Andronicus the Terrible


In the life of this prince, so brilliant and yet so corrupt, at once an abominable tyrant and a superb statesman, one who could have saved the Empire but only precipitated its ruin, we find combined, as in a magnificent summary, all the essential characteristics, all the contrasts of Byzantine society: that strange mixture of good and evil - cruel, atrocious and decadent, yet also capable of grandeur, energy and effort; a society which, during so many centuries, in all the troublous times of its history, always succeeded in finding within itself the necessary resources for life and for survival, not without glory.

Charles Diehl, Figures Byzantines, Vol. II

Alexius II Comnenus was an unimpressive child. Nicetas Choniates tells us that 'this young prince was so puffed up with vanity and pride, so destitute of inner light and ability as to be incapable of the simplest task . . . He passed his entire life at play or the chase, and contracted several habits of pronounced viciousness.' Meanwhile his mother, Mary of Antioch, governed as Regent in his stead. As the first Latin ever to rule in Constantinople, she started off at a grave disadvantage. To the Byzantines, her husband's passion for all things Western had been quite bad enough; they now feared - and with good reason - still further extensions to the Italian and Frankish merchants of their trading rights and privileges; and they were more worried still when Mary took as her chief adviser another character of extreme pro-Western sympathies -Manuel's nephew, the protosebastusAlexius, uncle of the Queen of Jerusalem. Before long it was generally believed that her adviser was also her lover, though from Nicetas's description it is not easy to see what the Empress — whose beauty was famous throughout Christendom - saw in him:

He was accustomed to spend the greater part of the day in bed, keeping the curtains drawn lest he should ever see the sunlight . . . Whenever the sun appeared he would seek the darkness, just as wild beasts do; also he took much pleasure in rubbing his decaying teeth, putting in new ones in the place of those that had fallen out through old age.

As dissatisfaction grew, various conspiracies began to be hatched; notably one by Mary's stepdaughter Maria. The plot was discovered; with her husband Rainier of Montferrat and her other associates, Maria barely had time to flee to St Sophia and barricade herself in. But the Empress Regent was not prepared to respect any rights of sanctuary. The imperial guard was dispatched with orders to seize the conspirators, and the Great Church was saved from desecration only through the mediation of the Patriarch himself. This incident deeply shocked the Byzantines, and the subsequent exile of His Beatitude to a monastery for his part in the affair made the regime more unpopular than ever. Such was the state of public indignation against her that Mary never dared to punish her stepdaughter. Nor, later, did she lift a finger when the people of Constantinople marched en masseto the Patriarch's monastery and carried him on their shoulders back to the capital. The whole affair could hardly have been handled more ineptly.

This first coup had failed; but there followed a threat from another of the Emperor's relatives - a man this time, and one of a very different calibre. Andronicus Comnenus, the Emperor's first cousin - he was the son of the sebastocrator Isaac - was a phenomenon. In 1182 he was already sixty-four years old, but looked nearer forty. Over six feet tall and in magnificent physical condition, he had preserved the good looks, the intellect, the conversational charm and wit, the elegance and the sheer panache that, together with the fame of his almost legendary exploits in the bed and on the battlefield, had won him an unrivalled reputation. The list of his conquests seemed endless, that of the scandals in which he had been involved very little shorter. Three in particular had roused Manuel to fury. The first was when Andronicus carried on a flagrant affair with his own cousin - and the Emperor's niece - the Princess Eudocia Comnena, effectively answering criticism by pointing out that 'subjects should always follow their master's example, and two pieces from the same factory normally prove equally acceptable' - a clear allusion to Manuel's association with Eudocia's sister Theodora, for whom he was well known to cherish an affection that went well beyond the avuncular. Some years later, Andronicus had deserted his military command in Cilicia with the deliberate intention of seducing the lovely Philippa of Antioch. Once again he must have known that there would be serious repercussions: Philippa was the sister not only of the reigning prince, Bohemund III, but of Manuel's own wife, the Empress Mary. This, however, as far as Andronicus was concerned, merely lent additional spice to the game. Though he was then forty-eight and his quarry just twenty, his serenades beneath her window proved irresistible. Within a few days he had added yet another name to his list.

