Third Bard's the Charm: A High Byzantine TL

This is an idea I came up with this morning. It won't be replacing The Undying Empire, but it's something I'll be working on for the next bit and probably still after TUE comes back from hiatus. First update should be in a couple of hours, and the PoD is in 1026.
i. The Madness of Constantine VIII
Alright, let's get it started.

i. The Madness of Constantine VIII

The reign of Basil II is universally considered to be one of the greatest periods of Eastern Roman history. Across all fronts, the enemies of the immortal empire were driven back with great losses; the Romans penetrated deep into Syria in a way they hadn’t since the Arab conquest, vast swathes of Armenia were forced to pay tribute to Constantinople, and, of course, Bulgaria was reduced after four hundred years of defiance. The Turko-Slavic state which had so longer hung over Constantinople like a sword of Damocles was at long last crushed and subjugated after nearly thirty years of constant warfare. Despite these martial successes, the common people of Anatolia and much of the Balkans prospered, shielded from the depredations of invaders and rapacious magnates alike by the tireless efforts of the basileus. Truly, it was a golden age.

Of course, all golden ages must come to an end. Basil, fearful of internal disorder after the coups and civil wars that had marred the first years of his long reign, hadn’t married, and he had forbidden the daughters of his brother from marrying either. As such, upon his death, the throne passed to the last male member of the House of Macedon, Constantine VIII.

The brothers had been co-emperors for a grand total of sixty-two years, ascending to the throne at the age of five and three, respectively. While Basil had dodged the typical debauchery of child rulers, veering the opposite direction into asceticism and personal isolation, Constantine had plunged directly into this rut the moment he hit puberty. He spent every waking moment in one of his three favorite activities; hunting, feasting and wenching. Supposedly, his actual grasp of statecraft and military matters were so pathetic that Basil refused to let him command anything other than a hunting party after a brief excursion in Anatolia in 989, and he was forbidden to enter the administrative buildings that surrounded the palace; evidently, the latter precaution was unnecessary. By the time he became sole ruler in December 1025, he was morbidly obese and gauty, likely had diabetes, and could walk only with the assistance of multiple attendants and helpers. Worse than that, his years of debauchery and degeneracy had turned the once well-spoken and generous young man into a paranoid and viscous tyrant. Constantine would be described by later historians as “...the cruelest man to have ever lived…”, “...devoid of even the most feeble redeeming characteristics and an idiot before God…”, and “ infinitely better whoremonger than a ruler.” While these epithets have almost certainly been inflated on order of his successors, they do much to reveal Constantine’s true nature. He was a petty and fickle man, famously having a servant blinded because he was late in bringing him a bowl of custard, and was incredibly paranoid and cruel. The beginning of his reign coincided with the beginning of a reign of terror that would paralyze the City of the World’s Desire for months on end.

Constantine was possessed of a unique and bizarre mixture of paranoia and stupidity. While he feared assassins in every shadow, he allowed--nay, he encouraged--the provincial nobility to increase their power exponentially. Within weeks of the beginning of his sole reign, he had repealed all of his brother’s policies designed to protect the common people from the magnates. In hopes of placating the many men who he was sure wanted to kill him, he would grant any request put before him no matter how depraved or stupid. He fell at once under the influence of the court eunuchs, and they manipulated him into imprisoning, blinding or mutilating dozens of loyal attendants in the first weeks of his reign, among them one Constantine Bourtzes, who had briefly been Basil’s secretary years before. Despite his fear of the aristocracy, he did not attempt to rouse the army to his banner in any manner whatsoever, considering the nearly suicidal path of imprisoning several popular generals before deciding that this would be a bridge too far. Nonetheless, his tyranny extended across the capital in a way unseen for decades, creating far more enemies than he could ever purge and in many cases even obliviously empowering those who despised him while brutalizing them who supported him.

Into this setting enter one Bardas Phokas the Youngest. Bardas was the scion of the Phokai, an old aristocratic family that had reached its apogee fifty years before with the ascension of Nikephoros II as regent for and eventual co-emperor with Basil II. Nikephoros had been overthrown and murdered by his nephew after six years on the throne, and the family’s fortunes had fallen quickly afterwards. In 971, Bardas’ grandfather of the same name revolted against Basil, swiftly being defeated and forced to flee into exile. He had returned more than fifteen years and was similarly defeated, falling in battle against the basileus during the revolt of Bardas Skleros. For this, the Phokas had been essentially blackballed from the highest halls of power, Basil even going so far as to ban any member from owning more than two hundred acres of land in 996. Things had seemed to be on the mend when Nikephoros Phokas Barytrachelos, the governor of Kappadokia, had revolted in 1022, ultimately being murdered by one of his co-conspirators before he had even come within sight of the Marmara. As punishment for having revolted thrice, the Phokai were permanently smashed; they were forbidden to own any property whatsoever, and most of the family’s scions changed their names to avoid the scorn of their peers. Bardas was the only son of Nikephoros, and, having concluded that there was no way in hell anyone would ever forget his uncle’s deeds, hadn’t even bothered to do so, leaving him as the last male member of the house, and the last altogether bar an elderly aunt living in Trebizond.

