The Flame that Burns Brightest: Romans, Mongols, and Black Powder

Hey all,

This thread will be where I post the first part for my TL which will span into three parts: Romans, Mongols, and Black Powder. The timeline will feature a Byzantine Empire that develops gunpowder creating a continental sized gunpowder empire in the middle ages, and eventually coming to blows in an ultimate showdown with the expanding Mongol Empire in the 13th century.

These TLs will be a mix of narrative and timeline, but for this first part, it will be overwhelmingly focused on the timeline portion. I want to describe how the Byzantines are able to do better than OTL as they develop gunpowder weapons, and eventually explode in power while still remaining the flawed, complex mess they were IOTL.

In this thread I will not only welcome suggestions on plausibility, but also ideas for weapons, tactics and the like. I am far from an expert, especially on military affairs, I'm just a guy with ideas. I eventually envision the Roman army that confronts the Mongols being similar to the Swiss armies of the 16th century- lots of pikes, with handguns to back them up. The Mongols will also quickly adapt to this threat with their own gunpowder innovations to their already deadly cavalry armies (an ingenious bunch, those Mongols).

This TL will be divided into 3 parts, each longer than the last.

Part 1: The Survival of the Roman Heartland (832-1084)
Part 2: Keeping up with the Komnenids (1084-1219)
Part 3: Confrontation (1219-1246)

The first part, The Survival of the Roman Heartland, will feature a large butterfly net that persists until the middle of the 11th century, when major changes begin to occur. The second part, Keeping up with the Komnenids, will also feature a butterfly net covering eastern Asia, with the further away from the Mediterranean they are, the more this is the case. This will mean that the Mongols will arise in exactly the same manner as OTL, and continue to follow OTL until they run into the TTL Persians in 1219. After that, the butterfly net will be dropped for the entirety of the "Old World".
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Part One, Initial Changes
Part One: The Survival of the Roman Heartland
Chaldia Theme
Saint Giorgios Peristereotas Monastery

The dust cloud was getting larger. That wasn’t good. It meant the saracens were getting closer. Manuil had hoped they had chosen a different target after all, and the monastery could be spared this… experimentation.

“This better work, Johnny.”

Ioannes flashed him a cheeky grin. He was much younger than Manuil, a recent addition to the monastery. While they didn’t talk much about their lives before St. George, Manuil understood Ioannes to be the son of a minor nobleman, who had brought with him some expensive tastes. Manuil had at first grilled Ioannes for his theological knowledge, to ensure he was actually here to take his duties seriously, and not just engage in his favorite pastime: getting drunk, and tinkering with things he shouldn’t. But Ioannes, for all his earthly faults, did know his theology, and he didn’t let the hangovers distract from his cleaning duties, and so the two had become friends.

When Ioannes had brought forward his new creation to the monastery, many monks had been skeptical. It was Manuil who came to his defense, and allowed a demonstration. The black powder certainly seemed capable of catching flame easily, something that could be useful to those of more martial leanings, but not normally the christian monks. But the reason Ioannes had presented it in the first place was because their peace was about to be interrupted again. A rider from the frontlines had just weeks ago declared the coming of a large Arab raid.

“When have I ever let you down, Manuel?”

“Have you already forgotten what you did with my thesis?”

“Oh, so we’re back to that again? I was trying to help!”

“It was nonetheless a breach- oh, here they come.”

While Manuil and Ioannes bickered, the shapes were getting more and more distinct- there were twenty or thirty muslim riders total, about the same number as the defenders.. From atop their makeshift fortifications, the monks and a smattering of soldiers began to pray, a quiet chant to God to deliver them from the infidel. Either this would work, or they would all be slaughtered, the precious godly artifacts carried off to become trophies in Bagdahd.

Here, Manuil and Ioannes ducked behind cover as arrows began to rain on the fortifications. They were no soldiers- they were here to help the soldiers who resided here, not participate. But Ioannes nonetheless watched eagerly as the small tube containing his fire powder was brought to bear. He moved his lips in a silent prayer, and in his fear and anticipation Manuil noted again just how young he looked.

