Byzantium had first been reconstructed in the time of Septimius Severus not just as a Roman city, but modelled on Rome itself, on and around seven hills. Later Constantine the Great chose it as his new capital, renaming it Constantinople, and it remained the capital of the eastern part of the Roman empire.
Arcadius (reign AD 395-408)
Born AD ca. 377 in Spain. Became emperor January AD 395. Wife: Aelia Eudoxia; (one son Theodosius) Died at Constantinople, AD 408.
But the story of Constantinople as an independent entity begins during the reign of co-emperors Arcadius (c.AD 378-408) and Honorius (AD 385-423), under whom the two parts of the Roman empire finally went their own ways (Arcadius succeeding Theodosius in Constantinople in AD 395). As Rome fell in AD 410 the burden of sustaining roman civilization alas fell solely to the eastern capital.
The eastern empire, largely by reason of its geographical situation, was bypassed by the ant-like hordes of invaders who befell Rome. The Parthian threat from the east had also ceased as Parthia had to contend with the Scythian menace on her own eastern frontier.
The independent Arabian tribes, now beginning to be known as the Saracens, might worry Romans and Persians alternately, having their own retreat secured by the wastes of the Arabian desert, but they constituted no real menace to neither of the great powers.
Theodosius II (reign AD 408-450)
Born AD 401. Became emperor January AD 408. Wife: Aelia Eudocia; (one daughter; Licinia Eudoxia) Died at Constantinople, AD 450.
Early in AD 408 Arcadius died, succeeded by his six year old son Theodosius II. Was Constantinople ruled feebly, it could only watch on as its great ally in the west was savaged by one barbarian invasion after another.
There was little done for all the time Theodosius II grew up. the empire was largely run be able ministers and the state apparatus, – and Theodosius II’s older sister Pulcheria, under pious regime the court almost became a nunnery.
Under constant pressure by the Huns Constantinople was blackmailed to pay an annual subsidy to them, who by now dominated Hungary and were an ever-present threat to the eastern empire.
In AD 435 at last an intervention was made against the Vandals, who from Carthage crossing the Mediterranean with a fleet attacked Sicily. The Vandal leader Geiseric was persuaded to withdraw for the time and retain possession of Carthage.
In AD 441 Attila alas attacked with his Huns, overrunning a great part of the Balkan peninsula, capturing cities and devastating; but he did not attempt Constantinople, which was virtually impregnable. In 443 Theodosius II came to terms; his subsidy to the Huns was to be doubled, and a great territory south of the Danube was to be left waste, a no-man’s-land, between the two empires.
From Attila’s point of view, Theodosius had acknowledged himself his tributary. But the Hun was still not satisfied, and again overran the peninsula in 447; but he contented himself with a confirmation of the treaty in 449, thereafter turning his attention to the west.
In AD 450 Theodosius II died in tranquil respectability, his empire having enjoyed a placid prosperity instead of breaking up as might well have been anticipated. The most notable achievements of his Reign had been the issue of a great codification of the laws, known as the Theodosian code, and the establishment of a university in Athens.
Marcian (reign AD 450-457)
Born in AD 392. Became emperor March AD 450. Died at Constantinople, AD 457.
Theodosius II named as his successor an able officer, Marcian, with whom Pulcheria consented to go through the form of marriage in order to bring him into the imperial family circle.
Read More: Roman Marriage
Marcian’s brief and prosperous reign was distinguished by very judicious financial reforms and by his repudiation of the Hun tribute, which undoubtedly have brought Attila down on him but for the lure of the west.
Marcian died in AD 457.
Leo the Great (reign AD 457-474)
Born in AD 401. Became emperor March AD 457. Wife: Aelia Verina (two daughters; (1) Aelia Ariadne, (2) Leontia). Died at Constantinople, 18 January AD 474.
Read More: Leo the Great
With no obvious successor the choice was dictated by the powerful soldier and minister Aspar, who nominated Leo, a Thracian. Leo reigned not at all as a puppet of the man to whom he owed his elevation.
He countered the Teutonising tendencies of Aspar by recruiting his armies and his ministers from his own people. In AD 467 it was Leo who appointed the Greek Anthemius to the vacant position of emperor of the west.
Then east and west combined to crush the Vandals who were the masters of the Mediterranean, but met with disaster as the imperial fleet, commanded by Basiliscus was destroyed by Geiseric in AD 468.
Leo II (reign AD 474)
With the great emperor Leo dead, the rule of constantinople fell to his boy grandson, whom he had in 473 made made co-Augustus. Leo’s son in law, the father of Leo II, was to be regent, during the boy’s childhood. But already in February AD 474 Zeno made himself co emperor and within the year the child-emperor Leo II was dead. Most likley he was killed by his own father Zeno.
Zeno (reign AD 474-475)
Born in Rosoumblada in Isauria (Asia Minor). Consul AD 469. Became emperor 9 February AD 474. Wife: (1) Arcadia, (2) Aelia Ariadne. Died AD 491.
Had Zeno virtually usurped the throne and most likley been responsible for his own son’s death, then within a year he, too, was no longer on the throne. Zeno became a fugitive, having been ejected from Constantinople by the very Basiliscus whose fleet under the rule of Leo had been annihilated by Geiseric.
Basiliscus (reign AD 475-476)
Became emperor AD 475. Wife: Aelia Zenonis (three sons; Marcus, Leo, Zeno). Died AD 476.
Basiliscus ejected Zeno and snatched the throne for himself with the aid of Teutonic mercenaries, whose commander was the Ostrogoth soldier of fortune Theodoric, called Strabo – the ‘one-eyed’. Basiliscus, too, didn’t last long, falling from power in AD 476, as Zeno returned at the head of his Isaurians.
Zeno, restored (reign AD 476-491)
Zeno was restored to power in AD 476. Not only did he regain his throne, but so too in AD 477 did the deputation arrive proclaiming that Odoacer the Germanic conqueror of Rome voluntarily would submit to him, if he was to be allowed to remain King of Italy on Zeno’s behalf.
Naturally Zeno accepted. He was in no position to refuse recognition of the de facto ruler of Italy, and it could at any rate do no harm if the ruler chose to call himself the subordinate instead of the colleague of the Augustus of Constantinople.
Meanwhile Theodoric Strabo, the mercenary having helped Basiliscus oust Zeno from power, now having retired into the Balkan mountains, invited Zeno to make him master of the army or to face the consequences.
Zeno declined and Teodoric Strabo, united with the Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Amal, marched on Constantinople.
Diplomatic conniving on the part of Zeno managed to persuade Theodoric Strabo to change sides, but what was now a war between the Ostrogoths and Constantinople should last for four years (479-483), with all the honours falling to Theodoric the Amal.
With Theodoric Strabo having died, the emperor troubled with conspiracies and Theodoric the Amal realizing that in any case he could never conquer the hugely fortified City of Constantinople, the emperor and the Ostrogoth eventually agreed terms.
Theodoric the Amal was made master of the soldiers (the very position Theodoric Strabo had demanded) and received fresh grants of land for his followers. What followed was the revolt of a certain Leontius in Syria, who appealed for aid to the Persian king Balas and to Odoacer. But before any of the promised aid could arrive, Zeno had crushed the rebellion by the help of Theodoric.
But Zeno well appreciated just how dangerous helpers like Theodoric were. And the attitude of Odoacer was growing more menacing. A plan was put into place to embroil the two. In AD 488 he offered Theodoric the rule of Italy in exchange for Moesia, the province he then ruled.
Of course the Ostrogoth accepted, assuming that Odoacer, another mere lieutenant of the emperor would make way. Naturally, Odoacer had no intentions of giving up his position as self-styled King of Italy. The fight was on, Theodoric eventually defeating Odoacer in a grim war, Odoacer being murdered in AD 490, despite surrender the sheer impregnable city of Ravenna after the offer of generous terms.
But a year before the city of Ravenna fell, the very master having created this war, emperor Zeno, died in Constantinople. Under his rule the Balkans had been ravaged repeatedly, depopulated by an onslaught of war upon war. Yet the rest of the eastern empire stood reasonably untouched during the barbaric nightmare unfolding in the west.
Zeno was not a tyrant, nor a conquering general. Far more he was a politician, who preferred compromise and whose political astuteness is best displayed in the way he played off Odoacer and Theodoric against one another in order to have his empire spared of their aggression.
If he left one problem behind at his death it was the ever growing hostilities within two factions of Constantinople itself. The Church of Constantinople was deeply divided into the orthodox and the monophysites.
This divide, which literally split Constantinople’s population into two feuding camps, was continued in the sporting arena of the Hippodrome (chariot racing), where the orthodox supported the ‘blues’ and the monophysites supported the ‘greens’. Having tried to reconcile these hostile groupings, Zeno had only managed to inflame the hatred yet further.
Anastasius (reign AD 491-518)
Zeno died leaving no obvious heir. An eminently wise choice, mainly influenced by Zeno’s widow, Ariadne, bestowed the office on Anastasius, an experienced official of the highest character, universally respected, who became emperor in AD 491.
Anastasius reign is deemed a highly creditable one. He did his best to calm the theological animosities between the orthodox and the monophysite Christians and only concerned himself with the west when Theodoric’s activities in Illyria involved him in a boundary dispute with his powerful lieutenant.