Bardas’ genial nature has almost certainly been exaggerated by later historians, but he was doubtless a fairly agreeable man. He was of average size and build, had dark hair and dark eyes but fairly light skin, likely due to an Armenian or Georgian mother. He was well-spoken and fairly well-educated, but possessed much of the air of a soldier thanks to years as an officer in the eastern armies prior to his uncle’s coup, and as a common footman in Bulgaria afterwards. In 1025, he departed--some say abandoned--his post along the Danube and went to the capital, likely seeking to make a fortune independent of his fairly sordid past. His arrival in the city did not go unnoticed, of course, and he was arrested within days of entering the city. After spending several weeks in a cell, he was released by an administrative error[1] and fled into the underbelly of the capital. He was furious at this false arrest and the rough treatment which he had been given despite years of loyal service and constant insults, and despaired of ever achieving a normal life. As he sat in a cheap tavern in the Pempton, bad wine churning in his stomach, he decided his only road forward one lay in going for broke and seizing the throne.

Of course, this was easier said than done, and he needed allies if his plans would bring him anything other than death or blinding. Fortunately, potential co-conspirators were in plentiful supply in a city full of restive aristocrats and scheming eunuchs, and within a few weeks Bardas was, with his natural gift for words, able to win over several dozen men to his cause. Chief among these conspirators were the Bourtzes brothers, Mikhael, Samouel and Theognostos, who were the brothers of Constantine Bourtzes and were understandably more than a little miffed that their brother had his eyes gouged out and hands cut off after decades of loyal service, and were more than a little afraid that the same might happen to them. Mikhael and Samouel were both senior bureaucrats and were well-positioned to siphon off money to support the plot, while Theognostos was an experienced commander and, moreover, had a retinue of several dozen veterans that would be crucial to any coup. Bardas was able to earn the support of several members of the Imperial bodyguard by a number of means, chief among them the hetaireia Isaakios Komnenos, who was resentful towards the emperor after his uncle, Nikephoros, and his family had been arrested and blinded on false charges in June 1026[2]. During that summer, he became drinking buddies with another member of the palace guard, Nikephoros Bryennios[3], who was charged with securing one of the complex’s gates, and managed to convince him of the validity of his claim to the throne, as well as befriending a bureaucrat named Constantine Monomachos who had fallen upon hard times and was quite upset with the sitting basileus. He also convinced his cousin, Nikephoros Botaneiates, to support his coup. Finally, he had managed to win over the ambitious doux of Thessalonica, Bulgaria and Serbia, Constantine, who promised to strike for Bardas if he succeeded in overthrowing Constantine VIII.

The plan was as follows: The fighters would be smuggled into a large, vacant cellar of the palace by Komnenos and Bryennios, which Monomachos and the Bourtzes brothers would have stocked with enough supplies to keep them hidden. On the night of the coup, Botaneiates would incite a riot in the slums, and the conspirators would start setting fires across the city. While the palace guard was weakened dealing with these, Bardas and his men would rush the Imperial bedchamber and kill Constantine, then rush across the Augustaion to the Hagia Sophia to be crowned. Theodora, the younger of the emperor’s daughters at “only” forty-four, would be brought from the women’s quarters and forced to marry Bardas to secure his legitimacy. The riot would then be quelled and the fires drenched, leaving Bardas as the savior of the city and (semi) legitimate emperor.

By September, there were eight chief conspirators and roughly two hundred potential fighters, mostly Komnenoi or Bourtzoi retainers with a handful of mutinous guards and soldiers in the mix, all of whom were only informed of vague details at best. However, someone must have leaked, for on the night of 16 September 1026, Constantine dispatched a dozen Varangians to arrest Bardas in the inn in which he resided. Bardas wasn’t a complete fool, however, and in addition to residing there under a false name, he had also pried up several floorboards to act as an alarm. When one of the Varangians creeping up the hallway stepped on a loose board, Bardas shot up and flew out the window before the guards had even reached the barricaded door. He stole a horse from the front of the inn and galloped down the Mese to warn his co-conspirators.

Half an hour later, Theognostos Bourtzes was woken by Bardas hammering on his door, breathlessly telling him that the coup had been found out and they had to go, NOW! The Bourtzes retainers were hurriedly woken and mustered, while Bardas rode down the street to the Komnenoi capital villa to inform a bewildered Ioannes Komnenos that his brother was in on a plot against the emperor, and that if he didn’t rally his retainers immediately they’d all be sharing a cell in the bowels of the palace. Within ten minutes, eighty armed men were making for the palace in a dead sprint. They were spotted by sentries in the Tower of Belisarius, but were mistaken for priests and no alarm was raised. Bardas reached the palace at the same time the Varangians returned to inform Constantine of their failure, but the cool-headed usurper managed to steer his column away from them and to Bryennios’ side gate. The guard was confused to find them there without forewarning, but realized they had passed the point of no return long ago and let them in. They rushed down the hallway towards the Imperial bedchambers only to be met by a panicked Komnenos who told Bardas that the cry had been raised and there were now several hundred Norsemen between them and the bedchambers, and several thousand more were assembling nearby. Thinking quickly, Bardars ordered Theognostos to continue forward and distracted the Varangains with as much noise as possible, while he, the Komnenoi brothers, Bryennios and a famed soldier named Stephanos crept around to the back. Bardas and his small force leapt out of a nearby window and sprinted through the gardens around the palace to the bedchambers. Silently, they scaled the wall, and at his signal Bardas and Isaakios Komnenos smashed open a window and rushed in. The three guards present were stunned by their sudden appearance and before they could react two were dead, another knocked out and the door barred with a sword. Constantine was shouting incoherently at the assassins and thrashing about his bed, and without a second though Bardas stabbed him in the chest. The emperor was so fat that the dagger failed to do any damage, and he shouted his last words: “Oh, how cruel!” Stephanos then tried to lop off his head; his neck was so swollen it took two blows to sever it.

