Out of the Ashes: The Byzantine Empire From Basil II To The Present

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  • Out of the Ashes:
    The Byzantine Empire
    Basil II

    The Present

    Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio.
    “Conquered Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought her arts into rustic Latium.”

    “Antiquity is over, but its last war is yet to end.” (1)
    Andrea Laiou, Prime Minister of the Empire of Romans


    It is difficult to find an elementary school student anywhere in the world who does not know that there was once a Roman Empire where people spoke Latin and which stretched from Britain to the Euphrates. Credit for this must be laid at the door of Alexander of Rome, whose pioneering careful study of primary sources set the tone of discussion for five hundred years. Yet, for all his scholarship, the crafty Patriarch of Rome never addressed one topic properly-the end of Empire, despite covertly acknowledging that it had happened before his time. Indeed, it is rather difficult to find people who claim that the Empire of antiquity had endured to the present, in spite of the continuing survival of a state calling itself “The Empire of Romans” and accurately claiming direct political continuation from Augustus himself.

    A pan-Romanist by now might be contemplating if this book is worth its weight as fuel right now, assuming that such a person would acquire this provocatively titled manuscript in the first place. To them I am already committing a heresy most foul: ignoring Edouard Giselbert’s History of the Later Roman Empire, which supposedly showed how the New Rome was no different from the Old. Despite lacking the arrogance to believe that I could surpass the the famed Provencal Scribe in any way, I must nonetheless make the case regarding the flaws of his celebrated work. To put it bluntly, Giselbert was far more a politician than a historian, and his writing was heavily colored by a need to appease his benefactor-the Emperor Constantine Palaiologos. Though he cannot be accused of lying in order to make a point, he nonetheless chose to ignore and distort the truth in many ways to suit his thesis that viewed the medieval Roman Empire as a better reflection of the classical state of antiquity. Details in his tale have been torn apart by giants of Roman history like Anastasios, Laiou and others, but his overall coherent vision had mostly survived unchallenged, principally on account of the overall unwillingness of the aforementioned specialists to reach outside their relatively narrow interest.

    I am also a specialist, but I focus on the modern history of Romania which Giselbert never lived to witness and thus have relatively little stake in preserving his account. In particular, I had always been somewhat wary of his interpretations in light of his failure in predicting the direction of Roman culture and society. Byzantinism for instance would have given him a heart attack, and yet that is the most popular ideology in Roman sphere of influence today. This particular failure in fact convinced me that there was a need to counter Giselbert’s artificial rigid attempts to map the classical past to the medieval era, and rather trace back the organic evolution of modern thoughts and ideas back to their source in the Macedonian renaissance.

    Thus I wound up writing this manuscript that explicitly declares the use of Byzantinism to study the history of Romania from Basil II to the present day. I have ignored the Dark Ages almost completely on account of paucity of trustworthy primary sources (which Theophanes is not). Archaeologists had been fighting that war against Giselbert for long, and I have no desire to step onto their toes by reaching so far out of my brief. Literary material of high quality however is readily available from the time of Basil II onwards, accessible to anyone who has access to the Great Library of Constantinople. This is especially convenient seeing that he is typically hailed as the first pillar of the New Empire, a second Scipio whose singlehandedly pulled the Empire out of its nadir. I will not deny taking great pleasure in deconstructing these arguments, aided by not only writings from his victims but also his own letters. Similarly we will explore other facets of Alexander, John Callinicus and Constantine Palaiologos that the popular narrative obscures, and study the geopolitical situations and philosophies that resulted in these singular characters-who were by no means ‘Great men’ indispensable to their Empires.

    Byzantinism’s origins is another aspect I hope to explore in this account, as well as it’s relationship with Islam. I can imagine a non trivial number of readers will stop right here and refuse to move on ahead---but I would urge them to continue. The history of the Roman state post antiquity is hard to understand without studying the influence of its greatest foe, one that it is still fighting in the present day. Rome might have been able to recover its lost territories on paper in “only” a few centuries, but it was left fundamentally changed by its brush with the faith of Mohammed. Me and many others to treat that interaction as the dividing line between the Rome and Byzantium-and there is no understanding of modern day Romania without analyzing the oldest surviving conflict in the world.

    Take a deep breath and look at the map on the next page. It is not Trajan’s Empire but is rather the modern Roman territories that elect Senators to Constantinople. It is nonetheless an enormous patch of land, even despite the fact that the non-voting regions have been excluded. I will now take you on a journey that will show how a vestigial Anatolian Kingdom expanded out to conquer and assimilate all this, which would sound absurd to anyone not particularly familiar with the capabilities of the Hellenic race.

    Your Sincerely
    Ίωάννης Ιούλιος Κομνηνός
    John Julius Comnenus
    London, 29th May 2016.


    (1) Think El Yanqui said something like this somewhere, for something entirely different. The line stuck with me though.
    950-969: The Forgotten Hero
  • Chapter 1: The Forgotten Hero

    Latin Churchmen outside the Empire have an unfortunate tendency of distorting history by claiming 476 CE marks the end of Antiquity and the onset of the Dark Ages. This is no longer accepted by any serious scholar of history, as there is little evidence that indicates the deposition of a child puppet in Ravenna meant a radical change of affairs even in the West, where Imperial structures had been slowly collapsing for the preceding century. Nonetheless the reluctance of the priests is readily understandable in light of their high regard for Peter Sabbatius Justinian, whose reign is now viewed as time when the West transitioned out of Antiquity, on account of his wars of reconquest and the plague that bears his name. Theological victories over Monophysites after all matter much more for the ecclesiastical class than hard facts, which is the realm lesser mortals like historians must be concerned with.

    Direct culpability for the decline of the East cannot however be completely laid on Justinian’s feet, despite the massive efforts by revisionist Imperial historians from the time of John Callinicus. It cannot be denied he did little to stabilize the East, but it is likely that any other sixth century Emperor would have faced similar challenges even if the western wars been averted. Speculation however is the realm of alternate history, and serious scholars mostly agree that Justinian’s reign heralded the long term decline of the East, allowing it to come apart like a house of cards within a century of his death. None of his immediate successors were exceptionally competent, but it is doubtful whether the presence of a greater man would have made any difference on account of the heavy dead weight of centuries worth decaying institutions and customs that would have been laid on his shoulders. The sad truth was that the Roman Empire was reaching the end of its natural span, tied down by it's long past and not even the intellect of Basil II could have done it any good at that stage. What it needed was fire to burn down the ropes so that it could rise again from the ashes, and no sane Emperor in that era could even contemplate such reforms, which we can list easily today with the benefit of centuries of hindsight.

    For a while, it seemed like the Sassanid Persians would provide the impetus in their two decade long attempt to conquer the Empire in the early years of the seventh century. Egypt and the Levant gave way to the Shah’s men, and the hated enemy camped on the other side of the Straits itself, greedily eyeing the Queen of the Cities. It was a time for the Roman world to reinvent itself, and for a moment it seemed like Heraclius would be capable of leading the reformation, with his miraculous victories against the Sassanians and successful restoration of the Empire’s borders in the East.

    Yet that was not to be, for Heraclius had to face a deadlier foe in the form of the Rashidun Caliphate, even before the decade ended. Fortune collected her due for earlier favors by delivering near miraculous defeats at Yarmouk and Egypt, throwing the Empire into turmoil. The last Roman soldiers left Alexandria in 645, marking the end of the Classical Hellenistic era. The Dark Ages had finally come to the East and it would be content with nothing less than the end of the Empire itself. That the political structure of the Eastern Roman Empire got a chance to reform itself before it suffered the same fate as its Persian brethren owed more to the geography of the Anatolian plateau and the sudden discovery of Greek fire than to any sudden genius in the Constantinopolitan Court.

    Whether by skill or fate, the entity called the Roman Empire survived the crisis, despite two nearly successful sieges of Constantinople herself. But it was an Empire only in name: the Basileus ton Rhomaion only commanded Anatolia and a few other coastal towns and islands in the Greek East. For all intents and purposes, the Eastern Roman Empire of antiquity met its end in the hands of Islam before the borders between Christendom and Caliphate equilibrated in the eighth century. Romania’s weakness became even more clear when the Patriarch of Rome crowned a barbarian Frank Emperor in 800 to snub the ruling Empress in Constantinople. Beset with theological crises, coups and ever increasing jihadi raids in Anatolia, it seemed like even this vestigial entity was doomed to a slow death, to be reduced to Greater Greece at best.

    Yet Rome survived its struggle against the Caliphate and emerged stronger on account of it. The raids stopped in the mid ninth century as the Caliphate started crumbling from within, while Romans scored multiple victories against the invading hordes. The tables had finally turned as the initial vitality of the new faith withered away while the old fighter had gotten a chance to get their house in order, optimized for survival. The Romans would not truly attack the East for another century, in order to recover some of the population lost over the course of raids and settle scores with Bulgars in the West. But they would not forget their humiliation, and would pass it down to their children: a reminder of lost glories and of the eastern foe that had almost undone the Empire. They might have obtained a respite from their persecution, but Churchmen implored the children in schools to never forget who they were and what they could still become if the treasonous Franks and Saracen infidels be brought to heel (1).

    Imperial history credits most of the recovery to the dynasty founded by the first Basil, although evidence today indicates that the process was well under way in the reign of his predecessor, Michael III. It is undeniable that Basil I had some successes in Italy including ending the Emirate of Bari, but eastern reconquest would have to await the reign of his grandson Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, as intervening Emperors either chose to focus on the western frontier first or were reluctant to delegate too much power to the Anatolian landowners who pushed for eastern expansion. The Emperor Constantine himself was more a man of letters than a warrior and as such an unlikely candidate for military recovery, but his powerful co-Emperor and father-in-law Romanos I was entirely a different sort of beast. Romanos’ ally John Kourkouas launched offensive campaigns in East Anatolia in the 920s, resulting in the successful conquest of Melitene and recovery of the Mandylion of Edessa. Further advances however were halted on account of power struggles within the court that saw the Romanos and his sons being exiled, weakening the momentum at a crucial juncture.

    The pace again peaked under the leadership of Nikepheros Phokas, a scion of an important Cappadocian major land-owning noble family who was appointed Eastern Commander in 953 as a reward for the family’s loyalty to Constantine. His major offensives against the Caliphate in Cilicia and Northern Syria convinced most of the court that the Caliphate was by now a paper tiger which could be dealt with given sufficient resources and leadership. The wary Constantine however was not too willing to hand power to a potential rival after the experience with Romanos and keeping the bloody history of the Empire in mind. His sudden death in 959 changed little, for although his son Romanos II granted sufficient resources to Phokas for the reconquest of Crete, a triumph was nonetheless denied to the successful general once he returned back from his successful mission in 961. It is possible that Romanos in fact was sufficiently frightened to deny Nikepheros sufficient resources for his subsequent Eastern campaign in 962-963 which was marked with successful sackings of Cilician and Syrian cities (including Beroea (2)) but no territorial gains due to lack of manpower.

    Nikepheros Phokas
    It was however only a temporary setback for Phokas as the twenty six year old Romanos II suddenly died in 963 either from exhaustion from his own sexual depravities or poison from his wife’s hand. He left behind no brothers to claim the throne, and a mostly undistinguished legacy. However, he had been successful in fathering two sons who he had proclaimed as co-Emperors before his death: the three year old Constantine VIII and his elder brother, the five year old Basil II. The Empire however needed firmer hands than that of two children, and dowager Empress Theophano tried to proclaim herself regent with Nikepheros’ support. However, this provoked the ire of the minister Joseph Bringas, who feared loss of influence and thus tried to get the Western commander Marianos Argyros be proclaimed Emperor. He also attempted to convince Strategos John Tzimiskes (a nephew of Nikepheros) to betray his uncle and be made supreme commander in the East. Tzimiskes however went straight to Phokas to pledge his support, causing the Eastern army to proclaim Nikepheros Phokas Emperor and march to Constantinople. The gates of the City were opened to them by a loyalist mob after days of fighting within, in which Argyros had perished. Consequently, Bringas was exiled while Nikepheros married Theophano and was acknowledged as senior Emperor.

    A military Emperor on surface enabled the possibility of more conquest, but Phokas was hesitant. His grip in Constantinople was weak and over-reliant on insiders like the eunuch Basil Lekepenos whose agendas did not neatly agree with his. Nikepheros ultimately decided that leaving Constantinople early would be problematic for his reign, and he chose to send his loyal nephew East as commander while he tried to navigate the court (3). In his mind it was a perfect oppurtunity for young John to earn his spurs while the Phokas clan could clear the court up. Brilliant on surface, it proved to be one of the bigger miscalculations of his reign as he provided his nephew with all the resources required and did not try to hobble his career.

    John turned out to be successful--perhaps too successful, succeeding in conquering Cilicia before the year was out and marching into Northern Syria in early 964. Simultaneously, the patrician Niketas Chalkoutzes succeeded in seizing Cyprus and thus obtained a naval base for striking at spots within the Levantine coast. Recognizing that the inland Emirate of Beroea was in terminal decline, Tzimiskes struck for Antioch and miraculously succeeded in conquering it in a surprise attack in the winter of 964. He was even able to sack Tripoli in Phoenicia before withdrawing back to Northern Syria, but he had ultimately been able to acquire the port of Laodicea for the Empire, which could be used to launch attacks on cities like Tyre or Caesaria in the future.

    Phokas however watched these developments with some amount of alarm. John’s major successes gave him tremendous political clout at a time when his attempts at controlling the court were not going well. John had been loyal so far, and thus there was little reason to antagonize him, but he could potentially become a future problem. Nikepheros also was annoyed by John’s application of the “Phokas doctrine” which involved expelling muslims without even a customary conversion offer. It was quite useful during the raid period by swamping the enemy with refugees but it was catastrophic for the long term economic growth of the purged region, and was thus quite suboptimal for conquest. Cilicia and Northern Syria had been heavily depopulated by the wars, and Phokas felt further expulsion was problematic if the Empire was to hold these areas long term. Nonetheless, being pro-muslim was a surefire way of losing Church support, and so Phokas had to grin and bear it. However, tension between him and John started growing as John kept on asking for more money, including a demand to finance the reconstruction of Antioch which had suffered massive damage from a fire caused by an interfaith riot of large proportions soon after the Empire had seized it.

    Phokas’ refusal to fund reconstruction only increased tensions as John moved to gain resources by other means, including a devastating repeat sack of Beroea that all but finished the Emirate there. This immensely displeased the Emperor who wished to use it as a buffer state, but what was done was done. Even a direct order to evacuate the city could not change the fact that it had been damaged beyond repair, and the Emir chose to hide in the mountainous city of Callinicum than actually recover what the Emperor had granted to him. This diplomatic failure allowed Phokas to finally recall John and appoint the Arab Michael Bourtzes governor of the new territories, in the hope of getting a more pragmatic administration [1].

    Keeping John in Constantinople away from his army was also problematic as the anti-Phokas faction of the court swarmed to him. Assassination was definitely an option, but Nikepheros never ultimately went through with it: whether on account of kinship or because John had so far not acted against him. An opportunity to use his skills suddenly came up when Phokas’s bastard cousin Manuel failed to make any headway in Sicily and a replacement was needed. John’s name was immediately suggested by many members of the court, and Phokas acquiesced: seeing it as a convenient opportunity to reduce John’s clout. The man had lived all his life in the East and did not understand the subtleties of Italy, making him a convenient scapegoat for any disasters.

    It must have therefore come as a shock for him to see John actually make significant headway in Sicily soon after landing in Messina in 966, especially on account of his hardline approach against muslims (by now renamed to be the Tzimiskes doctrine). At first seemed like there would be brief success in Messina and Taormina before expulsion again, but John’s cruelty against muslims led to violent retribution against the Christians on the island, who were uniformly Orthodox. Massive rioting in Syracuse in fact allowed a swift naval conquest of the City, allowing the Romans to dig in the heels and hold the Eastern third of Sicily, aided by local Christian scouts. Turning it into a war to defend the persecuted Orthodox Christians in the Island also earned support from the Patriarchs of both Rome and Constantinople, who pressurized their respective Emperors to assist the noble cause. While little direct support came from Otto I of the German Empire, he nonetheless desisted from making a move against the Southern Italian themes which allowed John to focus entirely on his Sicilian front. Nikepheros was forced to send more money and men on account of heavy pressure from the Patriarchate, even though it seemed like it would only enhance John’s stature.

    An angry Phokas decided to return to the field by marching against the Bulgarians in the West in alliance with the Rus Principality of Kiev. The campaign proved to be rather successful at first, bringing back gigantic chunks of the Balkans back to Imperial control in 967-968. However, the Rus were far more successful than planned and it soon seemed like they would not be content with lands north of the Danube alone. While Phokas systematically wore down Comes Nicolas in the West Balkans, Prince Sviatoslav had seized Tsar Boris II himself and was seemingly in control of the Bulgarian Empire. Alarmed, Nikepheros planned to march against the Rus, but was stopped by a sudden sickness that forced him to return to Constantinople and leave command to his brother Leo. Leo made peace with Nicolas and attempted to launch a joint expedition against the Slavs, only to be brutally betrayed and slain at the Gates of Trajan, along with his son and their army. The Slavic hordes were now prepared to march to Constantinople itself, and the ailing Emperor was unable to do much to resist them. Panicked, he recalled John Tzimiskes back once more, only to be told that John was already on the way back, after being crowned Emperor in Italy under the direct auspices of the Patriarch of Rome himself[2]. Desperate, Phokas tried to hold the tide back but was defeated at Adrianople, forcing him to retreat behind the walls of Constantinople. The Slavs wisely did not press against the Theodosian walls, but raided Thrace and Macedonia with impunity. Conceding defeat, Nikepheros had his nose and right thumb amputated off and resigned from office, choosing to retreat to a monastery in Mt Athos before the knives came out. The path was now clear for Tzimiskes to enter the Capital as unopposed senior Emperor in 969 and mark a new beginning for the Empire.

    Mainstream Imperial history has not been kind to Nikepheros, viewing him as a raider general more than a successful Emperor. The Phokas doctrine is viewed as his greatest contribution: as a crude, failed model that only became useful with the refinements of Tzimiskes and Basil. Few remember the contemporary label of “White Death of the Saracens” on account of the glories attained by his successors. It is not a particularly fair assessment of the first man who willingly armed his rivals to attain glory for the good of the Empire, instead of hobbling them like his predecessors. By all accounts, including that of his greatest rivals, Nikepheros mostly acted for the good of the state over his personal preferences and therein lay his downfall. Resignation allowed him to save his life, but he deserved considerably better than the pauper’s grave he was fated to lie in--as the first Emperor who oversaw significant military victories against Islam. It is true that he was a failed diplomat and an incompetent administrator, but he shone in military matters and was a committed soldier of the Empire to the end, making sacrifices that no Emperor since Heraclius had made. His few defeats notwithstanding, Nikepheros laid much of the foundations for the millitary successes of his successors, but is seldom recognized for such: the hero the Empire chose to forget.

    [1]: A vain hope. Bourtzes was a hardliner with all the zeal of a new convert. He was tolerated as he did not provoke war with neighbors, but his forced mass conversions horrified even the Patriarch of Constantinople.
    [2]: Emperor of “Greeks” of course, as John had reached an understanding with Otto I regarding spheres of influence in Italy and Imperial brides, which Nikepheros II had rudely refused to the German Emperor. It is suspected that it was a long conspiracy, with Leo Phokas being betrayed by his own men as well as Bulgars, though surviving sources are understandably sketchy about this.

    OTL Author notes:
    (1): Good mythology for later day Romans to believe in. Almost certainly not true, but they believed this is what was done on Sunday's and lack of sources mean their version got to stick.
    (2): Aleppo for OTL peeps.
    (3): POD. Phokas himself went East in OTL.
    969-980: A Crown of Thorns
  • Chapter 2: A Crown of Thorns

    John Tzimiskes’ ascent to the purple was extremely smooth in part because there were few others willing to drink from the poisoned chalice that the Imperial office had become. The Slavic presence in the Balkans did not pose a major threat to the Queen of the Cities, but nonetheless gravely threatened Salonica and the rest of the Balkan territories which the Imperial army lacked the manpower to defend after the disasters at Trajan’s gate and Adrianople. Nikepheros Phokas had thus been compelled to call for reinforcements from the East prior to his resignation and a host of 40,000 mainly consisting of Armenians and Paulicans arrived soon after Tzimiskes himself, led by John’s brother-in-law Bardas Skleros. The transfer however was not without risk as it exposed the Syrian territories of the Empire to Arab raids once more, while the Imperial authorities retreated to their coastal fortresses. Further, the Sicilian gains had not been properly consolidated yet, and could easily be compromised by a Fatimid counter-attack or a German invasion of Apulia and Calabria from the back.

