Alexius I Comnenus was an unlikely savior. A member of the aristocratic ranks that the Macedonian dynasty had struggled so long to suppress, he seemed at first to be just another usurper in a long line of meddlesome nobles that had brought such ruin to imperial fortunes. It was true that Alexius had an unrivaled military reputation—in his early twenties, he had fought at Manzikert, and he hadn’t lost a battle since—but he had risen to power in the usual way by overthrowing his short-lived predecessor instead of by fighting the Turks. The motley army he commanded was so full of foreign mercenaries that the moment he brought them inside the walls of Constantinople they started looting the city, and a full day passed before he could bring them under control. Some of Constantinople’s older citizens might well have shaken their heads and muttered that there was indeed nothing new under the sun.
It was hardly an auspicious start, but worse was yet to come. Within a month of Alexius’s coronation, word reached him that a terrible force of Normans had landed on the Dalmatian coast and was heading toward the port city of Durazzo. If they took the city, they would have direct access to the thousand-year-old Via Egnatia and with it a straight invasion route to Constantinople.
The Normans were no ordinary wandering band of adventurers. The descendants of Vikings, these Northmen were the success story of the eleventh century. While their more famous brothers in Normandy had battered their way into Saxon England under the command of William the Conqueror, the southern Normans had batted aside a papal army, held the pope captive, and managed to expel the last vestiges of the Roman Empire from Italy. Led by the remarkable Robert Guiscard, they had invaded Sicily, capturing Palermo and thoroughly broken Saracen power over the island. Now, having run out of enemies at home, and with his appetite whetted for imperial blood, the irascible Guiscard turned his attention to the far more tempting prize of Byzantium.
Upon arriving before the walls of Durazzo, Guiscard cheerfully put the city under siege, but its citizens were well aware that Alexius was on his way and showed no inclination to surrender. After a few months of ineffectual assaults, Robert withdrew to a more defensible position. On October 18, the emperor arrived with his army. The force Alexius had managed to gather in such a short period of time was impressively large, but it suffered from what was by now the traditional Byzantine weakness. The core of the army as always was the elite Varangian Guard, but the rest was an undisciplined, ragtag collection of mercenaries whose loyalty—and courage—was at best suspect. The only consolation for Alexius was that the Varangians, at least, were eager for battle.
Fifteen years before, a Norman duke had burst into Anglo-Saxon England, killing the rightful king at Hastings and placing his heavy boot on the back of anyone with a drop of Saxon blood. Many of those who found life intolerable as second-class citizens in Norman England had eventually made their way to Constantinople, where they had enlisted with their Viking cousins in the ranks of the Varangian Guard. Now at last they were face-to-face with the foreigners who had despoiled their homes, murdered their families, and stolen their possessions.
Swinging their terrible double-headed axes in wicked arcs, the Varangians waded into the Norman line, sending their blades crunching into any man or horse that got in their way. The Normans fell back in the face of such a ferocious assault, but Alexius’s Turkish mercenaries betrayed him, and he was unable to press the advantage. The moment the Norman cavalry wheeled around, the bulk of the imperial army scattered, and the exposed and hopelessly outnumbered Varangians were surrounded and butchered to a man. Alexius, bleeding from a wound in the forehead, kept fighting, but he knew the day was lost. Soon he fled to Bulgaria to rebuild his shattered forces.
The empire had proven as weak as Guiscard had hoped, and with the cream of the Byzantine army gone, there was seemingly nothing to fear from Alexius. By the spring of 1082, Durazzo had fallen along with most of northern Greece, and Guiscard could confidently boast to his men that by winter they would all be dining in the palaces of Constantinople. Unfortunately for the invader’s culinary plans, however, Alexius was far from finished. The ever-resourceful emperor knew he couldn’t hope to stand toe-to-toe with Norman arms, but there were other ways to wage war, and in his capable hands diplomacy would prove a sharper weapon than steel.