Thrace and Moesia were vexed by Bulgarian raids from across the Danube, and Anastasius built a great defensive wall fifty miles long to hold the raiders in check.
The Isaurian troops, who had made themselves so unpopular in the capital, were disbanded, returned home to their accustomed occupation as brigands and were not suppressed without great difficulty.
A brief war between the Sassanide King of Persia, Kobad, after the invasion of Mesopotamia by the Persians resulted in peace along the lines of the pre-war basis.
The wars of Anastasius were merely disturbing episodes. They neither added to nor materially detracted from the general credit to his reign. Anastasius died in AD 518, well respected, and leaving a full treasury.
Justin (reign AD 518-527)
Anastasius left no heir, and the throne was unexpectedly secured by an elderly Illyrian officer, Justin. Justin continued the safe policy of his predecessor. Justin was an old soldier who had served in the imperial armies for some fifty years, having risen though the ranks of the army to be emperor, still, it was alleged, unable to read or write.
At the end of his nine year rule, he associated with himself on the throne his nephew Justinian, who had practically been his colleague throughout his reign. Justin died only a few months after the appointment of Justinian as joint ruler.
Justinian AD 527-565)
In AD 527 acceding to the throne, Justinian was already fully conversant with the whole system of administration. Though he had just scandalized society by marrying a lowly-born dancer, Theodora, whose reputation was notorious.
He was born in Illyricum, the son of a Slavonic peasant. Was his uncle Justin rumoured not to have been able to read or write, he had not skimped on the education of his nephew Justinian, whose ambitious aims included stamping out corruption in government, refining and upholding law, uniting the churches in the east and taking Christianity forcibly to the barbarians in the west, thus recovering for the empire the territories that it had lost.
With such high-flying ideas in mind Justinian already in AD 528 found himself forced into a war with the Persians. King Kobad having revived the power of the Sassanid dynasty in Persia reopened hostilities after twenty years of peace and invaded Mesopotamia. Though nothing decisive was to happen until AD 530.
The war brought into prominence Belisarius (505-565), a brilliant soldier to whom the emperor should be mainly indebted for the military glories of his reign.
Belisarius, then a very young officer in command of the forces on the frontier, had previously only been able to stand on guard. But in AD 530 he completely routed a much larger Persian force during a large-scale cavalry battle. Kobad died the next year, and his son Chosroes (Khusru), as yet insecurely seated on the throne, made peace.
In AD 532 much of the city was destroyed during what is known as the Nika rebellion, which began as a riot between two sets of fans, the ‘Blues’ and the ‘Greens’, in the circus, and developed into a full-scale revolt against his authority.
The revolt was, with difficulty, quelled, but the damage caused enabled him to exploit his own hobby of building, at a time when the golden age of Byzantine architecture had just been reached.
Among four major new churches was the sensational Hagia Sophia (today Santa Sophia or Aya Sophia), designed by Anthemius, the main dome of which was built, unusually, on a square base and was replaced in AD 555 by one with forty arched windows around its circumference. Hagia Sophia survives, but since 1453 has been a mosque.
The Nika insurrection having been brutally crushed, the leader of is and his brother beheaded, and at peace with Persia, Justinian now turned his attention to the Vandals in Africa. In AD 530 Geilamir had usurped the Vandal crown ignoring Justinian’s protests.
Now, unburdened by rebellions and Persians, Justinian sought to have his revenge for the insolence shown toward him by this Vandal upstart. In AD 533 Belisarius landed in Africa with fifteen thousand men. The local Vandal force was routed outside Carthage and the city from its Vandal oppressors.
Geilamir retreated to the west and gathered his forces, while every city was flinging open its gates to Belisarius. The decisive battle was fought in December at Tricameron, where the Vandals were annihilated. Geilamir initially escaped. But he soon realized that a further struggle was hopeless.
He surrendered himself and was relegated to an easy retirement in Phrygia. The Vandal kingdom was no more. Belisarius had succeeded with only fifteen thousand men, where the vast armaments of Leo I had failed ignominiously. He returned in triumph to Constantinople to prepare for a fresh task.
And a new task was soon at hand. In AD 534 the boy grandson of Theodoric (Theodoric had died in AD 526) died. Had Theodoric’s daughter Amalaswintha ruled as regent until her son would come of age she now appointed Theodoric’s nephew Theodahad to rule Italy together with her.
Theodahad, an unsavoury but ambitious character with little to no talent for rule, though soon conspired against her, captured her and had her murdered. This in effect gave Justinian all the excuse he needed to intervene in Italy.
In AD 535 Belisarius landed in in Sicily with a small force. Had Theodoric given Italy just and firm government, the Italian population had always remained hostile against him. For Theodahad they was no love lost at all in Italy. The Goths were said to have 100’000 fighting men in the country, but the entire Italian population was on the side of the imperial invaders.
Meanwhile the Goths were also paralyzed by the inaction of their own king. Sicily welcomed Belisarius with open arms. In the next spring he advanced into southern Italy with seven thousand men, meeting no resistance until he reached Naples. All the while 50’000 Goths lay about Rome.
Alas, in AD 536 the Goths in despair deposed Theodahad, who was subsequently murdered. They elected as their new king Witiges, a valiant but stupid old warrior who had forgotten anything he once may have known about generalship.
Instead of marching to overwhelm Belisarius , who had captured Naples, Witiges carried almost his entire army north to deal with a force of Franks who had seized the opportunity to pour through the Alps. Belisarius with a small force pounced on Rome, which the garrison evacuated in a panic as he entered it.
Witiges came to peace with the Franks, ceding to them the Roman Provence. Then he returned with his entire Gothic army and laid siege to Rome. However, he never managed to enforce a complete blockade, so that at first supplies and later reinforcements continually seeped into the city.
In spite of his hugely superior numbers all his attacks were repelled with massive losses. After a year (AD 538) sufficient reinforcements from the east had arrived to enable Belisarius to take the offensive.
After two more years of campaigning it was Witiges who found himself besieged in Ravenna. By then he would have accepted the generous terms offered by Justinian. But his Goths would have none of it. Instead they offered the crown to Belisarius, who, apparently having fooled them into the belief that he accepted this offer, had them open the gates to Ravenna which he then occupied in the name of Justinian.
Ravenna in imperial hands it was deemed an easy task to mop up the rest of Italy, and Belisarius was recalled to take up the command against the Persians, with whom another war had broken out.
King Chosroes, apparently upon request by the besieged Witiges in Ravenna who sought a diversion of imperial attention, had attacked northern Syria in AD 540. His attack took the empire by surprise and he captured Antioch and carried off great spoils.
Was Belisarius in charge again of leading the troops in the east, the war proved less rewarding for Constantinople this time, as Belisarius, expecting Chosroes to attack Mesopotamia, could only stand by helplessly as his adversary instead overran the trans-caucasian province of Colchis. But soon Belisarius was dispatched back to Italy where his successor had suffered reverses against the Goths.
After the fall of Ravenna and Belisarius’ departure to the east, the Goths had elected a new king, Hildebad, who soon recovered the plain of the Po. though Hildebad was assassinated in AD 541 and he was succeeded by his nephew Baduila, better known as Totila.
By AD 542 Totila had routed the imperial armies in the field wherever he had met them and had driven them back into their fortified towns like Ravenna or Rome. But for those cities he had made his Goths in effect masters over all Italy once again.
In AD 543 Belisarius was back in Italy. But by now he had fallen out of favour with his emperor. Instead of his devoted veterans he was allowed only a meagre force of raw recruits with which to fight the Goths. In AD 545 Totila laid siege to Rome.
Belisarius vainly attempted to relieve it, and it fell back to the Goths in AD 546. They forcibly removed the population and dismantled the defences. Belisarius after their departure reoccupied the city and refortified it, only to be recalled to the east by Justinian, and for Totila to subsequently take Rome yet again.
Justinian was at war with Persia for the third time. Nevertheless he achieved great successes in the west. The Italian command he granted to his chamberlain, the eunuch Narses, together with the veteran troops he had denied Belisarius. The lengthy struggle so far had depleted the Gothic army. Marching on Rome Narses forced Totila into a decisive engagement at Taginae.
Totila and his brother were slain and the Gothic was all but annihilated. The Ostrogoth power was no more. Within the reign of the same emperor they had been befallen by the same fate as the Vandals.
Narses then drove the Franks out of the north of Italy, leaving the motherland of the ancient Roman empire once again restored to the empire itself.
But the ceaseless struggle which had waged for twenty years had destroyed the country, leaving it depopulated and desolated. Italy was a poor prize for the efforts it had taken to conquer her.
Justinian further sought to restore imperial authority in Spain, where some cities were, as the land suffered civil war among the Visigoths, secured, occupied and garrisoned with imperial troops.
The third war with Persia under Justinian was exclusively a struggle to recover Colchis. Finally the peace of AD 555 restored it to Constantinople, but only in return for substantial payment.
Despite public pressure Justinian remained true to his wife Theodora throughout his reign. Until her death in AD 548 she proved an admirable foil and a supportive wife, on the one hand standing up for persecuted members of the heretical Monophysite sect whose views she supported, and on the other comforting and encouraging her husband at times of stress, notably during the Nika rebellion.