    Tzimiskes first move therefore was to prevent either from happening via diplomacy. An ambassador was dispatched to the Fatimid court to try to buy them off, and the Caliph was sufficiently focussed on his project of conquering Egypt to be very receptive to letting Greek Sicily go if the price was right. He likely reasoned that the Empire would be unable to hold their Sicilian lands against a Fatimid Caliphate that had consolidated Egypt and thus believed there was no long term loss involved if he took advantage of the Empire’s weakness by demanding an annual tribute of two thousand pounds of gold a year. Fortunately for Tzimiskes, Constantinople was not short of funds and was able to meet the exorbitant demand without much trouble.

    There had been little reason to send an Ambassador to Otto, as the veteran diplomat Liutprand of Cremona had accompanied John to Constantinople in order to choose an Imperial bride for Otto’s heir. Liutprand had failed once earlier to secure the hand of Basil’s sister Anna Porphyrogenita and he simply refused to consider her as an option this time around on account of slights he had received from her mother Theophano. He instead decided to choose a woman who was more closely tied to John in order to ensure Imperial cooperation in Italy. This left him with two candidates, John’s niece Theophano and Helena: the bastard daughter John had fathered on a Syrian camp follower in 964. Helena was the closer biological match, but the Bishop Liutprand had rather uncharitable views regarding bastards, and chose the older Theophano as the match. Later anti-Latin sources often contain lurid accounts of Liutprand’s reasoning in order to highlight his stupidity, but it appears that he made the most reasonable decision possible at the time by choosing a flowered woman descended from the important noble houses of Phokas and Scleros over a five year old of questionable descent.

    Having thus secured most of his borders, Tzimiskes rose to meet the Slavic threat and was able to capitalize on the differences between Nicholas and Svetoslav regarding the future of the Bulgarian Empire. Nicholas had his own powerbase in the West Balkans and did not want to play second fiddle to Svetoslav, who wished to make himself Tsar of the Bulgarians by deposing his puppet Boris II. This would however not be possible without the support of Nicholas unless Svetoslav was able to raise his prestige significantly by some other means.

    The easiest route to Tsardom appeared to be submission of Tsargrad itself, as Tzimiskes’ many concessions to Germans and Arabs made it appear that the Empire was too weak to offer significant resistance. Therefore in spring of 970, the Rus army along with Pecheneg and Magyar contingents proceeded to march to Constantinople to either conquer the city or force the Patriarch to cede the Tsardom to Svetoslav. Tzimiskes however took to the field and through a series of brilliant feints was able to achieve a crushing victory at Arcadiopolis, capturing Boris II and his brother Roman while Svetoslav had to flee to Dorostolon to attempt to regroup. This however proved unsuccessful, and the fortress was besieged by the Empire for three months before the Rus conceded defeat and agreed to leave Bulgaria to the Empire. The former Tsar of the Bulgars was publicly disinvested of his office in Constantinople, and the entirety of the East Balkans were annexed by the Empire, while Count Nicholas licked his wounds from Ochrid.

    Tzimiskes however did not make an attempt to follow up on finishing the Bulgarian conquest. The Fatimids had finally been able to seize Egypt in 971, and he quickly realized that the window of opportunity to make major gains in Asia were fading rapidly with the ascent of the new major Islamic power. He therefore turned east with rapidity and launched a fast campaign along the Levantine coast that went as far as Kaisaria by 973, but was forced to withdraw to Sidon after the Fatimids made their discontent clear and made a veiled threat against Sicily. The two Empires signed the treaty of ‘Eternal Peace’ in 974 at Jerusalem, vowing to preserve status-quo for at least ten years when terms would be renegotiated. There was however a considerable feeling of betrayal by Levantine Christians that John had sold them out, especially on account of the brutal murder of the Jerusalem Patriarch John VII, who was burned at the stake by the Fatimids soon after the treaty for an earlier letter written to Tzimiskes that urged the Emperor to come to the aid of the Christian populace of the city.

    Nonetheless the Levantine Christians were merely subjects and thus had no influence on the decision of the High Lords. The Fatimids had been eager to tell John that they had little interest in Mesopotamia in order to move Roman focus there, and Tzimiskes leapt to the bait. In 975, a combined Greek-Armenian-Caucasian army under his leadership marched into Northern Mesopotamia from Edessa, swiftly moving along the Tigris river to sack Nineveh and coming to striking distance of Baghdad itself. The campaign however was aborted when its leader fell deathly sick and was only saved by the ministrations by an Assyrian physician. The army however was able to retreat in good order, and preserve all its loot along with a sliver of territory along the Tigris river where Armenian warlords were placed in charge to rule in the name of the Empire.

    John Tzimiskes suspected that he had been poisoned and undertook a bloody purge as soon as he returned to Constantinople in 976. His brother-in-law Bardas Skleros proved to be the main casualty, as Empress Theophano ‘confessed’ that they had been conspiring to steal the throne together. The eunuch Basil Lekepenos was also executed as a conspirator while the Empress was sent into exile at a monastery in an act of mercy, on account of the pleas of her children who were extremely popular with the Constantinopolitan mob.

    Tzimiskes however was left in a sticky situation at the end of the whole affair. He had tried to avoid spending long periods of time in Constantinople to build strong connections to court the way Phokas had tried, seeing Phokas’ disconnect from the army as the reason behind his downfall. However he was now forced to acknowledge that he needed to have influence in court beyond the army, seeing how close the plot to his life had come to fruition and recognizing that he could not purge the government completely by force while simultaneously holding back a murderous mob slavishly loyal to the Macedonian dynasty. The simplest approach to resolving the situation was thus via marriage, as Tzimiskes recalled Constantine VII’s daughter Theodora from her monastic exile in order to wed into the ruling dynasty. He simultaneously wed his twelve year old bastard daughter Helena to the eighteen year old Basil II in order to secure the succession for his line even if he failed to have a male heir.

    Most contemporary sources agree that the second union had a stormy beginning on account of Basil’s dissolute and womanizing tendencies, along with his desire to not be shackled to a child. Sensing an opportunity, John regaled Basil with stories of his own escapades in the East in his youth, in order to convince his son-in-law to visit the Asian frontier, and thus be removed from his power base in form of the Constantinopolitan mob. To his evident surprise, Basil seemed too willing to gain some military experience and left quickly for Edessa by June 976.

    Historians are often quick to point out the stupidity of John for sending Basil east in light of the eventual fate of Nikepheros Phokas after he had sent John himself to deal with the Arabs. However, it is doubtful that John saw any parallels between the two situations. In his mind, he had been a seasoned eastern commander and strategos when he had been sent East and already had a loyal base, while Basil was a spoilt city brat whose only connection to the frontier army was his blood descent from an anti-dynatoi Emperor (Constantine VII) which was unlikely to make him popular on any level. He might have even privately hoped that Basil would anger someone sufficiently to meet an ‘accident’ or be sufficiently depressed by his lack of influence to follow his father’s example to an early grave. No orders for outright murder however were given (perhaps on account of a plea from Helena) but John was clearly not planning to mourn Basil if he did not make it back to the City.

    Though very little is known about Basil’s first three years in the East (he later referred to them both his purgatory and an opportunity to become a better Emperor), it is evident that he had been able to prove John wrong by building a power base within the army consisting of the middle ranking officers and the common soldiers. There does not exist a consensus on how this was achieved, but the most accepted view is that the low to middle ranking officers mostly came from the Aegean after Tzimiskes cleaned the Eastern ranks to put his favorites in high office in the Balkans/Italy, and they tended to see Basil as a man closer to their views than the dynatoi and Armenian warlords who constituted the top leadership. The footsoldiers loyalty was most likely purchased with Basil’s funds, especially if he was one-tenth as generous to those in trouble then as he was known to be later in life. However it was achieved, there was ultimately little doubt that the young Emperor was quite popular in the East by 980. The leadership however did not feel too threatened as Basil had not challenged them directly or had inconvenienced them badly, making them lax about reporting the minutiae about the activities of a soft urbanite to John Tzimiskes.

    The dynatoi strategoi were thus caught unawares when Basil ordered that they march south, and their protests were quickly silenced at spearpoint as the army moved down the Tigris again, joined by some Armenian warlords and twelve thousand horsemen from the Caucasus sent by Prince David of Tao. The Shia Buyid Emir Khosrau of Baghdad was off to settle a succession dispute in the Persian plateau and the young Emperor wanted to take advantage of the situation, especially on account of the sectarian tension between Khosrau and the Sunni Caliph. Nineveh opened its gates without resistance on account of its Emir being a nominal ally of the Empire, and the Imperial host picked up more men from there, leading to a sixty thousand strong force marching down to Baghdad and meeting minimal resistance in the path. The local Buyid allies had hoped that the army would grind its head against the Baghdad walls and be easy picking on their retreat: an outcome vastly preferable to confronting the army at its peak while the best muslim forces were at Persia with Khosrau.

    Their expectations however came to naught because of the Caliph himself, who wanted to use Basil to humiliate Khosrau and secure an independent domain for himself. It might seem strange for the nominal Lord of the House of Islam to seek the alliance of the infidel, but the Caliph was a romantic who had been taken in by stories of earlier tolerance and civility of Romans and the honeyed words preserved in old diplomatic exchanges. Ferdowsi’s Shaitanama goes as far as to say that the Caliph addressed Basil as ‘brother’ and sought his assistance to ‘put down this rogue dog who troubles both of us’. Whether the Caliph opened the doors for his brother is up to conjecture, but some faction did in fact make it easy for the Imperial forces to enter Baghdad.

    If that had indeed been organized by the Caliph, it would represent the most singular case of bad judgement in the history of the Abbasid Caliphate. Basil had absolutely no innate desire to help the Caliph and the City contained the wealth he and his men desired most. The sack was an utter bloodbath, with nearly 60,000 civilians being killed on the first day itself and the streets of the city being filled with blood and fire as the Shia loyalists tried to block the advance by setting parts of the City aflame. Attempts by soldiers to rob mosques also resulted in a counter-reaction as extremists tried to burn structures and houses down to deny them to the Christian army. Although some recent historians attribute a large part of the intentional arson to Basil, Ferdowsi and other contemporary historians were unanimous in praising the ‘brave jihadis’ who denied the great wealth of the city to the Roman horde, and also prevented the dishonoring of their sisters in-faith by ‘sending them to the grace of god’. This is not to say that the Imperial army did not commit massacres, but it is extremely hard to draw up comprehensive casualty counts even despite the heavy documentation of the sack. It was estimated that something close to 150,000 people died in total, mostly on account of the fire.

    All sources however agree that frustrated by the arson, Basil had the Caliph burned alive in the centre of the City to send a message although it is slightly more controversial as to whether he ordered his soldiers explicitly to not spare any muslims they found-especially women and children. In a later letter to John Tzimiskes, he noted that even many of his soldiers were less than happy with murdering women (after having their way with them, if the soldiers so chose) and children, but Basil justified it with the excuse of demographically maiming their enemy.

    After four days of sacking, Basil pulled his soldiers out-along with the majority of the city’s surviving Christians, who clearly realized that their chances were bleak once a Muslim force arrived to avenge this humiliation. Almost every remaining cart, and pack animal in the city was taken out to carry the loot and supplies for the way back, along with maimed muslim men to make up the deficit in labor. Finally, Basil crowned a Jew to be “King” of Baghdad, and had his soldiers set what remained of the City to fire on their way out, moving back north at a much more leisurely pace. It was estimated that each man got five year’s worth of pay in terms of loot despite all the damage from the fire, and were even allowed to take one woman with them.

    Unfortunately for Basil, the journey North was far more difficult due to limited amount of supplies and the slower pace. He forcibly acquired most of the crops in the villages in the way, along with nearly all the farm animals. This was not well received and he had to massacre many of the Villagers in order to meet his demands, leading to the epithet Shaitan that Ferdowsi and others would liberally use to describe him. Even so, the requirements were hard to meet, and many of the prisoners from Baghdad were starved to death, with villagers on the way being their replacement. Disturbing reports of cannibalism by the prisoners were also noted by Caucasian soldiers, but Basil chose to ignore such claims, noting that it was not his business as long as the prisoners did their due share of labor.

    The brutality of the sack of Baghdad had also served to unify his foes, and a host was organized in Southern Mesopotamia to bring the Emperor to justice. Realizing that the he would be unable to reach Imperial lands in time, Basil turned around and gave battle in Nineveh, just like Heraclius once had in the past. The resulting battle was a great victory for the Empire over a horde of mostly green conscripts, with Basil later attributing it to the courage of the soldiers in defending their ill gotten gains. In any case, the Battle of Nineveh settled all doubts over Basil’s military competency and he never again had to worry about the support of the Army of the East.

    However if the victory had made Basil’s reputation golden for his men, his actions afterwards blackened it for his enemies till the end of time. Ninety nine out of every one hundred prisoners of war were blinded, with the hundredth being castrated and then charged to bring his comrades home. Khosrau was said to have died of heart failure after he had heard of the actions of Basil, and his Kingdom did not really survive his death, disintegrating into distinct Mesopotamian and Iranian fragments by 982.

    Having annihilated the Caliphate and settled Mesopotamia however, Basil turned to the remaining foes. The treaty of ‘Eternal Peace’ had avoided discussing the fate of the minor emirates in the Levant, and they had slowly been turning to the Fatimids in the hope of profiting as the peace treaty expired. John’s absence had emboldened them, but now many were having second thoughts after hearing about the Baghdad sack, especially as Basil announced that he would personally visit Antioch in 981 and treat with them to receive tribute. The Near East was again heading to a long war between Anatolia and Egypt, and the Emperor in Constantinople watched helplessly as the situation heated up without his consent, finally being able to feel sorry for the trouble he had put Phokas through and feeling the full weight of the sorry crown of thorns.

    Purple: Till Phokas becomes Emperor
    Red: Till Tzimiskes becomes Emperor
    Blue: End of this update
    Last edited:
    980-986: War in the East

  • Chapter 3: A Tale of Two Emperors: The War in the East

    It had been apparent to all that the 974 Treaty of Jerusalem between the Empire and the Fatimids did not herald peace but was only a ceasefire to allow both sides to build up strength adequately. On paper, the Empire was the far stronger force on account of the large army it could levy from its densely populated ethnically homogenous Greek Aegean core along with a superior navy. Yet, it also had two other fronts in Italy and Balkans to defend and by 981, suffered from an intrinsic political instability on account of having two powerful Emperors whose objectives were not in complete agreement. This allowed the Fatimids to be a formidable adversary despite their demographic disadvantage and left the military strategists of the Empire worried about defending their recent conquests in the wake of an Egyptian attack. John Tzimiskes in particular had been concerned about his Sicilian legacy, and had long tried to conspire with the Zirids in North Africa who took over the territory abandoned by the Fatimids in favor of Egypt. Though nominally vassals of Fusfat, the Zirids had their own agenda with regards to Sicily and Cyrenaica, and were amenable to stabbing the Fatimids in the back for the right price.

    The sack of Baghdad however made it politically impossible for the Zirids to back the Empire in the event of conflict and the Emir sent an angry letter of protest to Constantinople, irking John Tzimiskes who was forced to see years of negotiations fall apart due to a single hot-headed general. Perhaps sympathizing with Phokas’ feelings after his own Syrian campaign, John tried to recall Basil back to Constantinople, only to be informed that the Emperor had no plans of doing so and would rather spend his time settling unfinished business in the Levant. Tzimiskes’ bargaining power was further damaged when his daughter, the Empress Helena vanished from the palace only to reappear in Antioch with her husband. It is not known what John’s feelings were at the time, but he probably steeled himself for civil war at the time and made preparations for fleeing to Italy if the mob got out of control.

    The situation did not however deteriorate to that extent. Helena was able to convince her father and her husband to de-escalate, by pointing out their non-overlapping objectives. Basil had little desire to go after Constantinople and instead wanted to campaign in the Levant and Egypt, while John was more concerned about the Balkans and Italy, indicating that the two Emperors could continue with their agendas without unduly stepping on the other’s purple boots. It was not a particularly stable solution, but the difference in age between John and Basil made it quite clear that the former was likely to be dead before the arrangement completely disintegrated. Some credit for this is also attributed to John’s Assyrian physician Leo, who supported the more aggressive Eastern policy pushed by Basil and was able to influence his patron to an extent. Later historians accounted for his hawkishness by equating it with a distaste of muslims that apparently arose from his father being forcibly disinherited of property by an uncle who had converted to Islam and was able to swing the local magistrate to his side. Contemporary historians like Paul of Kallinikos however do not mention such a motive, and I am personally inclined to believe this to be later propaganda by sources pushing a stronger anti-islamic stance which some islamic sources also aggressively picked up in order to justify their ideology.

    Nonetheless, Basil was freed from most domestic compulsions by 981, and started focussing on the Levantine Emirates. The expected Fatimid counter-attack however never came: Egypt was still too busy rebuilding her army and the Caliph Al-Aziz felt that Northern Syria was too close to Imperial territory to be successfully severed from the Empire, choosing rather to engage the enemy south once Basil eventually headed to Jerusalem (as noted by the court official Abu Suleiman). While a sound plan by most standards, it was not communicated properly to the Emir at Calinicum (then still called Ar-Raqquah), who panicked on seeing no reinforcements from Egypt and tried to surrender to Basil. Baghdad however was on the minds of many of the local leaders who murdered the Emir and seized control, hoping that Al-Aziz would aid them. In their zeal they also sought to eliminate the fifth column ‘polluting’ their cities, namely the Levantine Christians. The slums of the City contained many expelled from Antioch and Beroea, and it proved easy to direct their wrath against the co-religionists of the Rum, leading a massacre of most of the Christian population. Paul of Callinicum and his brother were one of the few survivors, and his history describes the deaths of their parents and siblings in great detail, partly as a justification for later Imperial policy.

    The massacre however led to a powderkeg exploding in the Levant that the short-sighted leaders in Callinicum could not have foreseen. Levantine Christians in general had not been too sad to see the Eastern Roman Empire and it’s oppressive Chalcedonian Church withdraw in the seventh century before the might of the Caliphate, but their lot had been steadily deteriorating since, especially after the centralized Caliphate crumbled and was replaced by petty Emirates often led by short sighted fundamentalists who instituted economically disastrous persecutions. The Church was very much in the pocket of the local rulers as the priests were aware that their political role as leaders of the community would vanish if the Empire returned, but there existed a mercantile middle class which was much more pro-Constantinople. Paul’s father had belonged to this class, and it had been gaining power in the wake of the advances by Phokas and Tzimiskes. Distracted by affairs elsewhere, neither Emperor had put in much effort to persecuting heretics or destroying local power structures, enabling the pro-Constantinople faction to argue more strongly in favor of the Empire. Even the Church was coming around in places, with the Jerusalem Patriarch John VII calling on Tzimiskes to protect their people before the Great Betrayal in the form of the Peace of 974, by which the Levantine Christians were again sold out and the Patriarch was burned alive in retribution. Persecutions had been steadily increasing since then as they were seen as disloyal and a potential fifth column for the Rum (which was not true for the vast majority of the population), but the community was too demoralized in general to do much, aside from a few radicals who hid in the countryside.

    Basil’s successes and his evacuation of the Christian population of Baghdad to the Empire however changed the situation, as did his aggressive rhetoric. Basil was in fact able to sell himself successfully as a leader of Christians of any stripe (who were mostly poor peasants) against the evil large landowners (who were mostly muslim) in the coastal territory the Empire already controlled, and was aggressively breaking up large estates with force, leading to many of the radicals joining his ranks. Still, the majority of the community wanted to lay low until the Callinicum massacres made it clear to them that they would soon have to choose a side. Though it was not completely spontaneous in all place and often needed imperial agents to ignite the first spark, most of the Levantine Christian communities were in open rebellion even before Basil had reached Callinicum and had put local muslims to the sword. The most serious of the rebellions were in Kaisaria, where the Empire was even able to land troops and seize the city, but there were few places in Northern Syria where the Empire did not find a ragtag volunteer army waiting to swell its ranks.

    The Fatimids now had no choice but to react, but their attempts to seize Kaisaria ended in disaster, forcing them to purchase a large number of slave soldiers from Makuria in order to field a sufficiently large army for keeping discipline. They were in fact quite successful in quelling rebellions in Palestine but faced increasing opposition North as the Empire moved into Phoenicia proper. Both sides however were eager to avoid direct confrontation in order to consolidate their position, and thus engaged in a sophisticated game of cat and mouse, waiting for the right moment to strike. For the Empire it meant training more of the Levantine levies into fighting shape and gain Bedouin raiding allies, while the Fatimids were busy buying slaves and holding on to their Bedouin allies. Those allies in fact were forced to do most of the proxy fighting as Basil waited in Beirut and Al-Aziz plotted in Jerusalem.