Guiscard had been all-conquering in southern Italy, but his meteoric career had left numerous enemies in its wake. Chief among them was the German emperor Henry IV, who held northern Italy in his grip and nervously watched the growth of Norman power in the south. When Alexius sent along a healthy amount of gold with the rather obvious suggestion that a Norman emperor might not be a good thing for either of them, Henry obligingly invaded Rome, forcing the panicked pope to beg Guiscard to return at once. Robert wavered, but more Byzantine gold had found its way into the pockets of the Italians chafing under Norman rule, and news soon arrived that southern Italy had risen in rebellion.* Gnashing his teeth in frustration, Guiscard had no choice but to withdraw, leaving his son Bohemond to carry on the fight in his place.
Alexius immediately attacked, cobbling together no fewer than three mercenary armies, but each one met the same fate, and the emperor accomplished nothing more than further draining his treasury. Even without their charismatic leader, the Normans were clearly more than a match for his imperial forces, so Alexius began a search for allies to do the fighting for him. He found a ready one in Venice—that most Byzantine of sea republics—where the leadership was as alarmed as everyone else about the scope of Guiscard’s ambitions. In return for the help of its navy, Alexius reduced Venetian tariffs to unprecedented (and from native merchants’ perspectives rather dangerous) levels, and gave Venice a full colony in Constantinople with the freedom to trade in imperial waters. The concessions virtually drove Byzantine merchants from the sea, but that spring it must all have seemed worth it as the Venetian navy cut off Bohemond from supplies or reinforcements. By this time, the Normans were thoroughly exhausted. It had been nearly four years since they had landed in Byzantine territory, and though they had spectacularly demolished every army sent against them, they were no closer to conquering Constantinople than the day they arrived. Most of their officers were unimpressed by the son of Guiscard and wanted only to return home. Encouraged by Alexius’s shrewd bribes, they started to grumble, and when Bohemond returned to Italy to raise more money, his officers promptly surrendered.
The next year, in 1085, the seventy-year-old Robert Guiscard tried again, but he got no farther than the island of Cephalonia, where a fever accomplished what innumerable enemy swords couldn’t, and he died without accomplishing his great dream.* The empire could breathe a sigh of relief and turn its eyes once more to lesser threats from the East.
The Muslim threat—much like the Norman one—had recently been tremendously diminished by a fortuitous death. At the start of Alexius’s reign, it had seemed that the Seljuk Turks would devour what was left of Asia Minor. In 1085, Antioch had fallen to their irresistible advance, and the next year Edessa and most of Syria as well. In 1087, the greatest shock came when Jerusalem was captured and the pilgrim routes to the Holy City were completely cut off by the rather fanatical new masters. Turning to the coast, the Muslims captured Ephesus in 1090 and spread out to the Greek islands. Chios, Rhodes, and Lesbos fell in quick succession. But just when it appeared as if Asia was lost, the sultan died and his kingdom splintered in the usual power grab.
With the Norman threat blunted and the Muslim enemy fragmented, the empire might never have a better opportunity to push back the Seljuk threat—and Alexius knew it. All the emperor needed was an army, but as the recent struggle with the Normans had shown, his own was woefully inadequate. Alexius would have to turn to allies to find the necessary steel to stiffen his forces, and, in 1095, he did just that. Taking pen in hand, he wrote a letter to the pope.
The decision to appeal to Rome was somewhat surprising in light of the excommunication of forty-one years before, but most of those involved in that unfortunate event were long dead, and tempers had cooled in the ensuing decades. The emperor and the pope might quibble occasionally about theological details, but they were members of the same faith, and it was as a fellow Christian that Alexius wrote Urban. As a gesture of goodwill to get things off on the right foot, the emperor reopened the Latin churches in Constantinople, and when his ambassadors reached Pope Urban II, they found the pontiff to be in a conciliatory mood. The appalling Turkish conquests had profoundly shocked him, and the sad plight of eastern Christians under Muslim rule could no longer be ignored. No record of the conversation that followed has survived, but by the time the pope made his way to France a few months later, a grand new vision had formed in his mind. Islam had declared a jihad to seize the holy places of Christendom and spread its faith into Europe; now it was time for a grand Christian counteroffensive. On November 18, the pope mounted a huge platform just outside the French city of Clermont and delivered one of the most fateful speeches in history.
