Hasan-i-Sabah was born in Persia in 1055 to a Shia Muslim family.  As he grew older, he studied the Ismaili sect of Shiism and soon embraced it enthusiastically.  He traveled throughout Persia, Syria and Egypt spreading the word.  The Seljuk Turks invaded Persia in the middle of the eleventh century and forced their Sunni Islam on the Persians.  This aggression intensified Hasan’s desire to spread Ismailism.  He soon had many followers.

Alamut castle in the Elbruz Mountains of northern Persia dominated the 90-square mile valley below.  Hassan converted many of the local  inhabitants and soon they smuggled him into the impregnable castle.  When the owner of Alamut discovered that his home had been invaded, he graciously agreed to leave.  Hassan rewarded his kindly act by paying a fair price for the fortress.

Hasan spent the rest of his thirty-five years in Alamut.  He never left.  He led an exceptionally ascetic life.  He exiled a flute player for playing music, as his strict Muslim creed taught that music was only for the dissolute.  He had a son executed for consuming wine. His followers admired his piety.

Political murder was not new to Islam.  The Prophet praised anyone who killed a political foe.  Three of the four Righteous Caliphs that succeeded Muhammad were murdered.  Hasan agreed that selective killing of political leaders was preferable to war, and oftentimes accomplished the same thing.  But he mastered the intricacies of selective political elimination, what we now call assassination.  There  were plenty of Sunni targets in Persia for his agents.  His agents never fled after committing their crime, which was always accomplished with nothing but a dagger.

The name “Assassin” most likely comes from the the derogatory term hashishim, used by both Sunni and hostile Shia.  It has nothing to do with hashish and rewards of drug-filled romping through the Garden of Pleasure.  Contemporary literature mentions nothing about this.

In the twelfth century, the Syrian Assassins were in trouble.  They were surrounded by hostile Sunnis, be they Nur al-Din of Aleppo or Saladin, or local Sunni tribes.  And European Crusaders were pushing the Assassins back as well.  They were already paying a high annual tribute to the Knights Templar.

Rashid al-Din Sinan was born near Basra in about 1132.  He joined the Ismailis and lived for a time in Alamut.  Hassan II, the third ruler of Alamut after Hasan-i-Sabah, sent Sinan to Syria to strengthen the group in 1162.  He played off one Muslim foe against another to keep his boat afloat.  He proposed an alliance with Amalric, King of Jerusalem, if the King could negotiate an end to the tribute due to Templars.  But the Templars would have none of that.  One killed Sinan’s ambassador.  Amalric apologized and jailed the offending knight.  Unfortunately, Amalric’s unforeseen death due to dysentery precluded any further negotiations.

Sinan sent  assassins to kill Saladin twice but failed.  Saladin twice attacked Assassin strongholds, including Masyaf.  But eventually the two groups allied.

In 1187, Saladin defeated the Kingdom of Jerusalem at Hattin.  Then he picked off one Crusader castle or city at a time.  He was soon at the gates of Tyre, the last Crusader stronghold in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  However, Conrad de Montferrat had arrived from northern Italy and had strengthened the city’s defenses.  Twice Saladin laid siege to the city and failed to take it.  Conrad was soon elected the new King of Jerusalem, after a fierce rivalry with Guy de Lusignan, the former king who had been captured at Hattin.  Soon after, two Assassin disguised as monks stabbed him to death.  One was killed on the spot and the other was captured.  It is not known if Conrad’s murder was done at Saladin’s request or if Assassin-Crusader relations had deteriorated to the point that the killing was seen as a political necessity.  Some thought that Conrad’s murder was done at the order of Richard Lionheart, who had backed Guy de Lusignan’s attempt to return to the throne.  In a twist of historical irony, Sinan died soon after Conrad, and Saladin not long after Sinan.  Richard had left the Holy Land six months before Saladin’s death.  As he made his way through Europe, back to England, he was captured by Leopold Duke of Austria, a cousin of Conrad.  Leopold charged Richard with the murder and sent him to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry for imprisonment.  It must almost be noted that Richard, upon his arrival at Acre during the Third Crusade, found Leopold’s standard flying by the standard of the King of France.  He immediately tore it down and put up his own, stating that the standard of a duke should not fly as high as that of a king.

After Sinan, the Syrian Assassins were commanded directly by the Lord of Alamut.  They continued to balance alliances between Sunnis and Crusaders to keep their security.  No further assassinations of Muslims were undertaken.  However, Raymond son of King Bohemond IV of Antioch was killed by Assassins.  Bohemond sent an army to crush them but the descendants of Saladin vowed to aid the Assassins and Bohemond cancelled the offensive.

