Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The Comneni and the Crusades

Alexius Comnenus found himself, in 1081, placed in a position almost as difficult and perilous as that which Leo the Isaurian faced in 716. Like Leo, he was a usurper without prestige or hereditary claims, seated on an unsteady throne, and forced to face imminent danger from the Moslem enemy without, and from rival adventurers within. It may be added that the Isaurian, grievously threatened as he was by the enemy from the East, had no peril impending from the West. Alexius had to face at one and the same time the assault of the Seljouks on Asia Minor, and the attack of a new and formidable foe in his western provinces. We have already mentioned the manner in which the Byzantine dominion in Italy had come to an end. Now the same Norman adventurers who had stripped the empire of Calabria and Apulia were preparing to cross the straits of Otranto, and seek out the Emperor in the central provinces of his realm. The forces of the Italian and Sicilian Normans were united under their great chief Robert Guiscard, the hardy and unscrupulous Duke of Apulia. Just ten years before he had captured Bari, the last Byzantine fortress on his own side of the straits; now he was resolved to take advantage of the anarchy which had prevailed in the empire ever since the day of Manzikert, and to build up new Norman principalities to the east of the Adriatic. There seemed to be nothing presumptuous in the scheme to those who remembered how a few hundred Norman adventurers had conquered all Southern Italy and Sicily, and swelled into a victorious army fifty thousand strong. Nor could the invaders fail to remember how, but fifteen years before, another Norman duke had crossed another strait in the far West, and won by his strong right hand the great kingdom of England. Alexius Comnenus sat like Harold Godwinson on a lately-acquired and unsteady throne, and Duke Robert thought to deal with him much as Duke William had dealt with the Englishman.

In June, 1081, the Normans landed, thirty thousand strong, and laid siege to Durazzo, the maritime fortress that guarded the Epirot coast. The Emperor at once flew to its succour. Always active hopeful and versatile, he trusted that he might be able to beat off the new invaders, whose military worth he was far from appreciating at its true value. He patched up a hasty pacification with Suleiman, Sultan of the Seljouks, by surrendering to him all the territory of which the Turk was in actual possession, a tract which now extended as far as the waters of the Propontis, and actually included the city of Nicaea, close to the Bithynian shore, and only seventy miles from Constantinople.

The army with which Alexius had to face the Normans was the mere wreck and shadow of that which Romanus. IV. had led against the Turks ten years before. The military organization of the empire had gone to pieces, and we no longer hear of the old "Themes" of heavy cavalry which had farmed its backbone. The new army contained quite a small proportion of national troops. Its core was the imperial guard of Varangians—the Russian, Danish, and English mercenaries, whose courage had won the confidence of so many emperors. With them marched many Turkish, Frankish, Servian, and South-Slavonic auxiliaries; the native element comprised the regulars of the three provinces of Thrace, Macedonia, and Thessaly, all that now remained in Alexius' hands of the ancient East-Roman realm.

Alexius brought Robert Guiscard to battle in front of Durazzo, and suffered a crushing defeat at his hands. The Emperor's bad tactics were the main cause of his failure: his army came upon the ground in successive detachments, and the van was cut to pieces before the main body had reached the field. The brunt of the battle was borne by the Varangians: carried away by their fiery courage, they charged the Normans before the rest of Alexius's troops had formed their line of battle. Rushing on the wing of Robert's army, commanded by the Count of Bari, they drove it horse and foot into the sea. Their success, however, disordered their ranks, and the Norman duke was able to turn his whole force against them ere the Emperor was near enough to give them aid. A fierce cavalry charge cut off the greater part of the Varangians; the rest collected on a mound by the sea-shore, and for some time beat off the Normans with their axes, as King Harold's men had done at Senlac on the last occasion when English and Norman had met. But Robert shot them down with his archers, and then sent more cavalry against them. They fell, save a small remnant who defended themselves in a ruined chapel, which Guiscard had finally to burn before he could make an end of its obstinate defenders.

The rest of Alexius's army only came into action when the Varangians had been destroyed. It was cowed by the loss of its best corps, fought badly, and fled in haste. Alexius himself, who lingered last upon the field, was surrounded, and only escaped by the speed of his horse and the strength of his sword-arm. Durazzo fell, and in the next year the Normans overran all Epirus and descended into Thessaly. Alexius risked two more engagements with them, but his inexperienced troops were defeated in both. Disaster taught him to avoid pitched battles, and at last, in Io83, after a more cautious campaign, his patience was rewarded by the dispersion of the Norman army. Catching it while divided, the Emperor inflicted on it a severe defeat at Larissa, and forced it back into Epirus. After this the war slackened, and when Robert Guiscard died in Io85 the Norman danger passed away.