With the Varangians now battering down the door, Bardas shouted that he was emperor now and pressed Constantine’s head against a gash that had been cut through one of the doors. With Constantine now definitely dead, the Varangains paused their assault, no doubt mulling over what to do next. Bardas shouted an offer of a 150% pay raise, and at this the Varangians hailed him as emperor, raising him on their shield in the garden after escorting him thence. Bardas sent men to fetch Theodora from the women’s quarters while he and his makeshift army raced to the Hagia Sophia. The Patriarch, Alexios the Stoudite, was asleep in his neighboring apartments when he was woken by Bardas’ men, and initially refused to crown Bardas while the blood of the usurper’s predecessor was smattered across his tunic. A promise of several hundred pounds of gold to the Patriarchate and carte blanche for Alexios’ blossoming ecclesiastical reforms managed to convince him. With the crown recently taken from a dead man upon his head, Bardas was crowned as basileus shortly before midnight, and a few minutes later the basileus married a slightly upset Theodora, legitimizing him as best he could.

As dawn rose on 17 September, the citizens of Constantinople were informed that Constantine was dead and the House of Macedon effectively extinguished. The expected riots were strangled before they could break out by the troops scattered across the city to deal with the disturbances of the night before. The fires which had been set the night before were being slowly quenched. Bardas I Phokas was now the Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans, in name at the very least.

Of course, Constantinople was not the empire itself, and there were many loyalists to the House of Makedon in the provinces….

[1] This is the Point of Divergence; everything hereafter is alternate history
[2] This ATL, caused by Constantine’s general pettiness after some servant or subordinate messes something up right before Komnenos is dragged in
[3] Father of the OTL general
Of course, Constantinople was not the empire itself, and there were many loyalists to the House of Makedon in the provinces….
Let me guess, the lack of mentions of the other daughter of Constantine VIII will play a role here. Also count me in here. Watching this.
Never a dull time in Constantinople. Nice how the butterflies would fly at a good time for the East Rome in general.

More surprising, Bardas succeeded as his plot in the messiest way possible. But I see that in that way, he failed to get the support he needed, we'll see now how this Roman Civil War will go.
Another TL by Eparkhos? Count me in. And like RyuDrago said, it was such a messy plot, it's not a very auspicious beginning for our Emperor, blessed his reign may be.
Let me guess, the lack of mentions of the other daughter of Constantine VIII will play a role here. Also count me in here. Watching this.
Ding ding ding!
Oh yeah! It's been a long time since a TL focused on the Macedonians was released!
Really? I figure it would have been saturated by now.
Never a dull time in Constantinople. Nice how the butterflies would fly at a good time for the East Rome in general.

More surprising, Bardas succeeded as his plot in the messiest way possible. But I see that in that way, he failed to get the support he needed, we'll see now how this Roman Civil War will go.
Do you think that the butterflies might fly fast enough for the Seljuks to get their skulls beaten in by the Ghaznavids in 1040? I'm not sure. Also, is there anything you'd like to see in Italy? There's the obvious thing to do, which involves the exiled Doge in Constantinople, but the Salians could also be effected by a competent ruler in the east
Another TL by Eparkhos? Count me in. And like RyuDrago said, it was such a messy plot, it's not a very auspicious beginning for our Emperor, blessed his reign may be.
Blessed may he be! (thanks, btw)
very nice !
Dont mind me enjoying another Byzantine ATL. And is made by Eparkhos? Definitely a special treat for me!
Thank you both.

This is just a bit of rambling here, but I'm not sure how I'm going to write this TL. I think I'm going to stick to a moderate pace, hopefully not too fast and not too slow, and jump from point of interest to point of interest.
ii. The Revolt of the Dalassenoi
ii. The Revolt of the Dalassenoi

The first hurtle that the Phokas regime faced was the basilissa herself.

After Bourtzes and the city’s garrison had quelled the burgeoning riots from the night of the coup, dispersed any groups demanding the restoration of the House of Makedon and restored order in the merchant quarters that had been afflicted by looting, Bardas made his first public appearance as emperor. He appeared in the Augustaion, accompanied by Theodora, the Varangians and a number of bureaucrats and noblemen who had made common cause with the usurper, and was met with a tepid response by the people of the capital. Many believed that the Makedonians could still be restored, and so were hesitant to appear too welcoming of the usurper. Bardas and Theodora were crowned in the Hagia Sophia in a much more public but not especially opulent ceremony, and their vows were confirmed in an equally public ceremony before the Imperial couple retired to the Boukoleon to begin the business of governance.

As soon as they were out of the public eye, and more importantly out of view of Bardas’ retainers, Theodora’s placid demeanor dropped. She was slightly upset about the whole ‘murdering her father and forcing him to marry her’ thing, and wanted Bardas to know that he didn’t have all of the cards. Theodora was an imperial princess and had spent her life in the capital, and despite her austere and pious nature was no stranger to court politics. As a Makedonian, she still held the loyalty of most of the capital’s residents, and if she suggested that she was in danger they would rise up and at worst burn much of the city, at best putting Bardas and the traitors’ heads on pikes above the Golden Gate. Bardas dismissed this--after all, mobs aren’t exactly equal to Imperial guard regiments--until Theodora reminded him that the hetaira weren’t as mercenary as the Varangians and had many members that were still loyal to the Makedonians. Of course, this power could be used to buoy the new Phokas dynasty, for the right price. Theodora demanded three things; firstly, a position as co-ruler in fact as well as name, complete control over the hetaira and its recruitment, and control over church matters. It was a steep price, but given the precarious state of his regime Bardas accepted rather than testing her willingness to go through with her threats.