The soldiers lit the fuse, and the tube exploded. For a second Manuil assumed it had malfunctioned, but then he saw the burst of flame, and the fright of the muslim horse. They were fleeing, not wagering to deal with this new Christian weapon. The church was saved. The soldiers cheered, praising St. George, and Ioannes beamed. Though praising God for his life being saved, Manuil inwardly sighed. He was going to have to write a new thesis on the sin of pride, lest he have to deal with Ioannes’ big head for the rest of his life.

And though they didn’t know it, history was changed irrevocably.

832: a collection of industrious Roman monks in eastern Anatolia accidentally invent a form of gunpowder, with a formula slightly different but very similar to the one used in China. It is used to frighten off an Arab raid.
840s-850s: Gunpowder sees some limited use in Chaldia, again to frighten Arab raids. Its main use is in morale, and invariably fails to actually physically damage Arab raiding parties.
860s: The knowledge of gunpowder is brought to the attention of the Strategos of the Chaldia theme, where the monastery that invented it was located. It is considered a curiosity, but not an important weapon.
873: Gunpowder is brought to the attention of Basileus Basil I. His primary interest in it resides as a supplement to Greek Fire, in other words another naval trick the Roman navy could use.
879: With the death of his son Constantine and the failure to develop a reliable weapon for use in the Roman navy, Basil loses interest in gunpowder, and its development in Constantinople is abandoned and forgotten.
870s-910s: Due to its unwieldiness and the growing Roman success against the Arabs in Asia minor, gunpowder failed to see much practical use in military matters. Knowledge spreads to neighboring themes to the west. Trebizond begins to experiment with fireworks celebrations.
934: After defeating a rebellion in Chaldia and in essence "rediscovering" gunpowder (at least as far as Constantinople is concerned), Basileus Romanos Lekapenos returns to Constantiniple. There, he holds a triumph for the reconquest of Melitene. As part of the celebrations, fireworks are unveiled. The residents of Constantinople love them.
940s-950s: Fireworks displays become common throughout the major cities of the Roman Empire. Interest is rekindled in gunpowder as a weapon.
954: Fireworks celebrations arrive in Baghdad. From there, familiarity with gunpowder will proliferate throughout the muslim world, though as merely a curiosity.
960: A Roman army under Nikephoros Phokas uses gunpowder as a siege weapon as they lay siege to Chandax in Crete. Hurling large flaming rocks into the city, the weapon sees some success, helping the Romans when they eventually storm the city in 961.
970s: John Tzimiskes'* army experiments further with gunpowder as a weapon in their wars in Syria. The height of gunpowder weaponry at this time is the hurling of flaming rocks and shooting of flaming arrows. With the devastation caused by these weapons, the Romans succeed in capturing Tripoli in 975**, completing their conquest of the Syrian Levantine Coast. However, Tzimiskes dies before further progress can be made.