The conquest once made, Andronicus did not remain long to enjoy it. Manuel, outraged, ordered his immediate recall; Bohemund also made it clear that he had no intention of tolerating such a scandal. Possibly, too, the young Princess's charms may have proved disappointing. In any case Andronicus left hurriedly for Palestine to put himself at the disposal of King Amalric of Jerusalem; and there, at Acre, he met for the first time another of his cousins - Queen Theodora, the twenty-one-year-old widow of Amalric's predecessor, King Baldwin III. She became the love of his life. Soon afterwards, when Andronicus moved to his new fief of Beirut - recently given him by Amalric as a reward for his services -Theodora joined him. Consanguinity forbade their marriage, but the two lived there together in open sin until Beirut in its turn grew too hot for them.

After a long spell of wandering through the Muslim East, Andronicus and Theodora finally settled down at Colonea, just beyond the eastern frontier of the Empire, subsisting happily on such money as they had been able to bring with them, supplemented by the proceeds of a little mild brigandage; but their idyll was brought to an end when Theodora and their two small sons were captured by the Duke of Trebizond and sent back to Constantinople. Andronicus, agonized by their loss, hurried back to the capital and immediately gave himself up, flinging himself histrionically at the Emperor's feet and promising anything if only his mistress and his children could be returned to him. Manuel showed his usual generosity; Theodora was, after all, his niece. Clearly a menage at once so irregular and so prominent could not be allowed in Constantinople; but the couple were given a pleasant castle on the Black Sea coast where they might live in moderately honourable exile - and, it was hoped, peaceful retirement.

Alas, it was not to be. Andronicus had always had his eye on the imperial crown and when, after Manuel's death, reports reached him of the growing dissatisfaction with the Empress Regent he needed little persuading that his opportunity had come at last. Unlike Mary of Antioch - 'the foreigner', as her subjects scornfully called her - he was a true Comnenus.

He had energy, ability and determination; more important still at such a moment, his romantic past lent him a popular appeal unmatched in the Empire. In August 1182 he marched on the capital. The old magic was as strong as ever. The troops sent out to block his advance refused to fight; their general, Andronicus Angelus, surrendered and joined him1 -an example soon afterwards followed by the admiral commanding the imperial fleet in the Bosphorus. As he progressed, the people flocked from their houses to cheer him on his way; soon the road was lined with his supporters. Even before he crossed the straits, rebellion had broken out in Constantinople, and with it exploded all the pent-up xenophobia that the events of the previous two years had done so much to increase. What followed was the massacre of virtually every Latin in the city: women and children, the old and infirm, even the sick from the hospitals, as the whole quarter in which they lived was burnt to the ground. The protosebastos was found cowering in the palace, too frightened even to try to escape; he was thrown into the dungeons and later, on Andronicus's orders, blinded;2 the young Emperor and his mother were taken to the imperial villa of the Philopation, there to await their cousin's pleasure.

Their fate was worse than either of them could have feared. Andronicus's triumph had brought out the other side of his character - a degree of cruelty and brutality that few had even suspected, unredeemed by a shred of compassion, scruple or moral sense. Though all-powerful, he was not yet Emperor; and so, methodically and in cold blood, he set about eliminating everyone who stood between himself and the throne. Princess Maria and her husband were the first to go; their deaths were sudden and mysterious, but no one doubted poison. Then it was the turn of the Empress herself. Her thirteen-year-old son was forced to sign her death warrant with his own hand, and she was strangled in her cell. In September 1183 Andronicus was crowned co-Emperor; two months later the boy Alexius met his own death by the bowstring and his body was flung into the Bosphorus. 'Thus,' wrote Nicetas, 'in the imperial garden, all the trees were felled.' Only one more formality remained. For the last three and a half years of his short life, Alexius had been married

1It was typical of Andronicus Comncnus that he should have had a joke ready when Angelus came over to his colours. 'See,' he is said to have remarked, 'it is just as the Gospel says: / shall send my Angel, who shall prepare the way before thee.' The Gospel in fact says no such thing; but Andronicus was not a man to quibble over niceties of that kind.

