justinian at last had some good time to spend with his remaining family members having frequent get togethers in the imperial palace and here, he would grow his bond with his nephew Justin by continuing to train him more to be an emperor and with his sister Vigilantia, Justinian here now done with all his hard work would finally fix their relationship that they would soon enough grow closer to each other. Out of the family members, Justin’s wife and Theodora’s niece Sophia would be the one to grow very close to Justinian as she would be the one asking for his advice in running an empire as Sophia wanted to imitate her aunt Theodora as well when her time comes to be Justin’s empress. Justinian meanwhile would try to find ways to get over his grief of losing Theodora and a lot of this would be by taking hunting trips and playing Byzantine Polo or Tzykanion with his nephew Justin, the retired Belisarius, and Andreas who was still actively in military service. As for the silk manufacturing, things have been starting to become very successful in such a short time and as the manufacturing began, the first silk product to made was a dress for Sophia, the upcoming empress and apparently the dress custom made for her was exactly the same revealing type Theodora secretly wore as Procopius said, meaning her niece knew about except for Sophia, it fit more perfectly on her as the new silks were sturdier that it would not fall off as it did with Theodora before. Now with Sophia, this dress from becoming a deep secret would become well known to the women of the empire even being introduced as a fashion trend- even if this dress is entirely fictional appearing first in the 19th century by Jean-Benjamin Constant.

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Dome of the Hagia Sophia, damaged by the 557 earthquake

The Hagia Sophia’s mosaics too had been completed but in December of 557, a terrible tragedy would happen which was a massive earthquake that struck Constantinople and since the city was so dense with very little open spaces, people had no safe place to take refuge. According to Agathias who documented this event, he says that the earthquake almost “destroyed” the city but it had lasted very quick and luckily did not kill a large number, though it still left many especially in the crowded areas homeless. In the panic as the earthquake struck that December night, people behaved as if disorder reigned but as the earthquake ceased minutes later, they all cheered and embraced each other as the worst was over while Justinian was fast asleep in the palace not noticing anything. Justinian only knew of the earthquake after waking up and when inspecting the city- here in this case with his nephew Justin- seeing so much damage again, he broke down inside as another disaster had come again in his reign. Out of respect for the people, Justinian refused to wear his crown for 40 days and with the money that the state had been generating from the silk production, he decided to use that to pay for repairing the damage caused by the earthquake. In the months following the earthquake, there too had been a change among the people’s attitudes as Agathias states as well wherein the rich who never turned to charity turned to it, while doubters began to pray, and the most vicious of men started helping others out but this only lasted short as a few months later, they all reverted to their usual attitudes. The Hagia Sophia meanwhile did not receive a lot of damage from the earthquake for the meantime but in May of 558, a terrible tragedy came again as the dome of the Hagia Sophia Justinian and his architects had worked so hard on completely collapsed, but at least most of the mosaics still remained unharmed. Despite having had too much already in his life, the very old Justinian still acted strong and had the dome rebuild and considering that a first dome was already made and that its blueprints were still around, building a second one was not so much a problem anymore, but it would take time. Meanwhile, just as Justinian thought all his wars were over29, a group of Huns known as the Kutrigurs allied with the Slavic tribes crossed the Danube River into the empire and were directly headed to Constantinople to attack it but at least were held back by the Anastasian Wall of Thrace built ages ago.

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Kutrigur Hun warrior, 559

Since most of the army was scattered across the empire stationed in the newly conquered provinces of Hispania, Italy, and North Africa, Justinian in 559 when hearing of this new invasion asked Belisarius to come out of retirement one last time to fight off these invaders- as it did happen in real history too- except in this case, the now older Belisarius was joined again by Andreas, Justinian’s nephew Justin and Justin’s younger brother Marcellus who was now an experienced general. With most of the army scattered across the empire, Belisarius here only commanded 300 of his veteran soldiers as well as Thracian locals who he asked to assist them by scattering across the woods and again to use the same trick Belisarius did before against the Ostrogoths in Italy by lighting several campfires to make it look like they have a much larger army to scare the enemy. This small battle took place in the village of Melantias just 20km west of Constantinople and it had been an easy victory for the Byzantines as the Kutrigurs and their Slavic allies fled in a panic when seeing the campfires and in their flight were ambushed by the 300 veterans led by both Belisarius and in this case Justin as well.

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Byzantine soldier (right) attacks a Slav (left) and a Kutrigur Hun (behind) at the Battle of Melantias, 559

The Kutrigurs then fled back north leaving the empire for good and to further secure the Danube border from the invaders beyond, Justinian had the river fortresses built by previous Roman emperors rebuilt while Belisarius after fighting his last battle retired once again. Narses meanwhile still remained in Italy ever since he ended the war defeating the Franks in 554 and in these years, he was assigned to assembling Byzantine garrisons in all the cities and recruiting new men to the army though the last of the Ostrogoths and Franks had still remained at the holdouts and it was only in 562 that all the remaining Ostrogoths and Franks were fully defeated and the entire Italy pacified. The years between 559 and 562 remained uneventful for Justinian, his family, and Belisarius but in this case with the Sassanid Empire destroyed after Khosrow dying of the plague in 555 leaving their empire broken apart into many states, the Kingdom of Lazica in Georgia in which they Byzantines and Sassanids have been fighting over in the previous years, here been annexed to the Byzantine Empire as a result of the Sassanid Empire’s dissolution30. It also happened in 562 that the retired Belisarius out of nowhere was accused by his political enemies of plotting against Justinian, thus he was summoned to a court hearing wherein he was judged guilty and thrown in prison, the same way as it did in real history. Not so long after, Justinian himself freed Belisarius from prison and pardoned him from all these false charges made against him; though one legend here says that when Belisarius was judged guilty, he was blinded and turned into a beggar but in reality, and in this story’s case too, Belisarius was pardoned and allowed to return to retirement for the rest of his life.

