Revival of the Medieval Roman Empire - Byzantine Reconquista DOCUMENTARY
From a geopolitical standpoint, the Eastern Roman Empire is often depicted as the sick man of the Middle ages. However, amidst the constant territorial retreat, there were periods when they pushed back against the invading tide. In the early Medieval period, a string of capable military-minded men would bring triumph to Byzantium, and secure the long-time survival of the Empire for centuries to come. Welcome to our special longform video on the Basileis of the Macedonian Dynasty, where we will cover a roughly 150-year span when the Eastern Roman Empire rebounded from its long suffering decline, and became the most powerful state in the Mediterranean world.
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Now, little of Justinians’ legacy remained. The bellicose Lombards had pushed the Eastern Romans to the very fringes of Italy. Constant migrations of Slavs and Bulgars along the Danube had put an immense strain on the Empires’ Balkan territories, and even before that: the meteoric rise of a natal Islamic faith had permanently deprived the Romans of Egypt, Syria and North Africa. Perhaps the greatest threat to the Emperors in Constantinople were the aforementioned Muslim Arabs, who, in a stark departure from their desert-dwelling roots, had taken to the seas to become the most deadly sailors of the Mediterranean coast. In 827, the Byzantines suffered two major losses to two different factions of Muslim corsairs.
The young, Tunisia-based Aghlabid Emirate struck at Sicily, beginning the 80-year-long conquest of that island, while a roving band of political exiles from Islamic Al-Andalus seized the ancient isle of Crete. The newly founded Islamic Emirate of Crete became a particular menace to the Byzantines. Supported by the mighty navy of the massive Abbasid Caliphate, the isle became a perfect base from which Arab pirates launched constant and devastating raids into the coastal towns of the Aegean sea. In summary, Byzantium in the early 9th century looked to be a polity in terminal decline.
And yet, all was not lost. In 811 a peasant boy named Basil was born in Chariopolis, in what was then the theme of Macedonia. As a young man, Basil was employed as a stable boy by a distant relative of reigning Emperor Michael III. There he attracted the attention of important courtiers by his tall stature, enormous strength, and ability to break in the wildest horses. Basil soon became a trusted confidant of the
Emperor, In 866, he achieved the role of co-Emperor alongside Michael III. A year later, Basil had Michael assassinated at a banquet, allowing him to ascend as the Basileus, founding the Macedonian dynasty that would endure over 200 years. Basils I’s reign would be the most successful that Eastern Rome had seen in centuries. He oversaw the Christianization of the Balkans, playing a major role in bringing the Bulgars and South Slavs into the Eastern Orthodox fold.
He also forged an alliance with Holy Roman Emperor Louis II to eliminate Arab piracy in the Adriatic sea, seizing Bari, which had been a Muslim stronghold, and establishing suzerainty over the Lombard Principality of Benevento in the process. This set the stage for a renaissance of Byzantine power in the Italian peninsula not seen since the days of Justinian. Basil I died in 886, having laid the foundations of a true Eastern Roman resurgence throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond.
Unfortunately, the years following the seminal Emperors’ death began a regressive trend. From 893 onwards, Byzantium was subject to the Imperial Ambitions of the Bulgarian Prince Simeon, who launched war after war upon Byzantine lands, with the goal of claiming the imperial title and trying to replace the Romans as the biggest power in the region. He was never able to take Constantinople itself, but he still managed to greatly expand the borders of his realm at the expense of Byzantine Balkan territory, imposing an annual tribute upon the Emperors in Constantinople, and forcing them to confirm him with the prestigious Imperial title of ‘Caesar’, or in the Slavonic Bulgarian tongue: ‘Tsar’.  With Simeons’ death in 927, Eastern Romes’ northern frontier with Bulgaria became somewhat stable once more. However, its eastern frontiers against the Arabs had remained incredibly volatile the entire time.
The ever powerful Abbasid Caliphate still retained inroads into the Empires’ Anatolian heartland, and more importantly, Muslim corsairs continued to launch raid after devastating raid into the Byzantine held Aegean-islands from their the base on Crete. Back in 904, an Abbasid fleet commanded by the infamous Greek defector Leo of Tripoli had even managed to sail all the way up to Thessaloniki, which at the time was the second most prosperous city in Eastern Rome. After a three day siege, the city was put to the torch.  Emperor Leo IV responded by appointing Admiral Himerios to subdue the Muslim pirates.
Himerios had some initial success, his Byzantine warships crushed an Arab fleet on St. Thomas’ day of 906, and fought its way to the Syrian coastline, sacking the city of Laodicea in 909. Himerios then sailed onwards to Cyprus, which at the time was, remarkably, jointly ruled by both the Abbasid Caliphate and Eastern Roman Empire.  Himerios landed his troops unopposed, and re-established undisputed Byzantine control over the isle. The Byzantine expedition then resupplied and pointed the bows of their dromon at Crete, placing its capital of Chandax [k-] under siege by land and sea.
A six-month standoff ensued, in which the Romans found no headway against the stubborn Arabs that defended the keep. Upon hearing that Emperor Leo IV had become severely ill, Admiral Himerios broke the fruitless siege and began the journey home, only to be ambushed off the coast of Chios in early 912 by his old friend, Leo of Tripoli. Himerios’ fleet was utterly destroyed, and all his gains he had made were reversed in the space of a year. Meanwhile, an Abbasid fleet led by Damien of Tarsus brought Cyprus to its knees after a four-month sacking spree , while Crete, having survived its siege, remained an impregnable stronghold from which Muslim corsairs raided Eastern Roman coastlines with impunity.
From the Bulgarian north, to the Anatolian frontier, and especially upon the Mediterranean sea, the gains Basil I had made to ensure the security of Byzantine borders had begun to falter. However, balance of power is ever a fickle thing, and the geopolitical situation would soon tilt back in the Roman’s favour. The Abbasid Caliphate, which had long been Eastern Romes’ greatest rival, had been slowly losing grip of their central authority since the late 800s. While they retained control of their heartland in Iraq, all their peripheral provinces were slowly gaining more and more regional autonomy. While most of these Muslim states paid lip service to the Caliph in Baghdad, by the mid 10th century, the Islamic world was nevertheless more fractured than it had ever been, a political climate ripe for exploitation.