*For the timeline, I will generally use the greek spelling "Ioannes" for characters with that name. But John Tzimiskes is a well known figure, so it would just be confusing to call him Ioannes Tzimiskes
**This is the first noticeable benefit which gunpowder provides the romans. For now, the novelty of the crude gunpowder weapons the Romans hold are what make them have a use.
The Macedonian Army Disposition and Terms
For the upcoming timeline, the Roman military will be referred to. Generally speaking, this is how I understand the Roman military to be organized at this time:
  • Firstly, there are the tagmata. These are the elite, professional troops of the Roman military. These can refer to any of the professional units of the Roman army, and can be both foreign and native. Generally speaking, tagmata are going to be cavalry, and typically heavy cavalry. But, they can be infantry, with the famous Varingian Guard counting as a contingent of the tagmata.
  • If native, they are almost always drawn from the ranks of either the urban or rural aristocracy (generally the latter, which is why "rural aristocracy" and "military aristocracy" will be used interchangeably), but theoretically are a meritocratic institution, and sometimes do allow skilled commoners to climb the social ladder. If foreign, they are skilled and trusted mercenaries, who make up larger portions of the tagmata as the 11th century goes on (both ITTL and OTL). A lot of these mercenaries are either going to be steppe people (Turks, Cumans, Pechenegs) or western europeans (normans, norsemen, hungarians). Exact numbers of tagmata are fuzzy, but during the 11th century number over 10,000 at any given time, and can be much more. IOTL, the tagmata disappear from historical works near the end of the 11th century, and are presumably wiped out. They will persist ITTL.
  • The backbone of the Roman military is the heavy infantry, a mix of pikemen (called hoplitai) and archers (called toxotai). These are divided into units referred to as a Chiliarchy (1,000 men). A Chiliarchy can easily draw from the tagmata, but can also be made up of levies or semi-professional soldiers, and will generally be made up of the latter two groups. These armies tended to be fairly well equipped for their time, and tended towards heavier armor and tactics that wouldn't be completely unfamiliar to the phalanxes of old, just with a bite from the archers in their ranks. But even being well equipped for the 11th century, there is hardly some sort of standardized equipment across all soldiers. Mercenaries could also supplement these parts of the armies- lots of soldiers, both elite mercenaries and not so elite mercenaries, came to Rome to fight and earn money.
  • The much vaunted theme system isn't what it once was in the 11th century. There still existed the framework for the theme system, especially on the frontiers. But the theme system was a defensive military system, and by the 11th century the Romans have been on the offensive for quite a while. Roman Emperors didn't want large native armies standing around ready to revolt against them at a moment's notice, and native Romans began to prefer paying extra taxes instead of sending their sons to fight and die as they grew wealthier. For your average 11th century western anatolian peasant, it is somewhat unfair to expect them to maintain a hard military lifestyle when their village had not been attacked in a couple centuries. Imagine asking an Ohioan farmer to constantly drill and prepare for American Indian raids in the 21st century- it would seem unnecessary.
  • ITTL of course, there will be the addition of gunpowder weapons. These will slightly improve Roman siege capabilities, and I will cover this in the next update. But, until the development of cannons, this is not going to be a difference maker. Savvy readers might be able to note how well the hoplitai and toxotai could function with handguns...
  • Exact numbers on the size of the Roman military are unclear, and probably fluctuated a lot. I'm gonna say ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ on this, because we can generally just assume there is going to be enough. Numbers will only start to get more specific as we get into the Komnenian Era.
  • Because of the many conquests the Empire had made, a large part of the budget had to be spent on the military. The Romans had a well equipped, well paid, and effective military, that could draw on both native and foreign manpower to replenish itself. Against other settled, centralized states, the Romans dominated. IOTL, after continuous disasters, the real problem was that the central government just ran out of money to pay for this massive military budget. ITTL they will still struggle, because the money required to sustain their massive empire is going to cause a strain for any Roman government, no matter how competent.
Corrections, ideas and clarifications are very welcome. I am not a military expert, so we're all going to be learning together as I progress this TL. The exact military of the Romans will be important to understand when they start adapting to changed circumstances in the 12th century ITTL, as those developments will be the reason Rome regains its status as the superpower of the mediterranean.
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the only thing that comes in to mind how do they have 16th-century levels of guns for pike formations the chinise discovered gunpowder not that far from this pod but time of the mongol invasions they had Hand cannons which helped but were not as good as muskets or handguns so imo one must write why the romans got better in advancing fire arms than the Chinese
the only thing that comes in to mind how do they have 16th-century levels of guns for pike formations the chinise discovered gunpowder not that far from this pod but time of the mongol invasions they had Hand cannons which helped but were not as good as muskets or handguns so imo one must write why the romans got better in advancing fire arms than the Chinese
So far, the byzantines are not ahead of the Chinese in gunpowder development in any meaningful way. I will cover this in the next update, but they're a long way off from handguns.

I think they'd be very effective with handguns, but even given a boost in development they might not get there in time. The "what I envision" is just that, not what is officially part of the TL as of yet. It might be more plausible to just give them small hand cannons. Please comment as we get to more gunpowder developments, especially next update when I go over what the byzantines have just in this century. I want to make sure developments stay within the bounds of plausibility.
Part Two, 970s-1025
970s-980s: Several Civil wars rock the Roman Empire as Basil II Macedon ascends to the throne. These conflicts ultimately establish Basil II's power, as well as leading to the formation of the Varangian Guard.