The Saracens, he proclaimed, had come storming out of the deserts to steal Christian land and defile their churches, murdering Christian pilgrims and oppressing the faith. They had torn down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and forced innumerable believers to convert to Islam. The West could no longer in good conscience ignore the suffering—it was the sacred duty of every Christian to march to the aid of their eastern brothers. The Saracens had stolen the city of God and now righteous soldiers were needed to drive them out. All those who marched with a pure heart would have their sins absolved.
The moment the pope finished speaking, the crowd erupted. Medieval Europe was filled with violence, and most of those gathered were painfully aware of how much blood stained their hands. Now, suddenly, they were offered a chance to avoid the eternal damnation that in all likelihood awaited them by wielding their swords in God’s name. A bishop knelt down on the spot and pledged to take the cross, and within moments the papal officials had run out of material for those who wanted to sew crosses on their clothing as a sign of their intentions. France, Italy, and Germany were swept up in crusading fever as Urban traveled spreading the message, and peasants and knights alike flocked to his banner. So many responded that the pope had to begin encouraging some to stay home to take in the harvest and avert the danger of a famine. Not even in his wildest dreams had he imagined such a groundswell.
The sheer scale of the response electrified the pope, but it horrified Alexius. The last thing he needed was a shambling horde of western knights descending on his capital. What he really wanted were some mercenaries who recognized his authority, while the pope had given him what was sure to be an undisciplined rabble that listened little and demanded much.
And there were plenty of other reasons to mistrust the crusaders. Not only had the pope cleverly substituted Jerusalem for Constantinople as the object of the holy war, but he had also neglected to mention Alexius in any of his speeches, putting the Crusade firmly under his own control, and reinforcing the idea that the pope—not the emperor—was the supreme authority in Christendom. Furthermore, the whole idea of a “holy” war was an alien concept to the Byzantine mind. Killing, as Saint Basil of Caesarea had taught in the fourth century, was sometimes necessary but never praiseworthy, and certainly not grounds for remission of sins. The Eastern Church had held this line tenaciously throughout the centuries, even rejecting the great warrior-emperor Nicephorus Phocas’s attempt to have soldiers who died fighting Muslims declared martyrs. Wars could, of course, be just, but on the whole diplomacy was infinitely preferable. Above all, eastern clergy were not permitted to take up arms, and the strange sight of Norman clerics armed and even leading soldiers disconcerted the watching hosts.
These strange western knights were obviously not to be trusted, and some Byzantines suspected that the true object of the Crusade was not the liberation of Jerusalem at all, but the capture of Constantinople. Anyone who doubted that only needed to look at the nobles who were already on their way, for foremost among the crusading knights was Bohemond—the hated son of Robert Guiscard.
The first group of crusaders to arrive before the gates of the city didn’t improve Alexius’s opinion of them. After the pope had returned to Italy, other men had taken up the task of preaching the Crusade, fanning out to spread the word. One of them, a rather unpleasant monk named Peter the Hermit, traveled through northern France and Germany, preaching to the poor and offering the destitute peasants a chance to escape their crushing lives. After attracting a following of forty thousand men, women, and children who were too impatient to wait for the official start date, Peter led his shambling horde to Constantinople. When they reached Hungary, it became apparent that many had joined the Crusade for less than noble reasons, and neither Peter nor anyone else could control them. Looting their way through the countryside, they set fire to Belgrade and stormed the citadel of any town that didn’t turn over its supplies. At the city of Nish, the exasperated Byzantine governor sent out his troops to bring them into line, and in the skirmish ten thousand crusaders were killed. By the time Peter and his “People’s Crusade” reached Constantinople, they were looking less like an army than a rabble of hungry, tired brigands. Knowing that they wouldn’t stand a chance against the Turks, Alexius advised them to turn back, but they had come too far by now and were firmly convinced of their invulnerability. They were already becoming a headache—taking whatever they pleased and looting the suburbs of Constantinople—so with a final warning Alexius ferried them across to Asia Minor.