2Though not before he had recovered his nerve and lodged a formal complaint that his English guards - presumably Varangians - were not allowing him enough sleep.

to Agnes of France, now re-baptized in the more seemly Byzantine name of Anna. Scarcely was her husband disposed of when the new Emperor, now sixty-four, had married the twelve-year-old Empress -and, if at least one modern authority is to be believed,1consummated the marriage.

No reign could have begun less auspiciously; in one way, however, Andronicus did more good to the Empire than Manuel had ever done. He attacked all administrative abuses, wherever he found them and in whatever form. The tragedy was that as he gradually eliminated corruption from the government machine, so he himself grew more and more corrupted by the exercise of his power. Violence and brute force seemed to be his only weapons; his legitimate campaign against the military aristocracy rapidly deteriorated into a succession of bloodbaths and indiscriminate slaughter. According to one report,

he left the vines of Brusa weighed down, not with grapes but with the corpses of those whom he had hanged; and he forbade any man to cut them down for burial, for he wished them to dry in the sun and then to sway and flutter as the wind took them, like the scarecrows that are hung in the orchards to frighten the birds.

Before long, however, it was Andronicus himself who had cause for fear. His popularity was gone: the saviour of the Empire was revealed a monster. Once again the air was thick with revolt and sedition; conspiracies sprang up, hydra-headed, in capital and provinces alike. Traitors were everywhere. Those who fell into the hands of the Emperor were tortured to death, often in his presence, occasionally by his own hand; but many others escaped to the West, where they could be sure of a ready welcome - for the West, as Andronicus was well aware, had not forgotten the massacre of 1182 and there also the storm-clouds were gathering. As early as 1181 King Bela III of Hungary - who had previously been kept in check only by his personal friendship with Manuel - had seized back Dalmatia, much of Croatia and the district of Sirmium, won by the Emperor at such cost only a few years before. In 1183, in alliance with the Serbian Grand Zhupan Stephen Nemanja, he invaded the Empire: Belgrade, Branichevo, Nish and Sardica were all

1 Diehl, Figures Byzantines, Vol. II, which includes scholarly but highly readable short biographies of both Andronicus and Agnes. What became of Theodora is unknown. She too may have come to an unpleasant end; but she was still relatively young, and it is more probable that she was packed off to end her days in a convent.

sacked, to the point where the soldiers of the Third Crusade, passing through these cities six years later, found them abandoned and in ruins.

There was trouble, too, in Asia - not from the Muslims but from the land-owning military aristocracy against which (despite being a part of it himself) Andronicus nurtured a particular hatred. Indeed, one of his distant cousins - Manuel's great-nephew Isaac Comnenus - went so far as formally to establish himself in the strategically vital island of Cyprus, declaring its political independence: the first step, it could be argued, towards the Empire's eventual disintegration.

The paramount threat, however, came from one of the oldest and most determined of all the enemies of Byzantium: Norman Sicily.

Early in January 1185 the Arab traveller Ibn Jubair was at the port of Trapani in western Sicily, having just taken passage on a Genoese ship to return to his native Spain. A day or two before he was due to depart, an order arrived from the government in Palermo: until further notice the harbour was to be closed to all outgoing traffic. A huge war fleet was being made ready. No other vessel might leave till it was safely on its way.

A similar order had been simultaneously circulated to every other port of Sicily: a security embargo on an unprecedented scale. Even within the island, few people seemed to know exactly what was happening. In Trapani, Ibn Jubair reports, everyone had his own idea about the fleet, its size, purpose and destination. Some said it was bound for Alexandria, where a Sicilian naval expedition had ended in disaster eleven years before; others suspected an attempt on Majorca, a favourite target for Sicilian raiders in recent years. There were also, inevitably, many who believed that it would sail against Constantinople. In the past year hardly a ship had arrived from the East without its quota of blood-curdling reports concerning Andronicus's latest atrocities; and it was now widely rumoured that among the increasing number of Byzantines taking refuge in Sicily was a mysterious youth claiming to be the rightful Emperor, Alexius II. If, as men said, this youth had actually been received by the King and had convinced him of the truth of his story, what could be more natural than that William the Good1 should launch an expedition to replace him on his throne?