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Legend of the blind Belisarius

It is also believed that the judge who ruled Belisarius guilty was his former secretary Procopius who secretly despised him too but in this story with Procopius exiled to the Crimea, the judge here would be another one named Procopius. The next 3 years again would remain uneventful except here, a now aging Justinian could not fully rule his empire alone, here in this story’s case, his nephew Justin now appointed to the newly created position of Curopalates or “head of the palace” like in real history too was ever more experienced in state matters after years of training under his uncle and fighting wars in Italy, Hispania, and recently against the Kutrigurs, it was now him running the state and attending most of the senate meetings while his uncle had now become too weak to attend them all. In March of 565, Belisarius’ time had come as he died in his sleep in his estate but at least he died a peaceful and happy death after a lifetime of fighting wars for the empire suffering defeats but achieving a lot of victories too. The death of Belisarius better known as the “Last of the Romans” further saddened Justinian as now he had lost his best general but at the same time it was all fine as Belisarius had served his purpose and Justinian too knew that his time was almost near.

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Sophia in the dress patterned after Theodora’s using the new Byzantine silk, by Ravesne
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557 Earthquake of Constantinople
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Justinian I at the funeral of Belisarius, 565  
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The Byzantine Empire (yellow) at Justinian I’s death, 565  

 

On the night of November 14, 565 Justinian the Great had at last died in his sleep at the age of 83 from a heart attack. The only person to witness Justinian’s last moments on earth was Callinicus, the eunuch assigned to the palace’s bedrooms and in real history, it was Callinicus that claimed that Justinian named his nephew Justin his successor though it is unclear what Justinian’s exact dying words were but surely, he named someone named Justin his successor although this could be the other Justin who was the son of Justinian’s long-gone cousin Germanus who was original designated heir. Callinicus on the other hand claimed it was Justin being Justinian’s sister Vigilantia’s son that was to succeed the throne and whether this claim was true or not, Callinicus was in favor of Justinian’s nephew Justin as he was someone who could be easily manipulated, in real history at least, but in this version since Justin underwent several years of training both running the government from Constantinople and fighting wars in Italy and Hispania, he was surely ready to take throne. In this version as well, Justinian before dying was already prepared for his nephew to succeed him while Justin was nothing but ready to become emperor and rule a massive empire whereas in real history, Justin reluctantly accepted becoming emperor and was not ready for it as he lacked the experience as in the past years, all he did was manage the palace as Curopalates.

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Emperor Justin II, nephew and successor of Justinian I, by Akitku

It however remains unclear what Justinian was thinking before he died, but I’d say for this story that Justinian came to think that he has achieved so much more than any emperor in his era could by conquering North Africa, Italy, and Southern Hispania all under his rule no matter the odds, he also came to think that he was truly blessed as he survived the plague when almost dying from it, he thought about the empress Ariadne who inspired him to dream big and restore the empire of old so many years ago, he thought about his uncle Justin who made it possible for him to become emperor, he thought about how he came so far from being a simple peasant boy in the Balkans to becoming the ruler of the entire Mediterranean, he thought about how he succeeded in training his nephew Justin to become a strong ruler just as he was, and lastly he thought about Theodora the love of his life and that now he was ready to join her in the afterlife. The day after Justinian’s death, Justin II who was 45 at this point- same age his uncle was when coming to power in 527- was crowned as the new Augustus by John Scholasticus, the newly appointed patriarch Justinian appointed before his death while Sophia who was now 37 here was crowned as the new empress or Augusta. Now in this story as well as in real history, Justin II would be the first Byzantine emperor to be crowned in the new Hagia Sophia rebuilt by Justinian I while a few days after the coronation, Justinian’s funeral took place and it would be attended by literally everyone in the city as the funeral of the century, even grander than Theodora’s funeral 17 years earlier. At the beginning of his reign, Justinian may have been unpopular for many things including his taxation policies and choices of people in the government but now at his death after a reign of 38 years, he was mourned by all as he fought hard to give his people a strong empire, he built a massive cathedral like no other seen around the world being the Hagia Sophia, he managed to save his empire from the plague and rebuild the economy, he reclaimed 50% of the lands in the west that had fallen to the barbarians in the previous century thus making the entire Mediterranean Sea Roman again, and lastly but in this story’s case only he had managed to destroy the Roman Empire’s longest enemy being the Sassanid Empire turning them into small ineffective states by sending the plague there. At the day of Justinian’s funeral, people from all classes all paid their respects by falling in line to bow down at his body as it was on display and when everyone got their chance to do so, Justinian was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles right next to Theodora and as the centuries went by, something unique occurred with Justinian’s corpse which was that it had not decayed and this would be noticed centuries later in 1204 when an invading army of Crusader soldiers from Western Europe sacked Byzantine Constantinople looting Justinian’s tomb in the process wherein they found his body still intact. As Justinian joined Theodora in the afterlife, his spirit looked down on Justin ensuring he will rule long and well and the first acts of Justin II was to pay off all his uncle’s debts which failed to pay as he died before doing it while for the palace guard force or Excubitors, Justin like in real history appointed his friend Tiberius as their commander. On the other hand, Justinian before his death commissioned the construction of the Orthodox Monastery of St. Catherine in the deserts of Egypt but it was only completed after his death in 565 and in the following year, when Justin heard of its completion, he and Sophia travelled to Egypt to inaugurate it31. Part of the lessons Justin II learned from his uncle was to be ruthless to stay in power and here in Egypt, joining him was the other Justin who was also considered as Justinian’s heir and suspecting the other Justin would plot against him, Justin II also listening to his wife’s advice had the other Justin, the son of Germanus assassinated in Alexandria- as it also did happen in real history- except Justin II and Sophia weren’t in Egypt in reality. Sophia on the other hand, grew to be ruthless and energetic as empress much like her aunt Theodora was before yet she too had the same level of beauty as Theodora even as she continued aging, yet Sophia still remained the style icon still introducing new fashion trends to women across the empire with the new silks that Byzantium here was now proud of making. In real history, it was in Justin II’s reign when Byzantium became a major exporter of silk but the empty treasury caused by the plague and the wars of Justinian was a constant headache for Justin II, so with an empty treasury Justin II had to carelessly undo his uncle’s policy of paying tribute to all their enemies beyond their borders thus triggering the Avar hordes beyond the Danube to begin making raids again into the Balkans while in the west, he discontinued paying tribute to the Lombards allowing them to already raid into Italy in 568, just 3 years after Justin came into power while Narses now in his 90s was recalled to Constantinople wherein he died in 572.