While the eastern empire was largely Greek in its morality, it did uphold Roman law. The Justinian Code (AD 529) brought together all valid imperial laws and laid the foundation for almost all the legal systems in Europe. In addition he issued a revised and up-to-date edition (AD 534) of the works of classical jurists, and a textbook on Roman law (AD 533). He is also credited with introducing into Europe the culture of the silk-worm.
Justinian’s liking of architecture and his subsequent spectacular churches did provide a permanent legacy to his name, though they also threw the imperial finances into disarray.
Constantinople could not afford them out of normal revenue and hence the funds to pay for them had to be raised form abnormal taxation which crippled trade and industry of every kind – at the same time during which very heavy war taxation was to pay for Justinian’s and Belisarius’ campaigns.
So as much as Justinian achieved, and his achievements are many, ant his death he left behind an empire exhausted by war and the treasury drained dry.
Justinian died in the same year as his most dedicated general, Belisarius, in AD 565 at the age of 83.
Justin II (reign AD 565-578)
Justinian’s successor, Justin II, was ambitious, but lacked both the capacity and the means to achieve his imperial ambitions. By this time the Slavs (Slovenians) were rather flooding than infiltrating the Balkan peninsula in an inexhaustible stream.
The Avars in conjunction with the Lombards (Langobards) had just obliterated their trans-Danubian enemies (the Herulians and the Gepidae) and were ready to expand southward. The financial and military resources of the empire were reduced to the very ebb.
Early on in his reign (AD 567) Justin II removed Narses, the exarch of Ravenna, who’d completed the conquest of Italy for Justinian, from his post. It was a grave mistake which left Italy without firm leadership and hence wide open to any prospective invaders.
The Lombards didn’t need to be invited. they vacated their Danubian lands and poured through the Alps to take the place vacated by the Ostrogoths.
Justinian had kept the Avars quiet by a subsidy. Justin invited their attack by withdrawing the subsidy, and they responded by raiding with ever increasing intensity. Then in 571 he refused to continue payments to the Persians under the agreement which had been made when they evacuated Colchis.
Thus began the prolonged Persian war (AD 572-591) which was a steady drain on the resources of the empire, bringing no counterbalancing gains. Although, on the whole, the Persians had the worse in the fighting.
Then Justin went mad. He recovered sufficiently to nominate Tiberius Constantius as his colleague – the wisest act of his entire reign. Then he relapsed again.
For a time the power remained in the hands of his own empress. On his death, Tiberius II, of whom much was expected, became true emperor of Constantinople.
Tiberius II (reign AD 578-582)
Tiberius II’s reign was cut short by premature death (AD 582), though not after he had achieved a shaky peace agreement with the Avars.
Maurice I (reign AD 582-602)
Tiberius had nominated as his successor Maurice I, who had been doing good service in the command of the eastern army. He was a good soldier, but custom forbode the emperor from commanding in the field, and he did not understand administration.
The one truth he realized was the need for economy, and his economies ruined the discipline of his forces. Still, the war was ended by a Persian revolution. The Persian king Hormisdas was killed and the crown was usurped by Varahnes.
The legitimate heir Chosroes II fled to the Romans. Maurice granted him help which enabled him to carry out a counterrevolution and recover the throne. In such circumstances it was not difficult to negotiate a peace much needed by both sides.
Meanwhile the Avars had broken the peace which Tiberius II had induced them to accept. Also the Slavonic flood was rising. In AD 599 the economical emperor refused to ransom some thousands of prisoners who had fallen into the hands of the Avars.
The khan of the Avars had them massacred. Public opinion laid blame on Maurice. Then in AD 601, again for the sake of economy, the troops were ordered not to return to winter quarters. The soldiers mutinied, chose Phocas, one of their own, as their leader, marched on Constantinople, murdered Maurice, and proclaimed Phocas emperor (AD 602).
Phocas (reign AD 602-610)
Chaos followed Phocas’ usurpation of the throne, for he was nothing but a brutal savage. Chosroes II, as the avenger of his old protector Maurice, set about the conquest of the east, while Avars and Slavs ranged practically unresisted over the Balkans.
Meanwhile Phocas occupied himself with hunting down and killing conspirators, real or suspected. Mesopotamia, northern Syria, Asia Minor all fell to Chosroes II’s Persians. Only southern Syria, Egypt and Africa remained untouched.
In AD 609 Heraclius the elder, who had governed Africa long and well, organized a revolt. In AD 610 his son, Heraclius the younger, arrived at the Dardanelles with a fleet. The tyrant found himself utterly deserted. He was seized and handed over in chains to young Heraclius, who forthwith sent him to his death. Then Constantinople proclaimed its deliverer emperor.
Heraclius (reign AD 610-641)
The task before him was nigh impossible. Experienced officers, disciplined troops, money above all, were wanting. Disaster followed disaster. The Persians turned on Syria, in AD 514 capturing Jerusalem.
They sacked it and carried off what had been for centuries treasured as the ‘True Cross’ on which Jesus Christ had been crucified. Two years later they invaded Egypt, which offered no resistance at all. In AD 617 they took and garrisoned Chalcedon, facing Constantinople across the Bosporus. The end seemed at hand.
Despair wrought a miracle. High and low rallied to the cause. The church leading the way, they brought in by voluntary effort all their treasures, and troops were raised.
Heraclius proclaimed his resolve to break through tradition and take the field in person – to stake all on the last desperate effort to save the empire (and Christianity). But first the Avars and the Slavs had to be bound over. It was not until AD 622 that Heraclius was at last free to attack.
He had one vital asset, the command of the sea, and he used it. While he controlled the waters, Constantinople was safe from the Persians. He carried his troops along the coast to Cilicia where he landed cutting Asia Minor from Syria and forcing the enemy to withdraw from the west.
Next year he drove straight at Media. Year after year success followed success. He penetrated victoriously further into the heart of Persia than any Roman commander before him. When the Avars broke the treaty again, he even dared to risk leaving the capital to the strength of its own defences, and the siege was indeed broken up in AD 626.
In AD 627 he shattered the last Persian armies near Nineveh. This was the last blow to Chosroes II’s hold on power. His own troops deposed him, and his successor immediately sued for peace. Heraclius granted peace on generous terms. The Persian threat was finally nullified.
The idol of the army and the people, Heraclius returned in AD 628 to Constantinople, unconscious of the rise, in remote Arabia, of a menace to his empire, far more terrific than that which he had so gloriously broken – the world shattering power of Islam. For the Prophet Mohammed had arisen, upon whose death four years later the flood-gates would be opened.
After the death of Mohammed in Medina, the leadership of the Arabs was to fall to Abu Bekr who became the first Khalif. It wasn’t long before two armies were dispatched, – one to Mesopotamia (Irak) and the other to Syria.
They were tiny forces indeed compared to what might both Persia and Constantinople represented, and at that time it was still doubtful if Arabia was to hold together itself or break into fragments.
If the Arabs met with easy success against the Persians then the Romans were of a different fibre. Though the veterans who had served un Heraclius glorious campaigns against Chosroes II were mostly disbanded. The new recruits were of comparatively poor quality.
Meanwhile the Arabs moved their commander who’d been so successful against the Persians, Khalid, to the front against the Romans. This turned events in favour of the Arabs, or Saracens as they were becoming to be known as. In the late summer of AD 634 they won a crushing victory against the Romans on the Yermak.
Next year Damascus fell. Heraclius once more took the field in person, but he was no longer the same Heraclius who had heroically smashed the Persians. He was hopelessly enfeebled by disease.
In AD 636 the emperor abandoned Syria, emphasizing the completeness of the defeat by carrying with him to Constantinople the ‘True Cross’, which had, after his triumph over the Persians, had been re-enshrined at Jerusalem.
Antioch and Jerusalem itself fell in AD 637, and the capture of the great port of Caesarea in AD 640 completed the Saracen conquest of Syria.
But things were only to get worse for Constantinople as the Saracens then took to Egypt under the commander Amru. The conquest of this country in fact presented no serious difficulty to them at all.
The population of the Nile basin had no affection for the Empire, Monophysite Christianity being widespread, which orthodox Christian Byzantium sought to repress. Also Egyptian farmers were systematically exploited by their Roman masters for their corn supply, upon which Constantinople depended heavily.
A force of 16’000 men proved sufficient to effect the conquest, finishing with the capitulation of Alexandria in AD 641, with little serious fighting, and the dying Heraclius making no effort for its relief.
Constantine III (reign AD 641) and Heracleonas (reign AD 641-642)
When Heraclius died in AD 641, he was succeeded by his two sons, Heraclius Constantinus and Heracleonas. The elder died almost immediately, his ten year old son Constans II, was associated with Heracleonas as emperor.
Constans II (reign AD 642-668)
In AD 642 Heracleonas died and the boy Constans II became sole emperor. Until he reached manhood the government was conducted by the senate.
Though Constans II’s reign was also not to be a lucky one. In AD 646 his forces invaded from Asia Minor. The Saracen general Moawiya not only repelled the attack but carried the war into the empire’s territory.
Troops from Asia Minor raided further and further into Asia Minor in successive years, pushing nearer and nearer to the western limit of Asia, while Europe itself was threatened by the passing of the command of the eastern Mediterranean into the hands of the Saracen fleet.