The next step for the Phokas regime was to start distributing offices. Constantine VIII had been the opposite of a diligent steward, and so a surprising number of minor offices and titles sat empty. The most important offices, however, were full of loyalists and yes-men, and so needed to be thoroughly cleaned out for the sake of both the empire and the new emperor. The first stage of this was awarding the conspirators with a number of offices both large and small as rewards for their support during the conspiracy and hereafter. Bardas was also savvy enough to recognize that the number of empty offices gave him a powerful tool, in that he could essentially chain the prospects of office holders to his regime’s success: if the Makedonians or some other dynasty managed to overthrow him, then the men who had served under him would be thrown to the wayside at best and executed at worst.

Mikhael and Samouel Bourtzes were appointed as protoaskretis (overseer of the notaries) and epi ton deeson (petitioner-in-chief), respectively, which were effective sinecures. Theognostos Bourtzes was appointed as kleisourarch of the Gates of Trajan, a position which allowed him to command an army fairly close to the capital without appearing overly threatening to the nobility, or at least that was what Bardas hoped. Nikolaos, the eunuch domestikos ton skholon, happened to be a long-time personal enemy of Bardas, and after he was stuffed into a sack and hurled into the Bosphorus the emperor summoned Basil Boioannes, the Katepano of Italy, to the capital to take the office. In essence, Bardas sought to appoint Boioannes, who was one of the best living generals in the empire, as his second-in-command, an unmistakably powerful gesture that tied the katepano to the new regime; fortunately for everyone involved, Boioannes accepted the offer and promised to come to the capital once the katabatic winds in the Adriatic died down the next year. Finally, Bardas appointed Constantine Monomachos as his logothetes tou genikou, or general treasurer, for the interim period.

While things were going well for the new regime in the capital, there were still a number of difficulties facing Bardas. The first issue was Zoe, Constantine’s other surviving daughter. She and Theodora had shared the same quarters in the women’s section of the palace complex, but during the havoc of the night of the coup she had somehow disappeared. The aging princess, while never the smartest, was no idiot and had recognized that dozens of armed men swarming across the palace was probably a bad sign and had stuffed herself inside a chest in a closet in an isolated wing of the women’s quarters. When things quieted down, she emerged from her bolthole and slipped out a side door, fleeing down the city’s waterfront to the Harbor of Julian, where she found a garrison commander known to be fanatically loyal to the House of Makedon and convinced him that she was who she said she was. The commander had roused his men and commandeered a fishing boat in the harbor, after which they disappeared into the Marmara. By the time word of this reached Bardas and Theodora, they had been gone for nearly a day and despite the best efforts of the Imperial fleet, they were in the wind. Bardas ordered pickets to be sent to the straits to watch for Zoe, then turned his attention to more pressing issues.

Namely, the themes. As they had planned, Constantine Diogenes had struck for Bardas once word of the successful coup reached him, delivering Thessalonika, Strymon and thematic Bulgaria into the camp of the usurper. However, many of the other governors were standoffish in general towards the regime, either unsure of its viability and not wanting to throw their lot in with a failing cause or ardently loyal to the House of Makedon. Bardas was left to try and coax the governors into supporting him with whatever means were available to him; threats, bribes of court titles, bribes of land, bribes of money, soft power influence from the church and more….covert influences. One of the most important douxes to be won over to the Phokas camp was Eustathios Daphnomeles, the Doux of Dyrrakhion and one-time right-hand of Basil II. What exactly Bardas had on Daphnomeles is unknown, but given the gravity of the situation--Daphnomeles could likely have dethroned Bardas by himself--suggestions have ranged from homosexuality to bestiality to secret Muslimness. With Boioannes, Daphnomeles and Diogenes all backing Bardas the rest of the Balkan themes swiftly fell in line. The governorship of the Optimatoi was thankfully vacant, so Bardas was free to appoint Komnenos as its governor, and the governor of the Opsikion, Gregorios Taronites, was fairly friendly to Bardas, having once served together in the east. The maritime themes of Samos and Kibyrrhaiot also struck for the capital.

However, beyond the Aegean littoral, things were quite different, to say the very least. The Anatolian interior was both the heartland of the theme system and the strongest bastion of loyalty to the House of Makedon; even if the strategoi of these themes supported Bardas, they faced imprisonment or death if they did anything beyond declaring neutrality. In particular, the heavily militarized frontier duxates of Khaldea and Mesopotamia were ardently opposed to the ascendancy of Bardas. It is possible that these distances might have been reconciled had things continued as they had in 1026 but alas, they would not.

In February 1027, after a harrowing winter crossing of the Mediterranean, Zoe and her loyalists landed in Tarsos. The theme was commanded by Constantine Dalassenos, one of Constantine VIII’s most loyal followers and a man known for his financial skill, skill as a cavalry commander and his fierce loyalty to the House of Makedon. Upon making landfall, Zoe is rushed to the thematic capital at Antioch, where she offers Dalassenos the emperorship if he will take up arms in her defense and drive the usurping Bardas from the capital. After thinking it over for about three seconds, Dalassenos eagerly agrees, and in a flurry of letters and ink dispatches riders to the themes whose governors he believes would be willing to support he and Zoe’s march on the capital. After they return with more ‘yes’ answers than not, Zoe and Constantine are proclaimed as Zoe and Constantine IX, respectively, in Antioch on 24 March 1027.