The People’s Crusade came to a predictably bad end. The crusaders spent most of the next three months committing atrocities against the local Greek population—apparently without noticing that they were fellow Christians—before blundering into a Turkish ambush. Peter the Hermit managed to survive and make his miserable way back to Constantinople, but the rest of his “army” wasn’t so lucky. The youngest and best-looking children were saved for the Turkish slave markets and the rest were wiped out.
The main crusading armies that arrived over the next nine months bore no resemblance to the pathetic rabble that Peter had led. Headed by the most powerful knights in western Europe, they were disciplined and strong, easily doubling the size of any army Alexius could muster. The logistics of feeding and handling such an enormous group were a nightmare, made especially difficult by the fact that neither they nor Alexius trusted the other an inch. Obviously, the emperor had to handle the situation with extreme care. Since these westerners valued oaths so highly, they must all be made to swear their allegiance to him, but it had to be done quickly. Arriving separately, they were small enough to be overawed by the majesty of the capital, but if they were allowed to join together, they would undoubtedly get it into their heads to attack the city. Constantinople had been a temptation to generations of would-be conquerors before them; why would crusaders prove any different?
The emperor was right to be alarmed. Constantinople was unlike any other city in the world, more splendid and intoxicating than any the westerners had ever seen. To a poor knight, the city was impossibly strange, dripping in gold and home to a population nearly twenty times that of Paris or London. The churches were filled with mysterious rites that seemed shockingly heretical, and the babble of dozens of exotic languages could be heard on streets choked with merchants and nobles dressed in bright silks and brilliant garments. The public monuments were impossibly large, the palaces unbearably magnificent, and the markets excessively expensive. Inevitably, there was a severe culture clash. The Byzantines the crusaders met treated them like barely civilized barbarians, resenting the swarms of “allies” who had looted their cities and stolen their crops, while the crusaders in response despised the “effeminate” Greeks arrayed in their flowing robes and surrounded by perfumed eunuchs who needed westerners to do their fighting for them. Annoyed by the cloying ceremony of the Byzantine court, most of the crusading princes at first treated the emperor with barely concealed contempt—one knight even went so far as to lounge impudently on the imperial throne when Alexius entered to meet with him. The emperor, however, was quite capable of holding his own. With a shrewd mixture of vague threats and luxurious gifts, he managed to procure an oath from each of them. Few arrived eager to pledge their loyalty, although some were compliant enough (Bohemond in particular was a little too willing to swear), but in the end virtually every leader agreed to return any conquered city to the empire. Only the distinguished Raymond of Toulouse stubbornly refused the exact wording, substituting instead the rather nebulous promise to “respect” the life and property of the emperor.
By the early months of 1097, the ordeal was over and the last of the crusaders had been ferried across the Bosporus and settled on the Asian shore. For Alexius, the feeling was one of extreme relief. The armies that had descended on his empire had been more of a threat than a help, and even if they were successful in Anatolia, they would most likely prove more dangerous than the currently disunited Turks. In any case, all that he could do now was wait and see what developed.
As soon as they landed, the crusaders headed for Nicaea, the ancient city that had witnessed the first great council of the church nearly eight centuries before. The Turkish sultan who had wiped out the People’s Crusade was more annoyed than alarmed, assuming that these recent arrivals were of the same caliber. Instead, he found an army of hardened knights mounted on their powerful horses, encased in thick armor that rendered them completely impervious to arrows. The Turkish army shattered before the first charge of the crusader heavy cavalry, and the stunned sultan hastily retreated.
The only thing that marred the victory for the crusaders was the fact that the garrison of Nicaea chose to surrender to the Byzantine commander—who promptly shut the gates and refused to let them enjoy the customary pillaging. Such behavior by the Byzantines was perfectly understandable since the population of Nicaea was predominantly Byzantine Christian, but to the crusaders it smacked of treachery. They began to wonder if the emperor might not be confused between his allies and his enemies—especially when the captured Turks were offered a choice between service under the imperial standards or safe conduct home. For the moment, the crusaders muted their criticism, but their suspicions didn’t bode well for future relations with Byzantium.
