Rebirth of Byzantium: The Dark Emperor Rises

Zach – Today’s post is about the darkest time for the Byzantine Empire. It is an empire shattered and in exile. In 1204 the grotesque 4th Crusade, instead of liberating the Holy Land, attacked Constantinople and took it over. The Crusaders looted the city for years stripping the churches and palaces of anything that was worth anything. The emperor fled to Nicea along the coast of Anatolia (Turkey) and set up a government in exile. There were several factions that split off from the Byzantine Empire and most didn’t recognize Nicea’s claim to the governments. Others just didn’t care.

Here we see the once mighty Byzantine Empire, shattered and fragmented.

Here we see the once mighty Byzantine Empire, shattered and fragmented.

Anna – How the Empire came to be like this would require a post by itself. It seems hopeless for my beloved Empire, but a hero arises. It’s not the hero Byzantium deserves, but its the hero Byzantium needs. But first let’s get into our panelists. We are most honored to have Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. Next we have Saint Olga of Kiev, first Christian convert in Russia and a lunatic. Next we have Boudica, barbarian rebel against Rome. And lastly we have Gaspar Correia, conquistador and “historian.”
Zach – The Byzantine Empire: the continuation of the ancient Roman empire in the Middle Ages. For some reason it isn’t really taught in public schools. In high school I think we spent a day on it and mostly talked about Justinian’s re codification of Roman Law. (Important but kind of boring.) It was a fascinating place and as our story opens, its in a desperate position. Surrounded by enemies and fractured internally. But the Byzantines didn’t give up, a trait they’ll carry with them until the death of the Empire. For fifty years they fought for every inch of land and power they could while constantly waiting for their chance to take their beloved city, Constantinople back from the hands of the Crusaders.
Catherine – During this time the Byzantine government in Nicea was ruled by a man with little royal blood. His name was John Doukas Vatatzes. He was called “John the Merciful.” He was a wise leader that loved his country. He kept the Empire together and lead them with intelligence and strength. He slowly but steadily grew his exiled Empire along the coast of Turkey. But he was growing old and Constantinople was still out of reach. His only son and heir to the Empire was a sickly lad and not a capable leader at all, much like my husband was… before he got blown up.
Olga – Your husband got blown up? Did you blow up the ones that blew him up? I burnt down city of mens that killed my husband.
Anna – Yes, John’s son, Theodore was less than inspiring. That’s what happens when you don’t have royal blood. But there was one man that inspired the people and the military. His name was Michael Doukas Angelos Komnenos Palaiologos. A long name, I know, but it shows hes related to several important royal families, including my own! In fact, except for this John character, almost every Byzantine Emperor after my father could be traced directly to him. Isn’t my father wonderful?
Boudica – I see a bunch of soft, over fed dandies pretending to have problems.

Here's Michael himself.

Here’s Michael himself.

Zach – John recognized that Michael was a very capable and very ambitious man. To keep him from trying a coup or leading a rebellion, he promoted him to an officer in the Imperial army. But eventually John grew suspicious of Michael (rightly so) and accused him of disloyalty. Usually John the Merciful earned his nickname, but this time, he knew the threat was great so he borrowed a form of trial from the Latin occupiers. If Michael was able to hold a red hot iron without being burned, it showed that God knew he was innocent. At the “trial” when the bishop who was acting as judge told Michael to grab the glowing iron, Michael said, ” Sure, I’ll do it, but you have to hand it to me first.” The bishop was understandably reluctant and called the proceedings off. The Byzantine crowd, proud of their Roman traditions of fair trials, knew this was a farce and Michael’s popularity soared. John was no fool and with Michael’s upswing of popularity, John gave him his niece, the princess Theodora Doukaina. He didn’t really like her but she loved him and even adopted his last name, not unheard of, but rare at that time. That soon became the trend in Byzantium.
Anna – Only a year later John died and his son Theodore inherited the exiled throne of the Roman Empire. Theodore was an unpleasant man prone to quick mood swings. Michael knew this was not a good situation to be in. Theodore was also very paranoid and Michael knew he was in Theodore’s “Not a friend” list. So he went to the Turks and offered his service as an officer. For the next few years Michael would be off fighting the Mongols far to the east and having great success. But, he was related to me, so of course he had great success. But back in Nicea, Theodore was proving to be not completely incompetent. In spite of his illness, he personally led his army on an almost constant campaign against the enemies that surrounded him, mostly against the Despotate of Epiros.
Boudica – The brave Mongols were giving the Turks a hard time, right? So the Turks made peace with the Byzantines so they could focus their manpower at the Mongols which had taken over, like, half the world by now. Go Team Barbarian! But a part of this treaty was that they send Michael back to them. When he got back he met Theodore and bowed down low making all kinds of promises to be super loyal and never try to take the throne.
Catherine – But, the sickly Theodore soon died after that and his only son was only nine years old. There was a regent, one of John’s friends. On his coronation day, Michael had a bunch of mercenaries burst into the church and kill the regent. Michael then stepped up as “protector” of the young heir and assumed the throne. Not a pleasant way to gain power but Michael was not a pleasant man. he was ruthless and cunning, but he was also patriotic and intelligent.

