John I Tzimisces

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John I, last name Kourkouas and surnamed Tsimisces (Greek: Ioannes "Tsimisces", written Ιωάννης Τσιμισκής;), lived c. 925 - January 10, 976 and was Byzantine Emperor from December 11, 969 to January 10, 976.

He was born c. 925 to a father belonging to the Kourkouas family and to a mother belonging to the Phocas family. Both were distinguished Cappadocian families of Armenian origin, and among the most prominent of the emerging military aristocracy of Asia Minor. Several of their members had served as prominent army generals, including the brother of John's mother, Nicephorus Phocas.

Contemporary sources describe John as a rather short but well-built man, with reddish blonde hair and beard and blue eyes who was attractive to women. He seems to have joined the army at an early age, originally under the command of his maternal uncle Nicephorus. The latter is also considered his instructor in the art of war. Partly because of his familiar connections and partly because of his personal abilities, John quickly rose through the ranks. He was given the political and military command of the province of Armenia before he turned twenty-five years old.

At the time the Empire was at war with its eastern neighbor, the Abbasid Empire. Armenia served as the border between the two Empires. John managed to successfully defend his province. He and his troops joined the main part of the army, which was campaigning against the enemy under the command of Nicephorus. Nicephorus means "bearer of victory" and Phocas justified his name with a series of victories, moving the borders further east with the capture of about 60 border cities including Aleppo. By 962, the Abbasids had asked for a peace treaty with favorable terms for Byzantines, that secured the borders for some years. John distinguished himself during the war both at the side of his uncle and at leading parts of the army to battle under his personal command. He was rather popular with his troops and gained a reputation for taking the initiative during battles, turning their course. He was regarded by some as a military hero.

On March 15, 963, Emperor Romanus II unexpectedly died at the age of twenty-six. The cause of his death is uncertain. Both contemporary sources and later historians seem to either believe that the young Emperor had exhausted his health with the excesses of his sexual life and his heavy drinking, or suspect Empress Theophano (c. 941 - after 976), his wife, of poisoning him. Theophano had already at the time gained a reputation as an intelligent and ambitious woman. She would later gain a reputation for ruthlesness in achieving her goals. Romanus had, before his death, already crowned as co-emperors his two sons, the later Emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII. At the time, however, Basil was five years old and Constantine only three years old, and they were not able to assume the duties that came with their title. Theophano was named regent.

But she wasn't allowed to rule alone. Joseph Bringas, a eunuch palace official who had become Romanus' chief council, maintained his position. According to contemporary sources he intended to keep the authority to take decisions for the actual matters of importance at his own hands, rather than those of the young Empress. He also tried to remove part of the authority that had been concentrated at the hands of Nicephorus Phocas. The victorious general had been accepted as the actual commander of the army and maintained his strong connections to the aristocracy. Joseph was afraid that Nicephorus could claim the throne with the support of both the army and the aristocracy. Joseph's intrigues during the following months turned both Theophano and Nicephorus against him. Unknown to Joseph, Theophano and Nicephorus had started negotiations with each other.

After helping his maternal uncle to obtain the throne as Nicephorus II and to restore the empire's eastern provinces, he was deprived of his command by an intrigue, upon which he retaliated by conspiring with Nicephorus' wife Theophania to assassinate him.

Elected ruler in his stead, John proceeded to justify his usurpation by the energy with which he repelled the foreign invaders of the empire. In a series of campaigns against the newly established Russian power (970-973) he drove the enemy out of Thrace, crossed Mt. Haemus and besieged the fortress of Dorystolon on the Danube. In several hard-fought battles he broke the strength of the Russians so completely that they left him master of eastern Bulgaria and Dobruja.

He further secured his northern frontier by transplanting to Thrace some colonies of Paulicians whom he suspected of sympathising with their Saracen neighbours in the east.

In 974 he turned against the Abbasid empire and easily recovered the inland parts of Syria and the middle reaches of the Euphrates.

He died suddenly in 976 on his return from his second campaign against the Saracens. John's surname was apparently derived from the Armenian tshemshkik, meaning "red boot".

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