Isaac Comnenus seized the Eastern Roman Empire’s throne in 1057 but only ruled for just over two years. Even so, he differed in several areas from the empire’s other rulers.
While Isaac’s father was Manuel Comnenus, a loyal general for Basil II, one reference said Isaac’s mother was the unnamed daughter of a Bulgarian Tsar. Based on Isaac’s likely birthdate, the Bulgarian Tsar was either Samuel or Samuel’s son, Gavril Radomir. Isaac’s wife, Catherine, was the daughter of another Bulgarian Tsar, Ivan Vladislav. Given that Ivan murdered his cousin, Gavril, to become Tsar, Isaac and Catherine’s marriage may have had a few challenges. In any event, Isaac had unusually close ties to the Bulgarians for that time.
Sometimes The Second Choice Wins
Isaac was not the first choice of the generals who rebelled against Michael VI. Their first choice was another general, Nikephoros Bryennios. He had the misfortune to be caught by Michael VI’s supporters early in the rebellion and blinded. Isaac was their second choice.
Not the Omphalion
The traditional location in the Hagia Sophia for coronations was in the large green marble circle in the nave of the church, nicknamed the Omphalion (the navel of the world, which it does somewhat resemble when viewed from the balcony!). John Skylitzes’s history reports that Isaac’s crowning took place in the church’s ambo/pulpit, instead. I guess he really wanted the people to see him.
Ready for Battle
His coinage pictured him with an upraised sword. He’s the only emperor whose coinage depicted him in this way.
A Soldier and a Scholar
He abdicated after a bout of serious illness when he thought he might die and retired to the monastery of St. John Stoudion where he lived for about another two years. In retirement he wrote scholarly papers on the Iliad and other Homeric poems.
So we see in him an extroverted scholar/soldier versed in Greek culture but with Bulgarian origins. Not your usual emperor!