The turning of the tides truly began with the achievements of one John Kourkouas , a brilliant Armenian general who fought under the service of the fifth Macedonian Emperor, Romanos I Lekapenos. Kourkouas’ martial prowess saw Roman armies push the Arabs out of much of Muslim controlled Armenia and conquer the Emirate of Melitene, which for a century had been a thorn in Constantinoples’ side. The capture of Melitene sent a shockwave throughout the Muslim world: for the first time in history, a major Muslim city had fallen and been reincorporated into the Byzantine Empire, with the powerless central Abbasid authority able to do little about it. Kourkouas’ later achievements saw him keep the burgeoning Hamdanid Dynasty of Aleppo at bay, occupy many cities in upper Mesopotamia, and recover the sacred Mandylion from the city of Edessa. In 941, he even fended off a large-scale raid along the Black Sea coast led by Grand Prince Igor of the Kyivan Rus.
However, in true Byzantine fashion, Kourkouas was not rewarded for his victories, but punished for his rising popularity by the scheming Imperial court. He was dismissed from service in 944, and soon after faded from the pages of history. With the end of Kourkouas story, we begin the tale of the Byzantiums’ next great conqueror.
The one called Pale Death of the Saracens. In 912, a son was born into the Cappadocian noble family of Phokas and given the name Nikephoros, which means ‘bringer of victory’. The Phokas clan had long served as a pillar of the Byzantine military, so from a young age, Nikephoros sought to continue this family legacy.  He quickly gained the favour of Emperor Constantine VII, and by 945, had been appointed the military governor of the theme of Anatolikon. Ten years later, he was made Domestic of the Schools, and in 957 proved himself worthy of the position, seizing the strategic fortress town of Hadath from the Hamdanids.
959 saw the ascension of Romanos II to the Eastern Roman throne, who preferred indulging his base pleasures over engaging in statecraft and was happy to leave military matters to his capable generals. To that end, he put Nikephoros in charge of all of Byzantiums’ eastern armies, and commanded him to accomplish what so many other Roman generals had failed to do before him. It was time to finally retake Crete, so Nikephoros set his eyes upon the isle of Minos, and began to prepare for the battle that would make or break his career. It was an opportune time to strike, for the Arabs of Crete were vulnerable. With the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate, they had lost their most powerful benefactor.
The nearby Hamdanids could not offer any support either . Nevertheless, the Emirate of Crete would not be easy pickings. Its warriors were battle-hardened on both land and sea, and its main fortress of Chandax was a nigh impregnable redoubt. According to the contemporary chronicler Leo the Deacon, it was protected on one side by the sea, and on the other by tall battlements of ‘earth and goat and pig hair mixed together and compressed thoroughly, wide enough so that two wagons could easily make a circuit on top of the ramparts and pass each other’.
These imposing walls were supplemented by two outspread, and thoroughly impassable moats. Nikephoros had a tough fight ahead of him. In early 960, the invasion armada began to assemble at a port south of Ephesus.
It was a truly gigantic mass of soldiery, total estimates range between around 30,000 to 50,000 men during an era when the Kings of Europe would rarely muster armies more than a few thousand apiece. Present among this force were not just thematic soldiers of Armenian, Greek, Slavic and other origins, but also a contingent of Norse axe-wielders from Scandinavia.  They were transported down the Aegean sea aboard a fleet of 100 Dromon warships, 200 Khelandia light transport ships, and 308 supply vessels.  Nikephoros’ invasion force made landfall on northern Crete on July 13th, 960, disembarking in good order.
Of the three Medieval Chroniclers who give us accounts of the conquest of Crete, two claim that the Roman army landed uncontested. Leo the Deacon, however, asserts that Nikephoros’ soldiery was confronted on the shore by a large force of Cretan Muslims. Undaunted, Phokas ordered his army to form up into three contingents, and charged the foe, likely with his heavy Cataphract cavalry. The Arab line sustained heavy casualties, and fled within the safety of the walls of Chandax, where the Emir Abd al-Aziz ibn Shu’ayb had prepared his garrison to mount a defense.
Following this initial victory, Nikephoros marched upon the fortress. According to Leo the Deacon, the Cappadocian general attempted to immediately storm the walls, but was handily repulsed by the Arab invaders. Following this, he had his army surround Chandax and build a fortified stockade around its walls. He next ordered the navy to blockade the redoubt by sea, commanding them to destroy any Muslim ships that tried to leave its harbour. The Siege of Chandax had begun.
While Byzantine catapults showered the Muslim battlements with a withering hail of boulders, Nikephoros instructed one Nikephoros Pastilas, strategos of the Thracesian Theme, to create an expeditionary battalion to scout the Cretan countryside and obtain supplies for the Imperial army. Pastilas’ men ravaged the hinterlands outside Chandax, indulging freely on the food and wine of the local villages, unaware that there were eyes upon them. Indeed, Pastilas' scouting party had been tailed the entire time by squadrons of Arab guerrillas, who had kept enshrouded amidst the island's hills. Seeing the Byzantine soldiers heavy with drink, the Muslims launched a devastating ambush upon them.
Despite being inebriated, the Romans fought back viciously, until Pastilas’ was struck down by a hail of arrows. Only a few lucky survivors were able to escape back to the siege camp and inform the main Roman siege camp of the disaster. With both the resistance fighters in the hinterlands, and the garrison in the fort, Nikephoros was stuck fighting a two-front battle. Time and again, Arab skirmishers would stream out off the hills and make lightning strikes against the Roman stockade, at times coordinating with their comrades inside Chandax, who would launch simultaneous sorties outside of their walls in an attempt to pincer their besiegers. These raids were all inevitably pushed back, and in retaliation, Nikephoros unleashed his most battle-hardened warriors to strike back into the Cretan countryside. No more would he allow his soldiers to behave like hedonistic brigands, now, they meant business.
Roman death squads put local communities to the torch, slaughtering women, children and old men, all in an attempt to bring the whole island to heel in a sea of fire and blood. According to Leo the Deacon, at some point the disparate Arab guerrillas mustered together into a united force of some 40,000 men, entrenching themselves on a hill nearby the fortress in an attempt to make one last hail Mary to destroy the Byzantine siege camp. However, in one of their raids, some Byzantine soldiers managed to take some prisoners who informed Nikephoros of the existence of this relief force.