The coalition of strategoi and kleisourarchs that rallied to Zoe and Constantine was impressive and an immense threat to Bardas’ position on the throne. Constantine was not only the strategos of Antiocheia but also the Doux of Antioch, which meant that he was the strategos of the neighboring themes of Cilicia and Doliche. In addition to the lands which he controlled personally, he was also able to rally his brother, Theophylaktos Dalassenos, the governor of Kharsianon and the Anatolikon. The strategoi of Seleukia and Kappadokia, both minor players in this drama, rally to him as well. The Doux of Mesopotamia, Grigor Magistros, also joins the rebel force, as does the Doux of Khaldea, Mikhael Gabras, and an unknown commander of the Armeniakon. All in all, most of the eastern empire is up in arms against Bardas, including most of the eastern field armies and the lion’s share of the Anatolian themata. On numbers alone, Constantine and Zoe held a slight edge over Bardas, and this advantage was shored up by the superior morale of their troops.

When word of this reached Constantinople, the people of the city nearly rioted. Only the intervention of Theodora, who bade them to cease and asked them to stand against this false claim by her sister. This succeeded in quieting them, but the attitude of the emperor and his generals remained equally dark. The advantages which Constantine and Zoe held were as obvious as they were daunting, and many of the strategoi loyal to Bardas began to seriously reconsider this. However, there was one advantage that Bardas and the capital still held: sea power. None of the naval themes had defected, and even the fleets stationed in rebel territory had fled for ports still loyal to the capital. In a region with such a long coastline, this was a crucial boon.

That spring, the two hosts mustered for battle. The exact size of Constantine and Zoe’s army is unknown, and the contemporary description of it as numbering 85,000 strong is almost certainly hyperbolic propaganda written later on. The new usurper left behind sizable forces to guard the frontier, not wanting to lose any part of the empire that was soon to be his to opportunistic foreigners, but he did hire some 10,000 Armenian mercenaries, making the exact size of his host difficult to determine. It probably numbered around 45,000 strong, or was only able to deploy that many in one place. Bardas’ host, by contrast, has far more concrete numbers; 10,000 tagmata, 10,000 Italians, and 20,000 themata from across the Balkans and western Anatolia.

Having completed their muster, the rebels were the first to move. Constantine marched westward from Kilikia in early May, where he had established his base of command, passing through the Cilician Gates onto the Anatolian Plateau, where he began the difficult process of linking up with the other rebel forces scattered across the region. The plateau was beginning to heat up, showing its nature as a true desert, and Constantine didn’t wish to tarry in the desert during the height of summer. As such, after completing the linking-up process by the end of May, he decided to sacrifice sustainability for speed and set out westwards across the center of the region.

This was a fatal mistake. Given his naval dominance and the shaky nature of his support in Anatolia, Constantine had assumed that Bardas would abandon Anatolia and use his fleet and the Bosphorus as a line of defense. He was not entirely wrong, but Bardas and Boioannes had concluded that the Straits ought to be used only as a last line of defense, given the capital’s position at their narrows and the possibility of a night crossing. However, they would not be abandoning their naval capacity; in addition to raids and probing attacks to keep the rebels weak and divided, the Italian corps would get some more practice in seaborn assaults.

In mid-June, as Constantine’s army tramped across the heart of the desert, 5,000 veterans from the Italian front landed on the banks of the Saros River in Kilikia at dawn, rapidly organizing and marching on nearby Tarsos with great speed. The understrength and undisciplined defenders of the city were taken completely off-guard, and they surrendered without a fight. The isolated nature of Cyprus (being surrounded by water and all) had allowed Bardas’ buildup to remain undetected until he struck, and on landing +3 loyalist soldiers reach the Cilician Gates, seizing their fortifications after a brief struggle and cutting Constantine off from one of his major supply bases.

By the time word of this reaches Constantine, he is left in quite the predicament. He and his army had just crossed the worst part of the desert, but their supplies had been settled at the same moment. He couldn’t fall back on the age-old tradition of pillaging the locals, because the themes he was moving through were either allied to him or nominally neutral, and roughing up the themesmen would just push more fighting men into Bardas’ camp. He decided his best option was to fully decouple from his supply train and force march towards the more fertile coastal regions, where he could hopefully resupply and make ready for battle. He struck a course northwards towards the Paphlagonian hills. Of course, Bardas had no intention of letting him resupply, and was countermarching to intercept the rebel force before it could escape the harsh country. Once again, his naval superiority was crucial to rapid troop movement, as he was able to land most of his 35,000 men at Amastris or Pontoherakleia rather than marching all the way through Bithynia. By the end of June, his forces had joined together once again and was hurriedly moving south.

The two armies would meet north-west of the fortress city of Gangra, which was held by forces loyal to Constantine. Rebel forces were tired and in many cases hungry or thirsty because of their forced march, but Bardas’ men were also quite tired. Constantine still held a slight numerical advantage--40,000 to 35,000--and the lion’s share of the soldiers were footmen, with only a few hundred light horsemen in detached units on either side, with heavy noble cavalry mixed in with the infantry formations. Constantine deployed his men in three equal formations of 11,000, holding back 7,000 men as a reserve, while Bardas’ left and center were 10,000 each, the right being overloaded with 12,000. Bardas faced south, Constantine north. The battlefield was intersected by a broad, slow-flowing stream and was surrounded on both sides by steep hills.