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Lombards first invade Byzantine Italy, 568

For Justin II in real history, the biggest disaster was the Lombard invasion of Italy led by their king Alboin beginning 568 when the whole of Italy had just recently been taken back from Ostrogoths, yet in only a few years after 568 the Lombards took over most of Byzantine Italy leaving only major cities like Rome and Ravenna still under the Byzantines. Though if not for Italy, the even bigger disaster in Justin II’s reign in reality was the resumption of the war against the Sassanid Empire in 572 when Justin II again running out of funds decided to refuse paying tribute to Khosrow I who still ruled the Sassanid Empire, thus the war resumed while Justin due to the war with the Sassanids resuming and everything the Byzantines had worked on to put Italy back under Roman rule again falling apart due to the Lombards, Justin completely lost his sanity in 572 that the contemporary late 6th century historian John of Ephesus, who previously wrote about the plague, said Justin behaved like a wild animal, was wheeled around the palace in a mobile throne, tried to throw himself off a window, and once ate a person in front of everyone that in 574, at Sophia’s suggestion Justin abdicated making his closest friend and the commander of the palace guard Tiberius who would be adopted as his son and heir to be his regent together with Sophia.

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The insanity of Justin II as emperor, by Amelianvs

Justin II thus did not rule long and in 578 he died at age 58 and was succeeded as Augustus by his adopted heir Tiberius as Justin and Sophia had no children and as the new emperor, Tiberius II Constantine at least was more capable in ruling as in Justin II’s reign he was a highly competent general that successfully managed to contain the raiding Avars and Slavs in the Danube border and later successfully fight off the Sassanids. As the senior Augustus of the empire following Justin II’s death in 578, Tiberius was at least effective in the war against the Sassanids but in his service he had a highly competent Cappadocian general named Maurice and after only ruling as Augustus for 4 years, Tiberius died in 582 and was succeeded by Maurice who then married Tiberius’ daughter Constantia. To put it short, Maurice was another highly competent emperor in this time of war that in 591 he finally ended the war against the Sassanids by putting his own ally Khosrow I’s grandson Khosrow II in the Sassanid throne, thus Maurice believed he could continue to maintain and restore the massive empire Justinian I left behind but in the Danube, the war against the Avars and Slavs were far from over and his soldiers tired of war and not being paid enough for risking their lives as the treasury was already running low turned on Maurice who in 602 was overthrown and executed by a usurper soldier named Phocas who proclaimed himself emperor. Maurice’s execution though was taken harshly by his ally, the Sassanid ruler Khosrow II who then declared war on the already war-torn Byzantine Empire and from here on, it is all downhill for the Byzantines. This though would be the final war against the Sassanids but it lasted for more than 20 years ending in 628 leaving both Byzantine and Sassanid Empires at a breaking point that in only a few years after the war, a new enemy came out of nowhere being the Arabs ready to finish off both empire and though the Sassanid Empire here completely fell to the Arabs, the Byzantines at least survived but at a great cost.