991-1000: In a series of wars, Basil II consolidates and expands Roman control south into Palestine. A vassal state in Aleppo is defended from Fatimid (Egyptian) attack, and the Imperial border is established firmly as far south as Tripoli. Basil's forces raid Palestine itself, briefly besieging Homs and Damascus. The Muslims in Palestine resist conquest, now more accustomed to Roman attack, and prepared to handle gunpowder weapons. However, a revolt in Tyre allows Basil to establish another vassal state in the area, and Homs falls under the control of a friendly Emir. Basil repeatedly defeats Fatimid armies in the field, and though he has the opportunity to push further, his real goal is a peaceful settlement. He finally gets it in 1000. After decades of Fatimid-Roman warfare, this settlement surprisingly sticks. New and old Roman territories are protected by a buffer of vassal states, usually governed by muslims. Chief among them is the Emir of Aleppo and the Marwinids in Northern Mesopotamia, though a muslim leader in Homs and Chalcedonian leaders in Tripoli and Tyre enjoy power as well.
Basil also creates vassals in Armenia, loosely connected to Roman power.

1000-1016: Basil dismantles the Bulgarians in a series of wars, earning himself the epitaph of "Bulgar Slayer". Pitting major Bulgarian leaders against each other, by the end of his reign there are no major Bulgarian forces left to oppose Rome. In Europe, siege weapons prove very effective. Basil is fighting in siege warfare, reducing Bulgarian fortresses one by one. Here, fire slingers prove the bane of many a Bulgarian. They prove much less effective against raiding Pechenegs, which require maneuver the siege weapons struggle to keep up with. Basil’s success here comes down mostly to good statecraft and excellent military campaigns however, as Bulgarian elites are integrated into Roman control, and Basil agrees to collect taxes in kind like the Bulgarians were used to. By 1016, the state of Bulgaria is no more, completely under Roman domination.

1016-1025: Campaigns in southern Italy go well. Here, gunpowder weapons are put to good use, expanding Roman holdings. They are also useful in Georgia, as a series of conflicts with Georgia turns Basil back east. In the final years before his death, Basil returned to Italy and marched on Sicily, taking over the entire island.

He is also responsible for a series of internal reforms. A major one (hated by nobility) is the tax policy allelengyon, which requires wealthy landowners to help support poorer ones with tax when necessary. This policy would be abolished almost immediately after his reign. He favored small landowners consistently over the rural aristocracy, serving as the champion of the citizen soldier forming the backbone of the theme system. He was able to accomplish all of this and more, despite fierce opposition from the aristocracy, due to his popularity with the army, which breaks revolts. By the time he died, the Roman empire was in arguably its strongest state of the Macedonian era.

Gunpowder in the Roman Empire of the 10th and 11th centuries
One might be tempted to characterize the late Macedonian Empire as a sort of proto Gunpowder Empire, but the truth is Gunpowder played a very small role. Most of the work accomplished using gunpowder, particularly under the Emperor Basil II, was done as a result of state craft and military success, not due to some great technological advantage. It is only due to later historiography that gunpowder is seen as anything more significant than an occasionally helpful siege weapon.

Nevertheless, the Romans of this time period did use gunpowder to some effect. The first use, and the simplest one, was the practice of attaching some to special arrows, allowing them to flame and explode. Essentially, it attached a firecracker to the end of an arrow. This had a few benefits: scaring some enemy horses and combatants, starting fires in siege situations, and just being generally disruptive to the enemy. But fire arrows were used sparingly due to the fact they reduced the effectiveness of arrows in all other ways, and were inconsistent in their effectiveness. Notably, these fire arrows were less effective than counterparts in China used around the same time.

Other innovations in weaponry involved firesticks, where rather than attaching gunpowder to arrows, attached it to the end of long spears. These weapons were even more rarely useful than fire arrows, and served no practical purpose on the battlefield. They were entertaining to look at, flashy, but hardly practical in the din of battle. They did occasionally see some use as a personal arm, as they required little skill to use and could inflict burn wounds that could not be protected against with armor. For this reason, it was not unheard of for assassinations to be attempted with a firestick.

The most potent use for gunpowder was the hurling of flaming rocks. This began as unsophisticated as it may sound, but developed into a bit of an art under Basileus Basil II, and was perfected under Basileus Theodora. Siege artillery of this time already could fire large rocks at the enemy, and was adapted to use gunpowder to transform these large rocks into large, flaming, exploding rocks. Naturally, these siege weapons (mostly based around powerful traction trebuchets), were prone to break often, and made a lot of trouble for Roman siege engineers, but they were slowly improved over time. By the end of Basil II's reign, these monsters could reliably shoot out a dozen fiery volleys before breaking. Their primary limitation was the difficulty setting them up on the go, and the expense of creating them.