Guided by some local native Christians, Nikephoros himself led a vanguard through the Cretan hills and quietly surrounded the Arab camp. Now it was his turn to strike from the shadows. He ordered the war trumpets to blare, and charged his unsuspecting foe, taking the Arabs completely by surprise and annihilating them. With the threat from the hinterlands eliminated, Nikephoros was now free to focus all his efforts on Chandax itself.
With icy zeal, he ordered the heads of the slain Arabs mounted on catapults and launched into the fortress, so the defenders within would see their dead friends and despair. The Byzantine chief of artillery even had a live donkey launched over the walls, causing Nikephoros to jokingly quip about how it “soared like an Eagle”. All this accomplished, however, was to imbue the Muslims with rage, and when the Byzantines stormed the fortress once more, they were repelled yet again.
Realizing that further direct attacks were futile, the Cappadocian general simply settled in for a long siege. Winter was approaching, and he now counted on starving out his foes. Completely blockaded from the outside world, Abd al-Aziz knew he and his warriors were living on borrowed time.
The Cretan Emir sent pleas for help to the great rulers of Islam, and while the Fatimids of Egypt expressed a willingness to send troops, no physical aid actually materialized out of the deeply divided Muslim world. The winter of 960 was extremely hard on both the attacking and defending armies. The bitter cold was the worst it had been in years, and while the Muslims inside Chandax had inevitably begun to starve, the Byzantines had also run out of supplies. Morale among the Romans began to plummet , until well-timed arrival of supplies from Constantinople in mid-February reinvigorated the attackers, much to the dismay of the men in the fortress, who had come to realize that the walls that protected them would soon become their tomb. In March of 961, Nikephoros reinvested the fight in earnest.
Another barrage of Byzantine siege equipment rained hell upon Chandax, and yet, its walls did not fall. Undeterred, the Cappadocian general ordered a battering ram team to launch a frontal assault on the fortress’ main gates. This, however, was simply a distraction. Nikephoros’ real play was a contingent of sappers, who dug tunnels beneath the fortress battlements to undermine the integrity of their foundations.
On March 7th, a section of the walls finally collapsed, and the full might of the Imperial Byzantine army poured in through the breach. The Muslims formed a line and made a brave final stand, but they were cut down nearly to a man. Men, women and children in the fortress were slaughtered indiscriminately. Chandax was in Roman hands, and with it, control over the whole island. After nearly 150 years, the Imperial eagle flew over Crete once more, and from then on, Arabic piracy ceased to be a serious threat to the Byzantines. With that said, Nikephoros’ work was far from done.
In Anatolia and Syria, the Hamdanids and other Islamic dynasties were still a big threat to the Roman interests. After the reconquest of Crete, the Arab piracy in the Aegean was limited, and the coastal citizens of the Byzantine Empire enjoyed an era of security not known in centuries. On Crete, Nikephoros initiated an aggressive policy of re-Christianization and the local Arab population was exiled, enslaved, or forced to embrace the Cross. Many native Greeks who had converted to Islam were also forced to revert their allegiances back to the mother Church.
 The triumphant Roman general sailed back to Constantinople with his army, where Leo the Deacon claims he enjoyed a classical Roman triumph in the grand Hippodrome. But there was little time to bask in glory, as while Nikephoros had been preoccupied in Crete, battles had been raging along Byzantiums’ border with the Hamdanid Emirate of Syria. Since the mid 10th century, the war on the eastern frontier had been a fierce but indecisive stalemate: various border forts had changed hands multiple times, but major territorial shifts were few. By 955, this conflict had become a duel of wits between two exceedingly
capable leaders. Ruling from Syria was the wily and ambitious Hamdanid emir Sayf al-Dawla, known as the “Sword of the Dynasty”. His glowing legacy among Islamic historians paints him as an enlightened philosopher and daring warrior-King and under his rule, his capital of Aleppo became a center of learning and fine arts, with a skyline marked by palaces and aqueducts. From 945 onwards, al-Dawla’s campaigns on the frontier kept the Eastern Romans on the backfoot , establishing him as the hero willing to defend the ummah from the infidels during a time when the Muslim world was divided in internal conflict.
Meanwhile, holding the Byzantine line was Leo Phokas, the oft-forgotten brother of Nikephoros, who was every bit as martially capable as his older sibling. Leo had been dueling with the Emir al-Dawla in Cilicia with considerably little resources and manpower , especially during 960, when the cream of the Byzantine army was off with his brother in Crete. It was during 960 that Sayf al-Dawla took advantage of Nikephoros’ Cretan campaign to launch an invasion into the Byzantine theme of Charsianon, which he was able to ravage with impunity. It is likely that al-Dawla’s army numbered a massive 30,000 warriors, and as a result, the severely outnumbered Leo was unable to face him head on.
Nevertheless, years of being forced to defend with a weaker force had forged the younger Phokas into a master of asymmetrical warfare, and on November 8th, he set up an ambush at the chokepoint of the Adrassos valley , where he fell upon al-Dawla’s much larger army while it was squeezing through the narrow mountain pass, utterly crushing his Muslim foe. While the crafty Emir managed to escape the battle , his ability to launch major offensive campaigns was curtailed. So when Nikephoros’ arrived with direly needed reinforcements to support his brother in late 961, the balance of power was set to turn decisively in the Romans’ favour. Thus, in the spring of 962, with a large, motivated army, and capable lieutenants at his side, Nikephoros began his invasions of Islams’ Syrian heartland.
His first targets were the Arab Princes of Cilicia, who held a tenuous allegiance to Emir al-Dawla in Aleppo. Ever since the Hamdanid Emir’s crushing defeat at the hands of Leo Phokas, the Cilicians' confidence in the authority of Aleppo had plummeted. This only made it easier for the Byzantine army to march in and quash them piecemeal. Anazarbus had capitulated by February of 962, while Tarsus managed to rally a paltry force of 4,000 men, only to be crushed by Nikephoros’ far superior host. It was around this time that a certain John Tzimiskes was rapidly gaining a reputation for military brilliance as a general under Phokas’ command.
This Armenian warrior was the maternal nephew of Nikephoros, and a descendant of the great John Kourkouas. During his uncles’ career, Tzimiskes would play a big role on the battlefield, and a huge one amidst the schemers of the Imperial court. Throughout Cilicia, Leo, Nikephoros, and Tzimiskes leveled Muslim forts, tore down town walls, and scoured the land. Nikephoros aim was to create a ‘wedge of devastated territory’ between Cilicia and Syria, thereby opening the path to the crown jewel of Syria itself, the Hamdanid capital of Aleppo. For all his cleverness, Emir al-Dawla appears to have fallen right into Nikephoros’ trap.