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St. Catherine’s Orthodox Monastery in Egypt, completed in 565, built under Justinian I
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Imperial court of the disabled Justin II (behind) with Empress Sophia (left) and Tiberius II as Caesar (right), in reality, by Amelianvs
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The Byzantine Empire in 600 (green) next to the Sassanid Empire (orange)
The Byzantine Emperor Maurice about to be executed by the usurper Phocas, having seen his five children killed in front of him, 602
Execution of Emperor Maurice in 602, end of the Justinian Dynasty

 

In this version however, considering the Sassanid Empire was destroyed in 555 by the plague which killed its ruler Khosrow I, this was a great relief for Justin II and even though the treasury ran low due to the previous wars and the plague, at least he did not have to go through the stress off paying off Khosrow I anymore or the stress of risking another massive war against the Sassanids in the east. In this story’s case too, Narses would still be recalled to Constantinople by Sophia but Andreas who was still currently serving as a general would replace Narses in command of Italy, while in the Balkans both Justin’s younger brother Marcellus and the palace guard commander Tiberius would be in charge of containing the raiding Avars and Slavs. The Lombards meanwhile under Alboin would still raid into Northern Italy but Andreas here with new recruits would do all he could to stop them though at the end, I would see it in a way that only Northern Italy including Milan would fall to the Lombards but the rest would still be under the Byzantines unlike in reality where the Lombards by the end of the 6th century already took over half of Italy.

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Alboin, King of the Lombards (r. 560-572)

As for Hispania on the other hand, Justin II in this story’s case after seeing the place for himself years earlier would consider building growing Byzantine communities there along the southern coast with a vision in making it an important trading hub like it was in the days of the old Roman Empire and this could also help in growing the economy and building a place wherein the empire could live on in case the Balkans would continue being threatened by the Avar and Slavs. In addition, I would say Justin II without having to worry about the Sassanids anymore would eventually launch a reconquest of at least Southern Gaul which would later be able to connect Byzantine Hispania to Italy by land. The reigning Visigoth king of Hispania Athanagild though would continue causing problems for Justin II’s Byzantium but in 567, just 2 years after Justin came to power, Athanagild would die just like in real history and would be succeeded by Leovigild who like in real history would reign Hispania imitating the rule of Justinian I by also issuing a codex and Byzantine style coins. Leovigild in this case would also make himself an ally of Justin II and like in real history, Leovigild in 584 would defeat and conquer the Suebi Kingdom in Northwest Hispania.

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Leovigild, King of the Visigoths of Hispania (r. 568-586)

Now in this case, the major factor for Justin II ruling more effectively without coming to a mental breakdown in 572 was the mere fact that the Sassanid Empire had been destroyed and this is the major what if for this story. I would believe that if the Sassanid Empire was destroyed indirectly by Justinian, then the Byzantines would be able to continue maintaining their hold on the west, particularly Italy which was the ultimate prize for Justinian. As for Justin II, with the Sassanid Persian threat non-existent, he would have no reason to have breakdowns, also considering in this story’s case wherein he underwent years of training under his uncle and rather than turning insane due to all the pressure, Justin II would still continue to run the empire effectively together with Sophia doing the same as Justinian and Theodora did before them. Unlike Justinian who worked hard on military campaigns to expand his empire, Justin II on the other hand here would be happy with whatever he has and choose to keep the empire that way without thinking of expanding anymore. Now if Justin II did not suffer losing his sanity, then I would say that he would rule until his death possibly in 585 at the age of 65 and since he and Sophia had no sons but only a daughter, the line would pass on to possibly Justin’s brother Marcellus who would probably pass it on to his sons in order to continue Justinian’s dynasty rather than Justin adopting Tiberius who would be the one to continue the dynasty, and although Tiberius II was adopted in reality, it still continued the dynasty which was continued to but finished off with Tiberius’ son-in-law Maurice.

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

In reality, though the Sassanid Empire was hit worse than Byzantium by the plague, it still managed to survive and later on go back to fighting wars with Byzantium again but in this case, I would say that with the complete destruction of the Sassanid Empire by the plague, Byzantium would’ve not been weakened by war in the decades to come as even though they would still be fighting against the Avars, Slavs, and Lombards, these wars were not as large in scale compared to that against the full might of the Sassanid Empire. The big question now is, if the Sassanid Empire died out because of the plague thus sparing Byzantium from the many more wars to come with the Sassanids later on as it did happen in real history, then would the Byzantine Empire survive the new Arab threat that is to come in the next century? True enough the Arab threat that rose in the 7th century that came directly for Byzantium and the Sassanids was unforeseen so nothing could have stopped it, and Justinian himself too would not know what was to come after his time. Now many would blame the downfall of Byzantium in the 7th century on Justinian’s ambitious over expanding of imperial territory but I would say that Justinian did not see the continuation of the war with the Sassanids and the rising Arab threat coming.

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602), successor of Tiberius II

Overall, the disasters Byzantium would soon enough face that would force their empire to downsize was not entirely due to Justinian’s wars but rather a chain reaction of events first of course being the plague and its devastating effects on the economy and army, Justinian still continuing his ambitious conquests even after the plague struck the empire, Justin II in reality triggering war with the Sassanids by refusing to pay tribute, and the execution of Maurice in 602 triggering an even larger war with the Sassanids and with all these wars, Byzantium in the 7th century would have no longer have the full strength to face a new enemy, but that here is a story for another time.