Several Fire Slingers, as they would be called, were invested in major fortresses and cities of the empire for anti-siege purposes. Others traveled behind armies, arriving as quickly as they could to difficult sieges and, after a while to set up, made quite potent siege works, devastating cities. They were massive and intricate contraptions that were unique to the Romans, and Basil II actually made it punishable by death to share the secrets of their construction. This did not stop the secret from getting out eventually.

Even so, Fire Slingers were not the later cannons. Though potent in their day, they were more comparable to counterweight Trebuchets in effectiveness than cannons. And though this experience would be crucial to the eventual Roman development of bombards, the advent of handguns was still a long way off.


A more modern rendition of a fireworks display, which would often appear over the skies of Roman cities after a great military triumph

Unlike the celebrations in China, fireworks were not associated with regular holidays in Rome. Instead, after their introduction to the larger Empire by Romanos Lekapanos in a triumph, they become associated with war and victory. Most triumphs from the 10th century on involved the use of fireworks. First it was at a low level, but it seemed every triumph had to outdo the last. As the Romans grew in sophistication throughout the 11th century, so too did their fireworks displays, which eventually became fantastical displays of noise and color. These displays tended to shock and terrify foreigners visiting Constantinople, which was of course part of the fun for the mob.
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My update schedule will ordinarily be much more uncommon (twice a week), but I want to get the TL rolling, and think discussion of medieval gunpower weapons could be a fun place to start!
Loving this timeline, keep up the good work but as Komnenos002 said, you might wanna change the title, it doesn't seem very indicative of the novelty of the timeline
Part Three: 1025-1042
Tzimisce? Sounds like a shifty character to me.
Basil II would certainly agree :p
There once was a dream. A dream worth fighting for. A dream called Rome. Watching this! O Stavros Nika!
Glad to hear it!

1025-1028: Constantine VIII, brother of Basil II, ruled on his own for a few years, largely terribly. Basil had left his brother completely unprepared to rule, and it showed. Many of Basil’s reforms are quickly undone, giving renewed power to both the rural and Constantinople aristocracy, especially in the countryside, where the ending of Basil II’s land reforms leads to an explosion in power for the rural aristocrats. On top of this, Constantine often tortured aristocrats whom he suspected of treason on flimsy charges.

1028-1034: But Constantine doesn’t live long. Intrigue on his deathbed means the throne passed over his planned successor, Constantine Dalassenos, and instead goes to Romanos Argyros. Romanos Argyros would marry Constantine’s daughter Zoe (aged 50) and rule jointly. Under the two, the power of the aristocracy would continue to grow, and the rural peasantry would lose much of their military obligations, instead being taxed higher. According to the ever colorful writer Psellos, Zoe cared little for ruling, preferring to spend lavishly in court, while Romanos fancied himself Trajan come again. Romanos, a member of the urban aristocracy, sought legitimacy from the army by going on a campaign against the Emirate of Aleppo. Ignoring the advice of his generals, he moved a large army into the Syrian desert in the middle of July. Unsurprisingly, it goes poorly, and Romanos is lucky to escape with his life.

Zoe despised Romanos and cheated on him with a number of lovers while he was marching around and generally failing to do anything effective. One of these lovers, Michael the Paphlagonian, conspired with her to have him murdered. Michael was lowborn, so lowborn his older brothers had been castrated and sent to Court by their own family to make ends meet. He was also 20 years Zoe’s junior. The two planned to slowly poison him, but got impatient and had him drowned in his bathtub.

1034-1041: Michael then married Zoe and was crowned alongside her. The Patriach, a godly man, refused to crown them after this ghastly assassination until bribed, at which time he did. Michael and Zoe’s relationship would quickly break down, with Michael sidelining Zoe and gaining complete control of power and the Empire’s finances. Here he had a major ally, his brother, called John the Eunuch*. John spent some time reforming the army and administration while Michael went out on campaign, raising taxes to do so. This would lead to several rebellions and revolts, which would vex Michael’s entire reign. John was the real power in Constantinople throughout this time, and his attempt to reform and centralize Rome made him many enemies. Under Michael’s command the Romans struggled against Arab raids and added a new conquest in Edessa.The Romans lost Sicily outside of Syracuse to an Arab invasion from Africa, leading Michael to send a General, Maniakes, to reconquer it. The war initially goes well, and the other major Sicilian city, Messina, falls under Roman control. But a political dispute with Maniakes led to it falling apart, and subsequently a falling out with Norman mercenaries meant that instead, the Normans would conquer Sicily for themselves, with the Romans merely retaining Syracuse. This Norman Sicilian state would haunt the Romans for years after.

