Post-classical history

Prelude to Catastrophe

[1055-9]

You would have thought that his entry into the capital had been some revelation of God Himself... I have taken part in many imperial processions and have assisted at ceremonies of a more religious character, but in all my life I have never seen such splendour. It was not merely the people of the Qty, nor the Senate, nor the host of farmers and merchants, that made up the happy throng; there were also students of the theological colleges, and dwellers on the mountain-tops, and hermits who had left their hermitages in the carved rock-tombs; the stylites too, whether they had slipped away from their rocks, or come down from their aerial perches, or exchanged the mountain heights for the level plains, all made the Emperor's procession into the City a most memorable sight.

Michael Psellus, on the entry of Isaac I into Constantinople

Constantine IX died a widower. Three years after the Tornices revolt and four years before the schism, in 1050 on a precise date unknown, his wife Zoe had predeceased him. Surprisingly perhaps, he had been devastated. Admittedly he owed her a lot: not only his crown, but also his quasi-conjugal life with his mistress, which would have been impossible had the old Empress not looked kindly on it. On the other hand she was many years his senior, and the physical aspect of their own marriage - if indeed it had existed at all — had been of short duration and marked, so far as we can see, by a distinct lack of enthusiasm on both sides. To many people, therefore, his grief seemed somewhat overdone -particularly when he interpreted the growth of a small fungus on one of the columns supporting her tomb-canopy as a miraculous sign that she was now numbered with the angels.1

Be that as it may, on Constantine's death without legitimate issue the

1 A contemporary mosaic representation of Zoe and Constantine flanking the figure of Christ can be seen on the east wall of the south gallery of St Sophia, but all three heads have obviously been altered. The portrait of Zoe depicts a much younger woman, and may well date originally from the time of her marriage to Romanus Argyrus; but it was probably later defaced by Michael V after he exiled her, and would have been restored only after his death in 1042. The supposed portrait of Constantine is even more suspect, since it probably replaces one of Michael IV, which in turn replaced one of Romanus: no wonder the lettering above it is almost illegible.

imperial crown devolved once again on Theodora. Her imperial presence since being dragged from her monastery thirteen years before had been shadowy, to say the least; but now, refusing as always to contemplate the idea of marriage - however theoretical - she elected to govern on her own behalf. This she did, by all accounts, with remarkable efficiency: dispensing justice, promulgating laws, receiving ambassadors and stubbornly resisting repeated attempts by the Patriarch to take over the reins of government. One question, however, remained unanswered: who was to succeed her? She herself still showed little sign of age - both mentally and physically, she seemed in as good condition as she had ever been -but she was by now in her seventy-seventh year and could not last for ever. Clearly, she must appoint a successor; but she was superstitious and terrified of death, and could not be persuaded to turn her mind to the one problem whose urgency and importance increased with every day that passed.

It was still unresolved when, in the last days of August 1056, she was suddenly seized with intense abdominal pains. For once, poisoning was not suspected — the cause was probably acute appendicitis - but it soon became evident that the end was near. Anxiously, her counsellors conferred together - Psellus, who was with them, was shocked at the way 'they played fast and loose with the Empire, like men playing at dice' - to discuss the most suitable successor, whose name they would submit to the dying woman for her approval. Their choice finally fell on an elderly Patrician named Michael Bringas, who had formerly held the rank of stratioticus, a civil service post concerned with military administration.1 'He was,' sniffs Psellus, Mess qualified to rule than to be ruled and directed by others,' but this was seen by the cynics around the throne as being a distinct advantage: they asked nothing better than a cipher like Michael, who would be only too grateful for their guidance and through whom they could run the Empire as they liked.

By the time this decision was reached — it was about noon on 31 August

1 Schlumbergcr seems to think that Michael had spent his enure active life in the army - surely a complete misreading. The new Emperor had, on the contrary, been chosen by the civil bureaucracy as being one of their own and detested everything military, as subsequent events were to show.

- the old Empress was sinking fast. She was no longer able to speak, but those closest to her insisted that they had distinctly seen her head nodding in consent. There was another brief delay while the Patriarch -refusing as always to be taken for granted - sought assurances that Michael had indeed been nominated by Theodora herself rather than her advisers; finally however he declared himself satisfied, and that same afternoon proceeded with the coronation. A few hours later the last representative of the Macedonian dynasty was dead, and Michael VI -known sometimes as 'Stratioticus' but more often simply as 'the Aged' -reigned supreme over the Roman Empire.