The Syrian Assassins found themselves in an alliance with the Knights Hospitaller against Bohemond IV.  When Pope Gregory IX found out, he forbad any further Hospitaller or Templar alliance with the Assassins.  As these groups were answerable only to the pope, they had to comply.

The Mongol Hulagu Khan, grandson of Ghenghis Khan and brother of Kublai Khan, conquered Seljuk Persia and went on to raze Baghdad and cripple Damascus.  They smashed Alamut and wiped out the Persian Assassins.  The Syrian Assassins, however managed to survive.  Their castles were captured by the Mongols,  but the Assassins helped the Mamelukes of Egypt defeat the Mongol army at Ain Jalut in 1260.  Thereafter, they were loyal subjects of the Mameluke sultans.

Good books on the subject:

The Templars and the Assassins, The Militia of Heaven, 2001; James Wasserman

A History of the Crusades, Volume II, 1952; Sir Steven Runciman

A History of the Crusades, Volume III, 1954; Sir Steven Runciman

Warriors of God, 2001; James Reston, Jr.

Irene, Another Byzantine Femme Fatale

I’m not sure what it is about Byzantine women, but they have a certain proclivity for manipulation and skullduggery.  Recall Theophano from my last blog.  And before both Theophano and Irene was Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian.  That sixth century actress (a very disreputable profession in those days) rose to become perhaps the best-know Byzantine Empress.  I’ll blog about her later.

Irene came from Athens.  However, eighth century Athens in no way resembled the Athens of Pericles.  The great schools were gone.  The Parthenon was now and church, and would remain so until the Ottoman Conquest of the 15th century, when it became a mosque.  She was quite beautiful, but not much else is known about her.  She was married to Leo IV, son of Constantine V.  Constantine, like his father Leo III, was an ardent Iconoclast.  He and his fellow Iconoclasts believed that icons were idolatrous images proscribed by the Second Commandment.  The government vigorously punished those who clung to the icons.  Thousands of icons were destroyed and replaced with simple crosses, if anything at all. Those who continued to venerate icons, the Iconodules, were persecuted vigorously.  The Empire nearly erupted in civil war.  Iconodules from areas that favored Iconoclasm, mostly in Anatolia and other eastern provinces, fled to areas where icon veneration was still very popular, namely Greece, Thrace and Italy.  Being from Athens, Irene was an Iconodule.  Why Constantine V and his son Leo IV, both Iconoclasts, chose her for the imperial marriage is a mystery.

Irene played her hand skillfully.  Her Iconoclast husband was not only weak from years of tuberculosis, but he also lacked the political fortitude of his father.  Irene was know to be an Iconodule and she made no secret of her desire to push out the iconoclasts, but she was felt to be powerless while her husband lived.  When Leo was overcome by his tuberculosis and died, Irene became Regent for her eleven-year old son Constantine VI.  An army in Anatolia reacted with mutiny.  Irene put down the revolt but tread lightly thereafter.  Most of those in the government, army and in positions of power in the Church were Iconoclasts.

Irene skillfully removed Iconoclasts in power in the army.  When the Patriarch died, she replaced him with a like-minded ally.  Constantine was manipulated like a puppet.  Eventually, he tired of his mother’s treachery and shut her up in her imperial apartments and assuming complete control for himself.  However, his handling of the army was disastrous, leading to defeats at the hands of Harun al-Rashid.  Humiliating treaties required the Byzantines to pay considerable tribute to the Caliph.  Irene was said to have leaked false intelligence to her son that led him to withdraw his army from a key area, only to have the enemy seize it upon his retreat.  As a result, Constantine’s popularity with the army evaporated.  In desperation he  summoned his mother to his side.  Irene didn’t wait to act.  A group of soldiers surprised Constantine and his guards as they processed from the Hippodrome to a church in the north of Constantinople.  Their attack was intense, but the Emperor escaped by rowing himself across the Bosporus.  However, Constantine’s good fortune was exhausted.  He was captured by Irene’s agents and taken to the Porphyry Pavilion, the customary birthplace of all imperial children, and viciously blinded.  He soon died from this mutilation, leaving no heirs.  Irene quickly leapt in and claimed the reins of power.