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Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I the Great (left) and Emperor Constantine I the Great (right) in the Hagia Sophia
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Coin of Emperor Justin II of Byzantium (r. 565-578)

 

And now I have come to the very end of this extremely long article. To be honest, I never knew this article of mine would be an extremely long one but I guess since this one covers the most influential reign in Byzantine history, which was that of Justinian the Great, it had to be very long so to deal with the extreme length, it was not entirely divided in half but segmented into two sections. To conclude this article, all I have to do is to give an evaluation of Justinian the Great, his reign, achievements, and what could he have done better. First of all, I would say that in the larger picture of history, Justinian I is a one-of-a-kind ruler as he had gone such a long way from humble origins as a peasant and so was his wife Empress Theodora originating as an actress to ruling a massive empire controlling the Mediterranean, yet his achievements were not only in military conquests but in legal matters and impressive structures seen up to this day. Though the Byzantine Empire may be gone today, its legacy is very much still seen and at this day and a lot of it has to do with Justinian the Great, out of all the emperors of Byzantium throughout is 1,100 year history, it is Justinian the Great who’s legacy very much live on as when you see the structure of the Hagia Sophia still around, this was exactly the same structure built under Justinian in the 6th century and more importantly is his legal code made back in 529, and though it may not be very obvious seeing it still existing today, it still does as many countries still base their legal systems on this exact code of laws of Justinian. Of course, Justinian the Great had so much more achievements that would live beyond his time and this included the manufacturing of silks in the Byzantine Empire which it became famous for, the construction of various cities in the empire that would grow to importance, sending explorers to see the far parts of the world to spread Christianity, and the reorganization of the empire’s government systems that allowed it to live on for centuries beyond his time.

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Legacy of Justinian I

Justinian definitely had his flaws and a lot of it had to do with his over ambitious projects of expanding the empire to its farthest extent, his religious intolerance to non-Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Pagans that would soon create internal tensions in the empire, and his failure to prevent war with the Sassanids in the east. On the other hand, I have to give it to Justinian because no matter how much odds he faced including the plague, on and off wars with the Sassanids, an unending war for control of Italy, civil unrest, economic difficulties, and the loss of his wife Theodora, he still persisted with his dream, the dream to revive the Roman Empire of old and save the world form the Dark Ages Europe had fallen to and for this reason he earns his title “the great”. Even more, Justinian after death is considered a saint in the Orthodox Christian faith for his entire life dedicated to growing and defending the faith of Orthodoxy, and at the end he was able to achieve that no matter the odds, even after his death everything will gradually go downhill for Byzantium. At the end, this dream was only partially achieved as not all the lost provinces of Western Rome were recovered but only Italy, North Africa, and Southern Hispania as he knew it would also prove too difficult to recover the rest including Gaul, Britannia, and Germania considering its distance to Constantinople and the lack of funds to recover them all, but at least he went far recovering a good 50% of the lost western provinces.

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Icon of St. Justinian the Great

However, if the plague did not happen and so did the wars with the Sassanids, then I believe that after Justinian’s time, these other western provinces could have been recovered too. Now, others may blame it all on Justinian’s over expanding that brought the empire down shortly after his death, but I would say it was not all his fault because the plague which no one saw happening happened causing a great collapse in the economy and that he did not know all the troubles that would come after his time. As for me, I would think that if Justinian only visited the provinces he reconquered like Italy and be able to see how they can be managed, if he actually handled the plague better off by actually using it to his advantage by using it to destroy the Sassanids, and if he only could properly train a successor to rule like him in this case his nephew Justin II who in real history did succeed him, then I believe that by doing all this, the Byzantine Empire would have not come to its downfall so soon enough and it is for all these reasons, why I wrote this for the 3rd chapter of this Byzantine Alternate History series. I would also have to say that Justinian only was able to achieve such great dreams of imperial conquest because he was lucky to have a full treasury due to the reign of Anastasius I before him and a stable state due to all the instability cleaned up by Zeno before Anastasius but also because Justinian carefully planned everything and invaded with the right reason, again with his policy of “intervention imperialism”. On the other hand, I have to admit, this was very difficult to put together but luckily Dovahhatty’s most recent video on the reign of Justinian did come out, but of course Byzantine history itself is not complete if the reign of Justinian were not written about and it is for this reason, why the 3rd chapter here had to involve Justinian. Of course, I also have to thank Justinianus of helping me in the creation of this story as it was her idea all along to come up with the fictional scenario of Justinian himself travelling to Italy to join his own military campaigns. Well, I hope this was a very interesting and intriguing fan fiction for the 3rd part of my Byzantine alternate history series made possible with the contributions of Justinianus, and as always, the next chapter will not have any continuity to this one’s alternate history scenario. The next article will go on with the case of real history wherein the weakened Byzantine Empire from Justinian’s over-expansion would be further weakened from an ultimate war with the Sassanids that it came so close to the verge of extinction with the unexpected expansion of the Arabs a century after Justinian’s time. The next story then will discuss the story of the lesser known yet very interesting 7th century Byzantine emperor Constans II who like Justinian had a vision to continue expanding west but this time at the cost of moving the Byzantine capital from Constantinople to Sicily to further defend the west from the expansionist Arabs, but at the end failed to do it when being assassinated, now if Constans II survived and just did that, would the course of Byzantine history change? Well, this is all for chapter III of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!

 

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

Posted by Powee Celdran

Disclaimer: Although this is 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 5th century AD.

