The Rise of Alexius


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Alexius and Isaac Comnenus to the Caesar John Ducas, February 1081.

The Alexiad, II, 6

On Easter Sunday, 4 April 1081, in the Great Church of St Sophia at Constantinople, the twenty-four-year-old general Alexius Comnenus formally ascended the throne of a sad and shattered Empire. It was now ten years since that Empire had suffered at the hands of the Seljuk Turks, just outside the little garrison town of Manzikert a few miles to the north of Lake Van, the most disastrous defeat in all its history: a defeat which had resulted in the capture of the Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes, the ignominious flight of the once-invincible Byzantine army and the gradual spread of the conquerors across Anatolia until some 30,000 square miles of the imperial heartland had been overrun by Turkoman tribesmen. At a stroke, Byzantium had lost the source of much of its food supply and most of its manpower. Its very survival was now in doubt.

Had Romanus been allowed to continue as basileus once his liberty had been restored, he might have done much to redeem the situation. The Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan, preoccupied as he was by the far greater threat to his people presented by the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, had no real quarrel with the Empire. He and Romanus had got on surprisingly well together, and the treaty which they had concluded as the price of the latter's freedom made no extensive territorial demands. But Romanus was overthrown by a palace revolution in Constantinople and, after a brief and unsuccessful attempt to regain his throne by force, was blinded so brutally that he died soon afterwards; the treaty was abrogated by his pathetic successor Michael VII - cultivated and intelligent, but utterly unfit for the throne - and by Michael's two eminences grises, his uncle the Caesar John Ducas and the scholar Michael Psellus; and the way was open for the Seljuks to do as they liked.

In the West, the horizon was equally black. On 16 April 1071 - just four months before Manzikert, but after a siege of nearly three years -the Normans of South Italy under their brilliant brigand of a leader Robert Guiscard had captured Bari. For over five centuries - since the time of Justinian - Bari had been an imperial city. Formerly the capital of a rich and prosperous province, in recent years it had become the Empire's only remaining outpost in the peninsula, the centre of a tiny enclave from which the banners of Byzantium fluttered alone in a turbulent and hostile land. On that day, the Saturday before Palm Sunday, those banners were struck - effectively for the last time. Henceforth, the phrase 'Byzantine Italy' would be a contradiction in terms. The following year had seen a dangerous uprising in Bulgaria, in the course of which a certain Constantine Bodin, son of Prince Michael of Zeta,1 had been crowned Tsar in the city of Prizren; order had finally been restored - at considerable cost - but revolution was in the air and no one doubted that there would be more trouble before long.

Finally there was the problem of Rome. The Emperor Michael, in another sublime demonstration of political misjudgement, had appealed to Pope Gregory VII after the fall of Bari for help against the Norman menace; he was consequently in a poor position to object when Gregory began openly extending his influence over the eastern shores of the Adriatic - crowning a vassal named Demetrius Zvonimir King of Croatia in 107 5 and bestowing a second - papal - crown on Michael of Zeta two years later. Meanwhile both the Hungarians and the barbarian Pechenegs had gone back to their old tricks, throwing the whole Balkan peninsula back into chaos.

With disasters like these occurring on every side, it was little wonder that various sections of the army should have broken out, not once but several times, in open revolt. The first insurrection had been led by a Norman soldier of fortune named Roussel of Bailleul, who had attempted to set up an independent Norman state in central Anatolia, much as his compatriots had recently done in South Italy. Roussel had been finally brought to heel by Alexius Comnenus, and after a brief spell in prison had subsequently fought at Alexius's side against two more claimants:

1 Zeta (formerly known as Dioclea, and a semi-independent principality within the Empire) had rebelled in about 103; and had since refused to recognize Byzantine suzerainty.

