Alternate History

Despotate of Constantinople (Barbarian Empire)

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Vladimir Monomach

"...After sending Vladimir to govern Rostov along with a capable voievoda, Vsevolod of Pereyaslavl changed his mind and recalled him back to Pereyaslavl in 1066; the young man was first his chancellor and largely shared the government except in the final decisions, but never received another fief and apparently thought he’d never get one. Vladimir used his position to write letters to various important people, including the princes of Kiev and the king of the Hungarians, offering his services in return for land; he found the most sympathetic listener in Basil Skleros, who wasn’t a particularly old man at the time, but sensibly enough for a Byzantine general was already thinking of a successor.

Vladimir impressed Skleros; the two met when Vladimir was his father’s ambassador to Tsargrad in 1067, and it is presumably there that he met the nobles that would later be his strongest support – the Petzikopouloi and the Philanthropenoi. When Michael Doukas started the doomed campaign against the Seljuks, Basil rebelled, as did several other generals, including Nikephoros Botaneiates and Alexios Komnenos. Deprived from their support, the setbacks – including the big defeat at Amida, which saw the death of Michael’s best still-loyal general Romanos Diogenes – turned into irrepairable catastrophes. The Empire was soon splintered, and the Rhomeioi were pushed not only out of Anatolia but also from Macedon and parts of Thessaly and Thrace.

Nikephoros III overthrew the hapless Michael, but fared no better, his own greatest supporter, Alexios Komnenos, dying in a botched attempt to relieve the besieged army in Antioch. This period of almost-unprecedented chaos and ruin would have made even Basil Skleros seem a better choice than Nikephoros, whose only significant possessions were in the Pelloponnese and whose court was in Rhodos. However, to secure Constantinople’s loyalty, Skleros had to first neutralize a large garrison lead by Andronikos Doukas in Adrianople. As well all know, that is where he died, and when his will was read, everyone was surprised to see that the Rus princeling was the inheritor.

It is no secret that initially his support was low, but luckily for him the generals serving under Skleros could not agree on a leader from among themselves. After several covert murders from infighting, the survivors panicked and decided to invite Vladimir, who they no doubt saw as a possible puppet. He arrived by sea with his druzhina of only two hundred Russians and Varangians, but showed his mettle at once by capturing Andronikos Choniates, a pretender from the smaller city of Kaliopolis and thus forcing the surrender of the city. With the troops from the Kaliopolis garrison he returned to Adrianople, but was unsuccessful there; he lifted the siege and started back towards Constantinople, which was held by a council of eparchs and captains, who, trusting nobody, were deciding to support one pretender or another, or choose one from among themselves. His career could have well ended there, since Andronikos Doukas was still alive and well, but the Seljuks, driving mercilessly through the Greek mainland, attacked Adrianople and took care of that problem for the man now calling himself Basil Monomachos. The city, fearing the worst, allowed Vladimir in with Skleros’ army. By then it consisted mostly of Bulgarians and Varangian mercenaries, and no other general in his retinue could compete with the Rus warlord in their sway over the barbarian warriors.

Unprecedentedly and shrewdly, his entrance into the city wasn’t followed by a coronation. Instead he acknowledged that Nikephoros was really the legitimate Emperor, but that Vladimir was the Great Eparch and Protector of Constantinople and would hold the city until the Empire could regain its strength. This had the intended effect of calming down of worried city officials, the church, and most importantly, the Seljuks. Other Greek cities were devastated as the Seljuks pressed on against the Botaneiates emperor, but Constantinople was untouched. The city mob was grateful. Basil Monomachos became a popular man. The generals of Belgrade and Naissus offered their loyalty. He graciously accepted.

However, it must be noted, that whatever he achieved was through his own ability and good fortune. Vsevolod of Pereyaslavl was barely surviving the Polovtsian onslaught at the time, and once he overcame them, his realm was immediately wracked by revolts. So Vladimir’s father, while writing tender letters to his son, never offered him any help, nor received any. It is only towards the end of his life that he decided to make Vladimir his sole heir, not least because of his Knytling wife’s rebellious children. Even when Vsevolod died, Vladimir inherited only distant Pereyaslavl and the unimaginably distant Rostov directly. The rest was vassals who were barely loyal or else in open rebellion. His agents in Pereyaslavl made sure the city mob was loyal to him, but Rostov was lost to his half-brother Igor from Murom. Judging Pereyaslavl safe enough behind its tall stone walls from the depredations of his unruly relatives, he continued the policy of his father – signing peace where possible, even to his own detriment. This was seen as weakness by the Rus, but worked enough times for him to keep pursuing the policy throughout his early years as prince of Pereyaslavl. His strength, therefore, has nothing to do with Rus; it rested solely on the fact that to the mob and the bureaucrats in Constantinople, he was the best choice of many bad ones in a time of terrible uncertainty.