This story is a tale between two empires, the Eastern and Western Roman Empires under two different emperors but facing the same struggles.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter I- 4th Century

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Welcome to the second chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in the first chapter of my alternate history series, I discussed what could have happened if the armies of the combined eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire worked together and won the critical Battle of Adrianople in 378, where in real history the Romans lost thus marking the beginning of their end. In the previous story, I also discussed possible scenarios that could have happened but never happened in history such as if the western emperor Valentinian I the Great- who died in 375- lived a bit longer in time to help his brother the eastern emperor Valens in the fight against the invading Gothic tribes at the Battle of Adrianople itself as well as a possible scenario of the future Roman emperor Theodosius I taking sides with the Goths, then eventually becoming their ruler and one day take the Roman Empire for himself and unite it with the Goths ruling a super-empire. However, in this new alternate history story I am writing, despite it being the second chapter of the series, it will have no continuity to the previous story. As I mentioned it previously, all 12 articles will be stand-alone pieces, and this one will have a totally different what if scenario beginning with real history, but with a twist at the end that none of us had ever seen happening. Since this series will feature one what if per century of the 1,100 years of the Byzantine Empire’s existence, I will write some of them together with other Byzantine history enthusiasts such as myself. This is my 5th century AD fan fiction and just like the first chapter, it is just myself writing it. This article will be not just the story of one empire, but two- the Eastern and Western Roman Empires and the climax will be a particular event taking place in the year 472, 4 years before the actual fall of the Western Roman Empire (476) and here a very much unknown scenario that could have prevented the eventual fall of the west involving the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Emperor Leo I and a secret order, the Western Roman Emperor Procopius Anthemius and an assassination attempt on him, and an insignificant battle in Rome took place. The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 happens to be so romanticized especially in the western context when in reality, it was nothing more but humiliating rather than dramatic as all that happened was that a puppet boy emperor Romulus Augustus was simply overthrown by his barbarian general Odoacer who decided to just abolish the title of emperor thus putting an end to the western empire making everyone later on believe this event marked the end of the Roman Empire. This event in 476 personally makes me cringe a lot as Rome did not really fall here, its still lived on in the east as Byzantium, though I believe this fall in 476 could have easily been stopped. One scenario that could have prevented Western Rome from falling in 476 was something that took place 4 years prior to it where the western emperor Anthemius, who was actually an Eastern Roman (Byzantine) and one of the very few competent emperors in the 80-year history of the failed state of the Western Roman Empire would have not been in killed 472 at the Battle of Rome, whereas in real history he fell out with his powerful barbarian general Ricimer who later defeated him and had him killed. Though Anthemius ruled the west for only 5 years (467-472) being a puppet of the Western Empire’s army general Ricimer, he was a still a strong and competent emperor who clearly did not want to be a puppet and even though ruling an empire that was falling apart, he was still motivated to restore it and fight back the barbarian tribes that had been taking over it as well as establishing a dynasty to make sure the empire would still last, but sadly he did not achieve his dream. Anthemius was killed by the orders of his puppet master Ricimer who only out of chance intercepted a letter made by the eastern emperor Leo I to kill Ricimer, which he used instead as an order to kill Anthemius. After the death of Anthemius, disorder and anarchy reigned in the Western Roman Empire for 4 more years with 4 more weaker emperors following him and a lack of central authority eventually culminating in the abolition of the western empire in 476, leaving the west to completely fall to barbarian rule and the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople to be the only Roman Empire left around. Now, if Anthemius still stayed alive by receiving the letter ordering Ricimer’s death before Ricimer got his hands on it, would the Western Roman Empire still have many more years left to live or not?  

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since the story is set in the 5th century, Byzantine characters will be referred to as Romans not Byzantines.

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Map of all Barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire, 100-500AD

The previous article discussed the Gothic War from 376-382 with a Roman victory, but in real history the defeat of the Romans to the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 was the beginning of the end, for the western half of the empire at least, as the east though being devastated, was in the perfect geographical position to remain standing as the western half was more exposed to frequent barbarian invasions through the Rhine and Danube river borders. In only less than a hundred years after the catastrophic Battle of Adrianople, the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist in 476 but in that 98 years between 378 and 476, a roller coaster of events has happened for the Romans, both east and west. Following the Gothic War’s conclusion in 382, peace was settled and the enemy being the Goths were settled into the Roman Empire as allied soldiers under their own leaders known as Foederati by the new eastern emperor Theodosius I, however in the years to come, these barbarians would prove to be terrible and rebellious allies. In 395, the Roman Empire would be permanently split in half when Theodosius I died passing the eastern half which would be the Byzantine Empire to his older son Arcadius and the western half to his younger son Honorius and in the years that followed, disaster after disaster occurred in the western half including a massive barbarian invasion into the empire crossing the frozen Rhine in 406, the loss of Roman Britain, 2 sackings of Rome, the Eternal City (410 by the Visigoths and 455 by the Vandals), the birth of new barbarian kingdoms within the empire, a series of invasions by the world’s enemy being the Huns, and an epic battle worth talking about thousands of years later which was the Battle of Chalons in Gaul in 451 wherein the Western Romans with their barbarian Visigoth, Frankish, and Burgundians allies proved successful in defeating the world’s enemy, Attila the Hun. Though the Huns were eventually defeated after 451, the Western Roman Empire was beyond repair, as in the past few years, barbarian tribes that had recently invaded such as the Visigoths, Franks, Vandals, Suebi, and Ostrogoths already took over Roman lands and began becoming a constant headache for both the western and empires while the western empire’s government and succession system remained unstable especially due to having a series of incompetent emperors whether from an imperial bloodline or just usurpers wanting to take power for themselves or worse, puppet emperors controlled by barbarian puppet masters. The western half of the Roman Empire based in Ravenna though was only more or less a satellite state of the eastern half or Byzantine Empire which stood stronger as it held the richer provinces of the Roman Empire including Syria and Egypt as well as several important cities including Antioch and Alexandria and at the same time having mostly competent emperors and a more stable system. As for the west being the east’s satellite state, basically its emperor to be considered legitimate had to be appointed or have the consent of the eastern emperor for sitting in the western throne, or he’d be considered a usurper. Now in the entire 80-year history of the western empire, it turns out only 5 out of the 13 western emperors were considered legitimate as they were recognized by the eastern emperor and only 2 of these 5 were competent ones which was Majorian (r. 457-461) the ambitious soldier emperor who still had a vision to restore his empire but met a tragic end, and Procopius Anthemius (r. 467-472) who is the central character of this story, a Greek in blood and a native of Constantinople who had a vision to restore the dying western half that had been overrun by barbarians but was betrayed and killed by those who feared his growing independence, particularly his puppet master general Ricimer. Since only 4 other western emperors ruled the west after Anthemius and neither of them were strong ones, Anthemius has the legacy of being perhaps the last capable Western Roman emperor and even in his short 5-year reign, he had a pretty good start in saving the western empire from total extinction.