We shall never know whether such a claimant did in fact present

1 King William II (the Good) of Sicily had succeeded his father William I (the Bad) on the latter's death in 1166.

himself at the court in Palermo. There is nothing inherently improbable in the story. Coups d'etat of the kind that Andronicus had achieved normally produce a pretender or two: Robert Guiscard had unearthed one to strengthen his hand before his own Byzantine adventure in 1081, and the Metropolitan Eustathius of Thessalonica - of whom we shall be hearing more before long - takes it for granted that a pseudo-Alexius was wandering through northern Greece shortly before the time of which Ibn Jubair was writing. But whether the rumour was true or false, we know for a fact that William did not lack encouragement for his enterprise: one of Manuel's nephews - irritatingly enough, also called Alexius - had recently escaped to Sicily and had been received at court, since when he had been urgently pressing the King to march on Constantinople and overthrow the usurper.

Throughout the winter of 1184-5 William was at Messina. He hated soldiering, and never went on campaign himself if he could avoid it; but on this occasion he had taken personal charge of the preparations. Though he admitted it to no one, his ultimate objective was nothing less than the crown of Byzantium; and he was determined that the force he sent out to attain it should be worthy of such a prize - stronger, both on land and sea, than any other ever to have sailed from Sicilian shores. And so it was. By the time it was ready to start, the fleet - commanded by his cousin Count Tancred of Lecce - is said to have comprised between two and three hundred vessels and to have carried some eighty thousand men, including five thousand knights and a special detachment of mounted archers. This huge land army was placed under the joint leadership of Tancred's brother-in-law Count Richard of Acerra and a certain Baldwin, of whom virtually nothing is known apart from an intriguing description by Nicetas:

Although of mediocre birth, he was much beloved of the King and was appointed general of the army by virtue of his long experience of military affairs. He liked to compare himself with Alexander the Great, not only because his stomach was covered - as was Alexander's - with so much hair that it seemed to sprout wings, but because he had done even greater deeds and in an even shorter time - and, moreover, without bloodshed.

The expedition sailed from Messina on 11 June 1185 and headed straight for Durazzo. Although William's attempt to seal all Sicilian ports had not been entirely successful - Ibn Jubair's Genoese captains had had little difficulty in bribing their way out of Trapani - his security precautions seem to have had some effect; it is hard to see how

Andronicus could otherwise have been caught so unprepared. As we know, he had long mistrusted Western intentions; and he must have been aware that Durazzo, as his Empire's largest Adriatic port and the starting point from which the main imperial road - the Via Egnatia -ran eastward across Macedonia and Thrace to Constantinople, was the obvious if not the only possible Sicilian bridgehead. Yet he had made little effort either to strengthen the city's fortifications or to provision it for a siege. When he did at last receive reports of the impending attack, he quickly sent one of his most experienced generals, John Branas, to take charge of the situation; but Branas arrived at Durazzo only a day or two before the Sicilian fleet, too late to accomplish anything of value.

Durazzo had already fallen once to the Normans, 103 years before. On that occasion, however, it had been after a long and glorious battle, fought heroically on both sides: a battle in which the Byzantine army had been led by the Emperor himself, the Norman by the two outstanding warriors of their age, Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemund; in which Robert's wife, the Lombard Sichelgaita, had proved herself the equal in courage of both her husband and stepson; in which the stalwart axe-swinging Englishmen of the Varangian Guard had perished to the last man. This time it was a very different story. Branas, knowing that he had no chance, surrendered without a struggle. By 24 June, less than a fortnight after the fleet had sailed out of Messina, Durazzo was in Sicilian hands.

The subsequent march across the Balkan peninsula was swift and uneventful. Not a single attempt was made to block the invaders' progress. On 6 August the entire land force was encamped outside the walls of Thessalonica; on the 15 th the fleet, having sailed round the Peloponnese, took up its position in the roadstead; and the siege began.

Thessalonica was a thriving and prosperous city, with fifteen hundred years of history already behind it and a Christian tradition going back to St Paul. As a naval base it dominated the Aegean; as a commercial centre it vied with Constantinople itself, even surpassing it during the annual trade fair in October, when merchants from all over Europe gathered there to do business with their Arab, Jewish and Armenian colleagues from Africa and the Levant.1 Thanks to this fair, the city also boasted a

1 The fair has continued, intermittently, until the present day. Thessalonica maintained its predominantly Jewish character throughout Ottoman times and up to the Second World War, when its entire Scphardic population of some fifty thousand was deported to Poland, never to return.

permanent Western mercantile community living in its own quarter just inside the walls. Largely composed of Italians, it was to prove of more than a little value to the besiegers during the days that followed.