Thus one foe was removed, but Alexius was not destined to win peace. Constant rebellions at home, and wars with the Patzinaks, the Slavs, and the Seljouks filled the next ten years. Alexius, however, was never discouraged: "eking out the lion's skin with the fox's hide," he fought and intrigued, lied and negotiated, and at the end of the time had held his own and lost no more territory, while his throne was growing more secure.

But in the fifteenth year of his reign a new cloud began to arise in the west, which was destined to exercise unsuspected influence, both for good and evil, on the empire. The Crusades were on the eve of their commencement. Ever since the Seljouks had taken Jerusalem in Ions, four years after Manzikert, the western pilgrims to the Holy Land had been suffering grievous things at the hands of the barbarians. But all the wrath that their ill-treatment provoked would have been fruitless, if the way to Syria had not been opened of late to the nations of Western Christendom. T c series of events had made free communication between East and West possible in the end of the eleventh century, in a measure which had never before been seen.

The first of these was the conversion of Hungary, begun by St. Stephen in i000, and completed about Io5o. For the future there lay between the Byzantine Empire and Germany not a barbarous pagan state, but a semi-civilized Christian kingdom, which had taken its place among the other nations of the Roman Catholic faith. Communication down the Danube, between Vienna and the Byzantine outposts in Bulgaria, became for the first time possible, and ere long the route grew popular. The second phenomenon which made the Crusades possible was the destruction of the Saracen naval power in the Central Mediterranean. This was carried out first by the Pisans and Genoese, whose fleets conquered Corsica and Sardinia from the Moslems, and then by the Normans, whose occupation of Sicily made the voyage from Marseilles and Genoa to the East safe and sure. Four new maritime powers—the Genoese, Pisans, and Normans in the open sea, and the Venetians in the Adriatic—had developed themselves into importance, and now their fleets swept the waters where no Christian war-galleys save those of Byzantium had ever been seen before.

It was the fact that free access to the East was now to be gained, both by land and sea, as it had never been before, that made the Crusades feasible. Of the preaching of Peter the Hermit and the efforts of Pope Urban we need not speak. Suffice it to say, that in 1095 news came to the Emperor Alexius that the nations of the West were mustering by myriads, and directing their march towards his frontiers, with the expressed intention of driving the Moslems from Palestine. The Emperor had little confidence in the purity of the zeal of the Crusaders; his wily mind could not comprehend their enthusiasm, and he dreaded that some unforeseen circumstance might turn their arms against himself. When the hordes of armed Frankish pilgrims began to arrive, his fears were justified: the newcomers pillaged his country right and left upon their way, and were drawn into many bloody fights with the peasantry and the imperial garrisons, which might have ended in open war. But Alexius set himself to work to smooth matters down; all his tact and patience were needed, and there was ample scope for his talent for intrigue and insincere diplomacy. He had resolved to induce the crusading chiefs to do him homage, and to swear to restore to him all the old dominions of the empire which they might reconquer from the Turks. After long and tedious negotiations he had his way: the leaders of the Crusade, from Godfrey of Bouillon and Hugh of Vermandois down to the smallest barons, were induced to swear him allegiance. Some he flattered, others he bribed, others he strove to frighten into compliance. The pages of the history written by his daughter, Anna Comnena, who regarded his powers of cajolery with greater respect than any other part of his character, are full of tales of the ingenious shifts by which he brought the stupid and arrogant Franks to reason. At length they went on their way, with Alexius's gold in their pockets, and encouraged by his promise that he would aid them with his troops, continue to supply them with provisions, and never abandon them till the Holy City was reconquered.

In the spring of 1097 the Crusaders began to cross the Bosphorus, and in two marches found themselves within Turkish territory. They at once laid siege to Nicaea, the frontier fortress of the Seljouk Sultan. Encompassed by so great a host the Turkish garrison soon lost heart and surrendered, not to the Franks, but to Alexius, whose troops they secretly admitted within the walls. This nearly led to strife between the Emperor and the Crusaders, who had been reckoning on the plunder of the town; but Alexius appeased them with further stores of money, and the pilgrim host rolled forward once more into the interior of Asia Minor.