Alexius was more than happy to ignore western knighthood’s injured pride, because he was fairly certain that they stood no chance against the innumerable Muslim enemies arrayed against them. Against all expectations in Constantinople, however, the First Crusade turned out to be a rousing success. The Turkish sultan tried again to stop the crusaders, but after two crushing defeats, he ordered their path stripped of supplies and left them unmolested. After a horrendous march across the arid, burning heart of Asia Minor, the crusaders reached Antioch and managed to batter their way inside. No sooner had they captured the city, however, than a massive army under the Turkisn governor of Mosul appeared, and the crusaders—now desperately short of water—were forced to kill most of their horses for food. Alexius gathered his army to march to their defense but was met halfway by a fleeing crusader, who informed him that all hope was lost and that the city had most likely already fallen. Realizing that there was nothing to gain by sacrificing his army, Alexius turned around and returned to Constantinople.
The crusaders, however, hadn’t surrendered. Inspired by the miraculous discovery of a holy relic, they had flung themselves into a last-ditch offensive and managed to put the huge army to flight. Continuing their advance, they reached Jerusalem in midsummer, and on July 15, 1099, successfully stormed the Holy City. Many crusaders wept upon seeing the city that they had suffered so much to reach, but their entry into it unleashed all the pent-up frustrations of the last four years. Few of the inhabitants were spared—neither Orthodox, nor Muslims, nor Jews—and the hideously un-Christian bloodbath continued until early the next morning.
It was the work of several weeks to cleanse the city of the stench of rotting bodies, and by that time the crusaders had chosen a king. By the oaths they had all taken, they should have returned the city—along with everything else they had conquered—to the Byzantine Empire, but there was no longer any chance of that. As far as they were concerned, when Alexius had failed to relieve them in Antioch, he had revealed himself to be treacherous, releasing them from their vows. Bohemond had already seized Antioch, setting himself up as prince, and the rest of their conquests were now broken up into various crusader kingdoms. If the emperor wanted to press his claims to their lands, then he could do so in person with an army at his back.
Alexius was more than happy to let Palestine go. A few Christian buffer states in lands that had been lost for centuries might even be a good thing. But having his enemy Bohemond installed in Antioch was more than he could swallow. Long regarded as the second city of the empire and site of one of the great patriarchates of the church, Antioch had been lost to the Turks only fifteen years before. Its population was thoroughly Orthodox, its language was Greek, and its culture was Byzantine through and through. But even when Bohemond added insult to injury by tossing out the Greek patriarch and replacing him with a Latin one, there was little Alexius could do. The emperor had used the distraction of the Crusade to recover most of northwestern Asia Minor—including the cities of Ephesus, Sardis, and Philadelphia—but his armies were stretched out, and there was no hope of extending his reach into Syria.
It seemed as if Bohemond was free to make as much mischief as he liked, but in the summer of 1100 he stumbled into a Turkish ambush and spent the next three years locked away in a distant prison. No fewer than three crusading armies were sent to rescue him, but when they as usual ignored Alexius’s offer of guides and advice, they were easily cut to pieces by the Turks. This didn’t stop them from blaming the emperor for their failures, however, and when the furious Bohemond was ransomed at last, he found plenty of support in Europe for a new offensive against Byzantium.* The bitter flower of mistrust and hostility was now in full bloom, its roots deeply embedded in the cultural gulf between the East and the West. To the eyes of Europe, it seemed as if the true enemy of the crusader states wasn’t Islam at all but the grasping, duplicitous Byzantium. The emperor had done nothing at all to help the crusaders when they were trapped in Antioch and had restricted access to imperial cities, but he had given Muslim prisoners all consideration (even to the point of receiving meals without pork) and treated them as valuable allies. In Constantinople, on the other hand, Alexius’s original suspicions now seemed justified after all—the crusading spirit was nothing more than a new twist on an old story. The foreigners had come with words of support and talk of brotherhood, but in the end they only wanted to conquer. Now Alexius would face a new army, led by his old enemy Bohemond.