    It never came, for in early 984 a large number of Syrian refugees attacked Venetian merchants in Alexandria, seeing them as agents of the Empire. The fleeing Venetians however were able to set fire to many of the Fatimid ships in the harbor, severely weakening the Caliphate’s naval position. Angered, the Doge immediately declared war on the Caliphate, and combined Imperial-Venetian fleets started attacking Fatimid ships in the Mediterranean. Gaining the upper hand at sea, the Empire was thus able to seize Kaisaria by the end of 984, leaving Al-Aziz in a precarious situation in Jerusalem. Further gains however were not possible on account of troubles in Italy, which caused a large chunk of the fleet to head west, although a sizeable number was left in Levantine ports.

    Forced to recognize that a landing on Sinai would cut him off from Egypt and doom his cause, Al-Aziz left Jerusalem in early 985 to attack Kaisaria, recognizing it as the crucial port for further Imperial attack on Palestine. Recognizing that the city would likely not yield without pressure from the sea as well, the Caliph summoned the remainder of his fleet to challenge the Empire, hoping that that the distractions in the West would leave too few ships in a single port to hold off an attack by the full remaining Caliphate fleet. With Kaisaria at hand, he could hold onto Palestine and then try to negotiate for peace with Tzimiskes himself, who surely would understand that his Empire could not fight multiple wars successfully.

    The Caliph was however a step behind in predicting what Basil truly intended to do, for no sooner had his ships tried attempt a landing at the port at Kaisaria did the entire harbor region go up in flames. Fireships had been the only ones left behind by the Emperor, and the sea had been mined with casks of liquid fire which proved to be the doom of another Caliphate. The skeleton crew in the city proper put up a struggle before being put to the sword, but the Caliph knew that he had lost. Egypt could not replace her navy easily, and they were now completely exposed to the Empire at sea. He feared for Alexandria and the other cities in the Delta, knowing what the Empire could now do to them as there was no longer an adequate force left to defend it.

    His fears soon came to roost as it became evident that the ships heading west had not actually gone to Italy, but had stopped at Crete, where they met up with a Venetian force and headed to Alexandria. The first city of Hellenistic Egypt had returned to Greek hands again, as did Damietta and Pelusium soon after. Recognizing the chance for an attack on Fusfat, the Caliph rapidly withdrew out of the Levant to Egypt proper, abandoning it completely in order to defend his core lands. The Empire had actually been unable to advance out of the coastal cities yet due to lack of manpower and stiff opposition by both Copts and Muslims, but they were trying to ship in more soldiers and strike at Fusfat itself before the Caliph could return.

    It was thus ironic that such a dramatic war would end with a whimper but a western distraction had come that Basil could not ignore any more. John Tzimiskes had died and Constantinople needed a new senior Emperor more than the manpower starved Eastern campaign needed it’s top commander. Though Basil negotiated from an apparent position of strength, both he and the Caliph knew by the end that the Empire could not truly push much further due to the low density of professional tagma troops left, with most of the soldiers on the ground being levantine recruits or thematic troops forced to fight away from home. Therefore, the final terms proved to be quite light for the Caliphate despite its troubles. The treaty of Alexandria in 986 merely stipulated:

    1. The Caliphate was banned from having a navy larger than twenty ships while the Empire promised to defend Fatimid merchants from pirates.
    2. Sinai and all lands east of it were to be ceded to the Empire’s overlordship. This did not however include the Arabian Peninsula, which would remain under Fatimid dominance.
    3. The Fatimids would no longer be paid tribute by the Empire, but would rather need to send twenty ships worth grain to Constantinople in return for naval protection.
    4. Imperial and Venetian merchants would no longer have to pay taxes on eastern goods or local produce.
    5. All Egyptian land would be restored to the Caliphate except for the City of Alexandria which would remain with the Empire.

    Overall, despite the anticlimactic ending, the war had been a major success of the Empire, setting it up as the major player in the Levant and opening up the Eastern Mediterranean to an extent unprecedented since the Battle of the Masts. But perhaps most importantly for Basil, it had succeeded in gaining the last remaining relic of the greatest of the Hellenes. Alexandros Megas’ city had finally returned to his heirs, and it would have to be pried back from their dead cold hands if Basil had anything to say about it.


    The usual spiel. New shade of blue is Basil's additions.
    976-987: War in the West
  • Chapter 4: A Tale of Two Emperors: The War in the West

    John Tzimiskes was a man of Armenian descent who had spent the greater part of his career fighting in the Anatolian front. Nonetheless, his rise to power owed a great deal to the Sicilian campaign and his triumph at Arcadiopolis, leading to a shift of focus to the west in the latter part of his career. Age too had caused him to recalibrate his opinion, as it is attested that he was increasingly sceptical of eastern interventions by 977, thinking that the Empire could ill afford to annex territories filled with Saracens and heretics. The initial peace with the Fatimids may have even come as a relief on some level, as it allowed the Empire to divert attention westwards into the Balkans and Italy-filled with good Nicene-Chalcedonian Christians. This is by no means unanimously agreed upon, with the late Constantine Anastasios steadfastly holding that Tzimiskes’ latter western focus did not mean that he intended to abandon the east completely. Nonetheless, the appointment of someone as junior as Basil as the leader in Anatolia clearly indicated that the Emperor intended to play a bigger role in western affairs than eastern, and Basil’s latter triumph permanently closed the door for Tzimiskes’ return to the land of his birth.

    The first successes of the Empire in the Balkans did not require a strong show of force. Comes Nicolas’ death had left the remainder of the Bulgarian Empire to his four sons, who were soon consumed to squalling with each other. The eldest Aaron even attempted to murder the youngest Samuel in order to minimize competition. Unfortunately, the intended ambush failed, and the young Samuel wound up seeking sanctuary in Constantinople. Tzimiskes had briefly toyed with the idea of marrying him to Anna Porphyrogenita, but Constantine VIII prevented that with a rare show of personality. Samuel nonetheless was in no great hurry to return to his poor lands after seeing the splendor of Constantinople, and instead attempted to curry favor with the Emperor by assisting him in his campaigns. Aaron’s incompetence and fratricidal attempts had weakened the Cometopouli, and John was successful in slowly gobbling up the remaining Bulgarian territories via a war of attrition.

    Basil’s success at Baghdad however changed the nature of the game dramatically, since John now needed a major triumph of his own to not give an appearance of weakness (having learned from the weakness of Nikepheros Phokas). Samuel was given essentially a blank cheque to handle affairs in the Balkans, and he succeeded in crushing Aaron in Trajan’s gates in the spring of 981-paving the way for the annexation of the remainder of the Bulgarian Empire. Some minor Adriatic principalities remained in the periphery under nominal vassalage of Constantinople, but the Slavic people had by and large been brought under the yoke of the Empire. This owed a great deal to Samuel’s suggestions of not intervening in Church affairs and not demanding tax in species but accepting payment in kind. Samuel himself however did not receive an estate in the Balkans-principally because he had requested one in more fertile land in Bithynia, which was granted. Nonetheless, large-scale land redistribution did occur with former Bulgarian loyalists losing significant amount of territory in favor of supporters of the Empire and landless Aegean poor. Many of the dispossessed were however offered a chance to begin anew in Syria, where the Empire needed loyal Nicene-Chalcedonians. Most in fact took up the offer and sailed for Alexandretta and Laodicea, seeing a chance to reestablish their lives away from what had been a battlefield for their entire lifetime.

    The situation in Italy however had become more problematic. The Fatimid-Roman peace treaty had guaranteed that the Greek third of Sicily reconquered by John would remain with the Empire. The Kalbid vassals of the Caliph in fact held off from doing anything much more aggressive than minor raids as Cairo passed on a portion of the Roman tribute back to them. It was quite well understood by both powers that Sicily would become a major battleground between the Empires once they inevitably clashed, but that day seemed distant in the future. The Baghdad incident however again changed the dynamic as there was considerable outrage all over the Islamic world. The Sicilian Emir indeed almost declared jihad on the infidel before Cairo threatened him to desist for now. The Fatimid Caliph had bluntly told the Kalbids that he would not hesitate to sic his vassals the Zirids of Carthage (who had long desired Sicily) on them if they acted before his orders. Sicily was to prepare for war with the Romans, but not actually make a declaration before Egypt was ready to fully commit. The Fatimids needed time to acquire sufficient money to buy enough Nubian troops to face Basil in the East, and a premature start to the war would likely cost them a great deal as the Empire had more men on the ground in Asia. The Caliph was new, and he intended to be methodical and conservative in preparing for war than act on his impulses.

    Sicily had no choice but to submit before this order as they needed Egyptian help to prevent the Empire from shipping Anatolian troops into the Island. The seething Emir nonetheless realized that there had been no peace treaty between Cairo and the German Empire, leaving the Lombard princes of Southern Italy exposed to his depredation. The Fatimids did not discourage this policy--indeed they encouraged it as a practical way for Sicilians to prepare for the real battle. The Emir also saw it as a chance to poison the relationship between the Empire and the Germans, since Constantinople used the peace treaty as a justification for not intervening in favor of the Lombards. Hysterical protests reached Otto’s court soon about how the Greeks had joined hands with the Arabs to fight true Christians, while Constantinople received missives from the Katapeno declaring how the Sicilians and Lombards were distracting themselves, creating great opportunities for Romans.

    The truth was somewhere in the middle. The Italian Greeks had never been friends of the Lombards, and the Katapeno had often looked the other way when Sicilians went through his territories to attack the Latins. Nonetheless there was no desire to actually provoke a German intervention as it would likely cause great damage to the last remaining Roman territories in Italy, and would certainly be frowned upon by Constantinople. The Imperial bureaucracy had indeed seen the truth in the missives from Italy, and urged John to command the Katapeno to moderate his ways. Bulgarian distractions however distracted the Emperor from paying attention until the situation had become too grave to ignore. Otto on the other hand took the Lombard exaggerations mostly at face value and decided to intervene after the death of minor relative of the late Pandulf Ironhead, claiming that he would handle Sicily if Constantinople could not, amassing a small force under his command and crossing the Alps before winter fell in 981. They were joined by other Italian princes, who saw it as a great chance to finally stamp out the Greek presence on the peninsula.

    Otto’s stated mission was against the Sicilian Kalbids, and he may have genuinely meant his guarantee that no Imperial land will be conquered. The thought of his army marching through Apulia and Calabria however was too much for John to stomach, and he insisted to sending Samuel to dissuade the Germans. That was not enough for the Katapeno, who this time actively encouraged the Sicilians to intervene (stating that he would surrender to the Germans and let them move on to Sicily otherwise). A large force quickly landed in the peninsula and sneaked up North with active assistance from Katapeno Theophylact, ambushing the Germans at Stilo (1) in Calabria. The resulting battle was a disaster for the Germans, as the princes of Salerno and Benevento fell in battle and Otto himself was forced to flee to Naples, where he died from malaria (or a Constantinopolitan knife, depending on who one asked). The Saracens retreated back to the island unmolested, unaware that their hopes of provoking a German-Imperial war over Italy had been quenched by their very success. The former was no longer capable of fighting the latter, as factions allied with the Empress-Mother Adelaide of Italy began clashing with Otto’s wife Theophanu over the regency of their child. Accusations of Italian and Greek treachery run amok, and Duke Henry of Bavaria also made a claim for the throne, declaring that he was free of the “southern taint”. The German civil war would continue for many years still, and would only end after all the principal actors were no more.

    Samuel thus arrived to find that the war had been won for him. Lacking authority to actually punish Theophylact, he merely ensured that the Katapeno met an unfortunate accident and quickly set about restoring Imperial control to Salerno and Benevento. Neither of the Lombard principalities had the means or will to resist, resulting in a rather swift annexation. Having settled his rear somewhat, he turned to Sicily and waited for the moment when the Emir would realize his error in causing Otto’s death. The moment in fact came quite soon, five weeks before Basil confronted the first Egyptian army in Syria. The Fatimid emir had realized how much the balance of power had shifted, and tried to make a surprise attack to distract the Empire before it could move more forces to the Island. His hope was that the battle in Asia would begin soon and distract the Romans, leading him to conclude that striking immediately would prevent the Empire from growing any stronger short-term.

    Unfortunately for him, his court contained a fair number of Zirid spies who immediately reported back to Carthage and caused their master to invade Sicily “to defend the treaties of their Lord the Fatimid Caliph”. News of the treaty being broken in Asia came too late to remove the causus belli. The Zirids had met little resistance and were in control of the western third of the Island by then, leaving the Kalbids sandwiched in the middle. Egypt did not possess the means to make the Africans go away, and thus it only demanded that the two sides fight no more and cooperate against the Empire (promising Kalbids Italian land in return). That however proved to be an ideal scenario that never realized itself, with both muslim powers squabbling and letting the Empire (now led by John himself) secure its position on the eastern third and launch attacks. The Kalbids were in fact unable to resist the sandwich pressure for long, collapsing quite badly in mid-984, leaving the Zirids and the Empire to fight each other head on. Their struggles proved to be mostly a stalemate, convincing John and Samuel of a need to attack the Zirid base in Africa to weaken their position.

    The Roman attack on Carthage in early 985 was navally assisted by Genoa and multiple other Italian cities who wanted an end to piracy, and viewed the Imperial navy (then mostly tied up in the Eastern Mediterranean assisting Basil) as a safe route to attaining that. It was a successful attack, with the city being taken. But not before Emperor John was dealt a flesh wound by an arrow, which turned septic. The dying Emperor kept to the field for a while longer, but he recalled Basil from Alexandria, knowing his end was near. The Zirids however had been dealt a serious blow in terms of both resources and prestige, with little extra help being able to flow from Africa due to a naval blockade. Samuel was able to march into Agrigento in early 986 with the dying Emperor in a litter, with Basil arriving in a few days after. The greatest commander the Empire had in the preceding half century faced his heirs, and begged them to continue his job. Accepting the mandate, Basil took command and proceeded to flush the Saracens out of Sicily by 987 (aided by the end of the Egyptian war with the treaty of Alexandria), assisted by the loyal Kuropalates Samuel, the new governor of Sicily.


    Map of territorial changes. Green is the final round. Heading to static borders for a while now.

    Vasilas's Notes:
    (1) See OTL https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stilo if you think I am wankish.
    986-1006: Golden Interlude

  • Chapter 5: The Golden Interlude

    The year 987 found the Empire as the undisputed master of the Eastern Mediterranean, having essentially reversed most of the major territorial losses since the advent of Islam. Syria, Palestine, Sicily and even the Cities of Carthage and Alexandria had returned to the Imperial fold, while their Bulgarian and Arab Lords rotted in their graves or begged in exile. Even the almighty Fatimid Caliphate had been defanged with its navy reduced to ashes floating the Kaisaria harbor, and its lands filled with refugees from the Levant expelled by the Romans. There did not exist a power West of Cathay that could have matched the glory and might of the Empire of Romans-a stunning reversal from seemingly irreversible decay since the time of Justinian.

    The Emperor however was left with the task of securing the peace after his glories in the field of battle. The core of professional tagma troops had been almost completely burned out by the near constant wars, but the Empire had both the means and the time to remedy that. The economic situation of the Empire was in fact much better than what the seemingly fifty year long war would indicate. West Anatolia-the most economically productive region of the Empire-had been in peace for centuries and could alone supply the requisite manpower alongside a considerable amount of tax revenue without major stress. The loot from conquered territories in fact had heavily boosted the Anatolian economy, as the wealth of Baghdad and Damascus flowed into Trebizond and Ancyra alongside returning soldiers. Thrace and Macedonia, while at peace for a much smaller duration of time, were also generating a considerable net surplus in terms of the Imperial budget, allowing Constantinople a somewhat freer hand in organizing the newly acquired territories.

    The economic health of those territories on the other hand was more questionable. Southern Italy was a net drain as ever-a perpetual vanity conquest that would take years to be profitable but was seen as essential to protect the Balkan territories from any avaricious Latin power. Syria and Palestine had been looted by the armies so thoroughly that the major cities could barely support themselves, but the land was sufficiently rich that the newly empowered Christian communities leaving the secure zones could soon survive without requiring assistance from the Constantinopole. The trade caravans running through the region were theoretically also a valuable source of income, though records indicate that there was a severe contraction in the amount of goods flowing from the east via land. The traditional interpretation had long blamed political instability in Mesopotamia for this, but it now slowly being recognized that Levantine Bedouin raids were also to blame. The Empire did not attempt to extend direct control to most of the Levant, being content with the coasts and the a few major cities like Jerusalem and Damascus in the interior. Most of the land was filled with (very muslim) Arab nomadic tribes, who the Empire had used as auxiliaries in the last war and who they subsidized in the interest of maintaining peace. Constantinople extended only loose control over them, merely directing their attention to rebellious communities (oftentimes muslim, but attested to be christian a few times as well) to ensure that its interests were not compromised. This left the tribes to prey on the routes, and often demand substantial protection money, leading to an overall contraction that Constantinople mostly ignored (having never budgeted for it in the first place). The Empire however was quick to use its naval leverage in Mediterannean to encourage the Red sea trade to go via Berenike in Palestine (1) instead of Egypt, and forced a large chunk of Egyptian exports to leave via Alexandria (by only ‘insuring’ those ships). A select number of Genoese and Venetian merchants proved to be the only exceptions who were allowed purchase licenses for trading from other Egyptian ports, but the worsening situation for Nicene-Chalcedonians in Egypt made most of the Italians choose to operate out of the safety of Alexandria, with a large chunk of the insurance licenses lying unclaimed.

    Money thus was not a major issue for the Empire, and the stewardship of the Finance minister Stephen of Baghdad (2) under the watchful eye of the Emperor resulted in significant surpluses. The Emperor however was not particularly happy about the seemingly worsening wealth inequality happening in the Empire, with the dynatoi driving the poor farmers of Central and East Anatolia to make sheep farms. The Makedonian dynasty had long combatted the dynatoi, but the reigns of Phokas and Tzimiskes had relieved the stress somewhat, while Basil had required their assistance in the eastern push. Like his forefathers however, he was discomfited by the influence the dynatoi had on Anatolian troops and sought to curb it. To this end, he moved to double to size of the professional tagma core, staffing it with many of the now landless young men who owed their livelihood to the Basileus and not the local magnate. The Orphans were also constituted in early 990 as an elite set of soldiers raised from the children (mostly Sicilians and Syrians) orphaned during the war. Basil’s army had collected large numbers of these children during the war, and sought to hone them to a perfect weapon of unquestionable loyalty. The historian Paul of Kallinikos was one such child ‘adopted’ by the Empire, after he and his brother were orphaned by the Kallinikos riots. A limp had doomed him to the clergy over military service (which led to considerable bitterness in his writing) but he was eager to describe the adventures of his brother Petros and other fellow Orphans, giving an unparalleled account of the era [1]. Overall however, recruitment into the armed forces was not an efficient measure for poverty alleviation, driving the Emperor to seek out alternate approaches.

    This is admittedly something few men in his position power would normally prioritize, and is indeed a very strong reason behind why future historians peddled hagiography over facts when it came to Basileos Megas. The years in the camp and first hand accounts of the struggles of the poor however had moved the Emperor to take dramatic measures to reduce the number of poor in the Empire. The classical route had been via massive construction projects, but this was found to be an inefficient short time fix, and no major projects were undertaken aside from some repairs and restoration of earthquake damage. In his opinion, the only viable long term solution was to provide the poor with land for settling in, but such land was not available in great supply in the densely settled Eastern Mediterranean. Syria had lost a tremendous amount of population, but there was a large enough local population to capitalize on the newly freed up territories at a time of upheaval. Attempts to impose land ceiling measures did not extend far beyond the coastal strips where the Empire had a vicelike grip, and the Emperor refrained from enforcement via military, which would likely cost local goodwill. The alternative thus was to make land appear by impounding from groups that did not have much political support. The muslims of Syria and Sicily were a convenient scapegoat, and the farmers clinging to the faith saw their tax treble between 987 and 990, enforced by an increasingly brutal Imperial army that often sold entire villages to slavery when tax targets were not met. Such predatory taxation led to uprisings that were quickly crushed, oftentimes by Lombard/Arab auxillaries that the Empire had paid off. Many locals quickly got the drift, and abandoned their land in favor of banditry (again ruthlessly crushed by the Empire) or fleeing to Egypt as cheap labor on trade ships. Settlers from the urban poor population of Constantinople and the Aegean were quickly sent to occupy the emptied land, alongside a Greek priest to ensure that they did not ‘go local’. Some major population transfers also occurred at this time (mainly Lombards in Salerno and Benevento being sent to the Levant to be replaced by Greek settlers), but overall Imperial policy was to replace undesirables with desirables by all means necessary. Introduction of rice into imperial lands also offered a route, as the Church was compelled to use its land in Thrace to cultivate the new crop through the labor of the jobless urban poor, while the resulting high-calorie cereal flowed to the various welfare kitchens run by the Church.