In 1097 the Crusaders forced their way through Phrygia and Cappadocia, beating back the Seljouks at every encounter, till they reached North Syria, where they laid siege to Antioch. Alexius had undertaken to help them in their campaign, but he was set on playing an easier game. When they were crushing the Turks he followed in their rear at a safe distance, like the jackal behind the lion, picking up the spoil which they left. While the Sultan was engaged with them Alexius despoiled him of Smyrna, Ephesus, and Sardis, reconquering Western Asia Minor almost without a blow, since the Seljouk hordes were drawn away eastward. It was the same in the next year; when the Crusaders were fighting hard round Antioch against the princes of Mesopotamia, and sent to ask for instant help, Alexius dispatched no troops to Syria, but gathered in a number of Lydian and Phrygian fortresses which lay nearer to his hand. Hence there resulted a bitter quarrel between the Emperor and the Franks, for since he gave them no help they refused to hand over to him Antioch and their other Syrian conquests. Each party, in fact, broke the compact signed at Constantinople, and accused the other of treachery. Hence it resulted that the Crusade ended not in the re-establishment of the Byzantine power in Syria, but in the foundation of new Frankish states, the principalities of Edessa, Antioch, and Tripoli, and the more important kingdom of Jerusalem.

That he did not recover Syria was no real loss to Alexius; he would not have been strong enough to hold it, had it been handed over to him. The actual profit which he made by the Crusade was enough to content him: the Franks had rolled back the Turkish frontier in Asia not less than two hundred miles: instead of the Seljouk lying at Nicaea, he was now chased back behind the Bithynian hills, and the empire had recovered all Lydia and Caria with much of the Phrygian inland. The Seljouks were hard hit, and for well-nigh a century were reduced to fight on the defensive.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


Owing, then, to the fearful blow inflicted by the Crusades on the Moslem powers of Asia Minor and Syria, the later years of Alexius were free from the danger which had overshadowed the beginning of his reign. He was able, between 1100 and 1118, to strengthen his position at home and abroad; the constant rebellions which had vexed his early years ceased, and when the Normans, under Bohemund of Tarentum, tried to repeat, in 1107, the feats which Robert Guiscard had accomplished in 1082, they were beaten off with ease, and forced to conclude a disadvantageous peace.

The reign of Alexius might have been counted a period of success and prosperity if it had not been for two considerations. The first was the rapid decline of Constantinople as a commercial centre, which was brought about by the Crusades. When the Genoese and Venetians succeeded in establishing themselves in the seaports of Syria, they began to visit Constantinople far less than before. It paid them much better to conduct their business at Acre or Tyre than on the Bosphorus. The king of Jerusalem, the weakest of feudal sovereigns, could be more easily bullied and defrauded than the powerful ruler of Constantinople. In his own seaports he possessed hardly a shadow of authority: the Italians traded there on such conditions as they chose. Hence the commerce of the West with Persia, Egypt, Syria, and India, ceased to pass through the Bosphorus. Genoa and Venice became the marts at which France, Italy, and Germany, sought their Eastern goods. It is probable that the trade of Constantinople fell off by a third or even a half in the fifty years that followed the first Crusade. The effect of this decline on the coffers of the state was deplorable, for it was ultimately on its commercial wealth that the Byzantine state based its prosperity. All through the reigns of Alexius and his two successors the complaints about the rapid fall in the imperial revenue grew more and more noticeable.

This dangerous decay in the finances of the empire was rendered still more fatal by the political devices of Alexius, who began to bestow excessive commercial privileges to the Italian republics, in return for their aid in war. This system commenced in 1081, when the Emperor, then in the full stress of his first Norman war, granted the Venetians the free access to most of the ports of his empire without the payment of any customs dues. To give to foreigners a boon denied to his own subjects was the height of economic lunacy; the native merchants complained that the Venetians were enabled to undersell them in every market, owing to this exemption from import and export duties. Matters were made yet worse in 1111, when Alexius bestowed a similar, though less extensive, grant of immunities on the Pisans.

When John II., the son of Alexius, succeeded in 1118 to the empire which his father had saved, the fabric was less strong than it appeared to the outward eye. Territorial extension seemed to imply increased strength, and the rapid falling off in the financial resources of the realm attracted little attention. John however was one of those prudent and economical princes who stave off for years the inevitable day of distress. Of all the rulers who ever sat upon the Byzantine throne, he is the only one of whom no detractor has ever said an evil word. When we remember that he was his father's son , it is astonishing to find that his honesty and good faith were no less notable than his courage and generosity. His subjects named him "John the Good," and their appreciation of his virtues was sufficiently marked by the fact that no single rebellion marred the internal peace of his long reign [1118-1143].