From the beginning of his invasion, Bohemond tried to repeat his father’s success. After landing in Epirus with an army thirty-four thousand strong, he immediately marched up the Dalmatian coast and besieged the mighty city of Durazzo. But Byzantium was no longer the fractured weakling it had been twenty-five years before, when Robert Guiscard had brought his Normans crashing into the empire. A quarter of a century under a single ruler had given the empire the great benefit of stability, uniting the various noble families under a single command. A measure of prosperity had returned, and with it a deeper loyalty to the government in Constantinople. With morale suitably high, Durazzo easily resisted the attack, and a Byzantine fleet cut off Bohemond from his supplies. Alexius leisurely made his way from Constantinople with an army, obliging the Norman to defend against attacks from his rear as well as from the city. By the end of the year, Bohemond’s men were starving and, as usual in an army camp, suffering from malaria as well. The exhausted and humiliated crusader was brought before the emperor, where he humbly agreed to an unconditional surrender. After returning to Italy in shame, Bohemond died three years later without ever daring to show his face in the East again.
Alexius had refurbished the tarnished imperial reputation and been more successful than any could have hoped at the start of his reign, but he was now nearing sixty and rapidly aging. Suffering from an acute form of gout, he was more concerned with consolidating what he had recovered than with new battles against the Turks. Trying to bring relief to his subjects, he eased the tax burden on the poor, building them a vast free hospital and homeless shelter in the capital to provide for all their needs. Concerned by the growing power of Venice within the empire, he offered the same commercial treaties to Pisa, hoping that the two maritime republics would balance each other out. In 1116, there was time for one final campaign against the Turks; he completely routed the sultan’s troops, ending the regular attacks on the Byzantine coast. By the terms of the resulting treaty, the Greek population of the Anatolian interior immigrated to Byzantine territory, escaping enslavement but ensuring the Islamification of Asia Minor.
By the time he returned victorious from his campaign, the emperor clearly didn’t have much longer to live. Forced to sit up in order to breathe, and swollen with disease, he lingered on until August 1118, finally dying in his bed with his family by his side.* He had been a brilliant emperor and deserved to be buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles alongside the greatest of them, but instead he chose to be interred in the quiet little chapel he built along the seawalls.† The thirty-seven years he spent on the throne had given the empire a comforting stability just when it needed it the most, and had laid the foundation for a return to prosperity and strength. The full-scale collapse had been halted, and the emperor had even managed to recover the rich coastal lands along the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. With a little more cooperation and goodwill between his people and the crusaders, Alexius almost certainly could have recovered the interior of Asia Minor as well. With the heartland of Anatolia restored to the empire, the damage done by Manzikert would have been effectively undone, and a much stronger Byzantium would have existed to deny the Turks a foothold in Europe. The following centuries would see plenty of capable and ambitious men on the imperial throne; if they had been given access to the resources of Asia Minor, they could perhaps have prevented the five hundred years of enslavement that awaited half of Europe. But the poisonous relations between Byzantium and the crusaders were not Alexius’s fault, and he can hardly be blamed for their deterioration. The Crusade could very well have overwhelmed the fragile imperial recovery, but he had handled it deftly and had accomplished more than any had dared to hope. Not all of his successors would have his skill—or be so lucky.
Long after the last crusaders left Constantinople, the impact of their passing reverberated in the imperial capital. Though the first experience left a bitter taste in the mouths of both sides, the rather pampered court was nevertheless impressed by the superb physical prowess of their brutish guests. In many cases, these swaggering men were their first intimate glimpses of the faraway West, and though the crusaders were uneducated and rough, there was a savage magnificence in the way these men of iron held themselves.
When the Second Crusade, led by the crowned heads of Germany and France, made its way through the capital during the reign of Alexius’s grandson Manuel, something in the pageantry of the age of chivalry caught the rich Byzantine imagination. It became fashionable for wealthy ladies to sport western-style dress, and the emperor Manuel even held jousting tournaments, horrifying his watching court by entering the lists himself.*
The fad for all things western, however, carried with it the tinge of superiority that all older civilizations feel toward younger, threatening ones. The wealthy might amuse themselves by aping these exotic strangers and their barbaric customs, but they felt little real warmth or understanding for their western colleagues. No matter how proficient these knights were at war, at heart most Byzantines considered them to be nothing more than jumped-up barbarians, incapable of true parity with the spiritual and temporal glory of Constantinople. The Roman Empire might have lost a good deal of its material luster, but it remained a shining beacon of learning and civilization in a darkened world, and no so-called king or prince from the barbaric West could ever really cross that divide.