Gaspar's photo of Michael taking over the Empire.

Gaspar’s photo of Michael taking over the Empire.

Anna – The young heir, John, couldn’t do anything to stop Michael from taking over. At the coronation where John was supposed to have been crowned emperor, Michael ordered the Patriarch to crown him instead. Ruthless. Technically John was Emperor though, but only in name. But, his ruthless aspirations aside, Michael threw himself into the cause of the Empire. He renewed the war against the Despotate and against the Latin occupiers. He was a great military leader that managed to wind many victories with his small army. He slowly made his way to Constantinople and sent scouts out to watch the city for any sign of weakness. The general in charge watched and waited. Then one day his scouts rushed up to him and reported that the Venetian ships (Venice propped up the Latin Empire like America did to petty dictators through the Cold War) and the entire Latin army had left. They technically had a pact of non-aggresion with the Latin Empire, but the general knew this was too good of a chance. He also knew that Michael would care about treaties or niceties like promises or honor. So he rushed into the city to the cheers of the occupied Byzantine civilians and quickly sent word to Michael. Michael was sleeping when his sister Eulogia entered his tent and tickled his feet. “Emperor, you are master of Constantinople,” she said.
“How can I be when I am in Meterion?” Michael asked.
She explained and he gathered his army and Rushed to Constantinople and entered through the Golden Gate, the ceremonial gate in which triumphant generals and emperors would enter for their grand parades.

"Yo, John, you're cramping my stale.  I don't care if you are emperor, you're in my space."

“Yo, John, you’re cramping my style. I don’t care if you are emperor, you’re in my space.”

Gaspar – But in my research I uncovered how the army actually got into Constantinople. Few defenders, yes, but it has a big wall. Michael’s army used ancient teleportation magic learned from the Pharaohs of old. The court sorcerers teleported a team of magically animated automatons wielding Greek Fire. These metal beasts with flame throwers made short work of the Latin garrison.

The Byzantines had many mechanical contraptions such as a throne that lifted into the air with mechanical lions the roared and mettle birds that sang.

The Byzantines had many mechanical contraptions such as a throne that lifted into the air with mechanical lions the roared and metal birds that sang.