Yet the principal blame for the disaster that overtook Thessalonica in the summer of 1185 must lie not with any foreigner but with its own military Governor, David Comnenus. Although he had strict instructions from the Emperor to attack the enemy at every opportunity and with all his strength,1 and although - unlike Branas at Durazzo - he had had plenty of time to prepare his defences and lay in provisions, he had done neither. Within days of the beginning of the siege his archers had run out of arrows; soon there were not even any more rocks for the catapults. Worse still, it soon became clear that he had failed to check the water cisterns, several of which were found - too late - to be leaking. Yet at no time did he betray the slightest sign of shame or discomfiture. Nicetas Choniates, who seems to have known him personally, writes:

Weaker than a woman, more timid than a deer, he was content just to look at the enemy, rather than make any effort to repulse him. If ever the garrison showed itself eager to make a sortie he would forbid it, like a hunter who holds back his hounds. He was never seen to carry arms, or to wear a helmet or cuirass .. . And while the enemy battering-rams made the walls tremble so that the masonry was crashing everywhere to the ground, he would laugh at the noise and, seeking out the safest corner available, would say to those around him, 'Just listen to the old lady - how noisy she is!' Thus he would refer to the largest of their siege-machines.

Nicetas was not himself at Thessalonica during those dreadful days; his account of them, however, is based on the best possible authority -that of Eustathius, the city's Metropolitan Archbishop. Though a Homeric scholar of repute, Eustathius was no stylist; neither, as a good Greek patriot, did he ever attempt to conceal his own detestation of the Latins, whom - with good reason in his case - he considered no better than savages. But his History of the Latin Capture of Thessalonica, turgid and tendentious as it is, remains the only eye-witness account we have of the siege and its aftermath. The story it tells is not a pretty one.

1 'Andronicus's orders were "to see that the city was preserved and, far from being afraid of the Italians, to leap on them, bite them and prick them." Those were his own exact words, though I believe that only he knew precisely what he meant. Those who liked to joke about such things gave them a most unseemly interpretation, which I have no intention of repeating here’ (Nicctas).

Even had it been adequately prepared and defended, it is unlikely that Thessalonica could have held out very long against so furious and many-sided an attack as that which the Sicilians now launched upon it. The garrison resisted as bravely as its commander permitted, but before long the eastern bastions began to crumble. Meanwhile, on the western side, a group of German mercenaries within the walls was being bribed to open the gates. Early on 24 August, from both sides simultaneously, the Sicilian troops poured into the second city of the Byzantine Empire.

So huge an army from Sicily must have contained hundreds of soldiers of Greek extraction; hundreds more, from Apulia and Calabria as well as from the island itself, must have grown up near Greek communities, been familiar with their customs and religious traditions, even spoken a few words of their language. It would have been pleasant to record that these men had exerted a moderating influence on their less enlightened comrades; but they did nothing of the kind - or, if they tried, they failed. The Sicilian soldiery gave itself up to an orgy of savagery and violence unparalleled in Thessalonica since Theodosius the Great had massacred seven thousand of its citizens in the Hippodrome eight centuries before.1 It is perhaps more than coincidental that Eustathius puts the number of Greek civilian dead on this present occasion at the same figure; but even the Norman commanders estimated it at five thousand, so he may not be very far out. And murder was not all: women and children were seized and violated, houses fired and pillaged, churches desecrated and destroyed. This last series of outrages was surprising. In the whole history of Norman Sicily we find remarkably few cases of sacrilege and profanation, and none on such a scale as this. Even the Greeks, for all their poor opinion of Latin behaviour, were as astonished as they were horrified. Nicetas admits as much:

These barbarians carried their violence to the very foot of the altars, in the presence of the holy images ... It was thought strange that they should wish to destroy our icons, using them as fuel for the fires on which they cooked. More criminal still, they would dance upon the altars, before which the angels themselves trembled, and sing profane songs. Then they would piss all over the church, flooding the floors with their urine.