Rather than bolstering the defenses of his capital, he departed for Cilicia to personally re-establish control of the region in the aftermath of Phokas’ devastation. In all fairness, it was reasonable for him to expect that the Byzantines had no plans to attack Aleppo. Winter was approaching, and the Emir was probably deep in peace talks with Nikephoros at the time. But this illusion of safety was shattered when in November, Byzantine forces smashed past the walls of Manbij, capturing the cousin of Emir Al-Dawla in the process. The last major city on the path to the Hamdanid capital had fallen. There could be no mistaking it now, the battle for Aleppo was about to begin.
From Manbij, the Byzantine force marched south, split between two columns led by Nikephoros and John Tzimiskes respectively. Although sources on the composition of this army are thin, we can assume that, much like the host that took Chandax, it was composed of soldiers from across the Medieval Roman Empire, with Greek Thematic troops likely marching alongside Slavic, Armenian and Scandinavian soldiers. The gulf in numbers between the opposing forces was considerable, Arab sources claim the Byzantines marched with 70,000 men, while Emir Al-Dawla, hastily rushing back to his capital to build a defense, could barely muster a measly 4,000. These numbers are probably dramatized, but we must remember that Hamdanid military power had been severely crippled by Leo Phokas at Adrassos just two years earlier, and most of Al-Dawla’s forces were probably improvised civilian militias rather than professional soldiers, so it makes sense that only a paltry sum of fighting men could be mustered to defend the Hamdanid capital. The Hamdanid response to the Roman advance was uncoordinated to say the least. As the Byzantine march on the city had been entirely unexpected, Aleppo’s defenses were probably ill-prepared to weather a long siege.
Thus, rather than bunkering down in his capital, Emir Al-Dawla split his already small force into two contingents. Taking around 1,000 of his men, he deployed himself to the town of Azzaz, just north of Aleppo to form a vanguard, only to, for one reason or another, retreat back to Aleppo before he had engaged his enemy. Meanwhile, Al-Dawla’s lieutenant, Naja al-Kasaki, had taken the remaining 3,000 warriors to Antioch, where he intended to force an engagement with the Byzantines. However, when no army came to meet him, he circled back to Azzaz, just in time to encounter John Tzimiskes’ column of the Byzantine army.
The Armenian general handily bested the smaller Arab force in open battle, but this skirmish was probably not particularly decisive, as it appears that Naja managed to retreat back towards Aleppo with most of his army intact. After these initial maneuvers, Tzimiskes rejoined Nikephoros, and together they brought the full brunt of the Roman army upon the walls of Aleppo. Lionhearted even in the face of overwhelming odds, Sayf Al-Dawla seems to have sallied his 1,000 or so men out of the city to meet the Byzantine horde. We can imagine that a fierce melee likely ensued, but direly outnumbered and outgunned, Al-Dawla’s forces were routed, and he was forced to flee east. Sources say he was doggedly pursued by Tzimiskes, but given that there is no record of his capture, he probably escaped.
Meanwhile, it seems that Najas’ forces realized the hopelessness of their situation, and gave up the fight. With their leaders having abandoned them, the remaining authorities in Aleppo approached Nikephoros with overtures for a peaceful surrender. It seems that at first, the Domestikos was inclined to negotiate. Talks started well, but with a massive army at its doorstep, the public order in Aleppo began to collapse, perhaps in the form of panic-induced riots . Ever opportunistic, Nikephoros took advantage of this chaos to abandon peace-talks and storm the city walls, breaching them on December 24th. The contest for Aleppo was now functionally over, and the entire city was under Roman control, with one exception.
The elevated citadel at the heart of the city held out against the invaders, defended by a contingent of Daylamites, an Iranian people known for being prolific mercenaries and fierce warriors. Nikephoros allowed his men to have their way with the city and its citizens, and a brutal sack ensued. The domestikos did not attempt to permanently occupy the city, seeing as its citadel was still unconquered, and his army, inundated with loot, was anxious to go home to enjoy their spoils.
After seven days of carnage, Imperial forces tore down the city walls and finally left, taking with them mountains of gold and silver, over 10,000 enslaved Aleppines, and a relic of the holy apostle St. John the Baptist.  In the wake of their departure, a thoroughly thrashed Emir Al-Dawla was able to return to Aleppo and attempt to rebuild the smoldering remains. The Hamdanid capital was still in his hands, but the power and prestige of his Emirate were permanently crippled.
The Sack of Aleppo was a blow to the psyche of the Muslim world and when word spread of its scouring at Christian hands, panicked riots erupted in Mosul and Baghdad, while calls for an organized Jihad erupted from Egypt to Iran. But the Islamic realms were still hampered by division, and any aid that arrived to support the Hamdanid cause came too little, too late. Nikephoros returned to Constantinople in spring to enjoy yet another triumph, but once more had little time to bask in the adoration of the masses, as a new crisis had arisen. On the 15th of March, 963, Emperor Romanos II had passed away at the age of 24, leaving behind his five-year-old son, Basil II, as his principal heir.  The period immediately following the death of a Byzantine Emperor was always an extremely tenuous time defined by intrigue and assassinations.
Successful commanders like Nikephoros were particularly vulnerable during these interregnums, as their influence among both nobles and commoners was immense. For anyone seeking control over the throne, it was often easier to have these highly popular generals ‘disposed of’, rather than risk them becoming a political rival. Currently, the most powerful statesman in Constantinople was a shrewd and pragmatic Eunuch named Joseph Bringas, who had been the de facto power behind the throne during the reign of the late Emperor. Bringas’ chief goal was now to establish control over the child-Emperor Basil II. As expected, he immediately began to see Nikephoros as a threat, fearing the influence of the man whom the people honoured with chants of “victor.”