Such lofty claims of glory seemed to be true enough under the Comnenian emperors, as the empire’s recovery continued. Alexius’s son John the Beautiful humbled the aggressive king of Hungary and forced the Danishmend Turks to become his vassals. When the stubbornly independent princes of Armenia continued to defy him, the emperor marched into Armenia and carted them off to Byzantine prisons for safekeeping. This display of imperial power brought the squabbling crusader kingdoms into line, and the prince of Antioch even presented himself before the emperor and pledged his humble allegiance. A hunting accident cut short John the Beautiful’s promising reign, but his even more brilliant son Manuel took up where his father had left off. The arrogant prince of Antioch, mistaking the new emperor’s youth for weakness, demanded that several fortresses be immediately turned over to him, only to have Manuel appear like lightning before the city, terrifying the populace. The other crusader kingdoms got the message and hurried to declare that the emperor was their overlord. When Manuel rode into Antioch in 1159 to personally assume control of it, the leading dignitaries of the crusader world—including the king of Jerusalem—marched obediently behind him. Three years later, the Seljuk Turks accepted vassal status in exchange for Manuel’s promise to leave them alone; in the West, Serbia and Bosnia were annexed by the crown. Byzantium seemed to have recovered from Manzikert and reclaimed its prestige.
There were, however, ominous clouds on the horizon. The empire’s reputation in the West had not been particularly high since the First Crusade, but it worsened significantly with the unmitigated failure of the second. Though the debacle was hardly the fault of Byzantium, French and especially Norman crusaders returned home with alarming tales of Byzantine duplicity and shocking imperial treaties with the Muslim enemy.* The fact that the crusaders had repeatedly ignored Manuel’s advice to avoid the Turks by traveling along the safer coastal routes was conveniently overlooked; the treaty with the sultan was damning enough. Clearly, the heretical Greeks cared nothing for the Christian cause in the East and were secretly trying to undermine the crusaders’ success.
Even more dangerous than Byzantium’s blackened reputation in the West, however, were the deteriorating relations with Venice. The Italian city-state had built up quite a commercial empire largely at Byzantine expense, and its increasingly arrogant attitude was unacceptable to the rank-and-file native merchants whose trade was being strangled. One could hardly walk the streets of the capital without running into an insufferable Venetian, and there were many who wished the emperor would send them all back to their lagoon. Surely an empire as glorious and mighty as Byzantium didn’t need to have its merchants crowded out by foreigners and its wealth diverted to some far-off city. John the Beautiful had tried to curb Venetian influence by refusing to renew their trading rights, but he had only succeeded in starting a war in which the hopelessly decrepit Byzantine navy couldn’t even participate. After a few months of having his coasts burned and trade disrupted, John swallowed his pride and gave in to Venetian demands, having accomplished nothing more than increasing the bitterness on both sides. His son Manuel as usual had better luck. In 1171, the emperor, in an act equal parts foolishness and bravery, simply arrested every Venetian in the empire and seized their merchandise, ignoring the outraged protests. The Venetian ambassador Enrico Dandolo was indignantly recalled (though not before losing the use of an eye), and the powerful navy took his place. Once again, the two nations were at war, but this time the Byzantines didn’t even have a navy, since John had disgustedly cut funding to it several years before. Incredibly, however, Manuel’s luck held. The plague broke out among the Venetian ships and the war effort collapsed. The poor doge returned to Venice—bringing the plague with him—and was brutally killed by an angry mob.
The Venetian stranglehold on the empire’s sea commerce was broken, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. For the moment, the republic was content to lick its wounds and nurse its bruised ego, but memories were long on the Venetian lagoon. Thirty-two years would pass, but Venice—and Enrico Dandolo—would have their revenge.