However, he was fully aware he had to do something, and do it fast. Two things were of great importance – to preserve what was left of Greek power around Constantinople, and to establish a toehold in Rus. The opportunity presented itself early. The Seljuks took over parts of Crimea; but the Greeks and Goths, lead by Ioannes, the archbishop of Doros, rose in rebellion against Muslim masters. Vladimir decided to support them. The vast army he gathered from the great city under his command was larger than what the war-exhausted Seljuks could gather. In a few short years, a war of much maneuver and little fighting saw the return of Crimea and parts of Anatolia under the sway of Constantinople. He decisively beat the Sultan of the Seljuks outside Doros, and the latter signed a peace treaty. However, as soon as he returned back to his homeland, the Sultan gathered more troops and attacked Vladimir’s possessions in Bulgaria. This new war resulted in two important things – Nikephoros and the Seljuks signed peace, preserving southern Greece from destruction; and the involvement of Georgia. Georgia got into a war with Derbent, who were supported by the Seljuks. Vladimir chose Gurgen Bagrationi as an ally instead of his cousin Rostislav Mstislavich in Kiev, who at the time was having troubles with western crusaders.

Pope Urban called the first crusade in 1095, a few years before Vsevolod’s death. The mostly-German crusaders were quite successful, occupying several important cities along the Syrian and Lebanese coast. They were however unable to take Jerusalem nor Antioch. The second crusade was called in 1102, just as Georgia and Constantinople went to war with the Seljuks. The Crusaders, supplied and ferried – albeit unofficially - by Cretans, Cypriots, Venetians and the Byzantines in Rhodos probably bore the burnt of all the fighting, sustaining several major defeats but nonetheless pushing slightly against the Seljuks and the Fatimids of Egypt. In contrast, the Georgians made dramatic gains against Derbent and the Seljuks’ Armenian vassals, and Basil Monomachos retook Adrianople and Nikopolis. Basil then, wisely, signed a peace that the Seljuk Sultan was only too happy to agree to, as it left him free to deal with the Crusaders; the Georgians pressed on, to their own later undoing.

Not all Crusaders spent their time fighting the Turks, however. Swedish, Norwegian and German crusaders, moving through Russian waterways, discovered that the Polish King and Rostislav of Kiev were about to take arms against each other; under the guise of supporting the Polish catholics, they instead sacked Pskov, Polotsk, Minsk, Galich, and finally Kiev itself. Then they set up fiefs there; in the fierce infighting that followed, the dukes of Lorraine and the earls from Norway got the upper hand and divided the conquests between themselves. Poland re-occupied the Red Towns, lost by them to Vladimir I generations back. Rostislav ran to Novgorod, to plot revenge. Needless to say, the so-called Northern Crusaders never reached the Holy Land, being too busy setting up new fiefs in Russia. Soon afterwards, Khan Sencer of the Kimiaks defeated Oleg Glebovich, the last of the Chernigov princes, executed him, and took his lands.

It therefore follows to say that Russia, much like Greece, was now without effective leadership. Rostislav’s former vassals broke away from him; it was up to Vladimir to pick up the pieces. However, the first of the Rus Emperors was a man both pragmatic and cautious. He kept on writing letters, inviting Rus princes to Constantinople to discuss re-uniting the land, promising protection and support in return. His own reputation as a victor against the Seljuks certainly helped, but the efforts were largely unsuccessful for a long time, until his sister Anna, whose domain lay in territories taken by her father from the Cumans, finally agreed. Hers was a small holding but her good reputation with the church and most of the rebel princes played an enormous part in what happened next.

Like a minor political avalanche, the smaller princedoms began offering allegiances. The larger ones held out; but at that point Vladimir had enough clout to begin pursuing a more aggressive policy. Matfei Vsevolodvich attacked Anna Vsevolodvna’s Pontic holdings in return for her joining Vladimir; mere months later a large Greek-Bulgarian army lead by Romanos Philanthropenos, the first of the great Philanthropenoi generals, landed in Theodosia, and the local Goths and Anna’s forces joined it. They beat Matfei out of Crimea, and then chased him all the way to his brother's fief in Murom, overthrowing, along the way, Novgorod-Severskiy and Rostov. Vladimir arrived with a smaller force in the wake of its passing, claiming the new territories and setting up reliable governors.

Impressed by the new Great Prince’s power, lesser princes, including those from former Polotskian and Kievan lands offered loyalty in droves. Vladimir was gracious and let them keep their lands. The final success came when Ingvar Vsevolodovich of Tmutarakan, the largest of all remaining princedoms, gave in. By 1120 he controlled all lands his father did and more, with the exception of Beloozero, which was taken over by Novgorod in the years of chaos. That same year his sister Anna died. The newly-appointed Patriarch of Pereyaslavl canonized her, for her missionary work among her pagan subjects, nominally, but in reality for her role in consolidating Vladimir’s Empire.

It was only after the latter was accomplished that Basil Monomachos lay aside his humble claims to be only Constantinople’s protector; he married Anastasia Botaneiates, the aging daughter of his long-time rival Nikephoros III. Nikephoros himself was deposed by Theodoros I Mouzakios, a Rhodian general, in 1114, and died in a monastery. With that marriage lending him legitimacy, and his own position very strong, he laid claim to the Empire. Vladimir’s highly successful reign ended in 1126 ..."

Miloslav the Unmerciful

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