To get this troublesome war hero out of his way, Bringas reappointed Nikephoros as commander-in-chief of Byzantium’s eastern armies, and made him swear an oath that he would not rebel against Basil II, the subtext being that he would also not challenge the authority of Bringas. Nikephoros was then booted back to the east, out of sight and out of mind. However, this move backfired spectacularly, as Nikephoros was now surrounded by loyal soldiers who pleaded with him to make a claim on the Imperial purple. On July 2nd, with a certain John Tzsimkes as his main backer, the army declared Nikephoros to be their Basileus and marched back to Constantinople to claim his throne. Thrown into a panic, Bringas locked down the city and declared Nikephoros a public enemy , but the Cappadocian general was more popular than the Eunuch, and riots quickly broke out in the streets and alleys in support of the beloved war hero . Eventually, Bringas
was forced to flee the city, and on August 16th, Nikephoros was acclaimed co-Emperor of the Romans, and protector of the young Basil II, who would remain Junior Basileus under Nikephoros’ guidance. Nikephoros spent a year in Constantinople putting the Empires’ domestic affairs in order. Those who had been loyal to him were awarded high positions: his brother Leo was made the Imperial master of coin, while John Tzimiskes was given Nikephoros’ old position of military commander-in-chief. Most importantly, Nikephoros married Theophano, the widow of the late Emperor Romanos II, tethering him to the family tree of the Imperial Macedonian dynasty, which lent his reign legitimacy. Nikephoros was still a general at heart, and spent most of his Imperial tenure away from his palace and inside military encampments.
In the spring of 964, he had returned to the eastern front. Easy pickings awaited him, the region was still largely devastated from his campaigns two years earlier, while Emir Sayf Al-Dawla held only a shadow of his former power, and was now faced with near constant internal rebellions.  At the head of 40,000 men, Nikephoros, Leo Phokas and Tzimiskes steamrolled through an already weakened Cilicia and by the end of 965, the region had been firmly annexed into the Roman Empire. That same year, the Emperor dispatched the patrician Niketas Chalkoutzes to drive the Islamic presence out of Cyprus, which the latter did with ease. Nikephoros also deployed a significant amount of military manpower to fuel campaigns on his Empires’ western frontier, but his European campaigns were significantly less successful, as a massive army sent to reclaim the island of Sicily from the Fatimid Caliphate was crushed in a naval battle in the strait of Messina in early 965. Over the next decades, the Fatimids would establish themselves as the Roman Empire’s next principal Muslim rival.
The Fatimids were not the only western enemy Nikephoros had to contend with, for tensions were also bubbling with the Byzantines’ fellow Christians in the west. From 968 onwards, skirmishes erupted between the Byzantines and the German Emperor Otto I across Italy. These conflicts ended inconclusively, but resulted in the growing rift between Latin and Greek Christendom. Back in the east, Nikephoros had begun to eye another prize: Antioch. This city had been under Islamic rule since the rise of the first Caliphate over 300 years earlier, but before that it had been one of the five most important Christian bishoprics in the Roman Empire, alongside Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Alexandria. Needless to say, reconquering this historic place would be a fine feather in Nikephoros’ cap.
It was a good time to strike too, Sayf al-Dawla, long the wily antagonist of the Byzantine story, had finally succumbed to disease in 967, leaving his already crippled Emirate more vulnerable than ever. After taking a detour to annex some Armenian cities in the east , the Emperor marched south in 968, carving a path of destruction along the forts and cities of the Levantine coast with the intention of isolating Antioch from any allies that might come to its aid. Given Antioch’s symbolic importance to the Romans, Nikephoros wanted as little damage done to it as possible. To that end, he had a fort constructed in the city’s hinterlands, and placed it under the command of one Michael Bourtzes, who was ordered to starve out the Antiochenes through a blockade, and explicitly told not to take the city by force. After this, Nikephoros returned to Constantinople.
Bourtzes, however, was an eager commander in search of glory and reputation. Supposedly, when a defector named Aulax offered to show him a secret passage into the city, he leapt at the opportunity, breaching Antioch’s defenses, before storming and capturing the city. No doubt the young general thought this would earn him the praise of the Emperor, but nothing could be further from the truth. Nikephoros was furious, publicly denouncing Bourtzes and removing from his generalship. In disciplining his rogue general, Nikephoros had miscalculated.
Rather than affirm the sanctity of his Imperial commands, he made an enemy for life. Bourtzes was only one man, but he was a symptom of the Emperor’s declining popularity. Nikephoros may have been a brilliant general, but this did not necessarily make him a capable head-of-state, and his domestic policies soon began alienating him from many groups he could not afford to alienate.
Among these included the Church, whose growing power over state-land he had tried to curtail by forbidding them to open new monasteries or receiving land donations from indulgence-seeking nobles. The soldier-Emperor was also beginning to lose the favour of the commoners. As a career general, Nikephoros seemed to always give preferential treatment to his soldiers, and was willing to turn a blind eye when they extorted Byzantine citizens for material gain.  Additionally, the peasantry had spent the last few years being taxed dry to fund the endless wars. The list of Emperors’ powerful enemies continued to grow.
Among them was his own wife, Theophano, with whom his relationship had been distinctly lacking in marital bliss. Perhaps his greatest falling out came with the very man who had proclaimed him Emperor, John Tzimiskes. Sources are not clear on why, but at some point, Tzimiskes had run afoul of Nikephoros, and the Emperor had put the decorated Armenian general on house-arrest. Although this imprisonment was reversed at the pleading of the Empress , it was too late: Nikephoros had turned his most faithful ally into a bitter enemy. On the 11th of December, 969, Nikephoros II Phokas retired to his Imperial bedchambers as he did every night, but all was not normal. That night, his wife Theophano had left the doors to his rooms unlocked and unguarded, allowing a shadowy figure to sneak inside with knife in hand.
With one swift stroke, the general-turned-Emperor who had lived his life on the battlefield, died in his bed. The murderer was none other than John Tzmiskes, and with the blood of his former friend and ally on his hands, it would be him who would replace Nikephoros as the Basileus of the Roman Empire. Nikephoros’ corpse was still warm when men loyal to Tzmiskes paraded out onto Constantinoples’ streets, declaring that their lord was the new Basileus. Few challenged this, for Nikephoros had become an unpopular monarch in the final years of his reign. Tzimiskes now had to cut a deal with the Holy Patriarch of the Orthodox Church,
in whose power it lay to give him a formal coronation. The Patriarch firstly demanded that the restrictions Nikephoros had levied against the Church were lifted, and second, that Nikephoros’ murderers were punished. Since Tzimiskes obviously couldn’t punish himself, he scapegoated his act of regicide on the Nikephoros’ widow, Theophano.