During Michael’s reign, the Empire’s economy prospered, while paradoxically budgets grew tighter. Increasingly, the economy relied on trade, which was difficult for the land based Imperial system to tax. Michael was able to secure a temporary increase in taxes to avoid deficits for now, but this issue would grow worse in years to come.

A revolt by Bulgarians and Serbs was bungled and almost resulted in the loss of control of the northern Balkans. However, Michael ultimately prevailed in a follow up campaign, after Bulgarian infighting doomed the rebellion, and Thessalonika resisted a sack.

1041: Michael’s attempts to capitalize off this victory came to naught, as he succumbed to his epilepsy and died in 1041. His nephew, also named Michael, seized the throne, banishing John the Eunuch and reversing the other Michael’s policies. He next attempted to banish Zoe to a monastery immediately to become sole Emperor. In the confusion of the succession, Zoe was killed by Michael’s forces**. This is a disaster for Michael, whose attempts to subdue an enraged Constantinopolatin mob ended horribly. He is murdered, and though several candidates attempt to take his place, the mob will only accept a Macedonian. Thus, the throne falls to the last member of the Macedonian dynasty, Theodora. Theodora, however, is a nun, and a devoted one, and refuses. She is actually forcibly carried by the mob to the Hagia Sophia and crowned, screaming furiously at her new subjects the whole way. Many attempts are then made to attempt to get her to marry, but all of them are resisted. Ultimately, she is confirmed as sole Emperor***, a state of affairs no one expects to last very long.

*The last instance of a known OTL John, from now on they will be referred to as Ioannes
**This can be called the first very major difference from OTL
***TThe romans iotl did seem to enjoy calling female Basileus' by the male title

Christian Administration in Muslim Lands
Due to the Conquests of Basil, Tzimiskes, and Phokas, significant muslim-populated areas in the eastern mediterranean came under christian control. This was a reversal of the traditional dynamic, and led to new ways of organization.

For the Romans, an agresaive policy of conversion was pursued, sometimes at swordpoint (but usually not, and muslim communities in Syria and Sicily would continue under Roman rule). Muslims were also subjected to a head tax, on top of existing taxes others would have to pay. This was seen as more than fair by Constantinople; it was roughly equivalent to the jizya muslims had forced christians to pay for many years. The final restriction was the most significant, which was to make public spaces christian only, with muslim celebrations allowed but subject to significantly more restrictions.

What to do with muslim subjects became a subject of frequent debate in court. It was generally understood that forced conversions were not particularly effective, nor christian, but a more gradual tax incentive based policy was not acceptable to the clergy and other hardliners either. The frequent proselytizing of Roman missionaries failed to sway large amounts of converts, and the restrictions on public spaces proved particularly onerous to muslim subjects, especially when it interfered with the muslim call to prayer. Ultimately, these debates would come to nothing, as Sicily was lost, and talk of annexing Aleppo fizzled out. Rome lost most of its muslim subjects, and did not yet have to answer these difficult questions. But the debates would not be forgotten decades later, when Rome once again became ascendant.

In Sicily under Norman rule, muslims were mostly tolerated, a welcome reversal over Roman rule. The Normans allowed the muslims to worship in public spaces and did not attempt to convert them, though they kept the extra taxes the romans had imposed. Because of this, the muslims of Sicily would form an important support block for the Norman conquerors, assisting them whenever the romans attempted to reconquer the island. Meanwhile in the christian vassal states of Tripoli and Tyre, there was virtually no difference in day to day life for christians and muslims, with the exception of the use of public spaces, which became prioritized to christians, rather than muslims (though muslim forms of worship were far from banned, and the call to prayer was still done publicly, with the rare exception being when it interfered with a christian holiday). The levantine christians and muslims both viewed the romans as more foreign than each other, and regardless of whether a Roman vassal state was christian or muslim ruled, religion continued for followers of both religions without significant disruptions.
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Any comments?