    These projects had visible impact, as noted by Archbishop Manfred of Cologne while reflecting on his visit to Constantinople in 995. Although his claims of there being no beggars in the street as they were all tilling church lands was clearly hyperbole designed to convince secular rulers to grant more land to his church, his utopic account of the Queen of the Cities is generally assumed to hold some truth. Venetians and Genoese nobles for instance often wrote about their discomfort with the resources Constantinople spent for its poorest, as well as the trouble they had with poor young crewmen simply defecting to the Empire. Nonetheless, even they complimented the enormous effort of the Constantinopolitan church in training a large number of priests to spread the (Nicene-Chalcedonian) word of christ. Perhaps somewhat inadvertently however, the newly educated droves of churchmen drove up the literacy of the Empire in their dual capacity as village schoolmasters, leading to a generation that would play a crucial role in the future hellenization of the Empire. The influence the Basilian reforms had over literacy is often questioned by historians in light of the fact that the Empire had always been the most literate society west of Cathay, but contemporaries often noted that the those years were special. Michael Psellus, writing a half a century afterwards, stated that there “will never again be another generation as learned as those educated by Emperor Basil” [2].

    The Empire also exerted significant influence in the cultural sphere in this era. The Balkan slavs never really had a hope of keeping an identity independent of the Empire in the face of geography and the sheer wealth of Constantinople, that allowed it to dump large numbers of bilingual priests into the former Bulgarian Empire to accelerate assimilation. The nobles themselves were the first to disappear into Imperial society, with distant villagers being the last to cling on-but the inevitable cultural forces would take their toll in the years to come. Further north, the Prince of the Rus would finally convert to Christianity in 989 in exchange of being allowed to marry the Emperor’s sister Anna. This secured the Empire’s northern borders, and permitted Basil to focus on other frontiers. Large scale vassalization-often via force- of Armenian and Caucasus principalities happened from 994-1006, wherein many rulers were even coerced to will their territories to Constantinople in the absence of a direct heir. The west was a trickier matter, but there was no direct intervention in the German civil war that continued to rage. Some defensive action occurred in Italy without any change in borders, while Sardinia and Corsica were brought back to the Imperial fold. The latter indirectly catapulted the Empire into affairs in Gaul, where the Count of Provence begged assistance from a distant overlord to avoid the grip of the Kings of France (themselves emboldened by eastern front being secured by the German civil war). Nikepheros Ouranos led the tagma in the first serious military mission of this era, although they never really saw action as their presence was sufficient to have scared off the northerners. While the project led to no direct gains for the Empire, it did help extend their influence into the western Mediterranean, and secured Corsica from the north.

    The south was however where the main issues of the day originated from. Caliph Al-Aziz had led his country to disaster in the wars against the Empire, but it seemed like he would be able to win the peace by ensuring that Egypt remained steadfastly loyal to him. He was fully aware that legitimate grievances of Levantine Christians had given the Empire an opening, and an equivalent Coptic uprising could be ruinous. Dividing the Melkites [3] and Copts therefore was high on his agenda, which he sought to achieve by elevating a sympathetic Coptic Patriarch into office at Cairo (his predecessor being unceremoniously chucked out by the Empire from Alexandria) and promoting Miaphysite court officials. His Melkite wife and her family were also forced to make a public conversion to Coptic Christianity (her brothers would later become Patriarchs of their new church), highlighting the extent to which he was willing to go to appease the Copts. Simultaneously Melkites were persecuted, and Italian traders soon found that their security in ports outside Alexandria was not particularly guaranteed by the Caliph. Al-Aziz’s Shia faith also led him to take moves to appease the mostly Sunni populace, especially in light of the large number of Sunni Levantine refugees fleeing Imperial persecution. The easiest route to do this was same as what Basil had achieved-via giving land to the poor. The Delta had Melkite villages ripe for persecution, and many were soon made empty by the Caliphal army to secure resources for their coreligionists. A deluge of the homeless made it to Alexandria, but the Empire did not lift a finger to defend them. Soup kitchens were all that Constantinople was willing to fund at such times, and so the Melkite masses huddled in the City of Alexander, waiting for their time. They were being joined by Copts as well, as the army was less than diligent in persecuting only the right types of christian (while the coptic church hierarchy covered those issues up). A young priest from Pelusium proved to be exactly the type of preacher the homeless and the poor desired, with his radical talk of seizing Egypt for christians once the Empire had recovered and could go to war again. Protests from the Melkite Patriarch notwithstanding, Constantinople allowed Father Thomas to continue with his sermons as they themselves felt that a fight with Egypt was inevitable in the decades to come, and a local radical population could serve them as well as it had in Syria. Al Aziz was also aware of this, as he continued his military buildup, hoping that he could wage a sufficiently ruinous defensive war to force an Imperial withdrawal.

    Sadly for him and Egypt-a Nile perch bone stuck happened to get stuck in his throat on an otherwise fine day in 996 and left the Caliphate to his mentally unstable eight year old son.

    The regent was Al-Aziz’s eldest child, a woman known to us in the west as Sarah, but who Egyptians called Sitt al-mulk-a woman born to the Melkite mother who had been forcibly converted to the Coptic faith by Al-Aziz. Nominally a Copt, she had considerable pro-melkite sympathies, and a coup attempt by a Sunni general early on convinced both her and the Shia elite that some form of rapprochement with the Empire was needed. Direct vassalization was too humiliating, but anything short of that could be acceptable-leading them to send an emissary to Alexandria to ask for terms. Constantinople did not push too hard on the surface, only asking for an end for anti-Melkite persecutions and an increase in grain shipments. Secretly however, Basil drove a harder bargain-using the extra tribute to prop up Melkite leadership in Alexandria and feeding their flock for extra leverage. The Caliph was coerced to sign a document purely in Greek that effectively made him a vassal to the Empire by making him cede the title of “Defender of the two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medinah” to Basil. In addition, governorships of key coastal cities like Pelusium were handed over to Melkites, who ruled most of those cities as Imperial clients than Fatimid officials.

    No matter the steepness of price however, the landing of the tagma and four themes worth of troops in Alexandria under Nikepheros Xiphias put an end to Sunni rebellious thoughts. Egypt was not yet ready, and it would not be for years. For now the purple boots on their back could not be lifted, but the humiliated generals returned to their barracks seething, waiting for a day to come when they could avenge their honor.

    Somewhat unexpectedly, a thirteen year old Sicilian guest of Al-Aziz would prove to be their savior.


    [1]: Through him, we observe the official hellenization policy of the Empire. It is telling that all the orphans were trained and educated at Aegean Islands, and most considered their earlier knowledge of Aramaic or Sicilian Latin to be a shame than a strength.

    [2] This was no hyperbole, as it would be true till the advent of the printing press (in terms of literacy rate). Many farmers quickly found that learning Homer was a luxury their children had no need for once the funds for education dried up, leading to a decrease in overall literacy over time. Nonetheless, those who would move away from Anatolia to other parts of the Empire clung on to their culture even more tightly, and played a major role in hellenizing their societies.

    [3] “Imperials”: A term originating from the semetic “melik” used to denote pro-Empire (i.e. Nicene-Chalcedonian) christians.

    Vasilas’s notes

    1. Aqaba in Modern Jordan. Port on Red Sea.
    2. Originally a muslim, but a close enough friend of the Nestorian Patriarch to have survived the sack. Afterwards, Basil needed learned men-and cooperation was better than perishing.
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    1006-1008: Into the Twilight

  • Chapter 6: Into the Twilight

    Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
    To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

    The Basilian renaissance continued for eighteen years from the end of the Sicilian war in 988 till the crisis of 1006. For almost a generation the Empire had effectively known peace and its inhabitants never had it so good. The Emperor and his men had built a land fit for heros who had toiled to restore the glory that was Rome, and it seemed like the future was bright. Until it all came crashing down in the middle of 1006 as the Empire descended into a crisis of scope unmatched after the seventh century, with even its prized Anatolian fortress breached.

    The crisis was not created overnight, but had essentially been on the making since John Tzimiskes died and ceded long term planning for the Empire to Basil. Consumed with an overriding interest in domestic affairs and believing the Egyptian issue to be mostly settled, Basil made structural changes to the Imperial army which rendered them weak in the face of a truly devastating crisis. He reduced the size of the western anatolian thematic armies, seeing the probability of a land invasion in that region to be essentially null, while creating a larger professional tagmatic core which the Empire was loath to put to full use due to the extra active duty bonus promised to the soldiers. Simultaneously, no attempts were made to reorganize the Levant into proper themes-most cities had a large city guard drawn from Levantine Christian ranks charged with keeping order, with some Imperial garrisons in places like Antioch, Kaisaria and Gaza. No serious attempts to recruit an army from the countryside was made, and local disturbances were mostly settled with the aid of Arab auxiliaries the Empire paid. Their loyalty had always been questionable, but Constantinople felt that they did not represent a threat by themselves.

    There were also no attempts made to intervene in the German civil war, or indeed-anywhere in Italy north of Benevento. The civil war had raged for long, but it finally ended in 1002 with the crowning of Henry of Bavaria as Emperor. At first Henry had attempted to negotiate about Italy with Constantinople, but was coldly rebuffed by Basil, who declared that there was only one Emperor of the Romans (conveniently forgetting his own brother for the time being). Incensed, the German started to look south across the Alps for support. The papacy and many other lombard princes had broken away from the German Empire during the civil war, but Henry would soon be in a position to amend that-Constantinople be damned.

    Armenia was another great strategic blunder for the Empire. There had been a general migration of peasants from the poor lands to become laborers in the sheep farms of the east anatolian dynatoi, which the local princes had tried to curb. Far from assisting them in the attempt to curb the dynatoi-Basil had taken it as a personal affront and intervened militarily there from 994-1006, forcibly vassalizing many of them. It might have been acceptable had he merely stopped there, but he also left behind an annual tax bill for the Armenians to fill, alongside some bureaucrats to ensure that his will was carried out. Low level insurgency began almost immediately, but was stamped out by force. The Emperor felt confident enough at the time to even force many of the princes to will their domains to the Empire in the absence of direct heirs, seeing this as a chance to expand without significant loss of blood and treasure.

    The greatest mistake however was Egyptian policy. The attempts of the Caliphate to seek Imperial protection from its Sunni masses were reciprocated strongly. Perhaps too strongly, as the Empire openly sent forces to assist the Shia elite in quenching a revolution and ordered their elaborate spy network (built over the past years) to assist the government, thereby compromising it completely. They tied themselves too strongly with the regency council and civil government while ignoring the army and the masses, who grew to resent the overt and strong Greek influence. Sending tutors for the Caliph proved to be the last straw for many of the Ulema and the other religious leaders, who started looking for alternatives and soon found one in the form of a certain Dawd. Dawd was the last known survivor of the Kalbid family that had previously ruled Sicily, and was a close friend of the young Caliph (who admired the martial prowess of the elder male). Dawd was too young and not particularly hostile to the regents to have been deemed a threat (though some might have sought to use him as a counter weight against Sitt Al mulk in the future) and he passed undetected by the channels used by the Empire to detect issues. A Fatimid officer later admitted that the spies originally hired by the Empire had long reported that he was a potential problem, but no one in Cairo had taken it seriously or had reported it to Alexandria. Dawd in the interim used his time to build connections to both the Sunni leadership and the army, now mostly made of children from Levantine refugee families.

    The final problem of the Empire was strictly an internal one related to succession. Basil II had two male children-John and Michael, but neither were fit to rule. The former was drunkard who raged and swore at all weaker than him but cowered before his father, while that latter thought with his sword and lacked natural intelligence. Constantine VIII also did not have any male children, leaving the pool of potential successors narrow. In despair, Basil had forced a marriage between John and Constantine’s daughter Theodora, with that incestuous union resulting in a son called Basil in 998, but the couple despised each other and further progeny seemed unlikely. Recognizing that his focus on governance had led him to neglect his children to their detriment, he decided to not repeat the error and had his grandson brought to him at the age of five so that he could learn the art of ruling from his grandfather. Nonetheless, the Empire lacked an unambiguous successor to Basil in the early years of the eleventh century, raising the potential possibility of a coup that frightened some members of the Imperial family.

    These unseen burdens weighed heavily on the Empire as the year 1006 arrived. Andronikos Doukas, the Imperial ambassador to the Fatimid Court, felt sufficiently comfortable in the Egyptian situation to request leave from his post to travel to China with a Fatimid embassy. Basil saw no issues in granting this request, and Doukas summarily left with the monsoon winds, promising to spread the word of the Empire all over the east. Meanwhile Basil personally went to tour Armenia and Mesopotamia along with his son Michael and grandson Basil, helping pacify a few problematic regions with lots of blood and fire. It was at this time when his eldest son (confined to Bari as nominal Katapeno) decided to create trouble by intervening in a papal election. The previous pope had done a fine balancing act between Basil and Henry, but Katapeno John was determined to please his father by bribing an unabashed pro-Constantinopoltan priest to power. The outraged opposition called upon the eager Emperor Henry, who marched over the Alps with a small army that rapidly swelled with Lombard support soon after entering the peninsula. Rome fell rather promptly and the Pope fled to his master at Bari (while a more pliant successor crowned Henry as Emperor of the Romans). Henry demanded that the errant Bishop be handed over, and John in a fit of pride refused-asking his father, the true Emperor of the Romans to intervene. An annoyed Basil complied, since drunkard or not-John was blood and could not completely be abandoned against a barbarian pretender. Henry on the other hand had expected similar behavior, and prepared for a long campaign to free Benevento and Salerno by driving the Greeks down to Apulia and Kalabria. Against him was arrayed the forces of Kuropalates Samuel of Sicily, while Emperor Basil himself sailed from Alexandretta to Italy, accompanied by his grandson, six thousand tagmatic troops and a large number of eastern anatolian thematic troops (expressly for the purpose of saving costs by not having the full tagma on active duty).

    Italian geography from OTL

    The Emperor’s departure right before winter was met with joy by the opposition in Egypt. They struck soon after, knowing that the Emperor was unlikely to risk winter storms and sail back. Sitt Al mulk and the rest of the regents were murdered, though not before some had squealed and exposed the complete Roman intelligence network in Egypt. That was quickly neutralized, and consistent false information sent to Alexandria to give an impression that all was well. Indeed, Nikepheros Xiphias would not have realized that anything was wrong till a survivor begged to be let in, being chased by a non-trivial portion of the Egyptian army. By then it was too late to reverse the situation, for the mentally unstable Caliph was no longer in actually in charge, having been replaced by the Wazir Dawd who called for an invasion of the Levant-seeing that to be the only leverage to hold over the head of the Romans who would soon attack the Nile delta with their navy. The Egyptian army (with a large chunk of Makurian slave soldiers) was summarily gathered and sent East, crushing the defenses of Gaza and being joined by many Bedouin tribes formerly allied with the Empire who saw this war as a chance to gather more loot. Kaisaria, Tyre, and other coastal fortresses steeled themselves, but the blow never came. Dawd had been focussing on the interior, and by January 1007, had been able to seize Jerusalem.

    The Empire had been slow to realize the depth of the problem, and Empress Helena at first did not even inform her husband of the trouble, thinking that sending the remainder of the tagma to Egypt to remind the Caliph who was the boss would be adequate. The fall of Jerusalem radically changed the nature of the problem as it was too big a news to be contained. There was an immediate need for a major levantine force to be sent as well and the Empire scrambled to gather enough men from west anatolia and the balkans to make a push there. Some watered down reports were sent to Italy to assure Basil that the situation was firmly in control. That changed when Armenia rose in rebellion, seeing this as the perfect chance to force the Empire to listen. Prince Michael and his forces were in Nineveh at the time, and were completely cut off from the rest of the Empire into a Mesopotamian exclave, as the Armenians overran east anatolia. The dynatoi had depopulated the land for long, and most of the thematic troops were with Basil in Italy, resulting in no effective resistance as the countryside was raided-with some making it as far as the outskirts of Ancyra. Constantinople’s immediate response was paralysis, as plans of drawing soldiers from the balkans was immediately put on hold in the fear of an equivalent Bulgarian uprising (unfounded as the treatment there was much milder). The levant was forgotten as desperate levies were raised from the Aegean to send to Trebizond under the leadership of old Nikepheros Ouranos in order to contain the Armenian issue, complicated by the onset of winter. Dawd capitalized on the chaos as well, moving to seize Damascus and Aleppo that summer, further jeopardizing the situation of the Empire in the Levant. The coastal strip still held firm, but not much else.

    Till then it was possible that the Egyptians were merely making temporary conquests as a show of strength to ultimately force minor concessions. But the Armenian crisis convinced Dawd that an opening had come to not just drive the Empire out of the Levant, but to actually conquer it outright. It is unclear whether his delusions of being a second, successful Muawiyah (as attested by Persian writers of the era) stemmed from from this period or not, but he certainly made moves consistent with such ideas by calling upon Arabia to provide him with ghazi warriors on his own authority as the lord of the old imperial city of Damascus and not in the name of the mad Caliph Al-Hakim. Al-Hakim was certainly not protesting at the time, praising Dawd for his victories and pulling men off the fields to supply more men for an Anatolian invasion.

    Meanwhile in Italy, Basil had come extremely close to abandoning the peninsula completely after he had heard of the fall of Jerusalem, but was persuaded otherwise by Samuel to wait and engage the Germans once before calling for peace. The Armenian rebellion however complicated the whole issue as the anatolian soldiers were agitated about the fate of their homes. Basil and Samuel were left with no choice other than a march northwards to Capua in order to face Henry. The German Emperor had not been doing too well either-for the news of the second fall of Jerusalem had shaken Rome up heavily. The deeply pious Pope Stephen was openly wondering if this was divine retribution for Christendom fighting against itself, and if he had worsened the situation by dragging the Papacy into temporal politics. Lombard support was slowly melting away, and Henry knew he needed a victory. A quick decisive one was all he wanted, after which he would accept an apology but would not demand territory from the Greeks and let them go east. The two sides thus wound up clashing close to Rome itself in June 1007 and the outcome was not even close. It was a decisive German rout with Emperor Henry himself falling captive. Future western chroniclers uniformly described that God had raised the Greeks to unforeseen fury and had made Germans timid for their sin in letting Jerusalem fall. Those are obvious exaggerations with little rational basis, and I am more inclined to believe in the Imperial accounts that credit the tactical genius of Basil and Samuel in dealing a second massive German defeat in Italy, but perhaps some measure of guilt had harmed Latin morale and made their defeat to the enraged Greeks a bit more likely. Whatever the reason, Basil marched his army to Rome to find that Bishop Stephen had hanged himself in shame and there was no one ready to oppose the formerly deposed Pope John. Placing Samuel in charge of Rome, Basil immediately headed back east to Alexandria to determine the next course of action.

    En route in Crete, he learned that Empress Helena had herself left the palace to handle the Armenian crisis, and had been mostly successful in containing it. The combined forces under her and Nikerpheros Ouranos’ command had held the Armenian raids from penetrating Anatolia any more, and they planned to winter in Edessa before launching a proper attack into Armenia proper to link up with Michael stuck in Nineveh. Michael was barely fending off Arab attacks from the south, (protected only by Dawd’s lack of interest in him for the moment), but their combined forces ought to be enough to handle the Armenians. Though somewhat horrified to know that his wife had gone to war on her own, Basil did not order her to return (as that would fatally undermine her position) but instead fired off instructions to Constantine VIII in Constantinople to drum up diplomatic support for them, by asking for assistance from Hungary, minor Balkan powers, Provence and the Rus. No one in the government realistically believed that Dawd had a legitimate shot taking Anatolia with the forces Ouranos and Helana commanded being there, and thus moving on to Egypt was for the best. There was an expectation that Antioch and the Levantine cities were doomed in the short term, with ships being stationed to evacuate as many people as possible to Cyprus, but the situation would be reversed after Egypt itself was taken down, which was almost guaranteed once Basil combined his forces with Xiphias’.

    Edessa's position. It is possible to side step the city, but it leaves any army invading Anatolia running the risk of the Edessan's striking from the rear.

    Dawd on the other hand was completely unwilling to get involved with any coastal settlement until he had a navy of his own, and was determined to take Anatolia down. It was this single minded focus that ultimately spared the coastal strip from a massacre of extraordinary proportions-for by spring 1008, no single person identifying as Nicene-Chalcedonian could be found alive outside Roman enclaves, having been massacred brutally by Dawd’s men who had in many cases been expelled from the same lands not too long ago. The fate for the converts from Islam had been the most brutal, with mass live incineration of apostates being described by Persian authors. This brutality however cemented Dawd’s position as the top dog in the region (in much the same way Basil’s Baghdad atrocities had for him), and allowed him to put together a 50,000 strong army for invading Anatolia by linking up with the Armenians. The Coptic contingent in his forces had made contact with the Armenians and were coordinating an invasion together. The forces in Edessa were the major obstacle on the road, and Dawd determined that it must first fall.