His reign began with a piece of high comedy when the following morning a certain Theodosius, a cousin or nephew of Constantine Monomachus who had apparently expected to succeed to the throne as of right, attempted an impromptu coup d'etat and actually managed to storm the main prison, liberating all the prisoners who naturally flocked to his banner. All went well until he reached the Palace; but there, when he found himself confronted with the Varangian guard and a detachment of sailors from the imperial fleet, his courage suddenly evaporated. Turning back, he headed for St Sophia, thinking - on what grounds it is hard to understand - to enlist the support of the Patriarch; he had, however, sorely misjudged his man. Just as he was about to enter the church, the doors were slammed in his face. His followers were by now rapidly drifting away, and before long there remained of the rebel force only Theodosius and his son, cowering in the outer narthex, too frightened even to run away. They were lucky to escape with their eyes; but nobody seems to have taken them seriously enough to blind them. They were exiled to Pergamum, having succeeded only in increasing the new Emperor's popularity and strengthening his position on the throne.

Michael VI was a collateral descendant of that Joseph Bringas who had been chief minister under Romanus II and Theophano;1 but he showed tragically litde of the political acumen of his forebear. Wise government in mid-eleventh-century Byzantium consisted above all in striking a prudent balance between the civil administration and the military aristocracy: Michael simply indulged the one and victimized the other. In the spring of 1057 — during the annual Holy Week ceremony at which the Emperor traditionally distributed largesse to those who were thought

1 See Chapter 11.

to have been particularly meritorious during the past year - the entire Senate, together with all the senior magistrates and civil servants, were astonished to receive huge bonuses and automatic promotion, some of them by two or even three ranks. Then came the turn of the army. Psellus, once again an eye-witness, describes what took place:

The men who presented themselves were noble warriors, men of fine reputation. After bowing to him and making the usual reverences, they were told to stand to one side. At this point he should have taken them aside individually and begun with some words of gratitude. Instead, he first berated them all en bloc and next ordered the two chiefs - Isaac Comnenus and Catacalon Cecaumenus to stand forth. He then publicly turned on Isaac with a torrent of abuse, accusing him of having all but lost Antioch, corrupted his army, shown no signs of leadership and embezzled public money to satisfy his own personal greed. Isaac, who had expected praise and promotion, seemed stunned by the violence of this invective. Some of his fellow-generals attempted to defend him, but the Emperor forbade them to speak.

It was, by any standards, a deplorable exhibition. Certainly where the two generals were concerned, the Emperor had not the faintest grounds for his attack - which seems to have been the result, quite simply, of childish pique. For forty years he had been insulted and patronized by the military aristocracy; now at last he was in a position to tell them what he thought of them, and he did not mince his words. Nor, afterwards, did he express any regrets for what he had done. At a second interview, which followed at the generals' request a few days later, he had a perfect opportunity to apologize, or at least to show a modicum of good will. He did neither. And from that moment his downfall was assured.

The generals, outraged, determined to act. They had had enough of government by timid bureaucrats, by men who thought only of feathering their own nests while the army atrophied and the enemies of the Empire advanced from all sides; the time had come, they decided, to get rid of this long succession of weak, good-for-nothing Emperors and the epicene eunuchs who manipulated them, and to return to the old Roman tradition of the imperator, the Emperor-general who would put himself at the head of his troops and lead them to victory. But who was he to be? Isaac Comnenus was the obvious choice, but he persistently refused to put himself forward and retired instead to his estates in Paphlagonia. His colleagues, however, remained (at some risk to themselves) in the capital to take soundings, and were soon much encouraged to discover that they had ah unexpected ally, perhaps the most valuable non-military supporter for whom they could possibly have hoped: Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople - who, instead of closing the doors of St Sophia as he had on the ridiculous Theodosius in the previous year, now opened them secretly to the conspirators.

That same night, in the darkness of the Great Church, the military leaders of Byzantium met in conclave to discuss the overthrow of Michael Stratioticus and to decide on his successor. In view of the obvious unwillingness of Isaac Comnenus to be considered, they first selected that other victim of the old Emperor's wrath, Catacalon Cecaumenus, who had the additional advantage of being a considerably younger man; but he shook his head. Isaac, he maintained, was the only possible choice. With his commanding presence and formidable personality he stood head and shoulders above the others. If formally approached with a unanimous demand from his colleagues, how could he possibly refuse the call? And so it was that on 8 June 1057, on his Paphlagonian estate, Isaac Comnenus allowed himself to be proclaimed Emperor of the Romans. A month later he was joined by Catacalon, marching from his native Colonea at the head of no less than eight battalions that he had picked up on the way: five Byzantine, plus three more composed of foreign auxiliaries - Varangian, Frankish and Norman.