Some degree of pillage had been expected; it was after all the recognized reward for an army after a successful siege, and one which the Greeks would not have hesitated to claim for themselves had the roles

1 See Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. 112.

been reversed. But these atrocities were something different, and Baldwin took firm measures at once. The city had been entered during the early hours of the morning; by noon he had managed to restore a semblance of order. Then the logistical problems began. Thessalonica was not equipped to cope with a sudden influx of eighty thousand men. Such food as there was tended to disappear down Sicilian gullets, and the local population soon found itself half-starved. The disposal of the dead presented further difficulties. It was several days before the task was completed, and long before that the August heat had done its work. An epidemic ensued which, aggravated by the overcrowding - and, Eustath-ius maintains, the immoderate consumption of new wine — killed off some three thousand of the occupying army and an unknown number of the local inhabitants.

From the start, too, there were serious confessional troubles. The Latins took over many of the local churches for their own use, but this did not stop certain elements of the soldiery from bursting into those that had remained in Greek hands, interrupting the services and howling down the officiating priests. A still more dangerous incident occurred when a group of Sicilians, suddenly startled by the sound of urgent, rhythmic hammering, took it to be a signal for insurrection and rushed to arms. Only just in time was it explained to them that the noise was simply that of thesemantron, the wooden plank by which the Orthodox faithful were normally summoned to their devotions.1

Within a week or two an uneasy modus vivendi had been established. Baldwin showed himself a tactful commander and Eustathius, though technically a prisoner, seems to have done much to prevent unnecessary friction. His flock, for their part, soon began to discover that there was money to be made out of these foreigners who had so little understanding of real prices and values. Before long we find him lamenting the ease with which the ladies of Thessalonica were wont to yield to the Sicilian soldiers. But the atmosphere in and around the city remained explosive, and to Greek and Sicilian alike it must have been a relief when the army drew itself up once more in line of battle and, leaving only a small garrison behind, headed off to the East.

i The beating of the semantron is of considerable symbolic significance. The Church represents the ark of salvation; and the monk who balances the six-foot plank on his shoulders and raps his tattoo on it with a little wooden hammer is echoing the sound of Noah's tools, summoning the chosen to join him. In Ottoman times, when the ringing of church bells was forbidden, the semantron continued in regular use. It is seldom heard nowadays, except on Mount Athos - where it remains the rule — and in a few isolated rural monasteries.

By this time Andronicus had dispatched no less than five separate armies to Thessalonica to block the enemy advance. This fragmentation of his forces seems to have been yet another indication of the Emperor's growing instability: had they been united under a single able commander they might have saved the city. As it was, all five retreated to the hills to the north of the road whence, apparently hypnotized, they watched the Sicilian army march on their capital. Baldwin's vanguard had thus pressed as far as Mosynopolis, nearly half-way to Constantinople, when there occurred an event that changed the entire situation - completely and, so far as the invaders were concerned, disastrously. Driven now beyond endurance, his subjects rose up against Andronicus Comnenus and murdered him.

In Constantinople as elsewhere, the news from Thessalonica had brought the inhabitants to the verge of panic. Andronicus's reactions were typical of his contradictory nature. On the one hand he took firm action to repair and strengthen the city's defences. The state of the walls was carefully checked, houses built too closely against them were destroyed wherever it was considered that they might provide a means of entry for a besieging army; a fleet of a hundred ships was hastily mobilized and victualled. Though this was less than half the size of the Sicilian naval force — now reported to be fast approaching - in the confined waters of the Marmara and the Bosphorus it might yet serve its purpose.

But at other moments and in other respects the Emperor seemed totally indifferent to the emergency, drawing back further and further into his private world of pleasure. In the three years since his accession his life had grown steadily more depraved.

He would have liked to emulate Hercules, who lay with all the fifty daughters of Thyestes in a single night;1 but he was nevertheless obliged to resort to artifice as a means of strengthening his nerves, rubbing himself with a certain balm to increase his vigour. He also ate regularly of a fish known as the scincus, which is caught in the river Nile and is not dissimilar to the crocodile; and which, though abhorred by many, is most effective in the quickening of lust.

