Five Little Known Facts about Isaac I Comnenus

Gold coin of Isaac I Comnenus

Gold coin of Isaac I Comnenus

Isaac Comnenus seized the Eastern Roman Empire’s throne in 1057 but only ruled for just over two years. Even so, there were things about him and his rule that differed from the empire’s other rulers.

1 – While Isaac’s father was Manuel Comnenus, a loyal general for Basil II, Isaac’s mother was said to be the unnamed daughter of a Bulgarian Tsar. Based on Isaac’s likely birthdate, the Bulgarian Tsar could have been 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.

2 – Isaac was not the first choice of the generals who rebelled against Michael VI. Their first choice had been another general, Nikephoros Bryennios, but he had the misfortune to be caught by Michael’s supporters early in the rebellion and blinded. Isaac was their second choice.

3 – 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!). John Skylitzes’s history reports that Isaac’s crowningtook place in the church’s ambo/pulpit, instead. I guess he really wanted to be seen.

4 – His coinage pictured him with an upraised sword. He’s the only emperor whose coinage depicted him in this way.

5 – 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!

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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