She had been instrumental in the plot to murder her husband, and had even allegedly been Tzimiskes’ lover, but she had outgrown her usefulness, so Tzimiskes had her exiled to a monastery. In her place, he legitimized his reign by marrying the sister of former Emperor Romanos II Theodora. John I Tzimiskes was formally crowned Emperor on Christmas day of 969, two weeks after the murder of his predecessor. He succeeded Nikephoros as the guardian of the 11-year-old junior Emperor, Basil II, who was still the true heir of the ruling Macedonian bloodline. As such, Tzimiskes was essentially a regent, destined to run the show only until Basil came of age.
Tzimiskes’ reign got off to a productive start. The Hamdanids in Aleppo had been crippled ever since Byzantine forces had sacked their capital back in 962, so a Eunuch General named Petros was assigned to finish what Phokas had started. He laid siege to Aleppo, capturing it by January of 970, and forcing it to become a tributary vassal to the Eastern Roman Empire. It seemed as if for the first time in centuries, the Romans were the primary hegemons of Syria once more.
But there would be no time for peace, for, in the distant north, a new foe was about to emerge. It is here that we set the stage for Emperor Tzimiskes’ greatest challenge, his duel with the mighty Prince Sviatoslav of Kyivan Rus. Let us first jump back in time to discuss the lead-up to this upcoming conflict. In 927 the Bulgarian Prince Simeon had finished thrashing the Byzantines in a 13-year-war.
As a result, Constantinople was forced to become a tributary to Bulgaria, but this changed in 966, when a Bulgarian embassy arrived in Constantinople to receive the agreed-upon tribute. The then Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, emboldened by his many military victories, had the emissaries beaten up and promptly returned to Tsar Peter. There could be no mistaking it, war was on. But Nikephoros could not afford to step fully into the ring with the Bulgarians just yet, as the majority of his troops were still stationed on the Syrian frontier. So, he resorted to what Byzantine Emperors so often did: outsourcing.
Stretching out across the vast steppes, forests and riverlands north of Bulgaria was the Kyivan Rus, the medieval precursor of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. The state was ruled by the Rurikid dynasty, which ostensibly descended from the Viking adventurers that had united the East Slavic tribes under their banner in the 9th century AD. As a result, Kyivan Rus was a hodgepodge of many cultures, all of whom adhered to a panoply of pagan faiths.
At the time of Nikephoros’ reign, the Kyivan realm was ruled by the Grand Prince Sviatoslav, one of medieval history’s most vicious characters. Known as the ‘Snow Leopard’, Sviatoslav preferred to leave the governance of his massive realm to his mother, so he could spend all his time perpetually ravaging foreign lands. By 965, the bloodthirsty Prince had all but annihilated the Khazar Khaganate, a trade Empire that had been the hegemons of Central Asia for centuries.  Before long, Sviatoslav’s marauding habits took him to the gates of Chersonesus, a Byzantine outpost in the Crimea.
Originally intending to sack the city, the Snow Leopard was no doubt surprised when the gates opened and he was greeted by a Roman ambassador who presented him with an offer. Sviatoslav would be paid 1500 pounds of gold, and in return, he was to break his assault on Byzantine lands and take his warband to invade Bulgaria instead, thereby crippling the Tsars’ ability to make war on Eastern Rome. Sviatoslav agreed instantly, and in August of 967, the Rus Prince thundered into northeastern Bulgaria, taking the region of Dobruja with ease , all while more and more enterprising warriors flocked to him. Soon, his army numbered nearly 60,000.
Tsar Peter was taken completely off guard and scrambled to meet Sviatoslav in a massive battle outside the Fortress of Dorostolon. Outnumbered two to one, the Tsar’s army was crushed. Shortly after this defeat, Peter suffered a stroke and abdicated the throne to retire to a monastery, leaving Bulgaria leaderless at a critical time. The Bulgarians caught some reprieve when Sviatoslav broke off his invasion due to a horde of renegade Pechenegs tribes assaulting his capital of Kyiv, forcing him to hurry back to mount a defense. In the meantime, Emperor Nikephoros swooped in to install Peter’s son, Tsar Boris II, to the Bulgarian throne, and secure an alliance with Bulgaria that decidedly favoured the Romans.  This, however, was only temporary, as the Snow Leopard promptly crushed the Pechenegs outside Kyiv, and returned to Bulgaria in 969 to finish what he started.
His fierce warriors cut through Tsar Boris’s forces outside Pereyaslavets and captured the city. The Tsar was forced to capitulate, turning himself over to Sviatoslav and surrendering his country to him. Nikephoros’ bargain had backfired spectacularly.
The Emperor had assumed Sviatoslav was a mindless barbarian who would just commit a few raids before returning to his homeland with the plunder. But now it was apparent that the Grand Prince’s intentions were instead to set up a permanent state in Bulgaria. This was made apparent when Sviatoslav forbade his men from looting in his newly acquired lands and shrewdly allowed Tsar Boris to nominally keep his title and throne as a puppet monarch to prevent mass uprisings from amongst the Bulgarian boyars. Instead of establishing hegemony over Bulgaria as he had planned, Nikephoros had inadvertently handed it to a cunning, violent, and unpredictable pagan warlord. To make matters worse, everything indicated that Sviatoslav was not satisfied with his conquests, and would soon be setting his sights on Byzantine land. Nikephoros would not live to see the consequences of his actions, as he was assassinated by the year’s end.
It is here our story finally circles back to John Tzimiskes, who upon ascending to the Roman throne in late 969, found himself inheriting the problem created by the man he had murdered. In 970AD, Sviatoslav crossed into Byzantine Thrace with a force that probably numbered about 60,000 strong. It was a massive, pan-ethnic force, consisting of Viking warriors, Slavs, Pecheneg Horse-Archers, Hungarians, and Bulgarians  who had sworn loyalty to Sviatoslav after his conquest of their country. The Rus plundered Thrace unimpeded, sacking the city of Philippopolis and marauding their way dangerously close to Constantinople itself. Emperor Tzimiskes found himself in a tough position, most of his forces were still stationed around Antioch and Aleppo, while he himself appears to have been unable to leave the capital, still dealing with internal unrest after his rocky ascension to the throne.