By now, too, he was developing a persecution mania that led him to new extremes of cruelty. A day on which he ordered no one's death,

1 Nicctas nods here. Their father was not Thyestes but Thespius. This thirteenth labour of Hercules must have been the most arduous of the lot, but its success rate was remarkable: all the girls produced male children, in many cases twins.

writes Nicetas, was for him a day wasted: 'men and women lived only in anxiety and sorrow, and even the night afforded no rest, since their sleep was troubled with hideous dreams and by the ghastly phantoms of those whom he had massacred.' Constantinople was living through a reign of terror as fearful as any in its long, dark history - one which reached its culmination in September 1185, with the issue of a decree ordering the execution of all prisoners and exiles, together with their entire families, on charges of complicity with the invaders.

Fortunately for the Empire, revolution came just in time to avert tragedy. The spark was fired when the Emperor's cousin Isaac Angelus, a normally inoffensive nobleman who had incurred Andronicus's displeasure when a soothsayer had identified him as successor to the throne, leaped on the imperial henchman sent to arrest him and ran him through with his sword. Then, riding at full gallop to St Sophia, he proudly announced to all present what he had done. The news spread: crowds began to collect, among them Isaac's uncle John Ducas and many others who, though they had played no part in the crime, knew that in the existing atmosphere of suspicion they would be unable to dissociate themselves from it. Therefore, says Nicetas, 'seeing that they would be taken, and having the image of death graven on their souls, they appealed to all the people to rally to their aid'.

And the people responded. The next morning, having spent the night in the torchlit St Sophia, they hurried through the city calling every householder to arms. The prisons were broken open, the prisoners joined forces with their deliverers. Meanwhile, in the great church, Isaac Angelus was proclaimed basileus.

One of the vergers climbed on a ladder above the high altar and took down the crown of Constantine to place it on his head. Isaac showed reluctance to accept it - not for reasons of modesty nor because of any indifference towards the imperial diadem but because he feared that so audacious an enterprise might cost him his life. Ducas, on the other hand, stepped forward at once, and taking off his cap presented his own bald head, which shone like the full moon, to receive the crown. But the assembled people cried out loudly that they had suffered too much misery from the grizzled head of Andronicus, and that they would have no more senile or decrepit Emperors, least of all one with a long beard divided in two like a pitchfork.

When the news of the revolution reached Andronicus on his country estate of Meludion, he returned to the capital confident in his ability to reassert his control. Going straight to the Great Palace at the mouth of the Golden Horn he ordered his guard to loose its arrows on the mob

and, finding the soldiers slow to obey, seized a bow and began furiously shooting on his own account. Then, suddenly, he understood. Throwing off his purple cloak and boots, he covered his head with a little pointed bonnet 'such as the barbarians wear' and, hastily embarking his child-wife and his favourite concubine Maraptica - 'an excellent flautist, with whom he was besottedly in love' - on to a waiting galley, he fled with them up the Bosphorus.

Simultaneously the mob broke into the palace, falling on everything of value that it contained. Twelve hundred pounds of gold bullion alone and three thousand of silver were carried off, and jewels and works of art without number. Not even the imperial chapel was spared: icons were stripped from the walls, chalices snatched from the altar. And the most venerable treasure of all - the reliquary containing the letter written by Jesus Christ in his own hand to King Abgar of Edessa - disappeared, never to be seen again.

The Emperor, the Empress and Maraptica were soon caught. The ladies, who behaved throughout with dignity and courage, were spared; but Andronicus, bound and fettered with a heavy chain about his neck, was brought before Isaac for punishment. His right hand was cut off and he was thrown into prison; then, after several days without food or water, he was blinded in one eye and brought forth on a scrawny camel to face the fury of his erstwhile subjects. They had suffered much from him, and were eager for their revenge. As Nicetas reports:

Everything that was lowest and most contemptible in the mob seemed to combine . . . They beat him, stoned him, goaded him with spikes, pelted him with filth. A woman of the streets poured a bucket of boiling water on his head . .. Then, dragging him from the camel, they hung him up by his feet. He endured all these torments and many others that I cannot describe, with incredible fortitude, speaking no other word among this demented crowd of his persecutors, but O Lord, have pity on me; why dost thou trample on a poor reed that is already quite broken? ... At last, after much agony, he died, carrying his remaining hand to his mouth; which he did, in the opinion of some, that he might suck the blood that flowed from one of his wounds.