The movement led by Isaac Comnenus against Michael Stratioticus was no mere insurrection. It had nothing in common with the revolts of military adventurers like George Maniakes or Leo Tornices, however formidable these may have been. This was a full-scale civil war, in which virtually the whole of the army of Asia was marching against the Emperor, supported by vast numbers of Byzantines from all social classes and walks of life. Isaac, moreover, proclaimed by his soldiers and raised on a shield according to the old imperial tradition, had a far more legitimate claim to the throne than Michael; he came not as a pretender but as one who, in the eyes of his followers as well as in his own, was already the rightful basileus. Already, too, taxes were being collected in his name. Not surprisingly, there was little resistance as he and Catacalon advanced westward on Constantinople; at every stop, more and more of the local citizens, civil and military alike, flocked to his standard - so many that at moments chaos seemed to threaten. Fortunately Isaac possessed quite remarkable gifts, both of organization and of command. One look from him, we are told, was enough to silence opposition; strong men trembled at his frown. There and then he introduced a programme of rigid training. Every recruit was carefully examined: those of uncertain ability or spirit were given tasks behind the lines, while those of proved courage and obedience were formed into new companies and regiments. Every unit had its designated place in the camp or on the march, every man his place in the unit. Thanks to the tax collections, the soldiers were paid promptly and in full.

Michael Stratioticus, as far as we can tell, had suspected nothing until he received the news of the proclamation of his rival. He had then taken the only action open to him by calling on the army in Europe to come to his aid, supplemented by such few small detachments from Asia as had remained loyal. As a force, it was hardly impressive. Like Isaac's army, it contained a large proportion of foreign mercenaries, many of whom were soon to find themselves fighting their own compatriots. It was put under the supreme authority of Theodore, Domestic of the Schools, formerly one of Theodora's eunuchs who had been raised to the rank of proedrus its far more experienced second-in-command, the magister Aaron, was a member of a princely Bulgarian family - who, however, unfortunately happened to be Isaac Comnenus's brother-in-law, Isaac having married his sister Catherine some years previously.

Arriving in Constantinople at the beginning of August, Theodore and Aaron immediately crossed to Asia and established their headquarters in Nicomedia. It was a disastrous mistake. Had they continued to Nicaea, whose tremendous walls commanded the only road round the Marmara, Isaac - who had no ships - would have been hard put to advance any further; instead, the city surrendered to him without a struggle, providing him with an ideal forward base for operations against the capital.

For a few weeks the two armies remained encamped within some five miles of each other, between Nicomedia and Nicaea, while the soldiers from each side, meeting unofficially on foraging expeditions, attempted - on the whole unsuccessfully - to persuade their reluctant enemies to transfer their allegiance. Then, at last, on 20 August, battle was joined. It was not the rout that might have been expected. Theodore and Aaron fought bravely, there were heavy casualties on both sides and Isaac Comnenus himself, who had somehow got separated from his army, was set on by four huge Russian mercenaries and narrowly escaped with his life. But the ultimate outcome was inevitable, and the defeated army of Michael Stratioticus fled in disorder back to Constantinople, where its two generals tendered to their master their formal resignations.

For the old Emperor the only hope now lay in diplomacy. By astute negotiations perhaps something might still be saved. A day or two later a delegation consisting of Michael Psellus and two colleagues that he had personally chosen - the former chief minister Constantine Likhoudes and theproedrus Theodore Alopus - set off for the camp of Isaac Comnenus. Their proposal was simple enough: that Isaac should come in peace to Constantinople, where he would immediately be crowned Caesar, on the further understanding that he would succeed to the throne on Michael's death. The three ambassadors arrived on 25 August, and were received informally: almost too informally, Psellus thought, since the general had at first limited himself to offering them refreshments and inquiring politely whether they had had a comfortable journey. On the following day, however, their reception was very different:

The sight that met our eyes was astonishing. First, our ears were deafened by the acclamations of the army. Their voices were not all raised at once: the front rank acclaimed him first, then the second took up the cry, then the third, and so on. Then, after the last rank had shouted, there was one great united roar which hit us like a thunderclap.