    Here his miscalculations about the geography of the region became catastrophic. As a denizen of warmer climes, he decided that a winter attack was what the Empire was least expecting and were unlikely to respond properly to it. The Armenians tried to dissuade this madness, but ultimately fell in line, recognizing that Edessa contained the forces most likely to be a direct problem to them should Dawd not be there, and there was a chance that it would indeed fall and open Anatolia up for a spring campaign. Thus a fifty thousand strong Egyptian army coupled with fifteen thousand Armenians camped outside Edessa in November 1007, waiting for the city to give way.

    It however ended exactly as anyone who knows geography could have predicted: there was simply not enough fuel to keep the combined army warm, and the Armenians were getting frustrated with Dawd’s demands for resources for his army as hypothermia started taking its toll. They attempted to sneak away after two weeks of siege only to be caught by the Egyptians, who attempted to restrain them by force. Ouranos and Helena led the forces in the city (themselves running low on food and fuel) in a major sortie to break up the besieging horde amidst their civil war, and succeeded with minimal casualties. The besieging horde was broken, with some Armenians escaping back their highlands to flee for Persia in spring, while Dawd retreated back to Damascus with only ten thousand men left, barely avoiding Michael who was rushing to Antioch from Nineveh while Dawd seemed distracted. The one major casualty on the Imperial side was Empress Helena herself, who had gone out to encourage her soldiers but had her horse throw her off in a moment of chaos. Her spin broken, she was paralyzed from waist down and was immediately sent back to Constantinople by a furious Ouranos, but the battle had been won. Anatolia was safe from the Arabs, and will be in perpetuity.

    In Egypt meanwhile Basil and Xiphias had finally been able to break out of the delta by November and had besieged Cairo, when news of a new problem arrived. Caliph Al-Hakim had gone on a conscription spree first for Dawd and then to oppose Basil, without regard for the Egyptian economy. Large numbers of fields in upper Egypt lay unharvested, leading to a general food crisis all throughout Egypt. The Imperial attack had seriously disrupted cultivation in the delta, and even the Melkites were only holding out by virtue of Scythian grain sent by Prince Vladimir of Kiev. Reserves from granaries had already been sent to to the levant, leading to a general onset of famine. A bigger crisis however brewed in a village in upper Egypt where all the villagers had been killed for resisting the Caliph. The crop was in the field for the animals to feast, including a certain grasshopper that eagerly reproduced and expanded its numbers on the bounty.

    After a certain while the population density was sufficiently high to swarm, and a seemingly biblical size locust horde rose towards the delta to pass judgement on Egypt. The fall of Cairo and execution of Al-Hakim thus proved to be far less a problem for Basil than this new menace. The horde ultimately did not cross the mediterranean but did dealt a considerable amount of damage to Egypt, already stressed from the war and forcible seizures. The southward advance by the Empire revealed no further resistance, only fields and villages of corpses bleached white by the ravenous insects. The Fatimid Caliphate had turned into a massive graveyard in its final days, while most of its men of fighting age lay dying outside the walls of Edessa. The Zirids were quick to take advantage of this by pouncing into Cyrenaica and only stopping when they met Imperial forces, quickly agreeing to partition the land between them. Makuria on the other hand could barely intervene since some fraction of the swarm had turned south and had devastated its lands, forcing them to handle their crisis and not be able to stop the Empire before Theophylact Botaniates reached the southern borders of Fatimid Egypt and had claimed it for Basil.

    Meanwhile an Imperial army had landed in Kaisaria, consisting of the Orphans and a Varangian host sent by Prince Vladimir of Kiev, alongside all the palace guard Constantine VIII could find. Their mission was to cut off the retreat of the Egyptian host from the south, and they were extremely delighted to know that most of their work had already been done outside of Edessa. The strategos Alexander Komnenos decided to head north to Damascus to face the problem once and for all. Dawd had made it to Damascus with only five thousand men with him, but he had called on the last reserves and stripped the city of all men to have a twenty thousand strong host he was trying to retreat to Arabia with. The two armies faced off in an old field of battle, close to an infamous river.


    The muslims were cheerful at last, for they had faced their enemy in the most favorable terrain possible, where Allah had once granted them victory over the infidel once before. The Romans however stood expressionlessly, even though the significance of the place was not lost on them.

    The palace guard waited unhesitantly, ready to serve their Emperor one final time at the hour of greatest need.

    The Orphans did not flinch, for this was the moment they had been praying for all their lives.

    The Varangians did not show fear, with the fanatical zeal of the new convert that would have likely impressed Khaled himself.

    Six times the Arabs charged south and six times the Romans held steady.

    On the seventh time the northerners saw their ranks break and the survivors fled across the desert, with some supposedly making it to Persia. Only then did Alexander Komnenos smile, for his forces had finally broken the deadliest enemy the Empire had ever faced (irreversibly, though he did not know it).

    The official history of the Orphans assures us that his first words after the battle were “And next year in Mecca!”.

    Dawd's corpse was never found , though the Orphans assure us that he died. There are claims in Persia though that he managed to make it there, and died an old man advising the Turks, though this is not supported by any hard evidence.
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    1008:1018 River of Blood

  • Chapter 7: River of Blood

    There was no invasion of Mecca in the year following the Second Battle of Yarmouk, to the great disappointment of Alexander Komnenos and other hardliners in the court. Emperor Basil’s rage against the muslims at this time is well documented, but it had not yet crossed into the realm of the irrational. The last great Islamic power of the Eastern Mediterranean had been destroyed, and their coreligionists were incapable of actively threatening the Empire. Provoking an endless eternal war for minimal gain was thus not something the Emperor wished to do, especially as he was keenly aware that it would be a confrontation the Empire could ill afford.

    Conventional historiography however tends to ignore the rather uncomfortable economic aspects behind Basil accepting the first peace treaty proposed by the Meccans fearful of an Imperial intervention. They do crow about about the large number of concessions obtained from the Sharif of Mecca, who was acting as the de-facto leader of Red Sea Arabs. The defeat at Yarmouk had knocked out most of their fighting age population, leading them to offer absurd terms like cessation of the the title of “Defender of the Two Holy Mosques” officially to the “Kaisar of Rome”. This in fact resulted in some controversy, as the thought of the Emperor assuming a heathen title was viewed as extremely problematic by quite a few factions in the court. They proposed elevating a Sicilian muslim as an Ethnarch for muslims in the Empire, and then getting the Meccans to confirm him as Caliph and recognize his inferior position compared to the Emperor. Komnenos and Nikepheros Ouranos on the other hand noted that creating a political position for muslims to rally around could potentially have problematic long term impact, and thus it was preferable for the Emperor himself to assume the mantle. In the end, the latter view won out and Basil declared a protectorate over the Red Sea coast of Arabia (without consent of many of the Southerners), including but not limited to Mecca and Medinah.

    This resolve was tested almost immediately by an invading horde from southern Arabia that wanted to continue jihad against the Empire, but a combined Imperial-Meccan force easily crushed them and cemented the new order. It was not a particularly comforting one for remaining Islamic states who angrily protested the de facto elevation of Basil to the Caliphate. The ones in the Eastern world of Persia and Central Asia soon recognized the flimsiness of actual Imperial control and begrudgingly acquiesced. Spain and North Africa however were cut off from their holy pilgrimage via the newly conquered Imperial prefecture of Egypt, and slowly drifted away from the remainder of the Islamic world to develop their own views, which they cultivated till their bitter end.

    One inadvertent impact of the peace treaty was that it bound the Empire to look after the muslims within its boundaries. This provision was of course de-facto unenforceable and calls for full on ethnic cleansing came from many quarters only to be stonewalled by the Emperor. Imperial historians from the theocractic era onward had attempted to sell this as a measure of Basil’s benevolence. Their rationale was that all the muslims in Egypt surely did not pray for the doom of the Empire five times a day, and many would likely see the error in their ways to enter full communion with Christ after the change in management. Variants of this belief had been commonly accepted for long, for even the most cynical historian could not completely justify an alternate reason for the Empire not purging a defeated but troublesome minority making up 20% of Egypt, in light of both past and future Imperial policy. After all, any deficit in working age population could have been made from the Melkite majority or Anatolia and so only the kindness of the most ruthless Emperor must have preserved Islam in Egypt for the next few centuries.

    The problem with this hypothesis turned out to be the Melkite majority assumed by all the historians. Venetian sources have not survived in sufficient quantities to shed light on Egyptian demographics and most remaining fragments focus on the rather unrepresentative city of Alexandria. The Coptic myths of course have always been ignored under the impression that the Patriarchate was spreading lies inherited from more politically troubled days. Questions were raised only after biologists noted a rather disturbingly large overlap between Egyptian and Anatolian DNA, and the opening of the old archives finally put the matter to rest. Far from the 60% majority claims pressed by later Byzantinist historians, the Melkites barely made up 5% of the Egyptian population on the eve of the Imperial invasion, with all the Greek population having faded into the Coptic manifold post the fall of Egypt to the Rashidun Caliphate (doubts remain regarding whether the Greeks made up a majority pre 602 CE or not, despite the oft repeated Byzantinist claims (1)). Unlike the other demographics, the Melkite numbers held roughly steady during the war, courtesy conversions into the preferred Imperial faith that almost offset deaths caused by the war. They had also avoided the worst of the famine courtesy Scythian grain, but were close to only 8% of Egypt’s population of 4 million (down from a pre-war population 6 million on account of losses from the war and the famine[1]). The vast majority of the land was settled by Copts (close to 50% of the population) and muslims (40%), making full on ethnic cleansing completely impossible without wrecking the Egyptian economy top to bottom. Furthermore, there were alarm bells in Constantinople regarding the the future of an Egpyt without muslims, as the Copts would become 80% of the population afterwards, and probably be able to chuck the Melkites into the sea the moment the Empire’s back was turned. Islam was thus only tolerated for the sake of divide et impera : to play the two major communities against each other by giving both sides some fractional benefits that the other lacked to breed resentment. The initial head-tax of the Copts was only three-fifths of the amount muslims had to pay, but the latter were preferentially recruited into the junior civil service via keeping Arabic as a working language of governance [2].

    The charge of enforcing this pragmatic policy was however placed on the shoulders of Nikepheros Xiphias. The Emperor had in fact first offered the position to Alexander Komnenos, who had refused to remain strategos of the Orphans. Xiphias, the former Doux of Alexandria was thus viewed as the natural choice for the position and the court had no reason to believe that he would not be successful. The Emperor at any rate would not be leaving Alexandria for a while since the physicians had suggested a stay in warmer climes for Empress Helena, who was still in considerable pain from the injuries sustained outside Edessa. Surely the Emperor, Empress and their young grandchild of eleven could sort out any shortcomings of Xiphias or his administration!

    It proved to be a disaster of epic proportions as Basil withdrew to spend time with his wife, handing only a tax target for Xiphias. The number was highly inflated and calculated to ensure that the Imperial treasury came out ahead after the cost of the war was accounted for, with no one expecting the target to be met in the near future. They had not accounted for the zeal of an administrator who had spent far too much time with melkite clergy preaching against Coptic heretics and infidels and had hired melkites of similar views into the administration. The head tax for muslims and copts was raised to absurd levels (four times as much a melkite would have to pay) and their produce was taxed at a rate three times higher than that of the melkites. Contingents from the Imperial army went to “assist” tax collection, which generally involved seizing anything of value from those incapable of paying or selling their families into slavery. Resistance was silenced by the sword, leading to considerable butchery all along the Nile. The geography made it extremely difficult for the rural population to move away from the land for banditry, but anyone close to the borders of Makuria, Arabia or Zirid Africa left as soon as they could. This in turn left a gaping hole in tax collection, which was ameliorated by selling anyone suspected of abandoning the land into slavery. Arab tribes in the Sinai in particular assisted the Empire greatly in catching those attempting to leave for the Levant, and were in turn rewarded with a number of slaves. The markets in Christendom were soon flooded with Egyptian muslims while the Islamic powers received far more copts than needed, sending prices crashing and voiding this method of revenue extraction. As a countermeasure, the migrants into cities were given a choice between forced labor for minimal nutrition and execution. Emperor Basil was greatly inspired by the old lighthouse at Pharos, and was convinced that a similarly grand monument commemorating his conquest was needed. Cheap labor immensely helped with the execution of his vision, resulting in a happy Emperor and despondent Egypt. Alexander Komnenos (himself no moderate) was panicking at the way things are going, and was marching up and down the country with Thephylact Botaniates and the twelve year old Basil the younger (grandchild of the Emperor) to report back to the Emperor regarding how unstable the situation had gotten. Their reports were consistently ignored by the Emperor, who remained oblivious to Melkite masses chanting “Kyrie Eleison” while torching migrant slums. “Every people have a limit,” wrote Lord Komnenos, “and we do not want to be trapped in a country full of people who have nothing to lose.”

    The disaster Komnenos had foreseen however did not come to pass due to a curious set of circumstances. The Nile floods failed in 1011, and the demands of Xiphias could not at all be met even if all of Egypt was sold to slavery. The state flared up into rebellion by killing some tax officers, and Anatolian soldiers had to be called in by the Empire. Yet the rebellion had burned itself out before troops were sent to all its centers. Egypt had reached its limit, but fell through the edge instead of truly fighting back. The country had gone through five years of terror first with al Hakim seizing food, a locust horde, rapacious taxation and finally a failed flood. Many people had lost hope and descended to nihilism, with Imperial soldiers reporting that there was no opposition in many cases, even when facing execution. Disturbing reports of mass suicides[3], infanticide and cannibalism came far too often for even the negligent Emperor to ignore, and Xiphias was summarily fired for the whole episode.

    Komnenos this time did not refuse the offer to rule Egypt, and he quickly assembled a team of former Fatimid officials to determine the extent of the problem. The prognosis was quite grim, with Egypt’s population cratering to 2.5 million by the end of the year and was seemingly in free fall. As an emergency measure, the draconian tax rates were eliminated in favor of lower taxes that only charged Copts 150% more than Melkites for produce, and Muslims 170% (with the extra on account of losses from Hajj). The head tax was lowered considerably as well, although Komnenos (himself no bleeding-heart liberal) refused to do away with the idea completely. He instead called for a progressive measure for the Copts and Muslims, raising the rate with number of children in a family, till a point where a family could not afford more than four children. The melkites on the other hand got a regressive measure where rates were slashed for large families, and those with six children or more above the age of five were given a small subsidy. The practice of selling non-compliant population to slavery was also abandoned, although the people were still conscripted as free labor for the state to pay their dues. Finally, tax collection in kind was permitted in order to ensure that inability to get species was not the problem (with the grain being sold to Venetians, Genoese and Provencals).

    Komnenos was well aware that these measures only slowed down population decline, and could not completely reverse it. An empty Egypt would not be awfully difficult for the Zirids or Makurians to conquer (both sides having done some saber rattling during the famine), leading him to conclude that Egypt needed new blood faster than the Melkite church could provide (despite mass conversions that led to it becoming 25% of the population by that point). Xiphias had nominally allowed landless urban poor from the Aegean to migrate to Egypt and acquire land but not too many had taken advantage of the scheme. Komnenos aggressively recruited settlers by having all the slums in major Aegean cities be forcibly broken up and the inhabitants transported to Egypt (where they were placed in Upper Egypt, close to the Makurian border). This was not quite enough, and he forced through a controversial decree by which all Aegean islands other than Rhodes were to be emptied of people to drag them all to Egypt. Meanwhile, all the Greek churches under the Constantinople patriarchate received large numbers of tokens to distribute to landless second sons and like, with each token giving free passage to Egypt from the nearest major port along with promise of new land. It was not a difficult promise for Komnenos to meet as considerable sections of Egypt lay completely empty after the last villagers were massacred. All told, something close to one million out of the twelve million people in the core Imperial territories (Aegean and Anatolia) migrated to Egypt from 1011 to 1030, most staying permanently for the land. Most of the transports were paid for with Egyptian revenue that had picked up in Komnenos’ reign, as the governor tried to invest more into the province than his predecessor. This wound up creating a large labor shortage all over the remainder of the Empire which was filled with Slavic and Syrian migrants, who quickly assimilated into mainstream society within a few generations, leaving no apparent major change in the Imperial core. Egypt itself of course was irreversibly changed, in ways we are only getting to understand today.

    Ecclesiastical issues also propped up courtesy the demographic issues that Egypt was ill prepared to handle. The darkly nihilistic turn of the populace was countered with large infusions of cash into mosques and the coptic church in order for them to tend to their flock (over the howling protests of the melkite Alexandria Patriarchate). Nonetheless, the migrants were almost universally Nicene-Chalcedonian and thus nominally under Alexandria. However Alexandria did not have the infrastructure to support so large a flock (especially when it came to Greek speaking priests), and Komnenos thus called upon Constantinople to send clergy. The highly educated previous generation produced plenty of willing priests (even from older married men tired of family life), allowing Constantinople to stuff the parishes with loyalists who ensured the migrants remained Greek (and indeed, radically hellenized local melkites). The Alexandria patriarchate would be effectively reduced to a junior partner of Constantinople by 1020, a historical reversal of position. That in any case mirrored the fate of Egypt itself: an old and ancient civilization falling to younger upstarts, and finally being reduced to an extension of the Greek state. The copts and muslims of Egypt would continue to limp on for years, clinging onto their years of dominance while the Empire could afford to look outwards. We know today that a day however did come when the energies of the state were directed inwards, and the minorities paid heavily in the era that followed. We will discuss the final solution against Islam and the coptic wars in their appropriate place, but it is important to realize that those tragedies were merely the second and third acts of a darker tale which made Egypt the most homogenous of modern Imperial prefectures- a story whose beginning lay in the much exalted reconquest of Egypt.


    [1] Made much worse by the Caliphate diverting food to the Levantine front and needlessly massacring villages that did not fully cooperate. Of course, the Imperial army burning fields and seizing any and all supplies did not help matters.

    [2] Temporarily only. Knowledge of Greek was made compulsory by 1030, and support for other languages removed completely by 1060.

    [3] We now have reason to believe a large part of it owes its existence to apocalyptic millenialist preachers, which caused many people to leave for the next world which could not be any worse than the one they left behind.

    Vasilas’ notes:

    (1) In OTL we know this was definitely not true outside the delta, and Egypt was majority miaphysite. Good luck getting the current Imperial government to buy that, and not too many folks have the guts to go against Constantinopolitan doctrine when it comes to history. Cuts to funding and being denied access to archives/archaeological sites is the barest minimum of what can happen.
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    New Equilibrium (1018-1024)
  • Chapter 8: The New Equilibrium

    It has often been argued by historians that the system of governance in the 10th-11th century Empire was extremely Emperor centric, with the Autokrator intervening in most matters of governance. This was however most certainly not true in the 1006-1018 period, with Emperor Basil being involved in the conquest of Egypt and the subsequent pacification. Any plans for the Emperor’s return to Constantinople were nixed when the physicians recommended the warmer weather of Egypt for Empress Helena, who was paralyzed from waist down from an injury sustained in the battle of Edessa. In a manner highly uncharacteristic of a man who had spent his whole life ignoring the demands of his family in favor of the needs of the state, Basil himself decided to stay with his wife in Egypt. Contemporary historians had not criticized his decision overmuch (it must also be noted that nearly all of them owed many favors to the Emperor), but their relative silence about his role in governing Egypt (versus the attention paid to Xiphias and Komnenos) speaks volumes. However, it must also be noted that there is a possibility that those accounts were written in a manner to ensure the Emperor did not get the blame for the massive mismanagement of Egypt under Xiphias’ rule (he was presented as more active in the Komnenos years by most sources). Nonetheless, it is unlikely that Paul of Kallinikos was lying when he mentioned the Emperor taking care of his wife as if he was her servant “in a manner consistent with his simple lifestyle”. Their grandson Basil had also noted the tenderness of their relationship in his later letters, lamenting that it was not a joy either of his parents had known.

    The Emperor’s absence from the capital was not as problematic as it might appear on the surface. The fastest ships of the Empire carried instructions from him to his ministers in Constantinople, and his unambitious brother Constantine served in the ceremonial role in the capital, as he often had when Basil was campaigning. In fact, several historians had argued that it allowed the bureaucracy to mature and be somewhat independent of the Autokrator. There were no coups due to the personal popularity of the Emperor, and most ministers were content to run the affairs with the usual efficiency without objections. A substantial stress had been imposed by the population transfers to Egypt, but the chief minister Stephen of Baghdad had been able to get that system running somewhat efficiently with considerable expense and difficulty. Overall, governance had not suffered a lot from the Emperor’s absence as the state agents did not try to push their luck too much in the absence of oversight. Quality of life was indeed noted to have gone down, but it was mostly due to larger fiscal demands than a deep systemic rot in the administration.

