Isaac II

Isaac II

Isaac II (Isaac Angelus), d. 1204, Byzantine emperor (1185-95, 1203-4). The great grandson of Alexius I, he was proclaimed emperor by the mob that had killed the unpopular Andronicus I. Isaac repulsed (1185) an invasion by the Normans under William II of Sicily but was unable to suppress the rebellious Bulgars. Corruption in public office continued during his reign. He was deposed and blinded in 1195 by his brother, who became emperor as Alexius III, but Isaac's son (later Alexius IV) appealed to the Latins of the Fourth Crusade (see Crusades), and in 1203 father and son were restored as coemperors. Their overthrow (1204) by Alexius Ducas (Alexius V) led to the storming of Constantinople by the Crusaders.

Isaac II Angelos or Angelus (Greek: Ισαάκιος Β’ Άγγελος, Isaakios II Angelos) (September 1156 – January 1204) was Byzantine emperor from 1185 to 1195, and again from 1203 to 1204.

His father Andronikos Dukas Angelos, a military leader in Asia Minor (c. 1122 – aft. 1185), married bef. 1155 Euphrosyne Kastamonitissa (c. 1125 – aft. 1195), was a son of Theodora Komnene (b. January 5, 1096/1097), the youngest daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and Eirene Doukaina, by her marriage c. 1120 to Konstantinos Angelos, Admiral of Sicily (c. 1085 – aft. July 1166), son of one Manolis Angelos from Philadelphia. Thus Isaac was a member of the extended imperial clan.

Rising by revolt

During the brief reign of Andronikos I Komnenos, Isaac was involved (alongside his father and brothers) in the revolt of Nicaea and Prousa. Atypically, the Emperor did not punish him for this disloyalty, and Isaac remained at Constantinople.

On September 11, 1185, during Andronikos' absence from the capital, the latter's lieutenant Stephanos Hagiochristophorites moved to arrest Isaac. Isaac killed Hagiochristophorites and took refuge in the church of Hagia Sophia. Andronikos, in some ways a capable ruler, was hated for his cruelty and his efforts to keep the aristocracy obedient. Isaac appealed to the populace, and a tumult arose which spread rapidly over the whole city. When Andronikos arrived he found that during his absence he had lost popular support, and that Isaac had been proclaimed emperor. Andronikos attempted to flee by boat but was apprehended. Isaac handed him over to the people of the City, and he was killed on September 12, 1185.

First reign

Isaac II Angelos strengthened his position as emperor with dynastic marriages in 1185 and 1186. His niece, Eudokia Angelina, was married to Stefan, son of Stefan Nemanja of Serbia. Isaac's sister, Theodora, was married to the Italian marquis Conrad of Montferrat. In January 1186 Isaac himself married Margaret of Hungary (renamed Maria), daughter of king Béla III. Hungary was one of the empire's largest and most powerful neighbours, and Margaret also had the benefit of high aristocratic descent, being related to the royal families of Kiev, the Holy Roman Empire, Italy, Provence, and earlier Byzantine dynasties.

Isaac inaugurated his reign with a decisive victory over the Norman King of Sicily William II (on the banks of the Strymon, 7 September 1185), who had invaded the Balkans with 80,000 men and 200 ships towards the end of Andronicus I's reign. Elsewhere his policy was less successful. In late 1185, he sent a fleet of 80 galleys to liberate his brother Alexius III from Acre, but it was destroyed by the Normans of Sicily. He then sent a fleet of 70 ships, but it failed in its attempt to recover Cyprus from the rebellious noble Isaac Comnenus, thanks to Norman interference.

The oppressiveness of his taxes, increased to pay his armies and finance his marriage, resulted in the Vlach-Bulgarian Rebellion late in 1185. The rebellion led to the establishment of the Second Bulgarian Empire under the Asen dynasty. In 1187, Alexios Branas, the victor over the Normans, was sent against the rebels but turned his arms against his master, and attempted to seize Constantinople, only to be defeated and slain by Isaac's brother-in-law Conrad of Montferrat. Also in 1187, an agreement was made with Venice, in which the republic would provide 40-100 galleys at six months' notice in exchange for favorable trading concessions. As each Venetian galley was manned by 140 oarsmen, that means there were about 18,000 Venetians still in the empire even after Manuel I's arrests.

