John I Tzimiskes, Byzantine Emperor of Armenian Descent

John I Tzimiskes, Byzantine Emperor

John I Tzimiskes was one of the greatest emperors of Byzantium. John originated from a noble Armenian family (the nickname “Tzimiskes” is derived from Armenian “Chmishkik”, meaning “short stature”) and was the nephew of his predecessor, Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. John played an active role in the assassination of Nikephoros, entering into an agreement with the Emperor’s wife Theophano.

According to the “demand” of the Patriarch of Constantinople Polyeuctus, John punished his adherents, accusing them of the assassination of Nikephoros, and removed Theophano from the royal court.

Then, John took up affairs in charity, distributing all of his property to the poor and setting up a hospital for lepers which he often visited, himself bandaging the wounds of the sick.

The change of the sovereign aggravated the alarming condition of the empire. Nikephoros’ conquests in the East — in Cilicia, Phoenicia, and Coelesyria — were almost lost. In the north, Kievan Rus’ threatened the Greeks. The hunger that had raged for the third year would not cease.

With energetic measures, John I Tzimiskes would manage to save the country, first of all, from internal calamity. Then, he turned against the Saracens and, finally, against the Kiev Prince Svyatoslav who had invaded the Byzantine Empire.

The first victory over the Arabs was won at Antioch by the talented eunuch Nicholas. After the battles against Russia under Arkadiopol and Dorostol, the conclusion of peace, and the departure of the Russians beyond the Danube following the death of Svyatoslav, John himself made two expeditions to the east, which resulted in the return of Syria and Phoenicia. Bulgaria for some time became a province of the empire as well.

In 976, 7 years after accession to the throne, John I Tzimiskes suddenly died. The death of John I Tzimiskes was attributed to poisoning. The court eunuch, the first minister Basil Lekapenos, was considered the culprit of the assassination.

Emperor John I Tzimiskes’s detailed description is given by his contemporary historian Leo the Deacon: “The face is white, of healthy color, the hair is blond and runny on the forehead, the eyes are blue and their look sharp, the nose is thin, proportionate, the beard is reddish and too narrow at the sides but has a correct shape at the bottom and is not trimmed.

He was small in stature, but with a broad chest and back. There was gigantic power in him. His hands possessed dexterity and irresistible power; his heroic soul was fearless, invincible, and distinguished by courage, amazing for such a small body.

He alone, without fear, attacked a whole detachment and, having killed many [enemies], with the speed of a bird returned to his army, whole and unharmed.

He excelled everyone in generosity and wealth of gifts: anyone who asked him for something has never left deceived in their hopes.

He was humane and addressed everyone with an open heart and affection, lavishing, like a prophet, the oil of charity. Had his chamberlain Basil not curbed his insatiable desire to render good deeds to his fellow citizens, he would very soon have exhausted the entire imperial treasury.

But the disadvantage of John was that he drank too much at feasts and was greedy for bodily pleasures.”

John I Tzimiskes, Byzantine Emperor

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