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John I Tzimiskes

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John I Tzimiskes
Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans
Detail of the Gunthertuch, a Byzantine silk tapestry depicting John Tzimiskes being greeted by the Blues and Greens at a triumph.
Byzantine emperor
Reign11 December 969 –
10 January 976
Coronation19 December 969[1]
PredecessorNikephoros II Phokas
SuccessorBasil II
(now Çemişgezek,[2] Tunceli Province, Turkey)
Died10 January 976(976-01-10) (aged 50–51)
(now Istanbul, Turkey)
SpouseMaria Skleraina

John I Tzimiskes (Greek: Ἰωάννης ὁ Τζιμισκής, romanizedIōánnēs ho Tzimiskēs; c. 925 – 10 January 976) was the senior Byzantine emperor from 969 to 976. An intuitive and successful general who married into the influential Skleros family, he strengthened and expanded the Byzantine Empire to include Thrace and Syria by warring with the Rus' under Sviatoslav I and the Fatimids respectively.


Histamenon of John I
Miliaresion of John I

John was born in present-day Çemişgezek in Tunceli Province. His father was a scion of the Kourkouas family, a clan of still debated Armenian origin[3] that had established itself as one of the chief families among the Anatolian military aristocracy by the early 10th century.[4][5][6] His mother belonging to the Phokas family of unknown ethnicity, maybe Greek-Armenian origin.[7][8] Scholars have speculated that "Tzimiskes" was derived either from the Armenian Chmushkik (Չմշկիկ), meaning "red boot",[9] or from an Armenian word for "short stature", as explained by Leo the Deacon.[10] A more favorable explanation is offered by the medieval Armenian historian Matthew of Edessa, who states that Tzimiskes was from the region of Khozan, from the area called Chmushkatzag.[11] Khozan was located in the region of Paghnatun, in the Byzantine province of Fourth Armenia (Sophene).[12] Either way, "Tzimiskes" was a surname used by other members of John's family, as the Armenian historian Stepanos Asoghik refers to him as the "grandson of Č‘mškik".[13]

Tzimiskes was born in 924 or 925, as Leo the Deacon states that he died aged 51,[14] to an unnamed member of the Kourkouas family and the sister of the future Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. Both the Kourkouai and the Phokadai were distinguished Cappadocian families, and among the most prominent of the emerging military aristocracy of Asia Minor. Several of their members had served as prominent army generals, most notably the great John Kourkouas, who conquered Melitene and much of Armenia.

Contemporary sources describe Tzimiskes as a rather short but well-built man, with reddish blonde hair and beard and blue eyes who was attractive to women.[15][16] He seems to have joined the army at an early age, originally under the command of his maternal uncle Nikephoros Phokas. The latter is also considered his instructor in the art of war. Partly because of his familial connections and partly because of his personal abilities, Tzimiskes quickly rose through the ranks. He was given the political and military command of the theme of Armenia before he turned twenty-five years old.

His marriage to Maria Skleraina, daughter of Pantherios Skleros and sister of Bardas Skleros, linked him to the influential Skleros family. Little is known about her; she died before his rise to the throne, and the marriage was apparently childless. The contemporary historian Leo the Deacon remarks that she excelled in both beauty and wisdom. [17]

Rise to the throne[edit]

Tentative reproduction of the lost portrait of John I. He's depicted beardless, although literary sources describe him as having a reddish/blonde facial hair.

The Byzantine Empire was at war with its eastern neighbors, the various autonomous and semi-autonomous emirates emerging from the break-up of the Abbasid Caliphate. The most prominent among them was the Hamdanid Emirate of Aleppo, under Sayf al-Dawla. Armenia served as the borderland between the two Empires, and Tzimiskes successfully defended his province. He and his troops joined the main army which was campaigning under the command of Nikephoros Phokas.

By 962 the Hamdanids had sued for peace with favorable terms for the Byzantines, securing the eastern border of the Empire for some years. Tzimiskes 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, as in the Battle of Raban in 958.[18] He was rather popular with his troops and gained a reputation for taking the initiative during battles, turning their course.

On the death of Emperor Romanos II in 963, Tzimiskes urged his uncle to seize the throne. After helping Nikephoros to the throne and continuing to defend the Empire's eastern provinces, Tzimiskes was deprived of his command by an intrigue, for which he retaliated by conspiring with Nikephoros' wife Theophano and a number of disgruntled leading generals (Michael Bourtzes and Leo Balantes) to assassinate Nikephoros.


The coronation of John Tzimiskes, from the Madrid Skylitzes

After his coronation in December 969, Tzimiskes dispatched his brother-in-law Bardas Skleros to subdue a rebellion by Bardas Phokas, a cousin of Tzimiskes who aspired to succeed their uncle as emperor. To solidify his position, Tzimiskes married Theodora, a daughter of Emperor Constantine VII. He proceeded to justify his usurpation by repelling the foreign invaders of the Empire. The tributary of Aleppo was soon assured under the Treaty of Safar.

The Byzantine army under John I lays siege to the Bulgarian capital at Preslav.