The Emperor [i.e. Isaac] was seated on a couch crowned with two head-rests, raised on a high platform and overlaid with gold, with a stool at its foot. A magnificent robe gave him an air of high distinction. He held his head up proudly and puffed out his chest - an effort that turned his cheeks deep red -while a far-away look in his eyes suggested that he was sunk in profoundest thought.. . Around him were circles upon circles of warriors. The nearest and most important comprised the highest ranks of the nobility, men who rivalled the stately grandeur of the Ancient Heroes... In the second circle were their lieutenants and the front-rank fighters, surrounding whom again were the light-armed troops without armour, and behind them all the forces which had joined him from the barbarian nations. There were Italians, and Scyths from the Taurus, men of fearful aspect in outlandish garb, glaring fiercely about them. Some had plucked their eyebrows and had covered themselves in war-paint, while others preserved their natural colour... Finally there were the warriors armed with long spears and carrying their single-edged battle-axes on their shoulders.

Psellus then put forward his master's proposal in a speech which, according to his own description of it, would have done credit to Demosthenes himself. At first, he tells us, there were the inevitable protests from the assembled soldiery; but as he continued they gradually became quiet, and by the time he reached his peroration it was clear that his arguments had prevailed. Isaac then took him aside and told him that he would be perfectly content with the title of Caesar, on the understanding that the Emperor would appoint no other successor, would recognize the honours that he, Isaac, had bestowed on his principal associates and would grant him the power to make certain civil and military appointments and promotions. 'Tonight,' he concluded, 'you will dine with me. Tomorrow you will carry my message to your master.'

The relief of the Emperor Michael when he heard this news can well be imagined. He sent Psellus straight back to the camp to say that he gladly accepted all his rival's conditions; he would receive him in Constantinople like a son and load him with all the honours and privileges he wanted. Isaac, equally delighted, immediately began to prepare his departure. That same evening, however, there arrived a messenger from the capital: a coup d'etat by certain members of the Senate, aided and abetted by the Patriarch, had forcibly deposed Michael and obliged him to take refuge in St Sophia. At first both Isaac and Psellus were inclined to discount this as a rumour; but finally, when other messengers appeared with the same tidings supported now with an increasing amount of circumstantial detail, they allowed themselves to be convinced. Psellus frankly confesses that he got no sleep that night: as a spokesman for a deposed Emperor who had done his utmost to keep Isaac from the throne, he felt he could expect no mercy. But the general greeted him the next morning with his usual cordiality and even asked his advice on the art of government. On i September 1057, accompanied by thousands of Constantinopolitans who had sailed across the Marmara to greet him, Isaac I Comnenus entered his capital in triumph.

Michael the Aged had enjoyed one year of power. To his successor's eternal credit, he suffered no blinding, no exile. Abdication was enough. He died soon afterwards, a private citizen.

It is hardly surpring that Isaac Comnenus should have elected to be represented on his coins holding in his right hand a drawn sword. He assumed the throne of Byzantium with one object only in mind: to recover for the Empire, in the shortest possible time, the greatness it had known half a century before. Pscllus tells us that he settled down to work on the very same evening that he entered the Palace, before he had taken a bath or even changed his clothes. His object was a complete military reform, and he pursued it with military efficiency and ruthlessness. This is not to say that he imposed martial law, or appointed his fellow-generals to all key positions in the State; on the contrary, no one understood better than he the dangers of leaving too many victorious soldiers idle in a rich and populous city, and one of his first preoccupations was to pay off his men and send them back to their homes to await his further summons. Nor did he instantly dismiss all the civil bureaucrats and senators from their posts. He did however ensure that the army should once again receive the financial support that Zoe and her family had so long withheld, and rapidly restored the firm military rule in which, as Basil II had conclusively proved, lay the only lasting hope of imperial security.

But all this needed money; and to make good the immense damage that the Empire had suffered in recent years Isaac had no hesitation in resorting to radical measures. Horrified to see how the immense reserves that Basil had accumulated had been frittered away by his successors (largely on gifts and sweeteners for their supporters and luxuries for themselves) he immediately embarked on a programme of large-scale territorial confiscation. The old legally-held estates were untouched - he had no wish to reduce the power of his own aristocratic class - but vast tracts of land which had been recently conferred on favourites and time-servers were seized without compensation. The victims, provided that they were individuals and laymen, might protest as vociferously as they liked; they had no redress, and they knew it.