    Nonetheless, that state of affairs came to an end in 1018 when the Empress did not wake up at all. Her devastated husband ordered the construction of a massive mausoleum for her in Egypt (the only major architectural undertaking in his reign-which we today see as the Helanaeum of Alexandria), and packed up to return to Constantinople after being prodded by his now nineteen year old grandson. He soon discovered that he was redundant with respect to running the Emperor, although his orders were heeded immediately and he was given all his due deference. Twenty years earlier no one would have expected that he’d not be directly involved with tax policy and subsidies to foreign governments, but now he was consulted only before the final execution, with the new men in the government having worked things out earlier. His letters to Alexander Komnenos note an increasing bitterness about this as he found that his ideas seemed to be less effective than the projects the new minds had planned, and his attempts to impose his will went unopposed but yielded worse results than the plans he had rejected. This had caused him to withdraw from public life and leave most of the responsibilities to his grandson, who regularly took his grandfather’s place in court. Forever a soldier, he yearned to be free to wage war without the fiscal constraints imposed by the need to assimilate his conquests. And yet he knew it was impossible, noting that he had stopped his younger son Michael from conquering chunks of Mesopotamia beyond what the Empire already had, much to the latter’s chagrin.

    Basil nonetheless was on the same page as his ministers when it came to the dynatoi. The Armenian raids had weakened them, and the ability of their tenants to migrate to Egypt had effectively dealt a death blow to most of their estates. The decline in the overall number of Anatolian thematic forces in favor of tagma troops had accelerated their decline in influence. The final nail in their coffin came in the form of a general land ceiling law in 1021 that prohibited ownership of plots larger than what was required to feed a family of ten (with the exact sizes to be assessed in each area for fertility). A provision was made to allow transfer of extra land to the owner’s children if there were any, but otherwise all extra land was to return to the state. Careful exceptions were carved out for Mesopotamia and non-coastal Levant to prevent unrest there, but there was no mercy for Anatolian landowners. This catalyzed a desperate attempt of a revolt under the leadership of the disgraced Nikepheros Xiphias and the last members of the Phokas clan, before Kaisar Michael brought in his Assyrian troops from Mesopotamia to put all the resisting lords and their retainers to the sword. Seeing first hand that he was no longer even needed for waging war, Basil prepared to abdicate his throne in favor of his grandson. There were some issues in the succession nonetheless-Constantine VIII was nominally the next in line, although he was pliable without much of a personality, and Basil the Younger was his heir too. Emperor Basil’s eldest son John the Drunkard had drunk himself to death in 1019 (though rumours of poisoning by kouropalates Samuel persisted for long, with some even suggesting the Emperor had himself given the command to clear the path for John’s son Basil the Younger) but his younger brother Michael lived and was a successful commander in the Mesopotamian front. Emperor Basil had long resolved not to leave the Empire to his younger son (who he felt was not intelligent enough) but he nonetheless was quite popular with the army, creating a potential recipe for a crisis.

    The problem however fortunately sorted itself out with Michael marrying his Assyrian mistress after his long suffering wife passed away in 1022[1]. There were long standing rumours that he himself had converted to Nestorianism and his rapid remarriage in an Assyrian church before his wife’s burial had antagonized the Chalcedonian hierarchy considerably. Basil used that excuse to convince Michael to send his eldest son Christopher to Constantinople (ostensibly to ensure he was brought up Orthodox), where he became a cupbearer for his cousin Basil the Younger. Carefully orchestrated subsequent rumors of Michael going “native” killed off most of his support with the Greek officer class, indicating that skipping him in the succession would not be viewed as negatively as it might have been earlier. The Kaisar wisely did not attempt to push his luck much further after Alexander Komnenos was recalled from Egypt to be Domestic of Anatolia, since the latter was both a staunch supporter of Basil the Younger (who had been Komnenos’ protege in Egypt) and the man most popular with the army. The Aegean elite of the Empire were solidly behind Basil the Younger, while Michael himself had aided the destruction of his only potential allies-the East Anatolian dynatoi.

    Basil III was proclaimed as junior Emperor on the same standing with Basil II and Constantine VIII on April 24th of 1023 in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, with all the dignitaries of the Empire (and some from abroad) in attendance, including his uncle the Kaisar Michael. The Kaisar was compensated with virtually unchecked freedom in Mesopotamia (in the form of a hereditary Duchy) and a large annual cash subsidy to protect the eastern borders of the Empire. The writ of the younger Emperor however ran de-facto absolute in all other lands, and Basil II finally felt confident to formally retire in 1024-only the second Emperor to have done so willingly and the first since Diocletian.

    The former Emperor did not move into a monastery or a large palace, as one might have thought. Eternally a man of action, he set off from Egypt with a fleet of ten ships to explore the East, accompanied by many of the veterans of his wars (and the unfortunate German Emperor). His eventual fate remains unclear as there are no confirmed records of his fleet going beyond Taprobane, though multiple legends in India , South-East Asia and China say that he eventually wound up on those shores. The government in Constantinople had never confirmed nor denied any of these rumors The closest had been Empress Alexandra referring to Emperor Taizu of the Sheng as “brother” though Constantinopolitan court officials categorically stated that it was not because of the supposed familial connection arising Chinese Emperor’s claim of being descended from Basil. Their eastern counterparts however saw it differently, but Constantinople never acknowledged any other blood descendants of the Emperor save those within the Empire itself. The Empire today strikes a delicate balance between respecting local claims (impossible to deny due to later infusion of Greek blood in many localities) and accepting that their beloved Emperor lies in the bottom of the ocean (or a cannibal’s stomach) somewhere. The only official statement on the matter comes from the Theokratia when Patriarch Andrew I proclaimed that the Lord had created a straight path to heaven for Basil’s ships, through which they had passed from this world to the next. The modern, secular government has issued no statements on the matter and had let the earlier proclamation stand, to keep the veil of mystique around their beloved Basileos Megas.

    Sadly enough, marine archaeology has so far not uncovered any evidence otherwise.

    An artist's impression of the Emperor sailing from Berenike on the Red Sea.

    Vasilas' notes:
    [1] Helped along by the mistress of course.
    Age of Abundance: 1024-1063
  • Chapter 9: An Age of Abundance

    “To some, much was given”
    John Kallinikos, in what was viewed as an oblique dig at Basil III

    Constantine VIII had spent 62 years as Emperor without actually having tasted power, perfectly content to play second fiddle to his more capable elder brother. This did not change with his formal ascent to the senior Imperial position, as he remained concerned with hunting and feasting with resources from state coffers, even despite his advanced age and gout. The junior Emperor Basil III wielded actual power quite openly despite his supposedly senior grandfather being alive, and was not particularly censured for it. The Empire had always valued strength in its leaders and few could blame a twenty year old from sidelining his old and weak willed grandfather from the scene. Constantine’s death in fact was barely remarked upon by contemporaries, with only the inscription in his sarcophagus in the Church of Holy Apostles informing us that he died in 1028 at the quite advanced age of 66-the last Emperor to have been born before the reconquest of the East. The rotunda in the Church of Holy Apostles was finally filled with the addition of his remains, marking the end of an old era for the Empire.

    Basil III in fact was a radical departure from the three preceding soldier-emperors. Even the earliest commentaries of his reign mark him as a reluctant warrior, someone too scarred by witnessing the carnage of Egypt firsthand to think there was much glory to be found in war. Fortunately for him and the Empire-there was no great enemy which needed to be defeated at that time, allowing him to continue to focus on internal affairs of the Empire. Military affairs were delegated to his mentor Alexander Komnenos, who modern revisionists often view as de-facto Emperor in his lifetime-though no contemporary source hints to this effect. The details of Lord Komnenos’ life are sufficiently well studied and I would not discuss the minute details therein (see Anastasios’ biography Slayer of Islam for an excellent treatment of the material), but would rather focus on his relationship with the Emperor and his reforms. Basil III was untested in the field of war unlike his uncle Michael, and having Komnenos as a powerful ally was a way to ensure that the army continued supporting him. He also relied heavily on the advice of the older man and made several changes to the defenses of the Empire based on his ideas-reforms that would long outlive both men.

    The Levantine frontier had long been ruled ad-hoc with Dukes appointed by Constantinople controlling local strongmen and urban leaders. This changed in 1026 when the coastal strip was broken up into two themes: Syria in the north and Palestine in the south (Phoenicia would be carved from their middle latter), with administrative control completely passing to the respective strategoi who were also mandated to raise their own thematic armies for defense. The inner region would remain loosely controlled, especially in the south-where Christian tribes were given considerable leeway locally. The situation up north was different, with the borders with Mesopotamia being heavily fortified and a large garrison kept at Kallinikos as a first line of defense for the coast. Beroea and Damascus were passed to the control of Eparches appointed by Constantinople for five year terms, and garrisons were placed there to ensure the safety of the Syrian theme and let trade flow unmolested.

    Palestine’s defense was closely tied to that of Egypt. Current evidence indicates that lower Egypt contained a plurality of Copts along with sizeable Melkite (often Coptic or Arabic speaking) and Muslim minorities outside the large cities in the delta (which were majority Greek already). Greek speakers were rather thin on the ground (even if all Melkites were included) for the Empire to be completely comfortable with the arrangement-resulting in a large garrison of fifty thousand Anatolian troops to be stationed in the region for the defense of the Nile delta and the Palestinian frontier. The force was placed under the control of the military prefect of Egypt who was appointed for five year terms by Constantinople (effectively making them the seniormost officer in the tagmata after the Domestic of Schools) with a maximum service of ten year(this regulation was at times violated, but not during Basil III’s reign). The families of the prefect and other officers were however required to live in specially designated quarters in Constantinople as effective hostages to stop the large army from going rogue. A random sampling of soldiers also had their families be sent to these quarters to prevent a revolution from happening from the bottom. It must however be noted that many soldiers willingly sent their families to these quarters as it gave young wives, elderly parents and children a sense of security and reasonably comfortable living at minimal expense for the soldiers (due to economies of scale on account of the Empire running these regions and providing subsidies). The command of the fleet was also placed away from Egypt in Cyprus, in order to prevent a rapid shipment of the forces back to Anatolia if the commander did indeed go rogue.

    All this came at considerable expense, but were aided by the fact that Egypt had finally turned revenue positive, and generated a considerable surplus for the Empire (which did not really bother to provide much social service anywhere outside the big cities, aside from Greek schools in some smaller urban centers) despite the massive cost from having to station such large forces there. Taxation and civil administration was placed on the shoulders of a civilian prefect also appointed by Constantinople for five year terms (with each civilian prefect starting service halfway through the term of the millitary prefect to minimize overlap) without possibility of renewal. The civilian prefects during Basil III’s reign required a great deal of support from local muslim elite (often bribed by the Empire to favorable terms) but they also invested quite a bit in creating the base for a future Greek speaking bureaucratic system, which would effectively replace the previous elite by 1080. Their role aside from being the Empire’s taxman was quite minimal, and most prefects ensured that the taxes were sent to Constantinople (which ensured the soldiers were paid) in a timely manner-though reports of corruption and nepotism were rife. Neither prefect was given the power to act against the other-with a military prefect being fired for excess zeal against the corruption of the civilian leader, but the civilian prefect had to meet tax targets set by the Empire or face removal. This resulted in quite predatory taxation, causing some scattered unrest at times -but Egypt was well and truly broken courtesy Basil II and Xiphias, to fully rebel again. The Anatolian transplants were generally the most likely to make trouble since local bureaucrats were often hesitate to overreach by acting against them, but their relatively lower tax rates kept trouble from that quarter relatively low. It was after all quite a fragile arrangement, with local population contraction counteracted with inflow from Anatolia-but it held up during the long peace the Empire enjoyed.

    Upper Egypt however was broken up into two themes as it received a much higher influx of Greeks on account of being more heavily depopulated. The threat of Makurians (who had been making noises against persecution of Copts) kept the locals in line, though the strategoi allowed their soldiers to persecute Copts more than what was routinely tolerated in the delta, leading to a net influx of Copts out to Makuria or cities in the delta. Said cities themselves however were mostly contracting rapidly, with only Alexandria growing and Pelusium holding steady. Egypt deurbanized a great deal for the first two centuries of restored Imperial rule, and large numbers of destitute Copts found themselves as cheap labor in the rest of the Mediterranean, with many in fact joining the Imperial navy as sailors and retiring to settlements created by the navy in the virtually empty Aegean islands (alongside many Italians who had fought for the Empire in Egypt). The flow of Greeks to Anatolia had also created a labor crisis in the cities in the Imperial core, which was partly met by the influx of Copts rendered homeless as well. Such populations hellenized rapidly and merged into the mainstream quite fast, and their only traces left now are a few Coptic derived words in the Ionian dialect.

    Copts were however not the only group migrating to fill the labor shortage in the Empire. Slavs and Lombards did so in great numbers and also vanished in the mainstream within three generations, leaving only a few loanwords in their wake. The largest group of migrants however were Sicilian muslims who were being similarly being forced to abandon their lands due to exploitative taxation. Their knowledge of Greek on average exceeded that of the other migrants, making them more desired and less persecuted than the other groups in the Aegean cities, despite the differences in religion. The latter however prevented their full assimilation into Aegean society since the Church was less successful in proselytizing in those quarters. The christian migrants were much more susceptible to conversion as they often did not quite understand the subtle religious dividing issues (lacking educated churchmen migrants) and often needed more help with the language. The Sicilians on the other hand were quite aware they belonged to a distinct faith and rebuffed conversion attempts by mixing with the Romaniote Jewish quarters and then slowly having their own districts as numbers increased. They also received support from elite muslim migrants who were recruited by the Empire (first by Stephen of Baghdad in Basil II’s later reign and then by Basil III) for their theoretical knowledge. Several professors in the University of Constantinople in that era had distinctly arab sounding names, and were protected from vigorous churchmen by the Emperor himself. Basil II may have destroyed the Islamic Eastern Mediterranean and had been branded as Shaitan by the smallfolk, but it could not be denied that he had overall laid the foundation for a prosperous urban society in the Aegean-which was the only entity with both the means and the will to support scholars who migrated from both the Latin West and the Islamic world. Several of the muslims were nominal converts for the sake of advancement of their children, but they did aid their former coreligionists from extra Church pressure-especially with the passive Basil III unwilling to create social unrest. This combination of elite scholars and Sicilian immigrants led to the birth of the distinct Rumi culture, which we still see in the New World today.

    It was overall a time of plenty for those in the Imperial core, as the Empire generated large tax revenues and plowed it back into the system via army salaries and social projects (though smaller in scale than what Basil II had done in the interregnum between wars). The Emperor himself was even more fiscally conservative as his paternal grandfather, and continued to oversee large surpluses that were stored as reserves for the future instead of being spent in the present. He was even encouraged to lower tax rates for trade to accelerate the pace, leading to a massive increase in Mediterranean commerce as products from the far East flowed into Alexandria to be distributed by merchants of many flavors-Venetian, Genoese, Pisan, Provencal and even a new Greek merchant class whose growth was heavily encouraged by the Emperor. A less savory aspect of this was the growth in the slave trade as enterprising merchants quickly found that Egypt was a convenient base to obtain slaves from East Africa and sell in the Mediterranean markets.

    Trade in fact indirectly catalyzed two wars in Basil III’s reign. The court in Constantinople contained many expansionists courtesy the successes of the previous generation, but their ideas were not always in harmony. Some envisioned the reconversion of the Mediterranean into a Roman lake, while others wished for a restoration of Alexander’s Empire. Predictably, the first faction had support from the navy while the latter had the support of the army. The land faction however had their ambitions hobbled by the presence of Kaisar Michael in Mesopotamia. The Kaisar had been quite successful in conquering large chunks of Mesopotamia with his Assyrian army (swelled in ranks by many ambitious young men from the Empire and the Caucasus who wanted real war, not sitting in Alexandria) and strengthening him any further was anathema to most generals, including Alexander Komnenos who belonged to the land party. The sea party thus won by default, and their vision of a inner sea as a Roman hegemony (versus the land faction’s hope of absolute conquest) took precedence. On paper this had mostly been achieved-with the Emperor claiming overlordship over muslims, holding large chunks of Italy and the vassalage of the Slavic Dukes of Diocleia and the Frankish Counts of Provence. In practice however, the bonds were weak and needed to be strengthened. This was achieved by marriage in the case of Provence, with Basil III having married Eleanor of Provence in 1020 under the instructions of Basil II himself, tying Provence to the Empire. The Counts were much more wary of the Kings of France than the Emperor of Constantinople, and gave bloody nose to the Northerners several times with help from Constantinople. This prompted Paris to look to broken Germany instead, and gobble up small states there that lay unguarded in the wake of the collapse of the German Empire.

    A coup in Diocleia against the Duke in 1035 gave the Empire the first excuse to go to war. The Domestic of the West Nikepheros Bryennos led a large contingent into the region ostensibly to aid the Duke’s son, but he slowly capitalized on the civil war to annex the whole province in the name of the Emperor. This major success somewhat helped heal the political fallout from Kaisar Michael sacking Baghdad again-with even less men than his father.

    A larger issue had arisen by 1040 in the form of Mediterranean piracy. The growth in trade had led to a commensurate increase in piracy, but it was mostly localized over the western and central Mediterranean, where the Empire did not normally interfere. A major slaver raid on Sicily however enraged the mild mannered Basil III enough to issue an ultimatum to the Zirid Emir. The Emir ignored the “fat fool in Constantinople” and a raid on Crete was launched next. It would prove to be a serious miscalculation as the Empire mobilized for large scale war, coordinating with the Italians for attacks all over the coast. Alexander Komnenos himself led the invasion of Cyrenaica, which fell quickly when troops landed from Crete while Constantine Dalassenesos launched an attack from Sicily against main Zirid lands around Carthage, organizing massacres of the locals in order to prevent future trouble. The Zirid state had collapsed before the onslaught in 1042, with Carthage gaining a much larger hinterland and Cyrenaica formally annexed. An Emirate of Tripolitiana was set up as an Imperial vassal in the middle while other North African states watched the developments carefully. Attempts of intervention by the Hammadadids in the west had seen the burning of Saldae and Oran in retribution. The Empire had also used the naval supremacy to seize Tangiers and Septum to force submission from the muslims further west, choosing to retain the latter as an outpost even after the end of the war. The African war overall showed that the Imperial military machine had not atrophied much over the years, and its enemies in general were far too weak to oppose it much. Nearly every coastal settlement found was burned to the ground for reducing future trouble, but very little territory west of Cyrenaica was conquered as Basil himself felt the Empire was slowly reaching its optimal limit. Nonetheless, both factions in the court celebrated as they felt some part of the “Megali idea” had been achieved.

    Alexander Komnenos’ death from old age in 1047 however altered the balance as Basil was now completely free to make changes to the army in any manner he saw fit. Komnenos had been a proponent of keeping a large and strong army with good training irrespective of the fiscal cost, but Basil felt that they had too many soldiers considering their superior naval strength. He conceded the point when it came to Egypt, but he simply did not see a reason to continually raise thematic soldiers in west Anatolia and was convinced the Empire could work just as well with a tagma half the size. Not being a complete and utter fool that many would describe him to be in future, he did not fire anyone but only slowed down recruitment and the expensive training mechanisms (earning plaudits from contemporary common soldiers for his kindness). The ageing Emperor was slowly growing concerned about his legacy, and sought to be remembered as a man of learning and culture than a butcher. Kaisar Michael himself was reaching the end of his days, and Basil did not fear his Assyrian cousin Nikepheros particularly strongly to think east Anatolia needed to be defended as strongly. Komnenos would have been horrified to see transfer of troops from Trebizond to Egypt without sufficient replacements arriving, but he was not quite in a position to protest. The lesser strategoi who succeeded the old giants were not opposed to the downsizing, seeing it as less work for them as there was no war acting as a meat-grinder. Basil had also ended the occupation of Rome (done by Kuropaletes Samuel and followed up by Komnenos) by the army, ceding the old Ducatus Romanus as a duchy granted to the papacy for its upkeep-a compensation for Sicilian estates that were never returned. This may have in part been motivated in memory of his late wife Eleanor of Provence who was devoted follower of the Latin rite in her youth, but it did earn Basil deep support from the Latin church which fully accepted him as Roman Emperor from its heart (Tzimiskes having bribed himself into the recognition and Basil II doing so via force). It certainly gave him enough political capital to transfer the sees in Magna Grecia formally to Constantinople, uniting the Greek East effectively under the Imperial Church.

