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John I Tzimiskes
Emperor of the Byzantine Empire
Histamenon nomisma-John I-sb1776.jpg
John, protected by God and the Virgin Mary.
Reign December 11, 969 – January 10, 976
Born circa 925
Died January 10, 976 (aged 50)
Place of death Constantinople
Predecessor Nikephorus II Phokas
Successor Basil II
Consort Theodora
Dynasty Macedonian Dynasty

John I Tzimiskes or Tzimisces, (Greek: Ιωάννης Α΄ Τζιμισκής, Iōannēs I Tzimiskēs; Armenian: Հովհաննես Ա Չմշկիկ, Armenian pronunciation: [hovhɑnnɛs tʃʰmʃkʼikʼ]; circa 925 - January 10, 976) was Byzantine Emperor from December 11, 969 to January 10, 976. A brilliant and intuitive general, John's short reign saw the expansion of the empire's borders and the strengthening of Byzantium itself.[1]



John was born into the Armenian Kourkouas family. Scholars have speculated that his nickname "Tzimiskes" was derived either from the Armenian Chmushkik, meaning "red boot," or from an Armenian word for "short stature." 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 which is now called Chmushkatzag."[2] Khozan was located in the region of Paghnatun, in the Byzantine province of Fourth Armenia.[3]

Tzimiskes was born sometime in 925 to an unnamed member of the Kourkouas family by the sister of the future Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. Both the Kourkouai and the Phokadai were distinguished Cappadocian families of Armenian origin, 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 John as a rather short but well-built man, with reddish blonde hair and beard and blue eyes who was attractive to women.[4] 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, John 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 linked him to the influential family of the Skleroi.

Rise to the throne

At the time the Empire was at war with its eastern neighbor, the Abbasid Empire. Armenia served as the borderland between the two Empires. John managed to successfully defend his province. He and his troops joined the main part of the army, which was campaigning against the enemy under the command of Nikephoros Phokas.

Nikephoros (which means "bearer of victory") justified his name with a series of victories, moving the borders further east with the capture of about 60 border cities including Aleppo. By 962, the Abbasids had asked for a peace treaty with favorable terms for Byzantines, that secured the borders for some years. John 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. 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, John urged his uncle to seize the throne. After helping Nikephoros II to the throne and to continuing to defend the empire's eastern provinces, John 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 Isaac Brachamios) to assassinate him.


Svyatoslav I's meeting with Emperor John.

After his coronation in December 969, John dispatched his brother-in-law Bardas Skleros to subdue a rebellion by Bardas Phokas, who aspired to succeed his uncle Nikephoros II. To solidify his position, John married Theodora, a daughter of Emperor Constantine VII. John proceeded to justify his usurpation by the energy with which he repelled the foreign invaders of the empire. In a series of campaigns against the Kievan encroachment on the Lower Danube in (970–971) he drove the enemy out of Thrace, crossed Mt. Haemus and besieged the fortress of Dorystolon (Silistra) on the Danube. In several hard-fought battles he defeated King Svyatoslav I of Kievan Rus so completely, that he left Tzimiskes master of eastern Bulgaria and Dobruja. On his return to Constantinople, Tzimiskes celebrated a triumph, 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 Paulicians whom he suspected of sympathising with their Muslim neighbours in the east.

In 972 he 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 John's forces took Emesa, Baalbek, Damascus, Tiberias, Nazareth, Caesarea, Sidon, Beirut, Byblos and Tripoli, but failed to take Jerusalem. He died suddenly in 976 on his return 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.[5] John was succeeded by his ward and nephew, Basil II, who had been nominal co-emperor since 960.


Today, Tsimiski Street, the main commercial road in the center of Thessaloniki, is named after him.


  1. ^ Treadgold, Warren (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford: University of Stanford Press. p. 512. ISBN 0-8047-2630-2.  
  2. ^ (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.
  3. ^ See Matthew of Edessa. The Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa, p. 301, note 52.
  4. ^ Treadgold. History of the Byzantine State and Society, pp. 505, 506.
  5. ^ Treadgold. History of the Byzantine State and Society, p. 512.

Further reading

External links

John I Tzimiskes
Born: c. 925 Died: 10 January 976
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Nikephoros II
Byzantine Emperor
Succeeded by
Basil II


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