In AD 649 the Saracen fleet effected the capture of Cyprus.
In AD 652 the imperial fleet was driven from Alexandria and in AD 655 it was finally defeated off Phoenix on the Lycian coast, in the heaviest sea-fight since Actium.
Constans though was not intent on sitting there and watching his dominions being slowly eroded away. Most of all he longed to restore imperial supremacy to Italy. In AD 662 he set out on his Italian expedition, overrunning southern Italy in AD 663 and visiting Rome.
But then, without attacking the northern kingdom, he retired unhindered through the south and took up his headquarters in Syracuse. From there he directed the AFrican campaigns against the attacking Saracens, who had assaulted and captured Carthage (AD 663).
The African campaigns were successful and the Saracens were driven back as far as Tripoli. Though all around him turned hostile in Syracuse as a result of his merciless means by which to make the Sicilians and southern Italians pay for the war.
In AD 668 Constant II was murdered at Syracuse by a slave who was probably the instrument of a conspiracy.
Constantine IV Pogonatus (reign AD 668-685)
Constans II was succeeded by his son Constantine IV Pogonatus. The new emperor was only eighteen when he took the throne. AFter suppressing a usurper at Syracuse who had tried to make his profit out of the murder of his father, the young emperor plunged into the war with the Saracens.
For some time Moawiya, now Khalif of the Saracens, met with success against him. By AD 673 Moawiya was in possession of the Asiatic shore of the Sea of Marmora and laid siege to Constantinople itself. Then the tide turned.
The Byzantine fleet, – armed with a new weapon, known as ‘Greek Fire’, a mixture of flammable oils which were blown at opponents with bellows, a little like an early flame-thrower, – recovered the mastery of the sea and drove off the Saracens. In ad 678 Moawiya had to sue for peace, and the hostilities were again suspended for several years.
At about that time however, Bulgaria came into being as a kingdom. The Slavs had long been in occupation of Moesia. To expel them had proved impossible, and Constans II had made terms with them which practically left them independent. The Bulgars had then crossed the Danube in force and now dominated the Slavs. Constanine IV recognized the Bulgarian kingdom in AD 679.
In the next year a general council of the churches, eastern and western, was held at Constantinople, which finally banned the Monothelite heresy. Constantine IV died in AD 685
Read More: Christian Heresy in Ancient Rome
Justinian II (reign AD 685-695)
After the death of Constantine IV the empire fell on evil days. The young emperor, Justinian II, who was deposed in AD 695, restored in AD 705 and killed in AD 711 was a brilliant but tempestuous and vindictive man.
A successful campaign against the Bulgarians in AD 690 excited his military ambitions, and in AD 693 he picked a quarrel with Abd el-Malik. Justinian II invaded Syria through the Taurus, only to meet with an overwhelming defeat at Sebastopolis.
Meanwhile at Constantinople his ministers had been extorting crippling taxes by monstrous methods. The emperor himself dealt so drastically with generals who met with reverses that one who had hitherto been successful, Leontius, revolted in AD 695, seized his person, slit his nose – a method of disfigurement that had recently come into practice in Europe – and sent him off to imprisonment in the Crimea.
Leontius (reign AD 695-698)
Leontius himself though was deposed in AD 698 by officers returning from Africa, who were afraid of paying the penalty for the loss of Carthage, just captured by the Saracens. They now slit his nose, shut him up in a monastery, and made Tiberius III emperor.
Tiberius III (reign AD 698-705)
Tiberius III fought some successful campaigns against the Saracens, penetrating into northern Syria. But in AD 705 Justinian II escaped from the Crimea, got help from the king of Bulgaria, was received into Constantinople by traitors, seized the palace, resumed the throne and put to death Leontius and Tiberius III after treading on their necks as they lay bound before him.
Justinian II, restored (reign AD 705-711)
Justinian II, restored to his throne, then indulged in an orgy of undiscriminating cruelty, which was only ended by a military insurrection. Having been sent by the emperor to crush a revolt in the Crimea, the general Philippicus Bardanes instead joined the rebels and sailed back to Constantinople wehre he swept to power on a wave of popular support (AD 711). And so Justinian II and his wife and children died at the hands of his own soldiers.
Philippicus (reign AD 711-713)
Philippicus made himself emperor following the example of the mutineers who had made Phocas emperor a century earlier.
In the same year the Saracen fleets descended on Sardinia and tore from the empire the most westerly province which still acknowledged its sovereignty.
Anastasius II (reign 713-715)
Two years after Philippicus accession to the throne another conspiracy set Anastasius II in the place of Philippicus
Theodosius III (reign AD 715-716)
Yet another two years went by and Anastasius II fell, making way for Theodosius III (AD 715).
Collapse seemed imminent. At that time the Saracens were preparing a great blow to the empire. A mighty armament was made ready by and land under the command of the khalif’s brother Moslemah for the siege of Constantinople.
At Amorium, in the heart of Asia Minor the empire had an able defender in its army’s commander, Leo the Isaurian, who held the Saracens at bay. But Leo chose to make a truce and march on the capital himself to depose the latest incompetent occupant of the imperial throne.
Theodosius III, only two years into his reign, anticipated his own deposition by a judicious abdication in favour of the very man who would otherwise have forcibly ejected him, Leo III the Isaurian.
Leo III (reign AD 716-741)
The latest struggle for the throne seemed to make Constantinople’s fall only all the more certain. But Constantinople did not fall. Not for the first, and not for the last time did the city show an amazing power of recuperation.
As the thousands of Arab and Persian warriors for the first time poured over the Hellespont the walls remained impregnable. Their fleets swarmed up and down the Bosporus, but were eventually beaten by the imperial fleet and its ‘Greek Fire’. With its sea roads open to the Black Sea, Constantinople could not be starved out of supplies.
The death of the Khalif made no difference to the continued Saracen attempts to take the great city. The khalif sent yet further reinforcements by land and sea. Again the Saracen fleet sailed up the Bosporus, this time to be almost completely annihilated by the Byzantines.
Following up from this victory, Leo landed a force of the Asiatic shore and cut the great Saracen army off from the east. The besieging army in effect now found itself besieged, and its general, Moslemah, had the utmost difficulty keeping it from starvation.
Then came the news that the Bulgar king was mobilizing a great force against the Saracens. Moslemah raised the siege of Constantinople and cut his way back into Asia Minor to Syria with what was left of his once mighty army.
Leo III had decisively delivered the eastern empire from the Saracen threat.
Centuries should pass before the Asia Minor should again be invaded in force by Saracen armies.
Leo III’s military glories are indeed impressive. But he perhaps even better known as Leo the Iconoclast. This is due to the role he played in a theological controversy of such magnitude that it should eventually drive the churches of east and west apart.
Iconoclasm was the revolt against the church’s habit of reading supernatural meanings into unaccustomed natural events, the understanding of miraculous legends as accepted history, and – most importantly – the belief that, at least in part, the spirits of the saints, Mary and Jesus resided within their pictoral and sculptural representation in the churches.
The iconoclasts (the ‘image breakers’) denounced the worshipping of holy images as idolatry. Leo III resolved to do away with what he saw as superstitious idolatry and prohibited the worship of images, and ordering the removal or painting out of sacred statues and pictures.
The cross as a symbol he retained, the crucifix bearing the image of Christ he banned. A mass of intelligent lay opinion was with him. The clergy, headed by Pope Gregory II at Rome, were solidly against him. And with them were the unrestricted masses to whom the images had become fetishes.
In Italy it was impossible to enforce the edict, while Gregory not only defended the principle of image worship, but denounced the sacrilegious emperor in person. Elsewhere the execution of Leo III’s orders was attended by furious riots.
The antagonism between the papal and the imperial authority reached an unprecedented bitterness, so that Leo III prepared once more to appeal to the sword in AD 732. But the elements were against him and wrecked his fleet before it could reach Italy in a storm.
This ended, before it even began, the last attempt of Constantinople to make good its theoretical sovereignty in the west. But in the east the battle between iconoclasts and iconodules was only just beginning.
The collision between Gregory and Leo had given the Lombard king Liutprand occasion for aggressive action. The Ravenna exarchate was a wedge between the northern kingdom and the southern duchies.
Liutprand attacked the exarchate, and before the end of AD 727 the whole of it was in his hands, with very little fighting. The exarch Eutychius, however, escaped to Venice, now rising to prominence in the security of her lagoons, and in AD 729 Eutychius recovered Ravenna by a surprise attack in Liutprand’s absence.
He then marched on Rome to bring Gregory to reason. Liutprand though managed to impose a pacification on all the parties, which left the exarch in possession of Ravenna, and Gregory virtually independent. It was this that caused Leo, two years later when Gregory III had succeeded Gregory II in the papacy, to prepare the great but futile expedition of AD 732.
Constantinople still enjoyed the prestige of the empire of the Caesars. For the Oriental the City of Constantine was ‘Rome’. But its face was not turned to the west but to the east. Asia Minor formed the larger part of its dominion.
The Danube had long ceased to be its northern boundary. The interior of the Balkan peninsula had passed into the occupation of the tribes which had flooded over the Danube since the departure of the Goths. Mixed Bulgars and Slavs.