    Basil’s personal life was decidedly less happy than the general tone of his reign. His marriage to Eleanor of Provence had only resulted in a single son called Constantine, leading many (including Empress mother Theodora) to call for a divorce. Basil however loved his wife to the bitter end which came from a sudden sickness that took her life in 1042 while accompanying her husband to Sicily. The Emperor was noted to have become more withdrawn than ever, and although he acquiesced to his mother’s wish for a political remarriage, his relationship with his second wife Eudoxia Doukina was much cooler. It however did bear more fruit than the first, with the birth of a son John in 1045 and George in 1052. Constantine however was always his favorite child, and Basil resolved to send John to a seminary to avoid uncomfortable political outcomes like the issue with his uncle.

    Basil had however mostly reconciled with Kaisar Michael who had died in 1053 after having successfully conquered Baghdad and having brought most of Mesopotamia under his reign. While the Empire had not allowed Greeks to migrate en-masse to Michael’s domain (choosing to redirect all surplus population to Egypt though ambitious young men did at times find themselves in Mesopotamia if they wanted glory of war, especially with tapering military recruitment), it had not stopped other people from doing so. The Kaisar hated miaphysites with a passion and so few Copts went that way, while the frontier mentality in his duchy made it more hostile to muslims than the remainder of the Empire. Latins however were welcome, and a steady flow went from Italy to Nineveh via Antioch, eager to occupy the new lands opened by the swords of Christ. Few in the Latin west understood the subtle tension between the Emperor and the Kaisar, thinking the Kaisar was merely a functionary of the successful Empire and they could profit from his success (since Latin immigration to Egypt was banned by Basil III in 1030), leading to a stream of destitute folks leaving Italy and Provence for the better home. Some have argued that this blind eye towards the flow of Latins was only possible because of Empress Eleanor pleading with her husband, but most current scholars see it is as a part of a grand strategy that sought to create an unstable ethnic mix in Mesopotamia while weakening Latin powers. Gaul was already starting to be viewed as a sleeping giant, and a lot of investments in Provence were targeted to prevent a Neo-Carolingian Empire from emerging. The consequences of this particular strategy however are well known, irrespective of motivations.

    Basil’s final great legacy will be his development of the Egyptian Red sea fleet to explore the Indian Ocean. Trade convoys ran from India to the Empire bearing spices and draining specie, causing some worry about trade imbalance that would only degenerate into panic much later. He had also sought to give the Empire a strong military presence there to combat pirates, with a major expedition against Somali pirates in 1057 being his final military successful achievement, which helped keep the trade routes open. Overall the Empire appeared to do quite well in his reign, with significant economic growth and overall prosperity, allowing the Emperor to cut taxes for the first time in 1060. The reduction in army size was seen merely as a readjustment to a new reality for the sake of efficiency and not criticized heavily contemporarily, despite what Psellos claims.

    Two events in 1062 however showed how hollow the military preparedness of the Empire was. Persia was finally conquered by the Seljuk Turks who turned their attention westwards to Mesopotamia. The panicked Duke Nikepheros called his liege for help but Basil simple did not have the means to provide immediate assistance. He used his connections in Provence to hire Norman mercenaries to assist the Mesopotamians but his delay was seen badly by Baghdad. By an even worse stroke of luck, Basil’s heir Constantine died from a hunting accident-leaving a three year old son called Alexander as his only heir. The panicked Emperor pulled his second son from the monastery and crowned the seventeen year old as Emperor John II to keep the succession secure. Nikepheros seized upon the anger of the military on having a priest in training be fostered as heir, and proclaimed himself Emperor in Mesopotamia. He had severely overestimated his own base of support however, as only the strategos of Cappadocia defecting to his side, with the Levant and Egypt sticking with Constantinople-however reluctantly. Basil was now in fully panicking and hastily assembled a ragtag army of green recruits, Norman mercenaries and the Orphans to march to face this challenge, afraid to call upon other troops in fear of a coup. He, John and George set off marching across Anatolia to face their adversaries, as the Seljuks seized Baghdad and drove Nikepheros to Nineveh.

    Basil never did reach his destination as the stress of the political situation coupled with his advanced age proved too much for his frail heart. The Emperor fell from his horse less than half mile east of Ancyra never to rise again, a day too late to hear that Nineveh too had fallen and Nikepheros was dead. The Turks however had smelt blood and were headed to Anatolia itself. This horde was not made of summer’s children like Dawd’s and was incredibly well suited for fighting in Anatolia. A desperate John was forced to lead the reluctant army onwards to Armenia to prevent the Turks from moving in. The Cappadocians surrendering did nothing to alter the feeling of gloom that had fallen on the army, and the priestly Emperor struggled to keep morale up as the two armies prepared to face each other just outside the town of Manzikert.

    Basil III left behind a deeply contentious legacy-while his economic stewardship was hailed positively, his unilateral disarmament was viewed as suicidal by later historians, especially after the blistering critique of John Kallinikos. His philo-Latin attitude did not win him many supporters either, and he was widely regarded as a failure in the centuries to come.

    Basil III was neither of his grandfathers and he was aware as much, choosing to be a mild affable man who was a far cry from what one would expect of the Autocrat of Romans. Unlike other historians however, I will not fall into the trap of blaming him for everything that came after since he was no prophet with a gift of far-sight. He did lead the cause of disarmament, but he did so seeing no other foes in the horizon and for efficiency reasons as he sought to Empire from an expansionist state into a governing one. Seen today as weak, he nonetheless kept the Empire stronger that Trajan’s, pound for pound- and made critical investments in science and mathematics that in all probability paid a higher dividend than all the blood spilt in Manzikert could have ever hoped to achieve otherwise. The majority verdict is likely to remain negative, but I will remain in pressing his case, as I am yet to be convinced that either Michael/Nikepheros or any other general could have done any better. Many alternative histories have been written to excise him out of the succession, but their fantastical results have often little base in reality. The past however is in another realm, and our speculations will not truly reveal if the Empire had a better choice than Basil at that time. I do agree that by the end he was an old man past his time, but the same could be said for many greats-including the grandfather whose name he bore.


    The Empire prior to Manzikert. Red stripes are regions annexed till 1020 under Turkish occupation/attack.

    1064-1072: End of Innocence
  • In the Shadow of Manzikert

    It is somewhat surprising that an event as deeply influential as the battle of Manzikert would be so poorly documented in immediate contemporary sources, with no surviving eyewitness accounts on the Imperial side having endured the passage of time. Emperor John in particular did not leave behind any notes on the battle that could serve as future reference- a highly unusual measure by the standards set by his immediate predecessors and successors. Nonetheless, the records in some ways reveal a lot: six strategoi were fired within a year of the battle and two were flat out executed on what appear to be the flimsiest of charges.

    The secondary sources like Psellus or Skylitzes agree on very little, but some essential details about the chaotic period following Basil III’s death can be gleamed: John II accepted the surrender of the Cappadocians, the Orphans and the Normans took disproportionately fewer losses in an exceptionally bloody fight, and the battle was a near stalemate before a sudden, almost “divine” intervention orchestrated by the direct orders of the Emperor. Based on a close reading of the sources, I offer the following reconstruction of the battle, which is unlikely to be wholly incorrect.

    John II was a reluctant warrior, as documented by all sources from that era. He had likely attempted to buy peace from the Turks after the rebel Mesopotamian Doux Nikepheros had been killed, hoping that they would pull out after a sufficiently large bribe. He was unfortunately not in a position to cede territory, and the young Sultan wanted concessions in Armenia from the Empire. John might have been willing to let go of Mesopotamia if the Turks were particularly obstinate, but he was quite aware that he would not survive a week if he spontaneously gave up extra territory. Being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, John was thus left with no choice but to fight, with the two armies crossing path in close proximity of Manzikert in Armenia. Lack of military experience had caused John to pass direct command to the Domestic of Schools Constantine Diogenes, although this was not a decision welcomed by Alexios Maniakes, leader of the Orphans. Constantine however was the senior leader, having fought in Carthage in the last round of the North African war, and was a trusted pair of hands for the Empire.

    Constantine however would prove to be a poor leader for the situation, as he had never faced an army as organized as that of the Turks, having only fought Berber raiding bands. He was also used to leading highly trained soldiers all his life, not green recruits that Basil III had been forced to pick up. Aware of a qualitative disparity, Constantine used the infantry as cannon fodder against the Turkish cavalry, running up massive body counts on the Imperial side as the Turks hacked their way through new recruits who nonetheless held ranks on account of a near fanatical devotion to the Empire (or Christ, if some of the Church sources are to be trusted). The Cappadocians acquitted themselves well (having been sent to the front lines as punishment for their rebellion) but they could not hold back the tide. Constantine’s hope of weakening the Turks enough for a single Cataphract strike to finish them off failed miserably as the Normans folded in an inopportune moment. The battle at this point came dangerously close to a Imperial rout despite a narrow numerical superiority that had persisted (the Empire had lost nearly two men per Turk slain, but it had fielded a much larger number of men). Emperor John by this point had given up hope in conventional warfare and took charge in this moment to ask the alchemists to take action. Basil III had long patronized their guilds in Constantinople, and had brought many of them along to assist for a potential siege of Nineveh. Their utility in pitched battle was more questionable from Constantine’s perspective and they had hereto been kept uninvolved. The worried Emperor however had limited alternatives as the situation progressively worsened, and so called upon their services.

    It is almost certain that the Orphans assisted them in actually catapulting some of their mixtures, though it is unclear whether they the chemicals in question were some unstable variant of Greek fire or proto-gunpowder or something entirely different. The Official Secrets Act of the Roman Empire is extremely unwilling to share details even if they are a thousand years old, leaving the exact nature of the incendiary in doubt. I am personally unconvinced about theories about it being gunpowder (John Kallinikos had not been particularly secretive about using gunpowder in his time, though admittedly the scale of conflicts he was involved in would have made secrecy impossible), but it is not quite impossible that Constantinople had stumbled across it during the 11th century and only came clean about possessing the technology once it was clear that Chinese powder would be used against them, regardless of their choice. It is far more likely however, that it was some kind of proto-pyrophoric material (1), which my chemistry colleagues inform me was just possible to synthesize at that time, based on surviving glassware recovered. Such a mixture would be extremely fickle and prohibitively expensive (explaining relative lack of usage in the future) but could be devastatingly effective in certain situations-such as the Battle of Manzikert.

    The incendiary charge succeeded in breaking Turkish ranks as horses panicked due to sudden loud series of explosions and the flying sharpnel had probably killed more than Imperial arrows had till that point. The material damage itself had not been all that great, but the temporary collapse of discipline would prove fatal for the Turks, as Maniakes led a major charge straight in and was able to reach the Sultan himself. Pope Alexander’s later account (recounting his days as Papal Apocarius [1] in Constantinople) noted that:

    I asked my guest about what truly happened at Manzikert. He went silent for the longest while, making me wonder if I had overly insulted him. But he did finally speak just as I was about to move on to a different topic.

    “It is shameful for the warrior in me to admit to our defeat there. But we lost, and that is truth.”

    “Even the Romans admit that we were winning, and I was salivating over the thought of avenging the Mahomettans who Basileos II had conquered. Then we learned that God would never let his chosen people fall.”

    “It suddenly rained fire, as massive spurts of flames burst around me, roasting several of my companions. I was barely able to control my horse before the Orphan cut his head off, but in those few moments of utter chaos, I saw the Truth and never strayed from it since.”

    “The Truth?”, I asked-a little too eager to discover what could have made a Mahomettan abandon his god and seek the grace of Christ.

    “Aye, I saw Him. A long and sad face, clad in dark blue robes up in the sky-with his hands stretched towards me. I reached for it as I lost consciousness, and the last thing I remember are his brown eyes,” said the former Sultan of the Turks.

    “I saw those eyes again when I was at the camp and the Emperor came to meet me. His face was gentle, with only vestiges of sadness left-and I surrendered myself to him. I was a warrior raised by the sword, but I knew He was something greater than myself-someone graced by God who we mere mortals could not comprehend.”

    “But, pardon me-did you not say that you saw Christ?”

    “Have you seen Emperor John in front of the great mosaics of Constantinople? I do not know if I saw the Son or His Viceregent-but I knew that I would serve them both till my dying day.”

    Alexander’s account was highly dramatized and perhaps twisted to highlight similarities with Constantine at the Milvan bridge, but there was no doubt that Sultan Alp Arslan had experienced a Road to Damascus moment in the fields of Manzikert. It would however take a while longer for most observers to realize that his road to Christ was not quite consistent with Nicene-Chalcedonian traditions, but it was far too late by then to alter doctrine of the Turkish Church (at least, without a major schism) he founded and geopolitics would ensure that his theological heirs would endure long, grudgingly tolerated by more conventional Christian states as the alternative was far more problematic. Both Orthodox and Marcionist found the veneration of the very mortal Emperor John II as a pseudo-divine figure to be a bitter pill to swallow, but they vastly preferred heretics who nonetheless accepted Jesus Christ as God’s son and savior of mankind to those who denied Christ’s divinity. The Turkish Christians on their part were too thoroughly despised for apostasy by their Islamic brethren to have an alternative to supporting major Christian powers. This did not however stop Latin Churchmen from grumbling about this disastrous heresy that was perhaps a better fit for pagan Rome than the Christian era, and use it as an example to challenge the authority of the Constantinopolitan Emperor.

    The Greek accounts unsurprisingly try to shift the blame for the theological controversy to Alp Arslan himself, since they theologically agreed with the Latins and were embarrassed by the excessive veneration of an Emperor. John Skylitzes claims that the Sultan was dragged half unconscious before Emperor John after the battle, but the Emperor angrily demanded that medical attention be first given to such a valuable hostage. The Sultan was brought before the Emperor after he had suitably recovered, and was asked what would have happened if the positions of the two men were reversed. Alp Arslan had apparently stated (with no small measure of contrition) that he’d have the Emperor flogged, and then have burnt alive in Baghdad (no doubt a grisly throwback to the murder of the last Abbasid Caliph by Basil II). The Emperor had ostensibly replied:

    “But I will not imitate you. Christ teaches gentleness and forgiveness of past sins. He resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. Too much blood have been split here today, and I would like no more be wasted. I will let you return back to your camp if you would swear on your God that you will never trouble the Empire of the Romans again.”

    At this point the Sultan had apparently broken down and fell on the feet of the Emperor, crying that he hereto worshiped a false God he could no longer swear upon and begged the Emperor to teach him about this Great and kind God of his. The Emperor tried his best as they journeyed back to Constantinople, but the Sultan was too simple a man to grasp the complexity of Christology and came to view the Emperor as a god, acknowledging Christ only as a superior God since his own divine patron treated him as a greater being. A contemptuous man, he refused the counsel of learned men who he saw as of lower birth, but clung onto the Emperor who did not have the time to recognize and correct the dangerous flaws in his pupil’s education.

    Neither of these accounts are particularly believable (2)-especially since John II could hardly afford to let such an extremely valuable prisoner walk free after such a hard fought battle. Arslan’s conversion was viewed to be genuine was almost everyone, since Pope Alexander noted that he refused to leave Constantinople even when his son offered a massive ransom after three months, choosing instead to learn more about his new faith (or the magic which the Emperor had used to defeat him, as cynics have often noted). The extent to which he truly considered John II to be a supernatural entity is quite unknown, as his writings are no longer extant and he might have been attempting to flatter and praise his benefactor to outsiders like Alexander. It may also be that he was truly touched by the kindness of a man he had grown up thinking as the devil and sought to be loyal to him without fully comprehending the alternate interpretations of his actions. Whatever the actual sequence of events, Alp Arslan became a committed Christian through conversations with the Emperor on the journey back to Constantinople, and was baptized as Leo[2] in Hagia Sophia on the first anniversary of the battle. Five thousand Turks taken captive in Manzikert followed their Sultan in this, becoming the core of Turkish Christianity. It was a homecoming on some levels-Seljuk himself was likely Nestorian before embracing Islam barely a century before this moment[3], and quite a few priests thought that their brethren beyond the Empire would soon follow suit. It was a foolish hope that did not take into account the almost magical appeal Islam has over nomadic people, and it did not come to pass. Turkish Christianity nonetheless became an entity worth considering over the century to come, through blood spent by others for its cause.

    John had far too few men left at Manzikert to actually chase the Turks out of Mesopotamia. This task was left to the Normans, as their leader William was elevated to be Doux Mesopotamiae (hereditary) and charged with bringing the province back under control. Nineveh quickly fell before the Normans, but they were unable to proceed much further south, being localized to the old northern Mesopotamian region. Alp Arslan's eldest son was now Sultan, and his advisors were capable of organizing a strong enough defense for the south. It would not have lasted against Basil II’s army-but the scarred Emperor John chose to retreat and lick his wounds, than risk another potentially catastrophic confrontation as Manzikert. The Normans were thus mostly on their own, which suited them just fine as well. John had consented to recruiting from their homeland in the defense of the Mesopotamian frontier, and many were lured in by the promise of land. The trickle slowed after the Norman conquest of Albion which opened up closer lands, but the wealth of Mesopotamia acted as a magnet for ambitious men in Latin Europe, hereto mostly unaffected by the Empire’s eastern expansion.

    John however did not wish to continue on with mercenaries long term. He had recognized that the weakening of the army under Basil III to be a blunder, and devoted himself to fixing that. Constantine Diogenes was executed for a supposed attempted coup, but it is far more likely that the Emperor had him eliminated out of spite (sources are unanimous in stating “Emperor John never forgave Diogenes for the lives lost at Manzikert”). The Domestic of the East followed his boss to the grave as well, and all the Anatolian strategoi were replaced within a year with people who had experience Manzikert and had distinguished themselves there. John went as far to declare that “eternal war is in the interest of the state, as it prevents the generals from going rusty and allows only the fittest to remain”. Sufficiently many middle rank officers had done well individually at Manzikert to allow John to fill critical posts.

    The army had bigger problems than leadership alone, as recruitment had been plummeting over the years. Emperor John attempted to fix this by ending the policy of land grants in Egypt for civilians, thereby ending the population transfer from Anatolia to Egypt. Anatolia had long been used as a population reserve to hellenize massively depopulated provinces, but the population of the plateau (especially in the sparsely settled center and east) had suffered far too much for it. John also cut the head tax throughout the Empire to stop Egypt’s natural population from shrinking without immigration, and to encourage reproduction in the core territories. Settling outside the borders was discouraged, and slavs were offered significantly larger plots if they were willing to move to the Anatolia-Mesopotamia frontier. John also demanded that each theme be ready to supply at least 15000 men for war and increased the tagma to Basil II levels. He also charged Alexios Maniakes with developing a new training program for recruits, which had to contain exercise and actual war games for practice. Expenditure on the Alchemist guild was doubled within a year of Manzikert, which unfortunately came at the expense of the University (the Emperor famously telling them to have less Professors of Greek and Latin and more Mathematicians for war). He also trebled the budget for the Red Sea navy (seeing it as a way to strike Mesopotamia from the south in a future war) and attempted to bring it to par with the Eastern Mediterranean fleet. John II thus started the process of rearmament that would define the latter half of the eleventh century for the Empire, though he did not ultimately live to see the fruits of his labors.

    And the Emperor had indeed labored! He claimed to have slept no more than three hours a night, a figure corroborated by Psellos who claimed the Emperor worked like an ass. He also spent like a drunken sailor, seeing the surplus of previous years as a convenient way to compensate for military weakness. The Empire would have gone into debt with his spending spree if it was not more large tax hikes on trade, and on richer families (introducing what remarkably seemed like a progressive tax policy). Even then it was a near thing, and complaints were very common. The militarists were also unhappy with the Emperor refusing to endorse offensive war. By 1071 the Empire was almost back to its peak strength and there were calls to finally put an end to the Turkish Emirate in Mesopotamia. Arslan’s eldest had proven too independent for his advisors and had been replaced in favor of a younger brother in 1070, and the Normans were reporting back that the Turks were splintering into factions-to an extent where Doux William suspected one final heave would finish them once and for all. John mistrusted those reports, believing William merely wanted to gain lands in exchange for Greek blood (which was indeed the case as the Doux intentionally exaggerated Turkish weakness, a fact that became clear later), but the military upper ranks disagreed. They found a champion in the young co-Emperor George, who was fiercely advocating for a Mesopotamian war (egged on by his close friend Robert, William’s son). John nonetheless proved to be an immovable wall, and he still had considerable support amidst the common people who wanted to be spared another war far from their homes. He merely consented to signing off on naval raids in the Persian Gulf by the Egyptian navy, and that too with extreme caution (perhaps hoping that the Turks would get the message and finish William).

    The former Alp Arslan however proved to be a problem. Worried about his children (the eldest’s end had not been pleasant) and perhaps desiring a crown once more, he begged the Emperor for support. John ignored him like he had ignored others, brusquely stating the Empire will not be ready for war for another twenty years and believing that would be the end of it. Undeterred, Leo went to pilgrimage in Rome, where Pope Alexander had recently come into office, after a successful career as Apocarius. Leo called upon the Pope to assist him in securing the East for Christendom, claiming that the “Most August Empire of the Romans had been too fatally weakened” by Manzikert. It is unclear if Alexander was motivated more by the thought of saving Saracen souls or leaving a mark in history, but he called for a Synod in Clermont in November 1071.