Buoyed by a certain amount of grudging international respect, and now seen once again as a great power of the Aegean and the Balkans, Byzantium paid little attention to the animosity that was building against it. Seemingly capable of raising vast armies by “stamping its foot,” the empire had cowed its enemies in the East and imposed its will over its provinces in the West. Manuel was so confident of its power that he had even written to the pope, offering in effect to act as the sword arm of the church. But the strength of Byzantium was largely an illusion, built by the smoke and mirrors of three brilliant emperors. The erudite and flashy Manuel may have looked every inch an emperor and impressed all he met with the breadth of his learning, but his victories lacked any real substance. The crusader princes and kings promised him allegiance, but that disappeared with the departure of his armies; and though the Turks had become his vassals, that only lulled the empire to sleep. Without Asia Minor restored to the empire, Byzantium lacked the resources for a permanent recovery, but with one calamitous exception, none of the Comnenian emperors ever attempted to reconquer their lost heartland. Their wars were only defensive, reacting to outside threats instead of trying to repair the extensive damage done by Manzikert.
Manuel’s greatest mistake was his failure to evict the armies of Islam from Anatolia. At the start of his reign, the Danishmend Turks were broken and squabbling, and the sight of the imperial army seemed enough to cow the Seljuks. After humbling the crusader kingdoms, Manuel could have turned his sword against the Turks, but instead he accepted their vassalage and turned his back on them for nearly a decade. The moment the imperial armies left the region, the Seljuks invaded Danishmend territory, easily overcoming their weakened enemies. For the first time in nearly a century, Turkish Asia Minor was once again united under a single strong sultan. Instead of quarreling, divided enemies, Manuel now faced a united, hostile front. In 1176, he tried to correct his mistake, marching with his army to attack the Turkish capital of Iconium, but was ambushed while crossing the pass of Myriocephalum. After nearly a century of rebuilding, the imperial army had been as powerless against the Turks as ever, and its reputation had been irrevocably broken. Imperial strength was revealed as nothing more than a monstrous sham, an illusion based on the emperor’s dazzling style but without real substance.
Manuel lived on for four more years, even managing to ambush a small Turkish army as revenge for his great disaster, but his spirit was diminished, and the tides of history were running against Byzantium. In the fall of 1180, he fell mortally ill, and on September 24 he died, bringing the brilliant century of the Comneni to a close. His death was as most of his life had been: an example of exquisite timing. Having presided over the pinnacle of Byzantine prestige, he exited just as the empire’s power dissolved and the sky grew dark, leaving his successors to face the storm. Those watching his funeral procession unknowingly caught the final glimpse of imperial glory as it faded from view. After Manuel, the entire house of cards came tumbling down.
*One of Alexius’s more unsung contributions to Byzantium was in restoring the gold content of its coins and thereby ending the vicious inflation that was crippling its economy.
*Though his body was carried off and interred in Venosa, Italy, the charming town of Fiscardo—where he died—still bears a corrupted form of his name.
*He managed to escape from Byzantine territory by concealing himself in a coffin with a decaying rooster to provide an appropriate aroma. While his supporters wept and dressed in mourning clothes, Bohemond’s “coffin” was smuggled onto a ship and delivered safely to Rome.
*Among them was his daughter Anna Comnena, who wrote the Alexiad—perhaps the most entertaining Byzantine account of the life and times of Alexius.
†The church is still there, tucked unobtrusively into the surrounding masonry, and though it’s now in ruins (and not entirely uninhabited), no tomb has ever been found. Perhaps Alexius sleeps there still in some undiscovered vault, dreaming of happier days.
*Unlike earlier Roman emperors who entered Olympic games or gladiatorial contests assured of victory (Nero, Commodus), Manuel was apparently quite proficient at jousting. According to Byzantine accounts, in one tournament he managed to unhorse two famous Italian knights.
*The Germans elected to ignore Manuel’s advice and march by the quickest route and were ambushed almost immediately, virtually eliminating the Teutonic army from the struggle. Under the command of the French, the remaining crusaders made the mind-boggling decision to attack Damascus—the one Muslim power that was allied with them—invading at the height of summer. By July 28, 1148, after only five days of a disastrous siege, the various leaders abandoned the attempt in disgust and returned to their homes.