So far there have only been minor differences to OTL, for those not familiar with this period of Byzantine history. The sovereignty over Sicily and Tripoli is new compared to OTL, but the regimes up until the point Zoe is killed ITTL are exactly the same. Now, it is going to start varying wildly.
I’m interested! This is a neat concept, especially because it’s involving an earlier period of the ERE than many other TLs.
But a political dispute with Maniakes led to it falling apart, and subsequently a falling out with Norman mercenaries meant that instead, the Normans would conquer Sicily for themselves, with the Romans merely retaining Syracuse. This Norman Sicilian state would haunt the Romans for years after.
Why didn’t the Normans take Syracuse as well? Given OTL trends they’d easily be able to do so.
its very good read
Thank you!
I’m interested! This is a neat concept, especially because it’s involving an earlier period of the ERE than many other TLs.

Why didn’t the Normans take Syracuse as well? Given OTL trends they’d easily be able to do so.
Fair question, given how much trouble the normans gave Constantinople iotl and are about to give them ittl.

My justification for this is that it is one of the few places in Sicily the Romans have actually fortified ITTL, in anticipation of an Arab assault. It is also coastal, which allows easy resupply from sea against the non-seafaring normans in the case of a siege. The Normans would probably still be able to take it if they went all in, but at this point they are very disunited. It's not mentioned in the TL, but it's not difficult to imagine a Roman commander of Syracuse paying several normans to fight their rival rather than assault the city.
Part Four: 1042-1049
1042: Theodora is made of sterner stuff than her sister, castrating and banishing Michael as one of her first acts. For most of her life, Theodora had shunned the Imperial throne, and even though her sister Zoe had suspected her of plots (which had led to her original banishment to a nunnery), her only real goal had been the protection of her stipend and position in Imperial Court, not Imperial ambitions. Though she never wished to be Basileus, the impact of seeing her sister killed by Imperial politics has had an effect on her. The Paphlagonians had at first come as allies of her sister, but had ultimately dominated and then killed her. Any Imperial consort could do the same to her. Theodora quickly moves to cement her authority, earning the submission of many courtiers, but does not make significant policy changes. Her sex is subject to frequent hand wringing by all factions in Rome, and viewed as weak by Roman neighbors. Almost immediately, factions begin to form to replace her.

1043: Two crises break out immediately. A large Kievan Rus raid on Constantinople itself assembles, setting sail with a giant fleet to raid the Capital of the Empire. Meanwhile, the Church objects to a woman naming bishops, even a woman who is the Basileus. This was minor enough for the first two years of her reign, but when Patriarch Alexios died in 1043, a controversy erupted. Attempts to get Theodora to step down or marry to solve this controversy were rejected by the mob and Theodora herself, which made the issue of Alexios’ successor complicated. This came to a head when Theodora selected a replacement, Leo of Trebizond, and parts of the clergy began to conspire against her.

1044: The Rus raiders are defeated in a naval battle, with the use of Greek fire. A major victory for Theodora and Rome, it does nothing to prevent the outbreak of civil war. General Maniakes, who had experience in both Europe and Sicily, is a popular and charismatic general who has no issue rallying the Italian garrisons and European tagmata to his cause. Marching on Constantinople, he demands Theodora either marry him or allow him to rule as co-emperor. Of course, either option would leave him in real control of the Empire, with Theodora sidelined as Zoe had been before her. It is exactly what she has been afraid of, and she refuses.

Theodora recalls the Anatolian armies to aid her and organizes a citizen’s militia to defend Constantinople. She catches wind of a church conspiracy, led by Michael Cerularius, to open the gates to Maniakes, and has them arrested and stripped of title. Caught up in the purge are several aristocratic families. Maniakes appears before the walls of Constantinople and attempts to convince the defenders to allow him entry, starting a political campaign with fine oratory. The defenders pelt him with vegetables in response. Then Theodora herself appears, refusing to offer Maniakes the throne, but offering to allow him access to Basil II’s tomb, so that he may “defile his body as well as his legacy”. Support for Maniakes begins to wane.

1045: The Anatolian troops arrive in Constantinople, and European tagmata begin to defect as the reality of fighting the last Macedonian sinks in. By the middle of the year, Theodora’s forces outnumber Maniakes significantly, and he is overthrown by his own officers and handed to Theodora. The church attempts to intervene and protect Maniakes, settling him in a monastery, but Theodora first has him blinded, and he died of his wounds soon after. The officers who handed over Maniakes are pardoned, but those who remained loyal are put to the same purge that Cerularius and his supporters had been.