    The rest as they say, is history. The Pope gave a call for a Crusade to conquer the souls of the East for Christendom, which found a fertile audience in Western Europe exposed to stories of fabulous Greek conquests in the East for almost a century. There was a feeling in the West that they had not been able to match the glory of the East, and Pope Alexander’s appeal to the West to finally do its part for Christendom when the East was temporarily weak (after all the sacrifices Basil II had made to recover Jerusalem) found eager ears. The news however was met with shock and horror in Constantinople. John II flew into a rage after hearing about the call for Holy War, and was barely restrained from sending an order to the Strategos of Naples to arrest the Pope. He was talked out of it by a series of long meetings with all his chief advisors, who told him that this would mean the loss of the West after the effort invested by his forefathers to secure it, and finally relented after a day. He nonetheless personally told the Apocarius that no Latin army would be allowed on Imperial lands, and adventuring be better constrained to Spain. He further called for a Synod in Constantinople to oppose the Synod of Clermont, and affirm that Holy War was absolutely unacceptable. His private writings from the period show a great deal of turmoil over the idea, since he refused to accept the idea of a Christian jihad, declaring the idea to be antithetical to all that Christ had preached. “I no longer believe that we worship the same God,” he wrote in his journal early 1072, “and I see a great deal of truth in what Marcion of Sinope [3] had said-only the Demiurge could endorse this bloodbath”.

    The journal was private and only opened for access centuries after his death. Public knowledge of such heretical thoughts would have resulted in his removal despite all other qualities, and he was wise to keep it quiet. Nonetheless, Marcionism would be his ultimate downfall-for he refused to militarily intervene against Bogomil heretics in the Balkans. He was willing to fund more Orthodox missionaries in the region, but was not going to “tell another how to find Christ at swordpoint”. This finally alienated his closest supporters, who now started to suspect if the Emperor was too scarred by Manzikert to ever sign off to another war. Alexios Maniakes in particular noted that “John turned out to be an appeaser like his father. One gutted the army, and the other would not let it act.” The knives were coming out, and one would have found the Emperor soon.

    Perhaps a metaphorical one did indeed strike him, for the Emperor was unable to sleep during the week of Easter in 1072. His physician had long noted that he was far too thin to be healthy, and his hair had turned white long before his time, but complete insomnia was new. The Emperor however still kept on working, and insisted on leading the Sunday Mass when it came. He collapsed halfway through it, never to rise again. The official account stated that his heart had given out the same way as his father’s had, but the medical history of his family makes this theory suspect. He was more likely helped to his end via poisons that did not kill him but merely weakened him or prevented him from sleep, letting his constitution and exhaustion handle the rest.

    Ioannes II lasted only eight years in power, unlike his immediate ancestors who had much longer reigns. His short reign nonetheless was momentous, with him starting the process of rearmament and creating the circumstances for the First Crusade. He was an uncommonly decent individual and a committed pacifist, who however refused to bury his head in sand and executed the duties of his office to the fullest extent of his ability. His influence is not so direct as that of the great Emperors, but it proved long lasting and can be seen even today in Turkish rite Churches. Perhaps more importantly, the critical support he offered to Gnostic sects had enabled their long term survival and revival in the future. This was perhaps a lot more than what anyone could have expected at the moment of his death, with his successor Giorgios I overturning the Synod of Constantinople, inviting the Crusaders to Mesopotamia and promising to fight heresy. None of that however could completely overturn his legacy, for he had understood society far better than his militarist successors ever could and thus they failed to end his legacy. John represented the end of the Age of Innocence for the Empire, enjoying the dividends of the post Arab peace. It would no longer remain bottled up in the Eastern Mediterranean and be an active participant in world affairs-in no small part because of the investments he had made. Credit must also be given for helping stave off a defeat at Manzikert, which would have opened up vast depopulated swathes of Central and Eastern Anatolia to Turkish occupation, from where the herders would have only been removed through great difficulty (if ever). A simple Orthodox Church stands today in the site of the battle, where a small prayer is led on his birthday each year:

    “Ioannes of Constantinople-son of the Empire, servant of Christ.
    A man gentle, generous and kind-who died for his Empire.
    May the Lord have mercy on his soul.”

    Few of tourists realize that this is addressed to an Emperor and not some brave local soldier. But this humble commemoration is consistent what we know about John’s life. None questioned John the Pious’ commitment to Christ, and it would do us well to remember him today when people kill others over faith. If a deeply pious medieval Christian could take a principled stance against holy war nearly a thousand years ago, why must modern man continue to butcher others in the name of faith?

    [1] Papal legate to Constantinople. The Alexander in question later became Pope (as noted in the chapter) and wrote
    History of the Roman Empire - the standard text concerning the Latin Empire (Principate and Dominate) which runs from Augustus to Phocas. This work of scholarship took much effort, and extensive perusal of documents in Constantinople and is the only material that preserves contents of major Latin writers whose works were burned by John Callinicus.

    [2] Alp Arslan means "Heroic Lion" in Turkish. Leo was thus the obvious choice for a baptismal name.

    [3] Seljuk had only converted to Islam in 985, and he had sons called Michael and Israel, suggesting a Nestorian past.

    Vasilas' Notes:
    (1) Nope, it was gunpowder. The reason they are unwilling to admit that is because they stole the recipe from China (like Justinian and Silkworms, but here is was just a quick Greek note no one could read). Professor Andronikos Doukas (who had accompanied the Fatimid embassy to China right before Dawd's coup and had only returned when Egypt was under the Empire) had been very busy in his time at the East. He did not get the recipe at the time, but saw some of it in action and was in any case convinced that stealing tech from China was in the best interest of the Empire. The distance makes things difficult (the lost last voyage of Basil II being a big example of some issues) but Basil III's interest in trade as well as co-opting Arab sailors knowledge about routes led to a small permanent mission in Guangzhou by 1040s. An enterprising alchemist who travelled with a mission at this time was lucky enough to learn what exactly the "fire lances" were using and immediately jumped on the next ships back (with extensive coded notes in Greek in case he did not make it). The classic secret protocol (as followed with Greek fire) resulted, and they barely had working prototypes (basically barrels and wicks) going in time for Manzikert. Gunpowder would however only be openly used once it became clear that power/s threatening the Empire also had Chinese powder and so secrecy was more hindrance than help.

    They don't quite want to come clean as they have insisted for centuries that they invented it independently (later, but nonetheless without any Chinese influence). Several people they have used to make that claim (who in most cases did not know any better, as they didn't dig eleventh century secret records) are too highly regarded in society (a couple of Emperors, a few bigshot scientists etc) for the prideful Empire to come clean about the lies. Societies are often proud to the point of irrationality, and a surviving Romania is going to be an extreme case because of its history. There is also the precedent of Greek fire, and so most people do believe the claim to be a real one.

    (2) Skylitzes came to the truth nonetheless. Alp Arslan converted because of the kindness of Emperor John. He simply could not believe that such a person could have led his Empire to victory, or indeed last as Emperor in the violent world-not unless he had friends in high places, such as whatever power that defeated the Turks at Manzikert.

    (3) Marcionism and other Gnosticism: John II was increasingly being convinced that the Old Testament God could not be the same one as the New Testament one. One preached forgiveness and the other was a genocidal psycho so to say, and he was clear about which one he backed. By the end, he saw the Islamic/Judaic God as a malovolent entity enticing humans astray (the Demiurge-lord of the material world), while the Christian God's fundamental message was salvation-though the Church was corrupted by the Demiurge itself. He was however not loony enough to actually say this openly or act in a manner that would suggest he thought this way. That being said, he also refused to go to the other end and persecute other gnostics like the Paulicans/Bogomils, leading to his eventual downfall (yep, he was poisoned off).

    John is not an actual Cathar/Bogomil/Paulican though-just to be clear. He would identify as a Marcionist in the modern era. That being said, his ideas did not develop in a vacuum but owed quite a bit to the intesting neo-Gnostic ideas floating around in Roman society's fringes at that time.

    The wikipedia article on Marcionism may be of help if anyone wants to have a quick look at this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcionism

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    First Crusade: Part I
  • Chapter 11: The First Crusade (Part I)

    Ioannes II’s corpse had scarcely been allowed to cool before it became apparent that his militaristic brother intended to change course rather dramatically. George I was too young to have seen the old Empire of Basil II, but he had an exceedingly high opinion of that era, not unlike many other children who grew up in the shadow of Manzikert. He had nothing but contempt for his father, who in his opinion was only a “fat merchant” and considered his brother to be too much of a pacifist to be a good leader, despite having his heart in the right place. George himself was desperate to get back to the era when the Empire “was good at winning” and surrounded himself with people sharing similar attitudes.

    George nonetheless faced two major problems immediately at the start of his reign. Basil III had carefully built a court devoted to checks and balances, with strong administrative, naval and army factions that balanced each other out. This was often done via negative competition and sabotage in the previous era of abundance when it could be afforded, but the demands of the present were different. Despite his faults, John II had been quite successful in navigating the Imperial court and in getting the factions to work somewhat synergystically towards his vision. Nonetheless, there were many who had resented his approach long before he made his resistance to the idea of Holy War clear. The Doukas family (belonging to the bureaucratic faction) in particular were disappointed that their role had been relatively constrained despite John and George’s mother being a Doukas. The majority of the other bureaucrats had not shared these views, and were supportive of John’s commitment to rewarding competence over familial ties. His brother on the other hand rewarded his Doukas uncles with major offices (Constantine Doukas became Megas Doux within a day of the start of George's reign, while other minor Doukai occupied other posts of consequence) soon after coming to power, with other officials quickly discovering that it was in their best interest to cooperate if they did not wish to be shunted out.

    The naval faction had been the strongest of the trio in the final years of Basil III, and John II had not disturbed that balance overmuch in his attempt to strengthen the army. Admiral Basil Komnenos (son of Alexander Komnenos and grandson of Constantine VIII) ruled that as his personal fief, often using the resources in Egypt to strengthen his family’s mercantile investments in the Indies. George however grew to see Komnenos as a threat since his grandson Alexander was next in line should anything befall George. Nonetheless Komnenos was far too powerful to be easily replaced, and so the Emperor contented himself with making small cuts to the naval budget to pinch the veteran sailor. George however sought to empower the army faction far more in order to weaken Komnenos on a relative basis, aware that the Admiral could not openly oppose moves to strengthen the army in the dangerous times the Empire faced.

    The leadership of the army faction was more of an issue. Alexios Maniakes had been the de-facto spokesman for them before John II, but he was distrusted by many army leaders despite his proven ability to influence John. It was often felt he was working to strengthen the Orphans at the expense of other sectors (not an unfounded accusation, as Manzikert likely did not improve Alexios’ views of other army units) and many dynatoi descendants despised his low, orphan birth. It was the latter that caused George to sideline him early in his reign, as the Emperor was more convinced by blood than merit. This attitude seems extremely disturbing in light of the high social mobility in the preceding centuries, and was condemned by contemporary authors, who were nonetheless more eager to blame the “feudal Latin” Roger Hauteville (a hostage at the court to assure the loyalty of his father, Doux William of Mesopotamia) than actually oppose the Emperor. George himself came from rather distinguished breeding (if one is willing to ignore Basil I’s background) and was castle-raised, making him myopic when it came to seeking talent beyond the well-known families of Constantinople. Having gained the throne less because of merit and more because of birth, he sought to apply those standards to other posts as well, causing the strata of Imperial society to slowly freeze. Social mobility still remained absurdly high to western eyes (many lamentations about “leading men of the Empire being children of beggars” can easily be found in Latin sources), but it declined a great deal compared to before.

    George thus sought someone of distinguished breeding to lead the army, perhaps one of the golden line of Basil II himself. Unfortunately, there were no other surviving descendants of Kaisar John save George himself and his thirteen year old nephew Alexander. Kaisar Michael’s youngest son Nikepheros had raised the banner of rebellion in Mesopotamia, causing the loss of the region to the Turks. He was also safely dead and out of the running for any of George’s plans. Michael’s eldest son Christopher however still lived-he had been a hostage at court for long, serving as Basil III’s cup-bearer and eventually becoming strategos of Syria before John II had fired him and sidelined his family after Manzikert (perhaps fearful that he would follow his brother’s example). Christopher was now in his sixties, but his son Andreas was in his prime and was a prime candidate to head George’s army.

    The Emperor nonetheless was careful on account of the precedent set by Nikepheros’ rebellion. Christopher however was desperate to ensure his family returned to the good graces of the Emperor and was thus prepared to do anything-including adopting a different name to formally renounce his claim to the Throne. This gave George an idea whose aftermath countless scholars of history had to deal with since. The Imperial clan did not have a family name like many lesser families did, having come to prominence long before such things had become fashionable. George sought to change that, declaring that all those born of the senior line of Basil II (i.e. via Kaisar John) would henceforth be called Porphyrogennetos irrespective of the actual location of birth. It made sense to George as he only cared for blood and not the rituals associated with it, while being secure enough in his position to be able to treat the title Porphyrogennetos with some level of disregard (which Constantine VII for instance could hardly afford). Of course the fact that he and Alexander were the only two Porphyrogennetoi left might have helped him feel far less threatened about trivializing the title.

    Christopher’s family on the other hand would be forced to adopt the lesser title “Makedonos” (which we will henceforth refer to as the standard anglicization “Makedon” from now on), reflecting the origins of the dynasty but not offering a route to the purple. Indeed, both Christopher and Andreas were compelled to give statements to the Senate where they renounced all claims to the throne “as long as a single Porphyrogennetos lived”. This was ultimately a mere formality (since blood alone was still not enough to reach the purple, though it was becoming more and more important), but nonetheless significant as it split the Imperial clan apart into two distinct branches and histories. George was glad to appoint Andreas as Megas Domestikos after the split was made official and shower him with honors to sideline the Komnenoi, the other major family to be descended from Porphyrogennetoi.

    Having thus formed his own ruling clique, George turned his attention to the matter of the Crusade. John II had stopped it in its tracks by getting a Synod in Constantinople to expressly declare the idea as unchristian. The inner circle of George however was pro-crusade, though for differing reasons. Roger Hauteville wanted to assist his father in carving out a larger fief, Andreas Makedon wanted to cement his position as Megas Domestikos via a successful campaign and Constantine Doukas was more interested in opening up trade routes to the east via Mesopotamian ports that could cut Egypt out completely (his family having done not so well versus the Komnenoi in Egyptian trade). The Greeks in court in fact did not quite expect what a Crusade entailed, imagining nothing more than a few thousand Latin soldiers to be hired for free as cannon fodder. They in fact were more concerned that interest might be low due to John II’s opposition, and were willing to take steps to encourage recruitment. Constantine Doukas in particular found a willing ear in the Venetians and Genoese (who wanted a bigger fraction of the Eastern trade than what the Egypt based merchants were currently letting them access) about the possibility of acquiring friendly Mesopotamian ports. The Italians were willing to invest in a crusade in return for extra favors, and sent out minstrels to help spread tales for recruitment. Nonetheless, they feared it might not be enough, and informed Doukas that the vigor was receding outside of Tolouse (where it had not quite faded on account of Count Raymond having married a daughter to Leo Arslan in his initial burst of piety) as the Empire was perceived to be hostile to Latin adventurism.

    George overcompensated in order to reverse his predecessor’s opposition. Patriarch Theodore of Constantinople was against the very idea of a Crusade and so he of course had to go, along with many other churchmen who were replaced with puppets who quickly reversed the Constantinople Synod and brought the official line to harmony with the one preached by Rome. Pope Alexander seized the chance to call an Ecumenical Council in Rome on the matter of Crusades in 1074, and to his shock learned that the Emperor of the Romans himself will be in attendance. George’s presence prevented major theological debates from flaring up, as the Pope was unwilling to oppose the most powerful man in Christendom and spent all his time fawning around the purple boots, letting the Emperor seize command. Despite his other faults, George was an excellent speaker who could conjure a vision of a rich East filled with wonders while simultaneously being occupied by infidels who needed to be taught their place in the world. The King of the Turks, he argued, had been dispossessed as he saw the light of Christ and it was their duty as fellow Christians to restore Leo back to his position. George of course promised to do his part as the leader of Christendom, boasting that he could alone deliver victory. But, he argued-this was not a matter of victories in this world as much as it was for the salvation of the souls in the next world. There were many poor latins who were being forced to sink into sin while many nobles overindulged in un-christian acts. Here was finally a chance for them to save their souls, offered to them via the generosity of the vice-regent of Christ himself.

    It must be kept in mind that George addressed important nobles and bishops all over Europe and not just peasants cheering at his words. Yet, his speech had a powerful effect, with Pope Alexander noting that he finally understood how the Caesar’s of old commanded their men. George was perhaps too successful in his attempt, suddenly finding himself swamped with many nobles willing to pledge their (and their serf’s) lives to the cause. Basil Komnenos had flat out informed the Emperor that only twenty thousand men could be transported speedily to Syria for the land route to Mesopotamia, but George was dealing with at least three times the number. Somewhat unnerved, the Emperor delegated the task of organizing of the transportation to Constantine Doukas, who finally arranged for (sequential) transfer of thirty thousand men via sea to Syria to meet up with twenty thousand tagma troops (taken out of Egypt, which had long been quiet) lead by Andreas Makedon-and then march across land to Nineveh for a march down to the Persian Gulf. George had not thrown caution to the winds as he steadfastly opposed any plans of letting a Crusader army march through Anatolia, being worried about the consequences of an ill-organized foreign army going through the Imperial heartland. Naval transport was expensive, but it was a price well worth paying in his opinion-leading to the remnants of the fleet previously used to transport migrants to Egypt be reconscripted into transporting men from Bari to Laodicea. This was of course the fate for the most well trained men, with the riff-raff being convinced to go to the hinterlands of Carthage via Sicily and make a nuisance of themselves there (a number estimated to be closer to ten thousand).

    This however was the fate of the organized transfer. As is well known, some peasants had organized themselves into a band under the leadership of a certain Paul the Hermit, and decided to march via land to the fabled east, leaving a large number of jewish corpses in their wake. They made it as far as Hungary before the Magyar King ordered them to turn back, having informed by Constantinople that they would not be allowed into the Empire. The horde settled for attacking the Magyars instead, and were at first routed by the Hungarians. They however instigated a general peasant rebellion that quickly flew beyond control, causing the Empire to send in men from Diocleia and Epirus to assist the Hungarians. It was nothing worse than an unwelcome distraction overall, and Constantinople did not add any further territory from the exercise, but it critically weakened Hungary at that time and reduced the number of men the Empire could spare for the official Crusade.

    The Crusaders and their many leaders had assembled in Antioch by then, meeting up with the five thousand Turkish hostages of Manzikert who had followed Leo to the cross. Leo himself was the nominal leader of the whole endeavor, having been crowned as “King of the Turks” by George in 1074. Andreas Makedon however was de-facto leader on account of his unquestioned command over the twenty thousand strong Imperial contingent, but he had to respect the various local leaders of the thirty thousand crusaders that included nobles like Count Raymond of Toulouse who could not be discounted completely. There was also the matter of Doux William Hauteville of Mesopotamia from whose lands they would be operating out of. Overall, it was not a particularly cohesive body, and their march to Nineveh was extremely slow, leaving a large number of Latin bodies in their wake.

    The state of the Seljuk Empire however was far worse, though few in Christendom had sensed the extent to which the once mighty state had decayed to. The court at Baghdad only had nominal control over the East where warlords skirmished, paying only lip-service to the figurehead Sultan. Mesopotamia itself proper had many warlords, jousting for power at the weakened court and slowly weakening the edifice. Only the frontier lords of Northern Mesopotamia and Northwest Persia had interest in fighting the Christians, courtesy their border with the Normans. Their number also included some Armenians, whose psyche was still scarred from the massacres of Kaisar Michael and who thus were extremely willing to fight the Empire in any incarnation.

    Nonetheless, many of the frontier Mesopotamian Turkish lords were tiring of the skirmish with the Normans, and were quite aware that their means did not simply allow them to face the full Crusader host, at least not without support from an effectively non-existent central government or rival warlords more interested in taking chunks out of their territories. Leo’s presence offered them an honorable exit as they were allowed to keep their lands, titles and lives-in return for what effectively turned out be only a token baptism. Doux William was outraged as this prevented him from actually gaining any more land, and he withdrew from the Crusade in fury. Andreas Makedon however convinced him to keep the supply-lines open by reminding him that his son was a captive in Constantinople and that direct opposition to Emperor George would result in the physical integrity of the hostage being compromised.
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