The emperor's attention was next demanded in the east, where several claimants to the throne successively rose and fell. In 1189 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa sought and obtained permission to lead his troops on the Third Crusade through the Byzantine Empire; but he had no sooner crossed the border than Isaac, who had meanwhile sought an alliance with Saladin, threw every impediment in his way. In retaliation, Barbarossa's army occupied the city of Philippopolis and defeated a Byzantine army of 3,000 men that attempted to recapture the city. Thus compelled by force of arms, Isaac II was forced to fulfil his engagements in 1190. By 1196, Isaac II had allowed the once powerful Byzantine navy to decline to only 30 galleys.

The next five years were disturbed by continued warfare with Bulgaria, against which Isaac led several expeditions in person. In spite of their promising start, these ventures had little effect, and on one occasion in 1190 Isaac barely escaped with his life. While preparing for yet another offensive against Bulgaria in 1195, Alexios Angelos, the emperor's older brother, taking advantage of the latter's absence from camp on a hunting expedition, proclaimed himself emperor, and was readily recognised by the soldiers as Emperor Alexios III. Isaac was blinded and imprisoned in Constantinople.

Second reign

After eight years of captivity, he was raised from his dungeon to his throne once more after the arrival of the Fourth Crusade and the flight of Alexios III from the capital. But both mind and body had been enfeebled by confinement, and his son Alexios IV Angelos was associated on the throne as the effective monarch.

Heavily beholden to the crusaders, Alexios IV was unable to meet his obligations and his vacillation caused him to lose the support of both his crusader allies and his subjects. At the end of January, 1204, the influential court official Alexios Doukas Mourtzouphlos took advantage of riots in the capital to imprison Alexios IV and seize the throne as Emperor Alexios V. At this point Isaac II died, allegedly of shock, while Alexios IV was strangled on January 28 or 29.

Historical reputation

Isaac has the reputation of one of the most unsuccessful princes that occupied the Byzantine throne. Surrounded by a crowd of slaves, mistresses and flatterers, he permitted his empire to be administered by unworthy favourites, while he squandered the money wrung from his provinces on costly buildings and expensive gifts to the churches of his metropolis. During his reign the empire lost Lefkada, Kefallonia, and Zakynthos to the Normans in 1185. Then he lost Bulgaria to the Vlachs and Bulgarians in 1186. After that Cilicia was retaken by the Armenians and Cyprus wrested from the empire by the Franks.


The identity of Isaac II's first wife is unknown, but her name, Herina (i.e., Eirene), is found on the necrology of Speyer Cathedral, where their daughter Irene is interred. (It must be noted, however, that it would have been extremely unusual for a mother and daughter to bear the same name, unless the mother's name was monastic.) Isaac's wife may have been a member of the Palaiologos family. A possible foreign origin is also given to her due to having the same name as her daughter. Their third child was born in 1182 or 1183 and she was dead or divorced by 1185, when Isaac remarried. Their children were:

By his second wife, Margaret of Hungary (renamed Maria), Isaac II had two sons:

  • John Angelos (b. ca. 1193 - d. 1259). He migrated to Hungary and ruled over Syrmia and Bacs (1227-42) as a vassal of king Béla IV of Hungary.
  • Manuel Angelos (b. after 1195 - d. 1212)



  • Nicetas Choniates, Historia, ed. J.-L. Van Dieten, 2 vols. (Berlin and New York, 1975); trans. as O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, by H.J. Magoulias (Detroit; Wayne State University Press, 1984).

External links


  • Angold, Michael, The Byzantine Empire: A Political History, 1025-1204, 2nd edition (London and New York, 1997)
  • Brand, C.M., Byzantium Confronts the West, 1180-1204 (Cambridge, MA, 1968)
  • Harris, Jonathan, Byzantium and the Crusades (London, 2003)
  • Hiestand, Rudolf, 'Die Erste Ehe Isaaks II Angelus und Seine Kinder', Jahrbuch der Osterreichischen Byzantinistik, 47 (1997).
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, 3 vols (Oxford,, 1991).
  • K. Varzos, Ē genealogia tōn Komnēnōn (Thessalonica, 1984) vol. 2 pp. 807-840.


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