At a signal, Constantine advanced, his men slowly moving up the valley. Bardas rode up and down his line, encouraging his men to take heart and stand strong, for the future of the Empire (and their families’ future) rested on the coming battle. Constantine did not, believing that such a thing was beneath him, and ordered his men against the spear hedge of the loyalists from a fairly safe position in the center of the line, a fact noted by soldiers on both sides. While the loyalists stood strong, the superior experience and discipline of Constantine’s troops made itself apparent and they were slowly driven back, leaving a surprisingly thin layer of corpses as they fell back. Had Constantine been a better commander, he might have noticed this, but he did not. Had he been a better commander, he might also have noticed that the contour of the stream was pushing his left against Bardas’ right and center, but he instead focused on how his right and center were pressing against the enemy’s left. The valley was filled with blood, death and screams, made all the worse by the common tongue of the belligerents. Despite this, the rebel forces pressed on, emboldened by the enemy’s seeming cowardice and thinning ranks.

Then Bardas struck. With the sound of a horn, 3,000 of his best men, veterans of the wars in Bulgaria and intimately familiar with the art of the ambush, sprang from cover in the hills west of the valley and charged down the slope. Carried by the weight of gravity, they slammed into the unprepared rebel left like a bolt from on high. Already in the thick of things, many rebel soldiers threw down their arms and ran like hell, and Bardas ordered his men not to pursue but to carry on the fight. Despite the breadth of the stream, the loyalist soldiers surged across and slammed into the exposed enemy center, quickly forcing them onto the defensive on two fronts. Constantine ordered his reserves forward to try and turn the tide, but by then the narrow valley was choked with fleeing men, and the reserves either fled as well or slowed their advance to try and clear the way. Despairing of victory as his center crumbled, Constantine fled the field, sparking a route amongst his men. Loyalist soldiers followed close behind, shouting orders to throw down their arms and surrender or be killed; most did the former.

Losses from Gangra were fairly light, Bardas losing 4,500 men to Constantine’s 5,000, but the impact was enormous. Constantine’s guards turned on him after the battle, and a week later his head was presented to Bardas on a plate. Most of the other rebelling nobility followed the retainer’s example, surrendering to the emperor in exchange for clemency. Of course, they were stripped of their titles and sent on punishment expeditions to Bulgaria and/or Crimea, but Bardas left most of them alive. The thematic armies which were fought for Constantine or Zoe were forced to pledge their undying loyalty to Bardas and the House of Phokas, but otherwise were barely punished and were allowed to return to their homes; Bardas did not wish to alienate the eastern provinces so soon after the end of the civil war.

The largest black spot on this victory for the Phokai was, of course, Zoe. The imperial princess had remained in Antioch during Constantine’s march on the capital, and as soon as word reached her of the defeat at Gangra she pulled another disappearing act and fled from the eastern capital, disappearing for several months only to pop up again in the Fatimid court in Cairo in 1028, much to the chagrin of Bardas and Theodora. Of course, the Fatimids reduced to extradite her, and so Constantinople was left to glare across the Levantine Sea while Bardas mulled over….other options for dealing with her. Of course, this was no immediate threat given the Fatimids preoccupation with events in Syria, and so Bardas was left to sort through the list of new strategoi and kleisourai for the formerly rebel provinces and consider a foreign expedition to improve his standing amongst the people of the empire. Perhaps rectify the greatest missed opportunity of Basil’s reign….
Do you think that the butterflies might fly fast enough for the Seljuks to get their skulls beaten in by the Ghaznavids in 1040? I'm not sure. Also, is there anything you'd like to see in Italy? There's the obvious thing to do, which involves the exiled Doge in Constantinople, but the Salians could also be effected by a competent ruler in the east

I admit I am not knowing much about this period, at least in the Far East, or about Italy, it was sort of a lull period, at least for me, aside the Norman ascendance, also because we are in the period before the Investiture controversy.

I guess I'll have to give a look to my Uni middle age history book to refresh my memory.
You said it, not me.
I admit I am not knowing much about this period, at least in the Far East, or about Italy, it was sort of a lull period, at least for me, aside the Norman ascendance, also because we are in the period before the Investiture controversy.

I guess I'll have to give a look to my Uni middle age history book to refresh my memory.
If there's anything interesting, please let me know. Thanks in advance.
Is Bardas preparing to invade Sicily? Or an invasion into the levant?
I am hoping for the latter as the Fatimid Caliphate was starting to fragment at this time.
Neither, actually.
Rather hope to see him go after the Lombard duchies, so that the Normans don't get the chance to establish a foothold in Italy.
Ding ding ding
Ave Basileus Bardas!!
If the investiture controversy occurs I hope the Byzantines ITL can make use of it after all in the OTL they funded the lombard league which broke the power of the Unholy German Confederate(HRE for the uncultured).
I'm going to try and nip the Schism in the bud, so the Investiture Controversy won't happen/won't be as big ITTL
iii. The Italian Campaign
iii. The Italian Campaign

By 1029, the dust from the Revolt of the Dalassenoi had mostly settled. Zoe still lived in exile beyond Constantinople’s reach, but here internal allies had been dealt with, their estates seized and families scattered across the empire where they could cause no more harm. After several months spent on the eastern frontier with the themata, Bardas felt confident enough to turn his attention westward. His marriage to Theodora was somewhat legitimizing, but in order to prove himself as an emperor capable of standing on his own two feet, he needed military victories against foreign foes. Italy called his name….