A Bulgarian kingdom with only the most shadowy subordination to the empire was already established and a Serbian kingdom was shaping. In Italy there was still an imperial exarch at Ravenna. There were imperial governors in Sicily and Calabria and at the head of the ADriatic Venice chose to own imperial overlordship mainly because it involved her in no inconvenient obligations.
The papacy made a certain profession of loyalty to the empire, as a protection to itself to Lombard aggression, but it contested the position of spiritual supremacy with Constantinople. Meanwhile the great controversy of image worship remained irreconcilable.
Leo III was an administrator of high ability. After AD 732 he recognized that Italy was out of reach, but in the east he was able to enforce his iconoclastic principles on reluctant Europeans and approving Asians.
Prosperity revived and prestige was strengthened by a victory, won under his personal command, at Acroinon, over a large invading army which Hisham sent over the Taurus in AD 739. Two years later Leo III died and was succeeded by Constantine V.
Constantine V (reign 741-775)
Constantine V’s rule was vigorous and active. By in large it was a successful reign. The prolonged conflicts attending the fall of the Ommiad dynasty and the establishment of the Abbasids in the Khalifate gave him many opportunities for campaigns in Armenia or beyond the Taurus, by which some territory was recovered.
He fortified the passes of the Balkan range, curbing Bulgarian and Serbian aggression. And when the Bulgar kings replied by attacks he repelled them, only being prevented from crushing them completely by a disastrous storm which wrecked his fleet.
He cleared the country of brigands, so that merchants travelled in security, leading to a marked increase in trade. But he left an ill name in history because where his father was a puritan he was a zealot.
Not satisfied with imposing public conformity, he searched out and penalized those who continued to practise ‘image worship’ in private, instituted a harsh religious persecution, based on the decision of the general council at Constantinople in AD 753.
A council which was rejected by the patriarchs of Jerusalem and Alexandria and the pope before it had even begun. Alas, Constatine V even embarked on a campaign against monks and monasticism which was shocking to all but the very extremists.
Leo IV (reign 775-780)
The same policies, though with a degree less brutality and intolerance, were pursued by Constantine V’s son, Leo IV, who also in the course of his brief reign fought two successful campaigns with the khalif Mahdi. But when he died, leaving a ten year old son, Constantine VI, the power passed into the hands of his widow.
Irene, regent for Constantine VI (regency AD 780-790)
For ten years the dowager empress Irene reigned in her son’s name. She was an ambitious woman who had hitherto concealed the fact that she was herself a zealous ‘iconodule’ (image worshipper).
Beginning by relaxing the measures against the image worshippers, she went on to dismiss iconoclast officials civil and ecclesiastic and to replace them by iconodules. She called a fresh religious council which in effect reversed the decrees of the last.
A plot was uncovered in favour of one of the late Leo IV’s brothers. But it was discovered and all the young emperor’s uncles were forced to become monks.
The imperial guard mutinied, but was suppressed. While Irene was carrying through her ecclesiastical policy the Slavs broke out in Thrace and the khalif’s armies raided Asia Minor with impunity, so that they had to be bought off.
Constantine VI (reign AD 790-797)
In AD 790 Constantine VI, chafing at still being kept in tutelage by his mother, and angered at weakness displayed in Asia Minor, effected a coup d’état and took the reigns of power into his own hands. Quickly he began to show signs of ability and vigour in government. But he again allowed his mother a freedom and a degree of authority of which she took advantage.
Irene (reign AD 797-802)
In AD 797 Irene, abusing the authority granted to her by her son, effected her own coup d’état, had her son seized, his eye gouged out, and had him shut up in a monastery. Then, she – and for this there was no precedent – assumed the throne herself.
For five unhappy years Irene was empress, largely because there was no one ready to take upon himself the risk of deposing her. They were years of disaster/ Haroun al Raschid’s raiders, checked for a time by Constantine VI, now overran Asia Minor and once again needed to be bought off by a promise of heavy tribute. The domestic government was in the hands of petty favourites. Constantinople was coming apart.
Nicephorus (reign AD 802-811)
The situation became so intolerable that in AD 802 the treasurer, Nicephorus, conspired against the empress. Irene was seized in the middle of the night, carried off to a convent and forced to take her vows to become a nun.
Without further disturbance Nicephorus was accepted as emperor.
The new emperor possessed no personal prestige. He was known solely as a competent treasury official. Nicephorus took the always unpopular but highly commendable course of maintaining a resolute neutrality between the image worshippers and the iconoclasts.
And though he was no soldier, he did his best to restore the efficiency of the army. But he failed to free himself from the tribute to Haroun al-Raschid.
Nicephorus fell in a Bulgarian campaign against the Bulgar Khan Krum, who after defeating him, had his skull lined with silver and used it as a drinking cup.
Michael Rhangabe (reign AD 811-813)
Nicephorus’ had a son, Stauracius, but he never made it home to Constantinople, having been mortally wounded in Bulgaria.
And so succession was secured by the incompetent Michael Rhangabe, Nicephorus’ Greek son-in-law. He was the first ever Greek to sit on the throne.
In AD 812 he acknowledged the new Roman emperor of the west (Holy Roman Empire). Alas his incapacity led to his deposition in AD 813 by the soldier Leo V, the Armenian.
Leo V (reign AD 813-820)
Leo V’s rule did much to counteract the unhappy effects of Irene’s reign, which that of Nicephorus had only in small degree been able to remedy. Also the Bulgars were firmly checked. More still could have been achieved if the emperor had been able to keep clear of the iconoclastic controversy, in which, like most soldiers, he was on the otherwise unpopular side of the iconoclasts.
But, having thus made himself unpopular, he was assassinated in AD 820.
Michael II (reign AD 820-829)
The accession of another soldier, Michael II the Amorian (the stammerer) was attended by outbreaks of rebellion and his nine year reign was mainly memorable for the loss of Crete to the Corsairs and the invasion of Sicily by the Aglabids.
Theophilus (reign AD 829-842)
Success and defeat alternated in the struggle for Sicily between the empire and the Aglabids. But two years after the accession of Theophilus, son of Michael II, war was renewed between the empire and the khalifate. Mamun invaded Cappadocia and Theophilus was forced to concentrate all his military efforts on the war against the khalifate.
Theophilus had provoked the attack by harbouring refugees from the khalif’s religious persecution.
The consequence was that he could no longer send aid to his Sicilian subjects, and, in spite of a prolonged and stubborn defence, the Saracen conquest of Sicily became inevitable as Messina fell in AD 842. Meanwhile the war in the east raged on, neither side gaining a distinct advantage over the other.
Michael III (reign 842-867)
At the death of Theophilus in AD 842 government passed into the hands of a council of regency on behalf of his infant son, afterwards unhappily known as Michael the Drunkard. A feeble government at Bagdad, a feeble government at Constantinople, and generals usually inefficient on both sides, kept the war dragging on indecisively.
The regency council was directed by the young mother of the infant emperor, who was only four years old in AD 842. Theodora, the empress-dowager, was a fervent image worshipper for whom the religious question dominated all others. She reversed her late husband’s policy and persecuted the iconoclasts.
Administration generally went to pieces. At eighteen Michael in AD 856 set his mother aside and ruled for ten years with his drinking companion, his disreputable uncle Bardas, first as councilor than as colleague.
In AD 858 Michael of his own authority deposed the austere patriarch Ignatius and set in his place the more amenable Photius. The pope Benedict III proclaimed the invalidity of the action and denounced both Photius and the emperor.
Tiring of Bardas, Michael put him out of the way and set in his place as caesar another drinking companion of his, Basil the Macedonian. Then in AD 866 the Synod of Constantinople gave the imperial reply to their patriarch’s excommunication by formulating the pronouncement which marked the irrevocable parting of the church in the east from the church in the west. Neither attempts then, nor any later ones ever managed to unify the Christian church thereafter.
Though not twelve months went by and Basil the Macedonian, a hard-headed character, had Michael murdered after a heavy drinking bout (AD 867).
Basil (reign AD 867-886)
Already being caesar, Basil, after the murder of Michael III, assumed the position of emperor unopposed, inaugurating the Macedonian dynasty, which should reign Constantinople for nearly two centuries.
As an emperor Basil the Macedonian meant business. He reorganized the finances. He directed the administration with vigour and substantial justice. With campaigns he reconquered territories long lost in the east from a tottering khalifate.
His fleets recaptured the mastery of the Mediterranean, driving the Corsairs of the seas, his armies swept the Saracens out of Calabria. But in Sicily he failed altogether and he died in AD 886, before he could expel them from Campania.
Leo VI (reign AD 886-912)
Leo VI, also known as Leo the Wise, justified his title by writing a manual on military tactics and becoming an authority on witchcraft. He was educated by the Byzantine patriarch Photius and had been made co-emperor to his father Basil in AD 870.
Under him the empire prospered. The fleet was strengthened and on land the Bulgars were kept at bay with the help of the Magyars. Though eventually concessions needed to be made and in AD 896 Leo VI agreed to pay an annual subsidy to the Bulgar king Simeon.
Treaties were signed with Russia in AD 907 regulating trade between the two powers. Leo’s wish for a male heir though led him into conflict with the church, as he married four times.