Olga – Robots shooting fire? I like! I want robots that shoot fire. Go buy me them!
Anna – No, Gaspar, actually the Garrison were Greeks and opened the gates for them because they hated the Latins.
Gaspar – Oh. Are you sure?
Anna – Very.
Zach – But Michael found a capitol city almost in ruins. The churches were emptied, houses were left empty and rotting. The Imperial palaces were hardly fit for living in and the crown jewel of the Empire, the greatest city in the world, was a ruin of what it used to be. He immediately He started a rebuilding project. He started with the public buildings, the courts, the theaters, the homes for the old and poor and of course the churches. In Byzantium religion and politics were the same thing. This wasn’t a false attempt at piety, the Byzantines were very religious. It was their favorite subject to talk about in the markets, they loved their icons and everything that happened had some spiritual meaning to it. For some reason though, Michael would forget this.
Catherine – Michael restored land and property taken by the Latins to the Byzantine families that used to own them…and the taxed the snot out of them and everyone else. This was strike one against his popularity. Strike two came when he had the heir, John, blinded and sent away. Blindings were common back then but to do it to a boy was considered monstrous. No one really knows what happened to John. Some say he became a monk. Some say he regained his eyesight and left of Sicily. (He was blinded by being forced to look into a light. It was considered more humane.)
Boudica – And they call us barbarians? Bah! Well, Michael had enemies in the court, but he also had powerful enemies everywhere else. He made allies of far away countries that were enemies to his nearby enemies. He’d scheme and organize wars between those countries so they wouldn’t turn towards Byzantium. In Sicily, King Charles Anjou, brother of the French king, was planning on launching another Crusade to destroy Byzantium. When Michael heard of this he knew he didn’t have the money to raise an army that could hope to win against Manfred’s. So he sent spies into Sicily to stir up rebellion. He also made his third strike. He went to the Pope. At this time, the Catholic and Orthodox churches were split and disliked each other to the point of hatred. He sent a message to Rome saying that they’d acknowledge the Pope as supreme ruler if he agreed to protect Byzantium. When word spread about this, the people were ticked off to no end. These were super religious people to whom compromise was seen as weakness. They would sooner die that bow before the Pope. They also hated the Latin’s for their many years of Crusader occupation. To Michael it was just politics, but to the Byzantine people it was their souls. Hmmm…I’m not a fan of big governments that tell you how to live your lives and either were the Byzantines when it came to religion.
Zach – Michael tried to force the people to accept the union but the more he pushed, the more the people fought back. He resorted to torture and execution to make it happen, but it all backfired. His loyal sister Eulogia even got sick of his crap and left to Bulgaria and promised to fight against her brother with everything she had. Don’t mess with a Byzantine’s religion. Eventually Rome grew tired of waiting and Okay’d the Sicilian crusade. Aside from the rebellions he was creating in Sicily, he sent word to the king and queen of Aragon that Sicily was ready to revolt and they should be ready to move in and take over. The match was finally struck when one of Anjou’s French soldiers tried to molest a local girl. The Sicilians had had enough and within days the entire island was in revolt.

Sicilian's rising up.  Red, the color of angry men.

Sicilian’s rising up. Red, the color of angry men.

Anna – Then the king of Aragon quickly moved in with his forces to “pacify” the region, as you modern people like to say. Michael had saved the Roman Empire without shedding a single drop of blood, well, Byzantine blood anyway. This was his greatest victory. After that he went over to put down a rebellion, got sick and died in some town of no consequence. The priests refused him any kind of religious ceremonies for his funeral and basically just dumped in in the ground with no pomp or ceremony in the middle of the night. It wasn’t until years later that they dug up his body and gave it a slightly better funeral in some monastery way out in the boonies. His wife publicly denounced him and no prayers were said for him. In their eyes he had betrayed the faith that was more important to them than life. It didn’t matter what he had done for the Empire, all of that was moot when he went against their church. We Romans take our faith seriously. To us, you can’t sacrifice the Church for the Empire. The Empire was there to support the Church.
Zach – Michael was a complex man. He was brave and intelligent and would do anything for his Empire. He had done more to restore the Empire than anyone else and yet his people hated him for the way he did it. For them, the means did not justify the end. He was a mixture of good and bad that might never be fully understood.
Olga – I like him. He kick butt and take name.
Gaspar – I don’t see what everyone’s whining about.
Boudica – A lesson in tyranny. It doesn’t matter what benefits you get if the government tells you how to live your life.
Catherine – Ruthless. I like that him.
Anna – He was a Roman and flawed one, but he was necessary.

He made the difficult choices a hero couldn't make.  He was the man Constantinople needed even though they hated him for it.

He made the difficult choices a hero couldn’t make. He was the man Constantinople needed even though they hated him for it.

Olga – Don’t forget to like us on the facebooks page thing.
http://www.facebook.com/MinimumWageHistorian

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3 comments on “Rebirth of Byzantium: The Dark Emperor Rises

  1. Desert Rat says:

    You are not wrong, Zach. They don’t teach anything about Byzantium in school. I’ve never read about any of this. Very cool.

  2. Napoleon Bonaparte says:

    But they do teach about me! Ha ha! I can show this so called “Dak Emperor” a thing or two about how to conquer his enemies. I laugh at him!

  3. paulgenesse says:

    Thanks for the post. Fascinating stuff.

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