During his early reign he had to fight off the Kievan Rus' encroachment on the Lower Danube. In 970 he sent his brother-in-law, Bardas Skleros, to push the Rus' forces out of Thrace; Skleros defeated the Rus' army at Arcadiopolis. In 971, John Tzimiskes took the main army across Mt. Haemus, and besieged the fortress of Dorostolon (Silistra) on the Danube for 65 days, where after several hard-fought battles he defeated Grand Prince Sviatoslav I of Kiev. Tzimiskes and Sviatoslav ended up negotiating a truce, in which weaponry, armor and provisions were exchanged for the famished Rus' departure.

John Tzimiskes enters Constantinople in triumph along with the captured Boris II of Bulgaria.

On his return to Constantinople, Tzimiskes celebrated a triumph, expanded the Church of Christ of the Chalke as thanksgiving, divested the captive Bulgarian Emperor Boris II of the Imperial symbols, and proclaimed Bulgaria annexed. He further secured his northern frontier by transplanting to Thrace some colonies of the Paulicians, whom he suspected of sympathising with their Muslim neighbours in the east.[9]

In 972, Tzimiskes turned against the Abbasid Empire and its vassals, beginning with an invasion of Upper Mesopotamia. A second campaign, in 975, was aimed at Syria, where his forces took Emesa, Heliopolis, Damascus, Tiberias, Nazareth, Caesarea, Sidon, Beirut, Byblos, and Tripoli, but failed to take Jerusalem.[19]


Klavdiy Lebedev (1852–1916). Svyatoslav's meeting with Emperor John, as described by Leo the Deacon

Tzimiskes died suddenly in 976 returning from his second campaign against the Abbasids and was buried in the Church of Christ Chalkites, which he had rebuilt. Several sources state that the Imperial chamberlain Basil Lekapenos poisoned the emperor to prevent him from stripping Lekapenos of his ill-gotten lands and riches.[20][21][22] Tzimiskes left all his own personal wealth to the poor and the sick.[21] He was succeeded by his ward and nephew, Basil II, who had been nominal co-emperor since 960. He left his successor a strengthened and expanded empire.[20]


Finnish philologist and researcher Paavo Hohti asserts that Tzimiskes was one of "Byzantine's most capable military generals", noting his talents as a mediator and a reformer of religious institutions. According to Hohti, Tzimiskes' successful campaigns against the Rus and the Arabs allowed him to restore the ascendancy of the Eastern Roman Empire in the Balkans and Mesopotamia.[23]


Tsimiski Street, the main commercial road in the center of Thessaloniki, is named after him. Çemişgezek in the Tunceli Province, modern day Turkey, is named after him, as he was born there.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Leo the Deacon, pp. 143–147 (VI, 1–4).
  2. ^ "Çemişgezek" in The Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names, 2005, by John Everett-Heath, Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ Romanland, Harvard University Press, 1 April 2019, pp. 81–120, doi:10.2307/j.ctvckq5d6.7, retrieved 30 April 2023
  4. ^ Kazhdan 1991, pp. 1156–1157.
  5. ^ Andriollo 2012, p. 58.
  6. ^ Preiser-Kapeller, Johannes (23 April 2020), "Aristocrats, Mercenaries, Clergymen and Refugees: Deliberate and Forced Mobility of Armenians in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (6th to 11th Century a.d.)", Migration Histories of the Medieval Afroeurasian Transition Zone, BRILL, pp. 327–384, doi:10.1163/9789004425613_013, ISBN 9789004425613, S2CID 218992750
  7. ^ Blaum 1994, p. 6. "The Phocas family was always associated with the province of Cappadocia in eastern Anatolia; its actual lineage seems to have been a mixture of Armenian and Greek.".
  8. ^ Whittow, Mark (1996). The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600–1025. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-24765-3. ISBN 978-0-333-49601-5.
  9. ^ a b "John I (Roman emperor)". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  10. ^ Leo the Deacon, pp. 141–142 (V, 9).
  11. ^ (in Armenian) Matthew of Edessa. Մատթեոս Ուռհայեցի`Ժամանակնագրություն (The Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa). Translation and commentary by Hrach Bartikyan. Yerevan, Armenian SSR: Hayastan Publishing, 1973, pp. 12–13.
  12. ^ See Matthew of Edessa. The Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa, p. 301, note 52.
  13. ^ "Ioannes I. Tzimiskes". Prosopographie der mittelbyzantinischen Zeit Online (in German). De Gruyter. 2013. Retrieved 29 April 2023.
  14. ^ Leo the Deacon, p. 221 (X, 11).
  15. ^ Leo the Deacon, p. 146 (V, 3).
  16. ^ Treadgold 1997, pp. 505–506.
  17. ^ "Maria Skleraina". Prosopographie der mittelbyzantinischen Zeit Online (in German). De Gruyter. 2013. Retrieved 29 April 2023.
  18. ^ Shepard 2010, p. 151-152.
  19. ^ Romane 2015, p. 73.
  20. ^ a b Treadgold 1997, p. 512.
  21. ^ a b Norwich 1992, p. 229.
  22. ^ Leo the Deacon, p. 218 (X, 11).
  23. ^ Hohti, Paavo (2021). Bysantti - Tuhat draaman vuotta [Byzantium - A thousand years of drama] (in Finnish). WSOY. p. 286.


External links[edit]

John I Tzimiskes
Born: c. 925 Died: 10 January 976
Regnal titles
Preceded by Byzantine emperor
(with Basil II and Constantine VIII
as junior emperors)
Succeeded by
Military offices
Preceded by
Nikephoros II Phokas
Domestic of the Schools of the East
Title next held by