Alexander (reign AD 912-913)
Alexander was the younger brother of Leo VI and the third son of Basil. Leo VI made him co-emperor in AD 879 but ruled on his own until his death.
With the rule falling to Alexander all emperor Leo VI’s advisers were dismissed and even his widow, Zoe, was sent to a nunnery. Hostilities soon restarted with the Bulgars, as Alexander refused to pay the tribute to the Bulgar king Simeon.
However, Alexander did make his young nephew, Leo’s IV son, Constantine VII co-emperor. Perhaps this had been agreed with his brother before his death.
Constantine VII (reign AD 913-959), Romanus I (reign 920-944)
Alxander was succeeded by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. He became emperor at the age of five and was officially or unofficially set aside or reinstated at intervals. Commerce and the arts of peace flourished.
Constantinople maintained its prosperity. Its forces were adequate to keep the barbarians to the north in check, and the the power Bagdad had waned to pose no significant threat. This was a time of prolonged stability within the empire.
For a great part of Constantine VII’s reign the imperial title was shared and the imperial office discharged by a soldier of some distinction, Romanus I, whose name was given to Constantine VII’s son, who succeeded him in AD 959.
Romanus II (reign AD 959-963)
The reign of Romanus II was active but brief, inaugurating a period of military energy. The Saracen empire was split between three rival khalifs and was further fragmented by feuding powerful families and tribes. The time was deemed favourable for an attack on the Saracens. The emperor’s, Nicephorus Phocas, opened the assault in AD 960. Crete was recaptured, Cilicia was invaded.
Basil II, Constantine VIII and Nicephorus II Phocas (reign AD 963-969)
Romanus II died in AD 963, leaving two infants, Basil II and Constantine VIII, to share the imperial crown, with their mother Theophano as regent.
The victorious general Nicephorus returned, married the widow, and associated himself on the throne with the infants after the precedent of Romanus I. He recovered Cyprus, and his armies overran half Syria. But he was extremely unpopular with the clergy and the court.
Theophano repented her marriage and entered on a conspiracy with one of Nicephorus II’s captains, John Zimisces. John murdered the rather terrible emperor while he slept, and proclaimed himself, without opposition, the associate of the two children. Though, instead of marrying their mother, he shut her up in a convent (AD 969).
Basil II, Constantine VIII and John Tzimiskes (reign AD 963-976)
Then, like Basil the Macedonian, he atoned for his crime. He treated the boys, his colleagues, with all the respect due to their position. One of their sisters he married himself. with his own wealth he was lavish in pious charity.
Meanwhile the Russian Sviatoslav was overrunning Bulgaria. In AD 971 John marched against him, defeated him in two desperate battles, and then struck a treaty, which converted the Russian power into an ally and the Russian people into Christians of the orthodox church.
Then he went campaigning in Syria where the Saracens had been recovering ground. But his career of victory was cut short by his sudden death in AD 976.
Basil II (reign AD 976-1025) and Constantine VIII (reign 1025-1028)
Basil II, now twenty years old, admitted no new colleague to share the imperial power and dignity with his brother Constantine VIII and himself. For nearly fifty years – until 1025 – he reigned virtually alone.
A new trouble had arisen in the increasing independence of territorial magnates in Asia Minor. Perhaps it would have been better for the empire had Basil II sought to convert them into baronies, subject to the empire, but the more obvious course, which he adopted with ultimate success, was to suppress them.
But while he was thus engaged, Bulgaria, profiting by the expulsion of the Russians, was again becoming powerful and troublesome under her king Samuel. Dominating the Serbs in the north west, Samuel’s raisers poured year by year over Macedonia.
In AD 996 they harried the Peloponnese but suffered a disastrous defeat while retiring. In 1002 Basil set about the work of conquest in earnest. But it was not completed until in 1014 he won an overwhelming victory, taking 15’000 captives. He blinded those captives, all but a hundred and fifty, who were left an eye each to guide the rest home.
The horror of the act killed Samuel, while Basil won the grim honour of his distinctive name Bulgaroctonus – ‘Slayer of the Bulgars’. The Bulgars still held out till the last resistance was crushed in 1018. So ended the first Bulgar kingdom.
Basil, now an old man, next turned his arms against Armenia – a mistake, since thereby he destroyed an effective buffer between the empire and the Islamic powers. With his death in 1025 passed the revived strength and energy of the eastern empire.
Constantine VIII was the last prince of the Macedonian house. He followed his brother to the grave in 1028.
Zoe, Romanus III Argyrus (1028-1034), Michael IV (1034-1041), Michael V Calaphates (1041-1042) and Constantine IX Monomachus (1042-1054)
For the next twenty-six years the emperors were the successive husbands of Constantine VIII’s daughter Zoe. During this period the last of the imperial power was being ejected from south Italy and the eastern empire was in effect without a ruler.
Zoe’s successive husbands, Romanus Argyrus, Michael IV wielded power between 1028 and 1041. Zoe then adopted Michael Calaphates who repaid her with imprisonment. she was released at the clamour of the populace, who cherished loyalty to her family. Zoe’s last husband was Constantine Monomachus.
Theodora (reign 1054-1056)
For three brief years Zoe’s sister Theodora did what she could to check the process of decay. But she died at the moment when the Mohammedan world was falling to the Seljuk Turks.
Michael VI Stratioticus (reign 1056-1057)
In 1056 Theodora died, the last of the Macedonian family. On her deathbed, she nominated an elderly official, Michael Stratioticus. But Michael proved utterly incompetent for the job. His actions so enraged the aristocracy and military leaders that they announced another leader, Isaac Comnenus, in his place after not even a year had elapsed.
The challenger Isaac simply marched on Constantinople where he defeated the emperor’s forces at Petroë on 20 August 1057. Only eleven days later Michael VI resigned.
Isaac Comnenus (reign 1057-1059)
In his coup against the emperor Michael VI the soldier Isaac Comnenus acted with with the support of the aristcracy, the military elite and even the religious leadership. He had been a favourite of emperor Basil II and had since won much confidence among the people during previous his military career.
Isaac proved a capable man, putting the government back onto a steady footing, though he did clash with the church on attempts by the patriarch tryig to exert influence on government. At the height of the crisis, Isaac even took the drastic step of deposing patriarch Cerularius and sending him into exile.
In 1059 Isaac campaigned against the Hugnarians and then against the Patzinaks. Then he fell severely ill, and believing himself about to die, he resigned his throne and handed power to Constantine Ducas.
After this, his health improved. But Isaac did not seek to return to power but instead retired to a monastery.
Constantine X Ducas (reign 1059-1067)
Constantine X Ducas was an experienced politician who was neither soldier nor a statesman. In 1060 Alp Asrlan flung himself on Armenia. The empire gave no effective aid to the country whose power Basil II had destroyed. The Seljuks overran Armenia, and then flooded into Asia Minor.
Romanus IV Diogenes (reign 1068-1071)
At last a new emperor, Romanus IV Diogenes, took up the neglected task and attacked the invader. Alp Arslan drew him into the mountains, fought him in a great pitched battle at Manzikert (1071), took him prisoner and cut his army to pieces. The Seljuks swept on, the young colleague of Romanus IV, was soon after reduced to buying a respite by the cession of virtually the whole of Asia Minor.
On the death of sultan Alp Arslan, command of Asia Minor was left to the general Sulayman, who captured Nicaea in 1073, to be a permanent menace to Constantinople.
Michael VII Ducas (reign 1071-1078)
After the death of Romanus IV, the feeble young emperor Michael VII Ducas was compelled to concede to the Turkish general Sulayman the ‘governorship’ of all those provinces of which he was in actual possession. In other words, all but an insignificantly small portion of Asia Minor fell to Sulayman which he very converted into the practically independent sultanate of Roum.
Nicephorus III Botaniates (reign 1078-1081)
A few years later Michael VII was deposed by Nicephorus III, who proved almost as incompetent and in other respects far worse than his predecessor. A very serious rebellion by Nicephorus Bryennius saw a large part of the remaining territories of the empire side with the usurper.
The rebel was only narrowly defeated and taken prisoner at the battle of Calavryta (AD 1079).
But government went from bad to worse, until finally, in 1081, the very general who had won the battle of Calavryta for his emperor, Alexius Comnenus, removed Nicephorus III from the throne.
Alexius Comnenus (reign 1081-1118)
Alexius established a dynasty which should hold the throne for a century. He was a skillful soldier, a capable administrator and an astute diplomat, who had to make the best of bad materials.
he best troops in his service were the Varangian guard, mostly composed of Swedes, Russians an miscellaneous Viking adventurers, and recently recruited Englishmen who preferred the wages of the emperor to subjugation to the Normans.
The old Isaurian recruiting grounds had passed under the sway of the Turks. The population over which he ruled was inert. Nicaea, the capital of Roum, was eminently near the Bosporus. And the moment of his accession was also the moment chosen by the duke of Apulia, Robert Guiscard, for his attack on Dyrrhachium (Durazzo), we he captured, the Varangians’ heroic defence being overwhelmed. To the Norman duke, a zealot papist, the heretic empire was a tempting and legitimate target.
