Gone Too Soon: 8 Roman Emperors Who Died Too Early
Gone Too Soon: 8 Roman Emperors Who Died Too Early

Gone Too Soon: 8 Roman Emperors Who Died Too Early

Patrick Lynch - September 30, 2017

Gone Too Soon: 8 Roman Emperors Who Died Too Early
Basil II and his soldiers. Weapons and Warfare

7 – Basil II – 1025

The death of Basil II was hardly a surprise since he reigned for nearly 50 years and was almost 70 years old when he died. However, the Byzantine Empire badly missed the excellent leadership of Basil; a fact only highlighted by the lack of quality of the people that succeeded him. Basil succeeded the able John I Tzimiskes in 976 and spent the early part of his reign dealing with rebellions. The first was by Bardas Skleros while the second revolt was started by the man sent to deal with Skleros, Bardas Phokas.

Once he defeated Phokas in 989, Basil was able to get on with the process of cementing his Empire’s position. During the rebellion period, Basil also contended with the Bulgarians and his first attempt to subdue them was unsuccessful. However, he eventually ground them down and forced surrender in 1018 but only after approximately two decades of war.

Overall, Basil’s reign is considered as the peak of Byzantine power in the medieval era. By the time of his death in 1025, the Bulgarians were Christian, and a number of important and powerful families in Kiev were also converted or in the process of doing so. The Byzantine Empire appeared to be in fantastic shape at that point. It was wealthy, its bureaucracy was effective, and its army was battle-hardened and large. Basil expanded territories in the Balkans and eastern Anatolia but his successors were unable to keep everything in check.

Despite his age and length of reign, Basil left no heir and his brother, Constantine VIII, who was technically his co-emperor, ruled alone but only for three years before he also died. Constantine’s daughter, Zoe, took over and married a succession of men who proved to be weak and ineffectual rulers. These emperors foolishly reduced investment in the standing army and the militias on the frontiers. Byzantium’s enemies seized the initiative and groups such as the Normans and Pechenegs threatened the empire. The Seljuk Turks however, did the most damage including a crushing victory at Manzikert in 1071.

Gone Too Soon: 8 Roman Emperors Who Died Too Early
Manuel I Komnenos and his wife. AfricaResource

8 – Manuel I Komnenos – 1180

The first three members of the Komnenid Dynasty were arguably the last great rulers that the Byzantine Empire had. When Alexios took the throne in 1081, the empire had lost Asia Minor, the Normans were threatening the west, and the Pechenegs were invading the east. Alexios stabilized the situation while his successor, John II, recovered territory in the west of Asia Minor. Manuel I became Emperor in 1143 and strengthened the empire’s position in the Balkans while his armies also began the difficult process of trying to take back land in Anatolia.

Of course, his reign was not without mistakes. He was far too ambitious in his territorial aims, and his great campaign against the Turkish Sultanate ended in disaster with a defeat at the Battle of Myriokephalon in 1176. Despite the vast sums spent on warfare which left the treasury bare, the Empire’s Western provinces enjoyed an economic revival which carried on from the days of Alexios.

Manuel was extremely popular with members of his court who referred to him as the ‘divine emperor.’ Chroniclers in the next century also lavished him with praise by saying he was ‘the most blessed of emperors,’ and he was ‘great in fine deeds.’ Even with the setbacks against the Turks, the Empire was still considered a great power and enjoyed a booming economy.

However, Byzantium needed a strong leader to hold everything together, and while Manuel certainly fitted the bill, his successors did not. When he died in 1180, his son and successor, Alexios II, was just ten years of age and was under the influence of his mother, Maria, who was a Frankish princess. Hostility towards ‘foreign’ influence led to the murder of Alexios in 1183 while his usurper, Andronikos I, was executed two years later. Subsequently, internal squabbling occupied the empire and allowed enemies to regain territory. Within a quarter of a century of Manuel’s death, Constantinople fell for the first time. It was the beginning of the end.