Emperor Alexis lay weak and frail on his deathbed in Mangana Monastery at the eastern end of the Sirkeci Peninsula on the Bosphorus Strait on August 15, 1118.

As Alexios died, there was speculation in the Byzantine kingdom about who would succeed him as the head of the empire. His wife, Empress Irene, preferred to give power to her precious porphyrogenic daughter Anna Komnena, who would reign through her husband César Nikephoros Bryennios.

The brilliant and beautiful Anna was the only one of the Comnenus children whose birth conditions allowed her to be born in the Chamber of Purple Porphyry, the independent pavilion reserved for the only privileged porphyrogenic rulers of the country. The room, overlooking the Sea of ​​Marmara, was shaped like a perfect square from floor to ceiling, the latter ending in a pyramid.

Anna herself described it as the place where “the stone oxen and the lions stand.”

Bathed in the purple light of her birth, the porphyrogen Anna prepared herself for leadership. His claims to the throne seemed unchallenged until the insolent John, dating with relatives he could trust, sent his brother flying into the monastery in order to carefully remove the imperial signet ring from Alexios.

The ring was taken to the Grand Palais where Jean le Beau (although he was not) brandished his trophy, allowing it to shine brightly in the morning sun.

“Here is the proof of my father’s will that I succeed him!” he said, canceling all resistance.

Blinded by the power of the dark purple and gold royal ring, the crowd bowed to the supposed wishes of the dying king. “Whoever wears the ring rules the Empire!” they cried.

Empress Irene was taken by surprise, allowing her son’s abrupt accession despite her deeply rooted preferences for her son-in-law.

The porphyrogenic purple princess has seen royalty, the role she had prepared all her life, slip through her fingers.

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For Emperor John, this would have been the happy ending. However, royal rings still tend to crumble under the weight of scandal and intrigue.

A year after Emperor John’s accession, a plot to overthrow him was discovered. It involved his own mother and sister, Anna, who could not accept defeat.

Despite her purple title, she was stripped of her property as punishment for her attempted coup. His mother, Irene, engaged in monastic life where she was joined by Anna after the death of her husband Nicephorus, who – faithful to the Emperor John – joined her on a quest in Syria where he fell. sick.

The poet Constantine P. Cavafy was so moved by her plight that he wrote about her “a deep desire” which has remained unfulfilled.

Seeing his sister’s ambition, driven by the crimson folly of her birth, John safeguarded his position by crowning his own young son, Co-Emperor Alexios in 1122.

“Here, take this imperial ring,” he said to his son. “Let him protect you!” Whoever wears this ring owns the Empire, so never let it slip away.

However, the ring does not always keep its promises. Alexios died still in the prime of his life, twenty years later, a year before his own father died, in a hunting accident. His illness was described in the writings of the time as being “of the most severe form and of short duration”, it “took the form of a raging fever attacking the head as if it were an acropolis ”. His younger brother Andronikos, responsible for escorting the body to Constantinople, fell ill with fever while doing so, and he too died.

Emperor John, a father left alone, looked at his ring and wondered how different life would have been for his sons if he had let the ring be.

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And the ring’s sparkling glow in the morning sun pierced his heart as if it were a sword. Perhaps that is why it is called Imperial Spatharios (Sword-Bearer).
Despite the power they once held, Alexios, John, his children, Anna and Irene are rarely remembered, the mosaic of their faces is kept covered in Hagia Sophia, banished by Muslim prayers.

The Ring of Power has slipped from their fingers, and their offspring are scattered all over the world.

The ring, however, lives in the Byzantine Gallery at the Met in New York City, surrounded by stunning cloisonne enamels, medieval icons, and ceramics.
Istanbul-born Greeks examining their shattered heritage may feel a twitch of their empty fingers as they gaze at the splendor of the ring, imagining the stories of the people to whom it once belonged.

What a waste of a ring to sit in a gallery for want of a reigning finger.

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