But Irene’s popularity now hit its nadir.  The murder of her son was extremely unpopular and, though she never admitted it, the populace knew that she was responsible.  Her solution to her treacherous position was to lower taxes drastically.  This is is exactly what the Empire did not need.  The government was bankrupt.  A new treaty with Harun al-Rashid promised him more tribute.  The soldiers facing the Saracens wondered when and how they would be paid if the Empress was sending their money to their enemy.

In that same year, 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor of Rome on Christmas Day by Pope Leo.  The Byzantines were furious.  They were the true Romans.  They were the heirs of Augustus, Trajan and Constantine the Great.  This barbarian usurper was not.  And now the usurper added insult to injury.  Less than two years later, his court proposed marriage between the “Roman” ruler of the West and the Byzantine Empress, uniting Christendom’s two great empires.  However, Irene saw this as an opportunity, if not a necessity.  Her policies had driven the Byzantine Empire into poverty.  She needed a savior and Charlemagne fit the bill.  However, the prospect of a Byzantine empress marrying a barbarous adventurer was intolerable.  Noblemen gathered together at the Hippodrome and then proceeded to the Empress’ quarters.  When accosted, she offered no resistance.  she was exiled to Prince’s Island in the nearby Sea of Marmara and later to Lesbos.  Within a year she was dead, and the Byzantine Empire’s first empress to rule in her own right passed into the pages of history.


Great Sources:


Byzantium: The Early Centuries; J.J. Norwich

Byzantium: The Apogee; J.J. Norwich

A History of the Byzantine State and Society; Treadgold



The Fascinating Theophano

The story of Theophano is one that typifies Imperial Byzantine politics.  She was born a commoner but soon became Empress Theophano.  Her boys would follow her as emperors.  One of them, Basil II, would be one of the greatest rulers the Byzantine Empire would know.  Her daughter Anna would marry Vladimir of Kiev, bringing the Kievan Rus into the Byzantine orbit.

In 958, Romanos, heir apparent to the throne, was told by his father Emperor Constantine VII, to marry Hedwig of Bavaria.  Romanos was a young widower whose first wife, an Italian named Bertha, died soon after the marriage.  The wedding preparations were suddenly stopped after Romanos met the daughter of a Peloponnesian inn keeper.  She was a stunning beauty and Romanos had to have her.  He was also very attractive.  They soon married.  She was eighteen years old.

Romanos’ father relented and the marriage to a commoner was allowed.  This was not the first time in Byzantine history that this had happened.  In the sixth century, the great Emperor Justinian married Theodora, an “entertainer”, the daughter of a bear-keeper.

Theophano dominated her new husband.  She saw his mother Helena, and his five sisters as rivals.  She forced Romanos to sequester his mother in a forgotten corner of the palace and to compel his sisters to become nuns.  They did not do so willingly, but the new empress had her way.

Soon Emperor Constantine died of dysentery.  Many felt that his new daughter-in-law had a hand in this.  In 963, Romanos died of poisoning.  Many in the palace suspected the Empress, but none pressed their accusations.  However, Theophano was still a step away from the power she craved.  The eunuch Joseph Bringas, a good friend of her now-dead father-in-law, was the prime minister, and he ran the Empire.  However, this inconvenience was not unsurmountable.  The widow Theophano secretly sent for the general who had wrestled Crete from the Arabs, Nikephoros Phokas.  He was very popular, popular enough to lead his army to the gates of Constantinople and overthrow Bringas.  However, he was also very ugly.  It was said that he was a hairy, dark olive-skinned man who was as wide as he was tall.  Phokas at first showed no interest in Theophano and he removed her from the palace and placed her securely in an old fortress.  But Theophano’s beauty soon worked its magic on this ascetic man, whose only interests were the army and the Bible.  He was austere and crude and he planned to become a monk after retiring from the army, despite the fact that his Christian kindness often gave way to overwhelming cruelty.  However, Beauty tamed the Beast.

Upon marrying Theophano, the former general became Nikephoros II, co-emperor with Theophano’s son Basil, age six.  Theophano’s position was again secure.  After five years of marriage, Theophano took a lover.  He was the head of the Eastern Army, John Tzimesces, Nikephoros most trusted general, without whose help, Nikephoros would never had taken the throne.  However, Nikephoros and Tzimesces had fallen out.  The Emperor had removed his general from command and exiled him.

As their liaison progressed, John’s and Theophano’s passion grew.  They soon realized that there was no room for Nikephoros in their world.