John was a good soldier, and during his rule the frontier of the empire in Asia continued to advance, at the expense of the Turks. But his strategy would seem to have been at fault since he preferred to reconquer the coast districts of Northern and Southern Asia Minor, rather than to strike at the heart of the Seljouk power on the central table-land. When he had reduced all Cilicia, Pisidia, and Pontus, his dominions became a narrow fringe of coast, surrounding on three sides the realm of the Sultan, who still retained all the Cappadocian and Lycaonian plateau. It should then have been John's task to finish the reconquest of Asia Minor, but he preferred to plunge into Syria, where he forced the Frank prince of Antioch and the Turkish Emir of Aleppo to pay him tribute, but left no permanent monument of his conquests. He was preparing a formidable expedition against the Franks of the kingdom of Jerusalem, when he perished by accident while on a hunting expedition.

John the Good was succeeded by his son Manuel, whose strength and weakness combined to give a deathblow to the empire. Manuel was a mere knight-errant, who loved fighting for fighting's sake, and allowed his passion for excitement and adventure to be his only guide. His whole reign was one long series of wars, entered into and abandoned with equal levity. Yet for the most part they were successful wars, for Manuel was a good cavalry officer if he was but a reckless statesman, and his fiery courage and untiring energy made him the idol of his troops. At the head of the veteran squadrons of mercenary horsemen that formed the backbone of his army, he swept off the field every enemy that ever dared to face him. He overran Servia, invaded Hungary, to whose king he dictated terms of peace, and beat off with success an invasion of Greece by the Normans of Sicily. His most desperate struggle, however, was a naval war with Venice, in which his fleet was successful enough, and drove the Doge and his galleys out of the Aegean. But the damage done to the trade of Constantinople by the Venetian privateers, who swarmed in the Levant after their main fleet had been chased away, was so appalling that the Emperor concluded peace in 1174, restoring to the enemy all the disastrous commercial privileges which his grandfather Alexius had granted them eighty years before.

The main fault of Manuel's wars was that they were conducted in the most reckless disregard of all financial considerations. With a realm which was slowly growing poorer, and with a constantly dwindling revenue, he persisted in piling war on war, and on devoting every bezant that could be screwed out of his subjects to the support of the army alone. The civil service fell into grave disorder, the administration of justice was impaired, roads and bridges went to decay, docks and harbours were neglected, while the money which should have supported them was wasted on unprofitable expeditions to Egypt, Syria, or Italy. So long as the ranks of his mercenaries were full and their pay forthcoming, the Emperor cared not how his realm might fare.

Of all Manuel's wars only one went ill, but that was the most important of them all, the one necessary struggle to which he should have devoted all his energies. This was the contest with the Seljouks, which ended in 1176 by a disastrous defeat at Myriokephalon in Phrygia, brought about by the inexcusable carelessness of Manuel himself, who allowed his army to be caught in a defile from which there was no exit, and routed piecemeal by an enemy who could have made no stand on the open plains. Manuel then made peace, and left the Seljouks alone for the rest of his reign.

In 1180 Manuel died, and with him died the good fortune of the House of Comnenus. His son and heir, Alexius, was a boy of thirteen, and the inevitable contest for the regency, which always accompanied a minority, ensued. After two troubled years Andronicus Comnenus, a first cousin of the Emperor Manuel, was proclaimed Caesar, and took over the guardianship of the young Alexius. Andronicus was an unscrupulous ruffian, whose past life should have been sufficient warning against putting any trust in his professions. He had once attempted to assassinate Manuel, and twice deserted to the Turks. But he was a consummate hypocrite, and won his way to the throne by professions of piety and austere virtue. No sooner was he seated by the side of Alexius II., and felt himself secure, than he seized and strangled his young relative [1183].

But, like our own Richard III., Andronicus found that the moment of his accession to sole power was the moment of the commencement of his troubles. Rebels rose in arms all over the empire to avenge the murdered Alexius, and the Normans of Sicily seized the opportunity of invading Macedonia. Conspiracies were rife in the capital, and the executions which followed their detection were so numerous and bloody that a perfect reign of terror set in. The Emperor plunged into the most reckless cruelty, till men almost began to believe that his mind was affected. Ere long the end came. An inoffensive nobleman named Isaac Angelus, being accused of treason, was arrested at his own door by the emissaries of the tyrant. Instead of surrendering himself, Isaac drew his sword and cut down the official who laid hands on him. A mob came to his aid, and met no immediate opposition, for Andronicus was absent from the capital. The mob swelled into a multitude, the guards would not fight, and when the Emperor returned in haste, he was seized and torn to pieces without a sword being drawn in his cause. Isaac Angelus reigned in his stead.