Nicephorus Bryennius, dux of Durazzo - one of the few officers to have distinguished himself at Manzikert - and an elderly member of the Anatolian military aristocracy named Nicephorus Botaneiates. In November 1077 Bryennius actually reached the walls of Constantinople before being driven back into Thrace; Botaneiates too made preparations for a direct attack on the capital, but in the event it was to prove unnecessary. In March 1078 riots broke out; Michael, totally unable to deal with them, fled for his life and sought refuge in the monastery of the Studium; and on the 24th of the month Botaneiates entered Constantinople in triumph. Faced as he was with a fait accompli, Alexius had no choice but to submit to the new Emperor, who granted him the personal rank ofnobilissimus and the office of Domestic of the Schools, or commander-in-chief, in which capacity he was immediately sent off to deal with Bryennius. A few months later he brought back his second insurgent general captive to Constantinople; but instead of being received with gratitude as he expected, he was barely allowed to enter the city and was immediately ordered back to Anatolia, where another insurrection was already brewing. As for Bryennius, he was thrown into the palace dungeons where, shortly afterwards, his eyes were put out.

Alexius, while obeying his orders, made no secret of his displeasure at the coldness of his reception, the reason for which he perfectly understood. Nicephorus Botaneiates was afraid, as well he might be. The old man - he was already well into his seventies - had already lost control. Over the next two years the Empire slipped further and further into chaos. Revolt followed insurrection; insurrection followed revolt. The Turks advanced relentlessly, until by 1080 Alp Arslan's son Malik-Shah had extended the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum till it covered all Asia Minor from Cilicia to the Hellespont. Meanwhile Nicephorus grew daily more unpopular. Previous usurpers - Nicephorus Phocas for example, or John Tzimisces, or Romanus Diogenes - had all claimed to be the guardians of such of their predecessors' children as they found to be their titular co-Emperors, thus giving themselves some slight semblance of legality; Botaneiates on the other hand had made no attempt to associate Michael VII’s four-year-old son Constantine with him on the throne and so remained, in the eyes of all right-thinking Byzantines, morally beyond the pale. Even more insensitively, on the death of his second wife soon after his accession, he had married the ravishing Empress Mary of Alania1 — more beautiful even, writes Anna Comnena,

1 She was the daughter of Bagrat IV of Georgia, and had married Michael Ducas in 1065.

than the statues of Pheidias - despite the fact that her husband Michael was still alive. True, she had of necessity been cast off when her husband had entered his monastery; but such alliances were understandably frowned on by the clergy, while third marriages of any kind had been condemned by St Basil himself as 'moderated fornication' and carried the penalty for both parties of no less than four years' denial of the Sacrament.1 In his vain attempts to buy back the support that he had so unnecessarily lost, Nicephorus had virtually emptied the imperial treasury; and inflation, which had already begun under Michael VII,2 spiralled more dizzily than ever. Without a stronger hand at the helm, there could be no hope for Byzantium.

Meanwhile, as the popularity of Nicephorus declined, so that of Alexius Comnenus steadily grew, until he was generally looked upon in Constantinople and beyond as the only possible saviour of the Empire. He had first seen action under his elder brother Manuel during the expedition against the Seljuk Turks in 1070, when he was fourteen;3 since then, whether fighting against the Turks or against Byzantine rebels, he had never lost a battle. He had proved himself a superb general, and because he had led them again and again to victory his soldiers loved and trusted him. But Alexius had other qualifications too, just as important in Byzantine eyes. He came from imperial stock, his uncle Isaac Comnenus having briefly occupied the throne some twenty years before; his mother, the immensely ambitious Anna Dalassena, was known to have brought up each of her five sons — of whom Alexius was the third - in the belief that he might one day become Emperor. Moreover his marriage to Irene, granddaughter of the Caesar John Ducas and daughter of that Andronicus Ducas who had so shamefully betrayed Romanus Diogenes at Manzikert assured him the support not only of the richest and most

For more about plural marriages, and in particular the jour marriages of the Emperor Leo the Wise, see Byzantium: The Apogee, Chapter 8.

He was popularly known as Parapinaces, or 'Minus-a-quarter', since the gold nomisma, after having remained stable for more than five hundred years, was said to have lost a quarter of its value during his reign. (Sec Byzantium: The Apogee, p. 359.)

According, that is, to his daughter Anna Comnena (The Alexiad, I, i), whose biography of her father is the fullest - and by far the most entertaining - contemporary record that we possess. Zonaras, on the other hand, claims that when Alexius died in 1118 he was seventy; if so, he would have been born in 1048, and by 1070 would already have been twenty-two. Anna's testimony is not always to be trusted, but such early baptisms of fire were not unusual in the Middle Ages and in this case we can probably accept her word. She was, after all, in a far better position to know.