On the moonless night of December 10, 969, conspirators dressed as women snuck into the Empress’ quarters.    Beneath their robes were the tools of death.  However, Theophano’s lover had not yet arrived.  Nikephoros had a disturbing premonition and had his men search the palace for interlopers.  None were found.

Earlier that night, Theophano had invited her husband to sleep with her.  He couldn’t say no to her.  As he crawled into bed, Theophano arose, stating that she had forgotten to make final preparations for a young Bulgarian princess, who was coming the next day.  She asked her husband to wait for her in her bed, and to leave the door to her room unlocked, so she could quickly return to his side.

Soon John crossed Sea of Marmara in a small boat with three other conspirators.  They reached the palace as snow began to fall.  Theophano and the other conspirators lowered willow baskets to the ground where her lover was waiting.  The last four conspirators joined the group.  The cabal proceeded to the Empress’s bedroom, only to find her bed empty.  Had the plot been discovered?  Before panic overwhelmed the conspirators, a eunuch pointed to a figure sleeping on the floor.  It was Nikephoros and this practice was not unusual for the ascetic general.

The plotters ran to the Emperor and kicked him awake.  They hacked at his head , creating a deep wound.  He cried for the protection of the Virgin Mary, but the attackers ignored him and dragged him before Tzimesces, who insulted and assaulted the Emperor, but all Nikephoros did was plead with God and the Virgin.  Finally, Tzimesces split open the Emperor’s skull with a sword.  The other conspirators continued to beat the dead man’s body.  Theophano heard the entire event from behind the door.

Their dream was almost complete.  They were rid of the wretched Nikephoros.  They would marry and raise her sons together.  He had already become their protector.  But it was not to be.

The Patriarch Polyeuktos had had enough of Theophano’s schemes.  While Nikephoros and John had both seized the throne, it could be argued that the former had done so in a cleaner manner.  Nikephoros was invited by the Empress to take the capital, which he did peacefully, for the most part.  He married her after he was crowned emperor.  John was an adulterer and a murderer.  He had plotted to overthrow and then kill the Emperor.  Polyeuktos gave John Tzimesces a choice.  He could marry Theophano or he could take the throne.  He couldn’t have both.  It didn’t take John long to decide.  Theophano was taken to a convent and John Tzimesces was crowned Emperor John I, co-emperor with Theophano’s son Basil.  Ten years later, John’s life would be taken by an assassin.

What goes around comes around.

To learn more about Theophano check out these two books.

“Byzantium: The Apogee”; John Julius Norwich, 1995.

“Byzantium”: Rene Guerdan, 1957.


The Grand Empire No One Knows

People frequently ask me why I wrote Emperor’s Eyes.
The Byzantine Empire is one of the greatest empires the world has known. It lasted for over a thousand years (from around 395 to 1453) and at one point was the richest entity in the world.
The name “Byzantine” was a moniker imposed on the empire by foreigners. These people called themselves “Romanoi”: they were Romans. Wasn’t their empire the eastern half of the Roman Empire, that which remained intact after the western portion fell to invaders in 476 AD?
The carried on many of the traditions the ancient Romans and Greeks held. However, the heart of the empire was deeply Orthodox Christian.
The world’s first hospitals were founded in Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, at the end of the fourth century AD. A sophisticated medical system was established that required physicians to serve a designated period of time for a small stipend each year in the hospitals. Thereafter, the physicians could charge their usual rates. The surgeons performed hernia repairs, extracted kidney stones from bladders, and performed various eye surgeries. There were women doctors who specialized in gynecology and obstetrics, Byzantine physicians knew Hippocrates and Galen well and surpassed them. Their knowledge was shared with the Muslim world after Muslim armies conquered Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. The great Muslim physicians Avicenna and Rhazes built their knowledge on top of the knowledge Byzantine physicians knew.
Yet in most college introductory European history classes the Byzantine Empire is merely touched upon or totally neglected.
Read Emperor’s Eyes and get a taste of this magnificent empire.

Welcome to My New Blog!

Welcome. My name is George Vasil, author of The Lance. I’m so happy to have you as a visitor to my blog about my new book. This project is very special to me, and I hope to share some of that excitement with you here.

I’ll be using this blog to interact with you about The Lance, expanding on some of the topics in it and posting on some of the ideas related to my book. This is a great place for you to get to know me, and I’m looking forward to getting to know you, too. What did you think of The Lance? What questions do you have for me? How do you relate to my book?

I’ll be returning here frequently with new posts and responses to feedback from you. Until next time, tell me a little bit about yourself.