It wasn’t long and the duke and his elder son, Bohemud, were in Macedonia, where the latter remained when his father hurried back in aid of the pope in 1084. But Alexius saved himself from disaster by a crafty and competent strategy. Bohemud, too, returned on his father’s death to secure his title, and for the time Alexius was relieved of the Norman peril.
There was work enough for him in the recovery of effective control in his own dominions, but his ambition was to recover it also in the lost provinces to the empire, which there was no hope of doing without aid from the west. So Alexius set himself to procure that aid. He had already found pope Gregory VII not averse from the idea of holy war. But he knew the pope very likely to demand ecclesiastical submission to Rome as a condition for any support.
At first Alexius had been inspired rather by fear of the Seljuks than by ambition, but his hopes rose with the disintegration of the Seljuk power on the death of Malik Shah in 1092. Still relying on the emotional aspects of Turkish misrule in the holy land, he renewed his appeal to pope Urban II in 1095.
Urban II had gathered at Piacenza a great assembly (primarily to denounce the sins of king Henry IV). There was an emotional atmosphere in which the words of Alexius’ envoys took deep effect. But Urban II did not at once respond.
It took until November that year until a vast council was gathered at Clermont. Urban II had found, indeed almost created the psychological moment. To the gathered crows he issued a passionate appeal to Christian men to lay aside their private quarrels and unite for the redemption of the Holy Sepulchre from the Hands of the infidels.
(For since the coming of the Turks, the Muslim masters of Jerusalem repressed access to holy Christian sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.) The multitude was swept away on the torrent of irresistible emotion and answered with one universal cry, ‘It is the will of god !’
Urban II had launched the first crusade.
A year after the Congress of Clermont the real crusading masses were swarming to there appointed meeting place, Constantinople. Alexius had overreached himself.
Hoping to raise in a west a force of warriors whose services would enable him to recover Asia Minor, he had called in a mighty army which cared not at all for his empire and seemed not unlikely to begin its operation by dismembering what was left of it. But his diplomatic skill was equal to the occasion.
In the spring of 1097 he had passed them all safely over the Bosporus, with no intention of facilitating their return and their leaders had pledged to restore to him any provinces within the theoretical borders of the empire which they conquered. The crusaders laid siege to Nicaea, which surrendered in June. A great victory at Dorylaeum drove Kilij Arslan east.
Asia Minor was won. The crusaders made their way through the Taurus. In October the main army laid siege to Antioch, which held out against them until the following June. By July of the following year Jerusalem was taken by storm from the Fatimids, who had only in the previous year captured it from the Turks.
The newly conquered, independent territories were generally referred to as the ‘Latin Kingdom’. This kingdom covered the territories of Palestine and Phoenicia, with Antioch, extending north across the Euphrates to Edessa.
Meanwhile there had been no co-operation between the eastern empire and the Latin kingdom. Alexius in fact had done far more to thwart then to help the crusaders.
John II Comnenus (reign 1118-1143)
After the death of Alexius Comnenus in 1118 his successor John II had seen no reason to change an attitude which was mutually returned by the crusaders themselves. Even in Palestine itself the Franks distinguished between their Catholic and Orthodox Christian subjects, taxing the followers of the Orthodox church, but not the Catholics.
John II was an able and just ruler who gave to the Empire peace at home and was usually successful in his wars. But he sought no reconciliation with the west and the Latin kingdom.
There was at least one respect in which the empire had suffered from the establishment of the Latin kingdom. The levantine ports had robbed Constantinople of its trade, which passed into the hands of the Genoese and Venetians.
Manuel Comnenus (reign 1143-1180)
Whilst all around the crusaders were now turning to quarreling amongst each other, rather than fighting their sworn enemy, Islam, Constantinople, after the death of John II was ruled by a brilliant, but erratic emperor, of the mould of a Richard the Lionheart. But the empire needed something more than a recklessly daring knight-errant or a captain who won startling victories against heavy odds.
Alexius II Comnenus (reign 1180-1183)
The mercurial Manuel was succeeded by his son Alexius II Comnenus, a minor whose throne was usurped by his cousin.
Andronicus Comnenus (reign 1183-1185)
Andronicus Comnenus was a tyrant whose short reign was brought to an end as another rising killed him in 1185.
Isaac II Angelus (reign 1185-1195)
The tyrannical Andronicus out of the way, and the dynasty of the Comneni at an end, fortune played the throne into the hands of Isaac Angelus, a ruler of little worth, in whose eyes duplicity was the essence of statecraft. In fact, Isaac’s reign was quite disastrous.
Meanwhile Saladin, the great sultan of Egypt and Syria, swept through the ranks of the ranks of the Latin kingdom. In October 1187 Jerusalem was back in Muslim hands.
As the Third Crusade swept by Isaac did little to help, if not more to hamper their success. This was to prove a grave mistake, as this soured the relationship with the west to the point of hostility.
So too, Bulgaria, which had always acknowledged at least the theoretical submission broke away completely, establishing its total independence. By 1192 the Latin situation was hopeless and Richard the Lionheart signed a treaty with Saladin by which the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was no more.
Alexius III Angelus (reign 1195-1203)
In 1195 Alexius III Angelus, Isaac II’s brother, usurped the throne. Isaac was blinded and thrown into a dungeon in Constantinople. Though his government was no improvement. Anarchy prevailed at Constantinople as well as elsewhere in its few dominions.
But now the Fourth Crusade began, proving perhaps one of the greatest farces in the history of mankind. The bad blood Isaac had created with the west during the Third Crusade now was to come and haunt Constantinople.
Having gathered in Venice the great army became heavily indebted to the Venetians.
Was the original idea of the crusaders an attack on Egypt, the Venetians, who were to provide the transport for the crusaders, very much to their own profit, suggested an attractive change of programme. A business proposition by which the Venetian fleet and the crusading lords were to share in the profits.
The totally destabilized Constantinople offered an easy prey.
And so the Fourth Crusade, composed to fight the ‘infidels of the east’ resulted in the attack upon the most populous Christian city on the face of the earth.
Isaac II Angelus, restored(reign 1203-1204) & Alexius IV Angelus (reign 1203-1204)
With the Crusaders still outside the city, Alexius III losthis nerve and fled. This left the people of Constantinople to free his blinded brother and restore him the throne.
Under the pressure from the crusaders Isaac’s son Alexius IV, who was the pretender the crusaders had wished to see on the throne, was crowned co-emperor.
Though soon after hostilities should resume between the two sides.
Alexius V Ducas (reign 1204)
The troubles, fires and riots which ensued under the joint rule of the enfeebled Issac II and the western ‘puppet emperor’ Alexius IV, with the crusaders at the gates, led eventually to their overthrow. Alexius Ducas, son of the previous emperor Alexius III Ducas, seized the throne for himself.
Alexius IV was strangled and Isaac II is said to have died of grief at the news of the murder of his son.
No sooner was Alexius V in command he began to energetically lead the city in its defence against the crusaders. Had he been in charge at the time of the arrival of the Crusade, the invaders would most likely have been repulsed. But now it was too late. Despite the valiant efforts of Alexius V the city fell on 12/13 April 1204.
The Fourt Crusade &
The Sack of Constantinople
Baldwin of Flanders 1204-1205
Baldwin of Flanders was officially elected emperor of a feudal state, modelled on the former Latin kingdom. The eastern empire or ‘Greek’ empire was for the time in which it was ruled by the foreign lords known as the Latin empire.
Baldwin was killed in the Bulgarian war.
At the fall of Constantinople two grandsons of the former emperor Andronicus I Comnenus fled to Trebizond, where they set up a government, crowning one of the brothers Alexius Comemnus as emperor. If this imperial throne of Trebizond initially laid any claim to the rule of Constantinople is unclear.
In any case the Trebizond empire continued its independence, without returning into the Byzantine empire again. Meanwhile Theodore Lascaris, who had also fled at the capture of Constantinople in 1204 created another exile government of Constantinople in Nicaea, which established control over the western dominions in Asia Minor and continued its claim against for the rightful rule of Constantinople.
And yet a third part of the territories of the Byzantine empire broke away in 1204 as Michael Angelus created the Despotate of Epirus which ruled over Constantinople’s former western domains.
Henry of Flanders (reign 1205-1216)
Theodore Lascaris (reign 1208-1222)
Baldwin’s successor, Henry of Flanders, made the best of an impossible situation, protecting his Greek subjects and keeping some control over his Latin vassals.
In 1208 Theodore Lascaris, having established control of the western dominions in Asia Minor was crowned emperor by the exiled court of Constantinople at Nicaea.
Robert of Courtenay (reign 1216-1228)
Theodore Lascaris (reign 1208-1222)
John III Ducas (reign 1222-1254)
Theodore Angelus (reign 1224-1230)
The successor to Henry of Flanders, Peter of Courtenay, was taken prisoner while on the way to assume the imperial crown, and died in captivity.
The hapless Peter of Courtenay was succeeded by his son, Robert of Courtenay, who was a minor at his accession to the throne.
In 1222 John III Ducas succeeded his father-in-law Theodore Lascaris to the throne of Nicaea. However in 1224 the despot of Epirus, Theodore Angelus also laid claim the throne of Constantinople.