When, on the other hand, Isaac turned his attention towards Church property, he must have known that he was inviting trouble. Michael Cerularius, who had been working steadily ever since his accession to build up his own position, was by now almost as powerful as the basiUus himself, and probably a good deal more popular. The Patriarch believed - with good reason - that he had been substantially responsible for Michael's overthrow; Isaac, he maintained, owed him his throne, and he expected some recognition of the fact. The Emperor for his part was perfectly prepared to be accommodating in areas in which imperial interests were not, as he saw it, directly threatened. He willingly handed over the adrninistration of St Sophia — formerly an imperial responsibility - to the Church, and agreed not to trespass on the Patriarch's ecclesiastical preserves, while Cerularius gave a similar undertaking with regard to secular affairs of state. The difficulty was to know exactly where the line was to be drawn between them; and on this subject in particular the

Patriarch had his own very definite ideas, in the forcible expression of which he did not scruple to cite the Donation of Constantine,1 to threaten Isaac with deposition and - if John Scylitzes is to be believed -even at one point to don the Emperor's purple boots.

This, for Isaac, was going too far. While Cerularius remained in Constantinople his popularity was so great that he could not be touched; but when on 8 November 1058 he left the capital to visit a monastery some distance beyond the walls he was seized by the imperial guards and carried off into exile. Even then, however, he refused absolutely to resign the patriarchal throne; the Emperor had no choice but to arrange for a formal sentence of deposition. The necessary synod was held, prudently, in a provincial city; as might have been expected, its proceedings turned into something suspiciously resembling a show trial. The case for the prosecution - drawn up, to nobody's surprise, by Psellus — accused the Patriarch of every kind of heresy, blasphemy and vice. The inflexible Patriarch would, we can be sure, have put up a spirited defence; but he was by now an old man and the strain was too much for him. He died, of rage and a broken heart, before sentence was passed.

Isaac Comnenus seemed at first to have emerged victorious; but it soon became apparent that the battle was far from over. The local populace, who had barely contained their fury at the arrest of their beloved Patriarch, now chose to see him as a martyr: rioting followed, and although order was restored, the Emperor never regained his earlier popularity. Thus, little more than a year after his accession, he found the Church, the bureaucratic aristocracy and the people of Constantinople ranged implacably against him. Only the soldiers remained behind him to a man; thanks to them he successfully defended the eastern frontiers, beat off a determined attack by the Magyars and even held the dreaded Pechenegs firmly at bay. Psellus gives us an unforgettable description of this formidable tribe:

They are more difficult to fight and harder to subdue than any other people .. . They wear no breastplates, greaves or helmets, and carry no shields or swords. Their only weapon and sole means of defence is the spear. . . They build no protective palisades or ditches around their camps. In one dense mass, encouraged by sheer desperation, they shout their thunderous war-cries and hurl themselves pell-mell upon their adversaries and push them back, pressing

1 The theory according to which Constantine the Great had deliberately left his imperial crown to the Church for it to bestow on whomsoever it might select as temporal Emperor of the Romans. See Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. 379.

against them in solid blocks, like towers, then pursuing them and slaying them without mercy. If on the other hand the opposing force withstands their assault, they turn about and seek safety in flight. But there is no order in their retreat... They all disperse at the same moment; then later in some strange manner they reunite, one descending from a mountain, another emerging from a ravine, another from a river, all from different places of refuge. When they are thirsty and find water, either from springs or in running streams, they fling themselves down into it and gulp it up; if there is no water, each man dismounts from his horse, opens its veins with a knife, and drinks the blood ... After that they cut up the fattest of the horses, set fire to whatever wood they find ready to hand and, having slighdy warmed the chopped limbs of the horse there on the spot, they gorge themselves on the meat, blood and all. The repast over, they hurry back to their primitive huts, where they lurk like snakes in the deep gullies and precipitous cliffs which constitute their home.

This time, he tells us, the sight of Isaac's army, with its unbroken line of shields, filled the Pechenegs with such terror that they abandoned their usual practice of trying to crush the enemy by sheer weight of numbers. Instead, they attacked in isolated groups and when these made no impression dispersed, announcing simply that they would give battle in three days' time. On the third day Isaac accepted the challenge and marched out to find them; but there were none to be seen. He contented himself by plundering and destroying their camp and then returned to the capital laden with booty and trophies.