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Flag of the Western (red) and Eastern (purple) Roman Empires combined
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Roman Empire 5th century map, dissolution of the west (red). Cover photo of the blog as this story focuses on the western empire’s dissolution
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Guide to the late Roman army’s structure (by Powee Celdran); this article contains a lot of terms of late Roman army units.

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

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

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

The Fall of Western and Eastern Rome Compared

Fall of Western Rome Related Videos:

Unbiased History: Rome XIX- The Fall of Rome (Dovahhatty)

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

Ranking the Byzantine Emperors: The Leonid Dynasty (Eastern Roman History)

Fall of the Roman Empire, 337-486 timelapse (TominusMaximus)


The 5th century was one epic story for the Roman Empire especially being the western empire’s last century and the steady rise of the eastern empire or Byzantine Empire. Now, there happens to be so many crucial events in the 5th century history of Rome that could create many what if scenarios such as what if the general Stilicho was not executed in 408, what if Attila defeated the Romans in 451, what if the Vandals never sacked Rome in 455, or what if the western emperor Majorian was not killed in 461, but out of all the events that happened in this century, I chose to go for one particularly obscure scenario which is one that involves the western emperor Anthemius and his death and what if it did not happen, which I believe would be something that could at least save the western empire for some more years. Just recently, a video by the Youtube channel Eastern Roman History came out which had been ranking the Byzantine emperors of the Leonid Dynasty starting with its founder Leo I who will be a central character of this story and this video made quite a theory saying that if the eastern emperor Zeno in 476 who was overthrown here stayed in power instead, the west would have been saved and another one being that if Zeno’s son the short reigning emperor Leo II (r. 474) did not die after only 9 months in power as child history may have turned out to be different, though for me I would go for the option of saving the west from falling back in 472 with Anthemius but after watching this recent video as well and hearing of the theory of Leo II living long enough, I decided to put this theory of Leo II here. Basically, I wanted to do an article covering a lesser-known part of Roman-Byzantine history and a character in this period which happens to be a very interesting figure and in this case is the Constantinople-born Western Roman emperor Procopius Anthemius, another forgotten but able ruler in history and only recently I have been fascinated with him and his story. On the other hand, the Western Roman Empire from 395 to 455 had undergone such epic events but the few years between the Vandals’ sack of Rome in 455 and the final end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 are not very much remembered so what I am doing here in this article is to bring some light into this mysterious 20-year period of history set in the middle of important and well-remembered events. It was only recently when I got to know about the emperor Anthemius and what he did which was last December when I wrote an the article of comparing the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to the fall of Byzantium in the 15th century and here I discovered something interesting which was not only Anthemius but a particular mystery that involved a secret letter sent by the eastern emperor Leo I and again I should mention that it was my through favorite history related Youtube channel Dovahhatty in this final episode of his Unbiased History of Rome series, Chapter XIX: The Fall of Rome where I first came across this particular story and Anthemius himself. Strangely, I have already grown very familiar with the Eastern Roman characters of this part of the 5th century such as Emperor Leo I, his successor Zeno, Basiliscus, Aspar, and many others, but not with Anthemius who in fact was a Byzantine too. In the past I have also included these characters previously mentioned in my articles but not Anthemius, so now I will do my best to blend Anthemius into the story making him a leading character together with the eastern emperors Leo I, Basiliscus, and Zeno. Since in this series I will be experimenting by playing around on some historical characters and their back stories, in this case I will do it with Anthemius who has not so much written about him by historians of his time despite being one of the most documented of the unknown western Roman emperors, so here I will do my best to create his character’s traits and motives. In addition, I will do the same as last time in blending in a fictional character into the historical setting to add some more plot twists to the story and in this case, it will be however a real character which was the Eastern Roman soldier sent by Leo I with secret orders to kill Ricimer which was for Anthemius’ eyes only, though this soldier was never named and his story never told, so in this story I will give a bit of a story to this particular soldier named Cyriacus and in addition, I also decided to include a side story of Emperor Leo I no one has heard of which was his discovery of a miracle making spring in Constantinople. Now in real history, the Western Roman Empire ever since 456 was basically under the control of a powerful Germanic barbarian general in their army named Flavius Ricimer and under his manipulation were the puppet emperors Majorian (r. 457-461), Severus III (r. 461-465), and Anthemius (r. 467-472) and all these emperors met their ends by Ricimer who fell out with all three. In 472, which is where this story will take place, it happened in real history that the eastern emperor was pressured by the Vandal king of Carthage Genseric to make Olybrius the western emperor who would be Genseric’s puppet but Leo being a friend of Anthemius who worked well with him as a co-emperors came up with a smart trick which was to pretend to agreeing to kill Anthemius to please Genseric but secretly he planted a letter with this soldier Cyriacus escorting Olybrius to Italy but when arriving in Italy, Ricimer intercepted the letter which had orders to kill him as well as Olybrius to break Anthemius out of his control. Being shocked when seeing this letter, Ricimer decided to turn on Anthemius, proclaimed Olybrius his new puppet emperor and besieged Rome where Anthemius held himself in and after 5 months, Anthemius was defeated and beheaded by Ricimer’s orders but shortly after, both Ricimer and his new puppet Olybrius died of natural causes, and just 4 years later with instability in the west growing more and more, the western empire was finally abolished in 476. However, I believe that if Anthemius got the letter ahead of Ricimer, he would have ruled himself independently, establish a dynasty, and keep the empire alive for much longer while at the same time closely cooperating with his eastern co-emperor Leo I. In this story, the main antagonists will be Ricimer and the eastern empire’s puppet master Aspar who will be depicted as those who seek to destroy civilization itself from within which will be a more fictional element as real history does not really say what their true intentions were except that they were clearly power-hungry leaders. Though even if the western empire would still survive after 476, there would still be a possibility of the whole known world eventually starting what would be the first world war thousands of years before World War I happened and here I could imagine the Eastern and Western Empires allying with the Franks, Suebi, and Sassanid Empire against a large coalition of barbarians including the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Saxons, Suebi, and Huns fighting wars all across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. At the same time, with the Western Roman Empire still surviving after 476, this could also mean that the epic reconquests of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 6th centuries would not really come to happen anymore. This story here will be much longer than the previous one because of its variety of character as well as the geography it focuses on and it will not only tell the story of one character or one empire but both Eastern and Western Roman empires, a number of emperors, and other nations including the Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths and several ongoing conflicts between them in a setting of such a large world over the span of not just many years but decades. 