The Despotate of Epirus had been set up by Michael Angelus in 1204 at the fall of Constantinople. Now Michael’s heir Theodore had managed to conquer Thessalonika and had been crowned emperor of Constantinople, becoming another pretender.
Baldwin II of Courtenay (1228-1261) & John of Brienne (reign 1228-1237)
John III Ducas (reign 1222-1254)
Theodore Angelus (reign 1224-1230)
Theodore II Lascaris (reign 1254-1258)
John IV Lascaris (reign 1258-1261)
Robert of Courtenay died in 1228 and was followed by his boy brother whose guardians called in John of Brienne, the former king of Jerusalem. John of Brienne did what he could as joint emperor till his death in 1237.
Meanwhile the claimant to the throne of Constantinople from Epirus, received a fatal blow. In 1230 the Bulgar King Ivan Asen II defeated and captured Theodore Angelus at the battle of Klokotnitsa, in turn conquering much of his territory.
Using his rival’s fall to the best of his advantage John III Ducas launched an assault on the territory of the Despotate of Epirus and conquered Thessalonica in 1230.
The Despotate of Epirus limped on under Theodore’s successor Manuel, but was effectively defeated in its quest to recover the throne of Constantinople.
In 1254 the Nicaean emperor John III Ducas died, succeeded by his son Theodore II Lascaris.
In 1258 the boy John IV Lascaris succeeded his father to the throne, with the general Michael Palaeologus reigning on his behalf.
Michael VIII Palaeologus (reign 1259-82)
In 1259 Michael VIII Palaeologus usurped the crown and made himself co-emperor to the infant John IV Lascaris.
Then in 1261 Michael VIII captured the hopelessly enfeebled Constantinople still ruled by Baldwin II Courtenay by a surprise.
The Latin empire, born in infamy, perished thus after only fifty-six years of futility.
And with the conquest of Constantinople Michael VIII found himself sufficiently confident to depose his young co-emperor John IV Lascaris (1261).
Also with a Greek emperor back on the throne of Constantinople any aspirations which the emperors of Trebizond might have had on the Byzantine throne fell away.
Though the Trebizond empire continued its independence. And although it at times paid tribute to the various powers which rose and fell in time, it went on to outlast Constantinople, surviving until 1461.
Andronicus II Palaeologus (reign 1282-1328)
Michael VIII was succeeded by his son Andronicus II, well-meaning but inefficient. There was a moment when Andronicus II had the opportunity of making at least a serious bid for the reconquest of Asia Minor, when the Seljuk power was breaking up and the Ottomans were not yet established in their place.
In 1303 the troops from Catalonia, by whose aid Frederick of Sicily had just secured his crown, took service with Andronicus II. They were sent across the Bosporus, but, getting neither military support nor pay, they broke with the emperor and lived at ease on the country, until they decided to transfer their services to another sovereign altogether.
From 1321 to 1328 the empire fell into civil war between the emperor and his grandson, who finally defeated and deposed him.
Andronicus III Palaeologus (reign 1328-41)
Andronicus III should not have any happier time in office than the grandfather he deposed. In 1330 the Ottomans captured Nicaea (and renamed it Iznik) and within a few years all that remained to Andronicus III in Asia was a strip of coast.
Andronicus III died in 1341. He left a so-called empire smaller even than it had been on his accession. What the Ottomans had not taken in the east, the Serbian king Stephen Dusan had torn from him in the Balkans.
John V Palaeologus (reign 1341-76) & John VI Cantacuzenus (reign 1347-55) Andronicus III was succeeded by an infant, John V, while the government remained in the hands of his minister John Cantacuzenus.
John Cantacuzenus though thoght only to make himself emperor alongside the boy emperor. However this entailed much political effort, one of which was to buy the favour of the Ottoman prince Orkhan, not only with a large subsidy of money, but also by giving his daughter Theodora, whom Orkhan demanded for his harem (1345).
This bought the ruthless Cantacuzenus the service of six thousand of Orkhan’s horsemen, and thereby helped him achieve his goal of crowning himself emperor alongside the John V. Together with continual new troops of Turkish mercenaries sent by Orkhan John Cantacuzenus managed to keep himself in power till his deposition in 1354.
The city of Constantinople only escaped capture by the Serb King Stephen Dusan because of its impregnable defences and due to up to twenty thousand of Orkhan’s horsemen who served under John Cantacuzenus.
However, Soliman, the eldest son of Orkhan and leader of the Ottoman horsemen in service of Constantinple in 1353 used the chance offered by the destruction of the walls of the city of Gallipolli by an earthquake to simply occupy the city with his forces. thoguh his son, Orkhan established for the first time a permanent footing in Europe.
This was the last straw for the people of Constantinople. A popular rising overthrew the loathed John Cantacuzenus in 1354. In 1361 the Turks went on to capture Adrianople, which they made their capital.
Andronicus IV Palaeologus (reign 1376-79)
Though John V’s son Andronicus plotted against his own father. However, the plot was uncovered and Andronicus was thrown into prison. But with the aid of the Genoese, who were hostile towards John V, Andronicus managed to escape.
Then in 1376 he returned to constantinople and in a coup managed to overthrow his father. John V was thrown into prison and on 18 October 1377 Andronicus IV was crowned emperor.
But the Turks and Venetians were now to help John V escape. John V was restored to the throne on condition that he should recognize Andronicus IV as his rightful heir. However, Andronicus died before his father and so didn’t acceed to the throne again.
John V Palaeologus, restored (reign 1379-90)
Helped back onto his throne by the Turks and the Venetians, John V, as one of the conditions of his retoration, needed to submit as a vassal and swear allegiance to Ottoman Sultan. Then, in 1381, John V acknoledged himself a tributary to the Ottomans.
Constantinople itself would most likely have fallen were not to have been for the stubborn resistance against the Ottoman Turks by the Slavonic states, and more so, by the devastating advance of Tamerlane in Central Asia.
John VII Palaeologus (reign 1390)
In 1390 John VII Palaeologus, who was the son of Andronicus IV, seized power from his aged grandfather John V Palaeologus with Turkish help and reigned for several months. However he had to eventually concede defeat and allow his granfather John V back onto to the throne. (Though John VII would have a brief comeback, when from 1399 to 1402 he acted as regent to the new emperor.)
John V Palaeologus, restored again (reign 1390-91)
After the very brief usurpation of the throne by his grandson, John VII, the old John V retook his place on the throne for the few months which remained of his life.
Manuel II Palaeologus (reign 1391-1425)
After the impact on the eastern powers of Tamerlane’s destruction it took the Ottomans some time to recover.
The current incumbent at Constantinople, Manuel II, was quick to submit to Mohammed I.
Though Manuel II made the error of challenging his successor, Murad (Amurath) II, by supporting a rival. Murad II slew the pretender and laid siege to Constantinople, where he was repulsed and had to retire to deal with yet another rival.
But on his return in 1424 Manuel II again made submission, renewing the and increasing the tribute which had been extorted from his father.
John VIII Palaeologus (reign 1425-48)
John’s contribution to the defence of Europe was a treaty with the western ecclesiastical council of Ferrara (1439) for the union of the Greek and Latin churches which he was quite unable to impose on his own subjects.
Throughout his reign Murad II simply ignored Constantinople, having more serious antagonists then the feeble John VI to deal with, namely the Slavonic peoples on both sides of the Danube.
Constantine XI Palaeologus (reign 1449-53)
John VI was succeeded to the throne by his brother, Constantine XI.
When Murad II died in 1451, his successor, Mohammed II the Conqueror (Mehmet II), was not distracted by other European ambitions from the great goal of Constantinople.
At once he set about his preparations for the grand attack on Constantinople. As a last despairing effort to procure aid Constantine XI proclaimed the union of the eastern and western churches. The only effect though was the alienation of his own subjects.
The Slavs were broken. Succession troubles paralyzed Hungary, the west was exhausted. From no quarter was aid forthcoming. Only the Venetians, Genoese and Catalans would help, for fear of Turkish dominance of the Mediterranean. And it was to these few allies that Constantine XI was compelled to entrust not merely maritime defence but the actual garrisoning of the city itself.
In 1452 Mohammed II completed his preparations unhindered. He laid much trust in the ability of modern artillery and employed a Hungarian gunfounder, called Urban, to cast him a siege artillery of seventy guns.
Another major part of Mohammed II’s preparations was to contruct a fortress at the narrowest point of the Bosporus, called Rumeli Hisari, with which he could blockade the sea-straight.
In April 1453 the siege began. A Genoese squadron carrying supplies forced its way into the harbour, and two direct attacks were repulsed (May 6 and 12). But the small force could have little hope of maintaining resistance for very long.
No hint of help came.
By advice of his astrologers, Mohammed II waited for the fortunate day (May 29, 1453), when the grand assault was delivered on all sides simultaneously, by sea and by land. The large cannons had already been used to batter down the magnificent walls in two places during the siege.
The small garrison, led by emperor Constantine XI personally, offered desperate resistance, but was alas overwhelmed.
Buried among the heaps of slain, the body of the last of the Roman emperors was never recovered. There was no general massacre, but the city was thoroughly sacked, its literary treasures dispersed or destroyed, and 60’000 of the population were sold into slavery.
Alas, the Eastern Roman Empire, too, had ceased to be.