But the Armenian still had some resources at his disposal, he was able to muster a new force of some 12,000 soldiers, all experienced and battle-hardened. 4,000 of them belonged to a newly created unit called the Athanatoi, who Leo the Deacon described as heavy shock cavalry, “sheathed in armour and adorned in gold.” The Emperor put this army in the charge of his most trusted general, Bardas Skleros. Skleros marched west and bivouacked his troops outside the city of Arcadiopolis. From there, he had military outposts set up across a wide perimeter around his position, and sent Slavic-speaking spies dressed in plain Bulgarian clothing into Rus-held territory, where they observed the Rus’ armies' habits, tactics, and numbers.
Eventually, Sviatoslav was informed of the Imperial army’s presence, and marched half his army, about 30,000 men, to Arcadiopolis. Seeing the Rus approach, the Byzantine soldiers positioned on the perimeter rapidly retreated back to rejoin the main army. The warriors of the Rus interpreted this ordered withdrawal to mean that the Byzantines were fleeing from them in terror, emboldening them significantly. Sviatoslav had his forces set up camp somewhere on the outskirts of Arcadiopolis. Here, Byzantine historian John Skylitzes claims that the invading army had become so overconfident that rather than fortifying their position, they spent their time aimlessly pillaging the countryside and drinking copiously.
Meanwhile, Skleros advanced towards the Rus camp, on a path that seems to have been bookended by thick shrubs and woodlands. The Byzantine general knew he was outnumbered three to one, and therefore couldn’t defeat Sviatoslav in an open fight, so he divided his army into three contingents, two of which would conceal themselves on either side of the path, and one that he would command personally. At the head of only around 3000 men, Skleros’ horsemen fearlessly charged towards the Rus camp, smashing into the first body of enemy warriors they could find, which happened to be the Pechenegs. While the rest of Sviatoslav’s massive army scrambled to mobilize, Skleros’ imperial cavalry fought a fierce melee with the Pechenegs, at times nearly being overwhelmed, but always managing to hold their ranks. At their breaking point, Skleros ordered an expertly coordinated feigned retreat back down the wooded path.
The Pechenegs pursued, followed closely by a cavalcade of Hungarians who had managed to bear down on the fighting. Now completely overextended and separated from the main Rus army, Skleros blew his war trumpet, and the rest of his army poured out of their hiding spot in the woods, crashing into the Pechenegs and Hungarians from both sides. Surrounded and overwhelmed, the Turks and Magyars put up a hard fight but were inevitably overwhelmed, and those who were not cut down were routed. It was only now that the rest of Sviatoslav’s host had rallied themselves and marched out the camp to meet their foe, but when they saw their allies fleeing in a panic towards them, morale plummeted.
Skleros saw the jugular exposed, and ordered a wholesale charge into the enemy army. The full brunt of the Imperial army threw themselves upon the Bulgars and East Slavs, and although they were outnumbered significantly, the iron discipline of the Eastern Romans was able to win the day, massacring many of Sviatoslav’s troops, and routing the rest of them off the field. The battle of Arcadiopolis was a victory for the Byzantines, but not a decisive one. Sviatoslav was still alive, and most of his army was still intact. Although Skleros now had the upper hand, he was unable to capitalize on this success and drive the Rus out of the Empire for good, because back home, domestic troubles were brewing.
Emperor Tzimiskes’ old ghosts had come back to haunt him. Nikephoros may have been dead, but his kin, the Phokas clan, was very much alive and ready to reclaim the Imperial throne that in their eyes had been treacherously taken from them when Nikephoros was assassinated. Sometime in spring of 970, Roman troops stationed out in Caesarea had declared one Bardas Phokas, nephew of the late Nikephoros, to be the rightful Emperor. Tzimiskes acted quickly, and immediately had Bardas’ father, Leo Phokas, arrested and confined to the isle of Lesbos. This measure, however, did not deter Bardas, who began marching on Constantinople. With civil war imminent, Tzimiskes had no choice but to pull his best general away from the Rus front, and send him to Dorylaeum to face off against the usurper.
Skleros’ duel with Bardas Phokas would prove anticlimactic. It turned out that a few well-placed bribes were all it took to get most of the rebellious general’s army to abandon him. Now powerless, Bardas eventually surrendered to Emperor Tzimiskes, who forced him to become a priest and sent him to a monastery on the isle of Chios. With no other claimants threatening his imperial legitimacy, Tzimiskes was able to return his focus to Sviatoslav and his army, which he set to doing almost immediately.
While the Byzantines were busy with their civil war, Sviatoslav had rallied his routed warriors and gotten back to raiding and pillaging the now undefended environs of Thrace. However, the Snow Leopard’s position was not as strong as it had been the year before. The Hungarians and Pechenegs had mostly deserted him, wanting to return home with the booty they’d pillaged, and unwilling to risk being humiliated again as they had been at Arcadiopolis. So, in the winter of 970, Sviatoslav decided to withdraw his army back to his Bulgarian territories to recuperate. Meanwhile, Tzimiskes was finally able to divert the majority of the Empires’ forces westwards, rallying some 32,000 men in southern Thrace in preparation of a decisive offensive against his Rus foe. Additionally, a massive fleet of 300 ships was readied and sailed down the Danube.
This time, the Emperor threw himself directly into the fray, putting himself at the head of a 9,000 man vanguard, and riding north through the passes of the Balkan mountains, which Sviatoslav had made the critical mistake of leaving undefended. On Holy Thursday of 971, Tzimiskes had reached Preslav, the capital of the Bulgarian Empire. The local Rus commander Svenkel was taken entirely by surprise, and hastily arranged a force to meet the Armenian in battle outside the city, but was crushed under the thundering hooves of the Athanatoi elites.
The next day, the rest of the Imperial army had joined the victorious vanguard, and before long, the city fell.  In the ensuing chaos, Byzantine forces were able to capture Tsar Boris II and his family. Tzimiskes received Boris with due honours, telling the puppet-Tsar that he was here to free Bulgaria from the barbaric clutches of Sviatoslav. But this was not the truth, and it later became evident that the Romans had not ridden all this way just to magnanimously liberate their old rivals. In the meantime, Sviatoslav had taken his army and retreated to the fortress of Dorostolon on the Danube river.