The Leading Characters:

Procopius Anthemius- Western Roman emperor

Leo I (Leo Marcellus)- Eastern Roman emperor

Flavius Ricimer- Magister Militum of the West

Anicius Olybrius- Rival of Anthemius

Flavius Zeno- Eastern Roman general, later emperor

*Cyriacus- Eastern Roman Palatini soldier (real character but unnamed, therefore I gave his name)

Genseric- King of the Vandals of North Africa

Odoacer- Commander of the Ostrogoth Foederati

Gundobad- Burgundian leader and Ricimer’s 2nd in command

Bilimer- Western Roman general

Aspar- Magister Militum of the East

Basiliscus- Eastern Roman commander

Julius Nepos- Eastern Roman general

Theodoric Strabo- Rogue Ostrogoth mercenary

Marcian- Son of Anthemius

Alypia- Daughter of Anthemius 

Ariadne- Daughter of Leo I

Daniel the Stylite- Eastern Roman prophet

Leo II- Eventual Eastern Roman emperor, son of Zeno 

Not to mention, the story’s lead character Emperor Procopius Anthemius has his own Instagram! Follow @the_anthemius

Character Images Below of Selected Characters from this Story

Background Guide: Western Roman characters (red, although Anthemius was a western emperor his yellow background is because he is from the east), Eastern Roman characters (yellow), Ostrogoths (green), Vandals (blue)


The Background (The Real History)       

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In 378, the Roman army faced a catastrophic defeat to the invading Gothic army at the Battle of Adrianople where the eastern Roman emperor Valens was killed and following this was a great crisis. Without an emperor, a young general, Theodosius the Younger was appointed as the east’s emperor based in Constantinople- the new capital of the Roman Empire founded by Emperor Constantine I the Great in 330- by the reigning western emperor Gratian and in 382, the crisis was solved when peace was settled with the Goths allowing them to settle in Roman lands so long as they provide military assistance for the Romans becoming a unit in the Roman army known as the Foederati as the Goths could no longer return to their homeland which had been taken over by the world’s enemy, the Huns. The following year, civil war broke out in the west when Magnus Maximus, a Roman general in Britain pulled out his troops there, marched into Gaul and usurped power after hunting down and killing Gratian. Magnus Maximus however wanted to share power with his friend, the eastern emperor Theodosius I but Theodosius disagreed as the west already had a legitimate emperor, Gratian’s younger half-brother Valentinian II so a civil war was fought between Theodosius and Magnus Maximus in which Theodosius won in 388 with the help of his new Gothic allies while Magnus Max