The pacification campaigns that had followed Gangra had been a fairly simple task. Most of the rebel nobility were either happy to escape with their lives or were sufficiently fanatical that their own supporters turned on them rather than be dragged down alongside them. Bardas oversaw the breaking up of rebel estates amongst the thematic farmers throughout 1027 and 1028, in this move simultaneously weakening the traitorous nobility and increasing the strength and loyalty of the themes. Bourtzes and Boioannes campaigned against the holdouts, who were concentrated along the eastern edge of the frontier in Iberia and Khaldea, before finally defeating Gabras and his army, the largest surviving rebel force, at Kelzene in the spring of 1028 and driving the few thousand survivors across the border into Arab territory. All in all, by the summer of 1028, Constantine and Zoe’s rebellion had been effectively snuffed out, and the eastern parts of Anatolia had been more or less secured. Bardas retired back to Constantinople that June to mull over his next actions.

Despite his marriage to Theodora, he was far from a legitimate emperor--after all, breaking into the palace and decapitating your predecessor is pretty much the most blatant act of usurpation conceivable--and as the revolt of Constantine and Zoe had shown, this left him in a very precarious situation at all times. After all, if he had ascended to the throne by sword and by marriage, what was to keep some random provincial governor from deciding that he would make a better husband for Theodora and marching on the capital. There were effectively two routes to legitimacy for a man in Bardas’ positon; build dozens of churches and monasteries to show his devout nature and demonstrate how much God wanted him to be on the throne, or lead a campaign of conquest against foreign foes. While some members of his administration, most notably Monomachos, were outspokenly in favor of the former option, most of Bardas’ advisors considered it too slow an option at best or foolishly expensive at worst, given the amount of funds that would need to be poured into a construction project. Sure, a few churches or monastic endowments here and there couldn’t hurt, but building them on such a scale would be a waste of time and resources. That left the military option, which Bardas was naturally more inclined towards anyway--after all, he had bested domestic foes, now it was time to turn his attention outwards and present a figure that all of his people could rally around.

It was Boioannes who suggested Italy as the best place for Bardas to demonstrate his martial valor. Half a millennium before, Constantinople had ruled all of Italy, but since then the capital’s hold in the west had crumbled down to the very south of the peninsula. Only Apulia and Kalabria remained under the control of the katepano. Both Bardas and Boioannes saw this as a grave mistake, given the strategic importance of Italy; by holding the southern half of the peninsula, the Romans forced any Frankish[1] invaders to fight through the hills of Italy before they could attack the Imperial heartland, as well as allowing them to project power in the central Mediterranean and prevent encirclement by the Muslims. Roman power in the region was hanging on by a thread at this point, as the Frankish Emperor Conrad the Salian had made a pilgrimage to Rome during the civil war and made threatening noises about “‘“Holy Roman”’” sovereignty over all of Italy. It was privately feared by many in Constantinople even after Conrad’s northward departure that he would try and incite the Lombards to revolt, undoing the work done by Boioannes in mending relations between the two groups. And so, in the winter of 1028, Bardas resolved to depart for the west the coming spring.

The next spring, some 8,000 men assembled in Constantinople and Thessalonika. Given the recently-conquered nature of the Bulgarian themes, Bardas wished to leave behind a sizable garrison force to keep them from getting any ideas, as well as repel raids from the north and any possible resurgence of Rus or Arab raids directed at the capital. A large fleet of some 124 ships was assembled in Constantinople, to be joined by 48 more from Thessalonika. After a final round of preparations, the armada put out from the capital with the emperor at its head on 3 April, bound for the west. After some discussion, Boioannes and Bardas had decided that of the three targets, they should attack Venice first, then the Lombards in Southern Italy proper, and finally Sicily by way of Malta.

Several years before, the Doge of Venice, one Otto Orseolo, had gotten drunk on power after a decade in power. He had appointed dozens of brothers and cousins to positions of high power and had begun conducting marriage alliances with potentates of the surrounding littoral region. This caused many of his citizens to fear that he was plotting to declare himself a hereditary ruler, and in 1026 they had risen up, seized Orseolo, shaved him of all hair and paraded him through the streets of the city naked before exiling him. However, they hadn’t killed him, and so a vengeful Orseolo was left to flee to Constantinople and plot his revenge. He had eagerly volunteered to hand Venice over to the Romans so long as he was allowed to rule it for them as governor-for-life, a price that Bardas found acceptable.

In August, after a brief stopover in Barion, the Roman fleet approached Venice. The Venetians had little forewarning of their approach, but they scrambled a fleet of a dozen galleys to try and drive off the attackers in open waters. The Roman fleet smashed these ships to kindling in less than two hours, and soon they had reached the fortified straits across the littoral. It has been suggested that Bardas blasted through the Venetian defenses with petards, but given that powder would not be invented for nearly two decades and its military use would not commence until decades after that, this is certainly false. Instead, Romans landed on either side of the fortifications and, after the walls had been battered with ballistas and catapults on the warships, assaulted them. Shortly before evening on 23 August, the fortresses fell and the straits were opened. The Romans attacked Venice that night, easily crushing the militia that sallied out to meet them. Bardas gave the Venetians an ultimatum; accept Orseolo and Roman rule or be slaughtered. The Venetians reluctantly accepted Orseolo’s return. After installing a small garrison and collecting taxes retrodated to Orseolo’s exile, the emperor and his fleet departed a few weeks later.