Ani is inherited by Theodora, as per arrangements made by Basil II. The wealthy Armenian metropolis now is the epicenter of the Roman east.

1046: Now much more secure in power, the Basileus Theodora begins filling the Imperial administration with her own supporters, crowding the military aristocracy out of power. At this point another conspiracy arises to replace her, which she again squashes. Theodora increasingly relies on Court Eunuchs, as well as a few loyal aristocrats. Locked out of power, many of the notable aristocrats retreat to their mansions and plot. Theodora is nearly untouchable, but she is also sixty six years old. The lack of revolts in this part of Theodora's reign stems from the patience of the dynatoi, who vow to strike and take control of power from Theodora's supporters as soon as the aging Basileus is gone.

The Roman economy was at a peak at this point, as it had benefited from years of peace. This growth and prosperity was about to be shattered by increasing raids, but for now, things looked good, from Apulia and Calabria in the west to Armenia in the east.

Some Seljuk Turks arrive on the scene in Armenia, raiding as they go. The Seljuks have been steadily expanding and consolidating their rule over Persia, and are now moving westward. Several Turkish tribes begin to be drawn towards Armenia, both for the wealth in its cities and the ideal pasture land sitting in between the mountains. These nomads will be defeated, but they will not be the last to come.

1047: A new great Church, Christ the Redeemer, begins construction in Constantinople, similar in size and scope to that built by Romanos Lekapanos, which further committed the people of Constantinople to Theodora. Beautiful architecture underlies a new social welfare system for the citizens of Constantinople, as the Church hands out alms to the poor and necessitates infrastructure around it. She buried her sister Zoe in this church, but notably not her old husband Michael. Theodora doesn't stop with one Church, but pays to improve the infrastructure in major cities throughout the Empire.


Image of the St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, taken from their website. We don’t know exactly what Byzantine churches of this time looked like, but we do know that St. Mark’s was heavily inspired by them, so this is a good image to keep in your mind.

At this time, Theodora began a concerted effort to convert the Armenians to Orthodox Chalcedonianism. Several religious leaders were taken from Armenia to Constantinople to engage in “theological dialogue”, where the Patriarch and other religious figures would attempt to convince them of the error of Monophysitism.

In Sicily, the Normans formally divide the island into three main fiefs, ending most of their fighting over the island.

1048: A group of Pechenegs attempts to cross into Roman territory, and requests permission to settle there, which is denied. They resort to raiding instead, and Theodora sends out an army to handle this situation. The army is routed with heavy losses, forcing the Basileus to recall Roman troops from Italy.

As this was ongoing, a high point for Roman art and culture was being reached. Theodora expanded the University of Constantinople in this year, the Nun Emperor putting a focus on law and theology*. Old pagan writings were taught and examined, critiqued from a christian perspective (and from some philosophers, even praised as having christian virtues). The students of the dean of the university, Michael Psellos, would even go so far as to examine the Bible itself critically in some of his classes. This occasionally ran into trouble with the Church, but with the Basileus as a sponsor, none could question the University’s piety.

On the other end of the theological spectrum, there is a growing movement among Roman clergy to live in a less worldly way, criticizing the power of the monasteries and calling on clergy to strip themselves of their wealth, give it to the poor, and live plainly. Theodora, who herself lives lavishly, does not comment on this growing movement, but does nothing to stop it either. These minor challenges to central Orthodox authority weakens the powers of the Patriarch.

1049: The Pecheneg raiders are defeated, their leader Kegen paraded before the crowds of Constantinople and killed. The Pecheneg Khan thanks the Romans- Kegen had been a rival of his, prompting his movement west. Peace is restored in Europe.

As one war ends, another begins. The Norman mercenaries move upon Syracuse and Italy in multiple different bands, reigniting war in the Empire’s western territories. Taking advantage of the movement of Roman troops west to guard against the Pechenegs, Syracuse slips out of Roman hands, ending their presence in Sicily completely.

*It’s complicated, but theology and philosophy in Rome are broadly overlapping subjects at this time.
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With how Rhomania is said to be continent-sized by the time the Mongols arrive, I wonder what areas Rhomania will control compared to Justinian's Empire.