Isaac Comnenus astonished all with whom he came in contact by his seemingly superhuman energy. Whether working in the Palace or on campaign, he seemed to need scarcely any sleep or even rest. His only recreation was the chase, into which he flung himself with the same tireless determination that he showed in every other field of activity; and it was while he was out hunting towards the end of 1059 that he contracted the fever that was to bring about his early death. At first he dismissed it as being of no importance, but his condition worsened and after a few days he took ship to Blachernae. Soon it was clear that he had not long to live; he was determined, however, to return to the Great Palace before he died. 'Here,' writes Psellus,

he demonstrated that he had lost none of his former courage. He left his chamber refusing the offer of any arm on which to lean. It was typical of the man's independent spirit. Like some towering cypress violently shaken by gusts of wind, he tottered as he advanced, and his hands trembled; but he walked unaided. In this condition he mounted his horse, but how he fared on the ride I do not know for I hurried on by the other road in order to arrive before him. When he reached the Palace I could see that he was extremely agitated and in a state of utter collapse. All his family sat around him, lamenting. They would willingly have died with him, had they been able.

It was at this point that the dying Emperor expressed a wish to enter the Church. His wife Catherine - daughter of the Bulgarian John Vladislav - made vigorous objection, but he refused to change his mind and insisted there and then on nominating his successor. His only son having died in his early youth, there remained his daughter Maria, His brother John and five nephews; his choice however, fell on none of these. Instead he sent for Constantine Ducas, the most aristocratic of that group of intellectuals who had been responsible for reviving the university a few years before, and solemnly entrusted him with the Empire. Then he had himself carried to the monastery of the Studium, where he adopted the monk's habit and where, a few days later, he died.

Such, at least, is Psellus's version of events. Other chroniclers tell somewhat different stories, according to which Isaac abdicated not on his deathbed but voluntarily - though perhaps during a fit of depression - simply because the political problems became too much for him. The exact truth is, as so often, impossible to establish; it can only be said that the theory of a voluntary abdication hardly accords with the character of Isaac as we know it; and that Psellus's account, supported as it is by a wealth of circumstantial detail, seems to have the ring of authenticity. In any case, there is a more important question to be asked: why did Isaac- not choose a soldier like himself to succeed him on the throne, a man whom he could trust to continue those policies which (at least so far as the army was concerned) had already proved their effectiveness, instead of a hopelessly impractical and woolly-minded bureaucrat who -as he must have known - would undo all that he had done and simply bring back the bad old days of Constantine IX?

Once again, it is not difficult to see behind the whole story the hand of Psellus. A return of the bureaucratic party to power had been unthinkable two years before; now, thanks to the unpopularity of Isaac Comnenus and the death of Michael Cerularius, it was once again a possibility. Constantine Ducas was one of his oldest and closest friends -he describes him in his history as a paragon among men - who, he disingenuously informs us, possessed an additional advantage:

Others may speak of his many splendid successes, but for me there is one overriding consideration: the fact that this man, as admirable in reality as he was in appearance, should place more confidence in my judgement than in the scheming of my rivals. Whether he had discerned more evidence of wisdom in my opinions than in those of the others, or whether it was because he admired my character, I cannot tell; but so greatly was he attached to me, so much did he love me more than the rest, that he listened intently to every word that I uttered, depended on me absolutely for spiritual advice and entrusted his most precious possessions to my personal care.

Psellus cannot possibly have had the same power over Isaac Comnenus as he did over Constantine Ducas; but he possessed extraordinary powers of persuasion and it was he - we can be virtually sure — who somehow convinced the dying (or, if we prefer, simply depressed) Emperor that Constantine must be his successor. If this hypothesis is correct, it can only be said that his burden of guilt must be heavy indeed; for there is no Emperor in the whole history of the later Roman Empire whose accession had more disastrous consequences. Had Isaac Comnenus kept his health and energy, had he reigned for twenty years instead of two, he would have built up the strength of the army to the level it had known under Basil II. It would then, almost certainly, have been more than a match for the enemy that was already gathering its forces along the eastern frontier; Isaac would have been able to bequeath his Empire, undefeated and undiminished, direcdy to his nephew Alexius; and the third volume of this history would have had a very different - and far happier — story to tell. But it was not to be. Isaac's tragically premature death, and his inexplicable choice of successor, rendered inevitable the first of the two great catastrophes that were ultimately to bring about the downfall of Byzantium.

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