The obvious question is, why did Bardas go all in on an assault on Venice when it folded like a house of cards? The emperor had not overestimated the strength of his enemy, nor had he decided to attack them on a lark or as a show of force (although it accomplished the latter task quite well). No, Bardas had a plan in mind the whole time. Roman rule in the south was shored up by a constellation of Lombard principalities who swung from tributaries to outright vassals from year to year. The three largest of these, Capua, Salerno and Benevento, were given with a great deal of trust and a relatively loose reign. In 1022, the Frankish Emperor Henry II invaded the south of Italy, and the loyal duke Pandulf IV (the Wolf) of Capua had been captured and nearly killed resisting him, while Guaimar III of Salerno had made nice with the interloper while quietly sending messages of support to Constantinople. Landalf of Benevento, however, had rolled over and pledged fealty to Henry, as well as turning over every Roman-held castle to the Franks. Only Troia, an inland citadel that had been founded by Boioannes itself, had survived the betrayal thanks to its decent position and the strength of its garrison. The diversion to Venice had been intentional, so that Bardas could move his forces into the Adriatic without rousing Landalf and asking his protector for help. This worked, and on 25 September 1029 Bardas would strike.

As dawn rose, Roman ships would land in the harbor of Termoli, a small coastal cathedral town whose militia were unable to or too smart to try and resist the attack. By the end of the day, most of the army had landed and formed up, and at dawn the following morning they began their drive inland. They met little resistance other than the occasional attack by foolishly brave Lombard horsemen, and small detachments were sent out in all directions to secure regional hardpoints, including Troia. On 7 October, they reached Campobasso, the chief Lombard citadel of the east, and found its garrison severely depleted by harassment from Capuan outriders; it was swiftly occupied and its defenders allowed to depart in peace, after which Bardas continued the march on Benevento. The ease and alacrity of the Roman advance can be credited to the intervention of Pandulf the Wolf, who had made a secret agreement with Bardas to strike against their mutual enemy on the feast day of Saint Cleops. By the time the Romans arrived at Benevento proper, it had been under siege for three weeks, and the sight of this approaching host caused the defenders to lose heart and strike their colors. Landalf was led out in chains and blinded.

However, Benevento couldn’t simply be annexed directly into the Empire. While doing so would be quite cathartic, it could potentially alienate Salerno and Capua, thus leaving the Roman position in Italy worse off than it had been while Landalf still reigned. As Boioannes informed the emperor, it would also be impractical administratively-speaking; he had learned during his period as katepano that the Lombards would never except direct rule by the Romans, and would remain restive (at best) until they could seize the opportunity to revolt. Still, Bardas felt that the current constellation of petty statelets was susceptible to Frankish undermining. The emperor soon devised a third way, extracting pledges of submission from Pandulf the Wolf, Guiamar of Salerno and Pandulf of Benevento, who had succeeded his father as duke.

On December 25, in the Cathedral of Naples[3], Pandulf the Wolf was formally invested as “Katepanate of Langobardia Minor and Protarkh of all Langobardoi” by Bardas. The first title established Pandulf as a katepano equal to the existing Roman katepanate and strictly speaking independent from his equal in Barion. This simultaneously defanged one of the chief causes of Lombard opposition, namely rule by a foreign governor, and made it much more difficult for any would-be usurper to use Italy as a staging base against him. More importantly, the second title--Protarkh--placed Pandulf the Wolf as the head of the Lombard princes, a position which Bardas privately made very clear could be changed at any time if he dropped the ball or failed to ensure the loyalty of his subordinates. In this system, Bardas had effectively suborned the Lombard princes and turned them against each other, an excellent move which would allow the Romans further control over the south of Italy. He also managed to score another geopolitical victory that winter by freeing Atenulf, the abbot of Montecassino, from his prison in Gaeta and ‘escorting him back to his monastery to show his respect for the Pope’. In truth, Atenulf had been imprisoned on Papal orders, and by installing him in the monastery Bardas was sending a very clear, very confrontational message to Rome: He was in charge, and nothing would happen in Italy without his permission.

Had Conrad not been distracted with rebellions in the far north, restive nobles in the Alps and the bellicosy of his Polish neighbor, he would have certainly responded in force to Bardas’ advances in Italy the next spring. Without his backing, Pope John XIX was left to stew and await the return of his master while writing threatening letters to the Ecumenical Patriarch, with whom he had a preexisting rivalry. Because of the inaction of his two rivals, Bardas was lured into a false sense of security and felt free to turn his attention southwards, towards that island which had so long spited the Romans: Sicily.

Sicily had long been a Roman possession, often referred to as the breadbasket of the Mediterranean because of its fertile granaries and excellent position for trading. Despite its agricultural bounty, the island had fallen to the Arabs in a grueling century-long battle, and its rich harvests and beneficial positions had been lost to Constantinople, as the Emirate of Sicily was considered too formidable to challenge at such a range. However, in recent years, the Emirate had been riven by a succession crisis, as the precarious power sharing agreement of the late emir Ja’far failed and his sons, al-Akhal and Abduallah took up arms against each other. In this crisis, Bardas saw the opportunity to recover the prodigal province. However, it would take time to assemble a proper invasion force, and before he could do so word came of a crisis brewing in the east….

[1] Before the Schism, ‘Frankish’ was the catchall term for westerners, similar to the later period’s ‘Latin’.
[2] This is from OTL
[3] Not the current building, which was commissioned by Charles of Anjou in the 13th Century.