Once Tzimiskes heard the word of this, he engaged in pursuit. The Romans encountered almost no resistance on their march, as Bulgarian towns and fortresses that had formerly sworn allegiance to Sviatoslav now switched their loyalties to the Byzantines. This enraged the Kyivan Prince, who retaliated against this perceived betrayal by rounding up every Bulgarian boyar within reach of Dorostolon, and ordering some 300 of them executed. Before long, the Roman army had reached Dorostolon, and set up camp outside the fortress.
Upon seeing his enemy approach, Sviatoslav sallied his 30,000 strong army outside the walls, where they took the formation of a long, dense shield wall. Tzimiskes decided to answer the Snow Leopard’s challenge to a pitched battle, and arrayed his troops opposite to the Rus, with infantry in the front, archers behind, and heavy cavalry on the wings. The two lines met in a titanic crash, and fought themselves into a bloody deadlock, Rus ferocity matching Byzantine discipline blow for blow. The stalemate was only broken when Tzimiskes deployed his heavy cavalry, which smashed into the Rus flanks to devastating effect, forcing them to retreat back into their fortress.
For Tzimiskes, it was a good start, and his situation only improved when the Imperial Byzantine fleet arrived on the Danube-facing side of the fortress a few days later. This no doubt struck fear into the hearts of the Rus- the oldest of whom would likely remember how the fleet of Sviatoslav’s father, Igor, had been bathed in a horrible inferno of Greek Fire after his attempt to besiege Constantinople 30 years earlier. Now unable to escape by sea, Sviatoslav only had two options left: surrender, or fight. The following morning, Byzantine troops tried to surmount the walls at varying points, but were repulsed by a hail of arrows and stones.
That same evening, some Rus warriors were sent a mounted detachment to harry the Roman camp but were easily repulsed by the Byzantine cavalry. It seems that the Rus were poor riders, and since the Pecheneg horse-archers had deserted him, Sviatoslav had no cavalry he could truly rely on. The next day, the Snow Leopard once more led his troops out into the field to face the Romans in open battle, but this engagement ended much like the first- right down to Tzimiskes’ heavy cavalry being the deciding factor. The Rus were forced to retreat back behind their walls once more. By now, the Byzantines had set up their siege weapons, and began subjecting Dorostolon with a hellish shower of boulders and missiles.
On several occasions, the Rus sent out stealth parties to try and burn down these machines, but largely to no avail.  The situation was not looking good for Sviatoslav, and when he asked his top warriors for counsel, they advised him to enter negotiations with Tzimiskes. The Snow Leopard is said to have spat at this notion, remarking that the Rus were not accustomed to giving in, but would rather die in battle and go to Valhalla. They were, after all, the descendants of Vikings. On Friday, July 24th, the Grand Prince of Kyiv arrayed his warriors outside the city wall for the final time, forming a tight phalanx.
Eagerly answering the bell, Tzimiskes drew up his own lines, and charged into the Rus lines for one final showdown. Fighting was fierce, and Sviatoslav had learned from his previous mistakes, stationing archers on his wings to shoot at flanking Byzantine cavalrymen, thinning out their lines and dulling the impact of their charges. The bloody contest lasted for hours, and the tide of battle seemed to be creeping slowly in the Rus’ favour. It is here that the medieval Byzantine chroniclers claim that Emperor Tzimiskes charged into the melee with his elite bodyguard cavalry at his side. This was enough to bolster the Romans’ morale, and stabilize their line. The stories also claim that it is at this critical moment that a thunderstorm erupted in the skies above Dorostolon, one that the Rus warriors were unfortunately downwind of.
With the wind blowing directly into their eyes, Sviatoslav’s warriors began to falter, and flee back into Dorostolon. The battle then turned into a massacre, and atop the pile of what Byzantine sources claim were 15,000 dead Rus, the Romans were victorious. With his ranks greatly depleted, Sviatoslav was now left with no choice but to negotiate terms of surrender.
On the 25th of July, he met with Emperor Tzimiskes on the banks of the Danube,  where he conceded defeat. He offered to evacuate the Balkans, cease all raids on Byzantine territory, and live in peace with the Empire. Tzimiskes agreed to these terms, permitted the Rus to leave unmolested, and gifted them food and supplies for their journey home.
As it turned out, Sviatoslav would never actually make it back to Kyiv. Fearing that their newly forged truce would not hold, Tzimiskes had bribed the Pecheneg Khan, Kurya, to turn on the Snow Leopard. While crossing the isle of Khortitsa, Sviatoslav was beset upon by a hail of Turkic arrows.
Thus ended the life of medieval Rus’ greatest conqueror, whose head was allegedly turned into a drinking vessel for the Pecheneg Khan. In the meantime, Emperor Tzimiskes had returned to Constantinople, where he celebrated a classical Roman triumph. With the Bulgarian heartland under Byzantine military control, and the Bulgarian Imperial family in his captivity, Tzimiskes saw no need to restore the borders of the realm that for so long had terrorized the Romans’ northern frontier. So, during the triumphal celebrations, he had Boris II ritually stripped of his Imperial raiments. The symbolism was clear: the Tsardom was no more, and Bulgaria was officially annexed into the Byzantine State. For the first time in nearly 300 years, the Roman Empire was finally in control of its ancient lower Danubian territories once more.
A consummate soldier, Emperor Tzimiskes was never one to rest on his laurels- in this case literally. No sooner had his Slavic foes been quashed, did he turn his attention onto Byzantium’s other traditional foe: the nations of Islam. By the year 972, Eastern Rome’s chief Islamic foe had become the North African Fatimids, who they had in fact already faced once, during Nikephoros’ ill-fated Sicilian campaign in 965. The Fatimids had always been on the periphery of Roman affairs, but all this had changed in 969: as while Byzantium was consolidating its rule over Syria, the Caliph of Shi’a Islam conquered Egypt, the breadbasket of the Mediterranean. Much of the Levant came under Fatimid control shortly after, putting them right on the Byzantine border, and as one might expect, border relations would not be peaceful.
 In October of 970, the Fatimid general who had conquered Egypt, Jawhar, launched a holy war upon the Byzantines, citing the necessity to reclaim the formerly Muslim lands recently conquered by them. He dispatched a force to besiege the holy city of Antioch. However, this offensive was repulsed by one of the Emperor’s Eunuchs, Nikolaos. Consequently, once Tzimiskes’ arrived on the eastern front sometime in 972, he readied himself for a decisive campaign against the Fatimids.