He had been, as Eustathius of Thessalonica observed, a man so full of contradictions that he can with equal justice be extravagantly praised or bitterly condemned; a colossus who possessed every gift save that of moderation and who died as dramatically as he had lived; a hero and a villain, a preserver and a destroyer, a paragon and a warning.

Isaac Angelus, when at last he accepted the crown, inherited a desperate situation. At Mosynopolis, the invaders' advance column was less than two hundred miles from Constantinople; their fleet, meanwhile, was already in the Marmara, awaiting the army's arrival before launching its attack. Immediately on his accession, he sent Baldwin an offer of peace; when it was refused, he did what Andronicus should have done months before - appointed the ablest of his generals, Alexius Branas, to the supreme command of all five armies, sending with him the most massive reinforcements that the Empire could provide. The effect was instantaneous: the Greeks were infused with a new spirit. They saw too their enemy grown overconfident; no longer expecting resistance, the Sicilian soldiers had dropped their guard and relaxed their discipline. Carefully selecting his place and his moment, Branas swooped down upon them, routed them completely and pursued them all the way back to the main camp at Amphipolis.

It was, wrote Nicetas, a visible manifestation of the Divine Power:

Those men who, but a short while before, had threatened to overturn the very mountains, were as astonished as if they had been struck by lightning. The Romans,1 on the other hand, no longer having any commerce with fear, burned with the desire to fall upon them, as an eagle falls upon a feeble bird.

At Dimitriza,2 just outside Amphipolis on the banks of the river Strymon - now the Struma - Baldwin at last consented to discuss peace. Why he did so remains a mystery. The defeat at Mosynopolis had not affected the main body of his army, encamped in good order around him. He still held Thessalonica. Though the new Emperor in Constantinople was not senile as his predecessor had been, he was not in his first youth; and his claim to the throne was certainly weaker than that of Andronicus or, arguably, of Manuel's nephew Alexius, who had accompanied the army all the way from Messina and was seldom far from Baldwin's side. But winter was approaching, and the autumn rains in Thrace fall heavy and chill. To an army that had counted on spending Christmas in Constantinople, Mosynopolis had probably proved more demoralizing than its strategic importance really warranted.

The Byzantines always so described themselves, seeing their Empire as the unbroken continuation of that of ancient Rome. The word Womios is still used, on occasion, by their descendants today. See Patrick I^eigh Fermor's brilliant essay on the subject in Woumeli (London, 1966).

This place-name is something of a mystery, since there is no trace of it along the Strymon. Chalandon calls it Demetiza, then adds in brackets - without giving his authority - the obviously Turkish word Demechissar. If he is right, it is tempting to see this word as a corruption of Demir-Hisar, i.e. Iron Fort; in which case we may be talking about the modern Greek town of Siderokastron, which today stands just where Dimitriza might have been expected to be.

Alternatively, Baldwin may have had a darker purpose. The Greeks certainly claimed that he did. On the pretext that he intended to take advantage of the peace negotiations to catch them in their turn unprepared, they resolved to strike first; and on 7 November they did so -'awaiting', Nicetas himself assures us, 'neither the sound of the trumpets nor the orders of their commander'. The Sicilian army was taken unawares. Its soldiers resisted as best they could, then turned and fled. Some were cut down as they ran; many more were drowned as they tried to cross the Strymon, now swift and swollen from recent rains; others still, including both Baldwin and Richard of Acerra, were taken prisoner — as was Alexius Comnenus, whom Isaac subsequently blinded for his treachery. Those who escaped found their way back to Thessalonica, where a few managed to pick up ships in which to return to Sicily. Since, however, the bulk of the Sicilian fleet was still lying off Constantinople waiting for the land army to arrive, the majority were not so lucky. The Thessalonians rose up against them, taking a full and bloody revenge for all that they had suffered three months before. Of the titanic army which had set out so confidently in the summer, it was a poor shadow that now plodded back through the icy mountain passes to Durazzo.

Byzantium was saved. Nevertheless, the Byzantines would have done well to take the Sicilian invasion as a warning. Other Western eyes were fixed covetously on their Empire. Only twenty years later Constantinople was again to face attack. Next time it would succeed.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!