4See Byzantium: The Apogee, pp. 352-3.

influential family in the Empire but of the clergy (whose Patriarch until his death in 1075 was John Xiphilinus, a Ducas protege) and most of the aristocracy as well.

For these very reasons, however, Alexius had enemies at court; it was here above all that he needed a champion, and he found one in the Empress herself. Mary had no love for her new husband, who was after all old enough to be her grandfather. As the former wife of Michael VII, her first loyalty was to the Ducas family, of which Alexius was a member by marriage. Perhaps she knew that (as the contemporary chronicler John Zonaras reports) two of her husband's cronies, a sinister pair of barbarian origin named Borilus and Germanus, were plotting to destroy the young general, and felt it her duty to protect him; possibly too, aware that her husband was considering naming a distant relation as his successor, she was trying to safeguard the interests of her son Constantine. It may even be - and subsequent events were to lend the theory additional weight -that she had fallen in love with Alexius, and saw herself in the role of Theophano to his Tzimisces.1 Any of these hypotheses may be true, or none of them; we have no means of telling. All we know is that, some time in 1080, Mary of Alania adopted Alexius Comnenus as her son.

Botaneiates seems to have made no protest. A weak man, utterly dominated by his wife, he seems by now to have been quietly sinking into senility. Far from raising any objections, towards the end of the year he rather surprisingly appointed his adoptive son-in-law to lead a new campaign against the Turks, who had recently captured Cyzicus. This was just the opportunity Alexius needed. For some time already he had been convinced that the doddering old Emperor must be removed before it was too late, preferably - since he was reluctant to contemplate assassination - by straightforward military means. The problem had been to rally the necessary troops without arousing suspicions. Now, at a stroke, that problem had been swept away. He immediately gave orders that the army should be summoned to the little village of Tsouroulos, some distance outside the capital on the Adrianople road.

For Borilus and Germanus, Mary's adoption of Alexius and his new appointment could hardly have been more unwelcome. They saw their old enemy in a stronger position than ever, able as a member of the imperial family to go in and out of the palace as he pleased, in daily contact with the Emperor and - more dangerous still - the Empress, whose spies were everywhere and who could keep him informed of all

1 Op. cit., pp. 207-10.

that went on. When they heard of the mobilization of the army they realized that their only chance was to act at once. But Alexius, forewarned, was too quick for them. In the early hours of Quinquagesima Sunday, 14 February 1081, he and his brother Isaac silently made their way to the Palace of Blachernae, where the great Land Walls at their northern end slope down to the Golden Horn, and forced their way into the imperial stables. There they took the horses they needed, hamstrung the rest to prevent their being used for pursuit, and galloped away at top speed. Their first destination was the so-called Cosmidion, the monastery of SS. Cosmas and Damian at the northern end of the Golden Horn, where they alerted Alexius's mother-in-law Maria Traiana Ducas, and, chancing to meet the rich and powerful George Palaeologus, husband of Irene's sister Anna, enlisted his help also.1 They then hurried on to Tsouroulos, where mobilization was almost complete, and dispatched an appeal to the Caesar John to come to their aid.

The Caesar was now living in retirement on his estate at Moroboundos, some miles away. He was taking his afternoon siesta when the messenger arrived, but was roused by his little grandson with the news of the revolt. At first he refused to believe it and boxed the boy's ears; then the message was handed to him. According to Anna Comnena, it contained the thinly veiled invitation quoted at the head of this chapter; and that, for John Ducas, was enough. He called for his horse and set off at once for Tsouroulos. Before long he met an imperial tax collector, on his way back to Constantinople with a considerable quantity of gold for the Treasury, whom he somehow persuaded to accompany him. Later he encountered a group of Turks; they too agreed, in return for the promise of large rewards, to join the rebellion. Not surprisingly, the full party received a jubilant welcome when it reached the waiting army.

After two or three more days - during which several other important adherents rallied to the cause - Alexius and Isaac gave the order to march. Up to this moment, surprisingly enough, there seems to have been no suggestion of acclaiming a new Emperor; only when they

1 Chalandon (Essai sur le reigne d’Alexis 1er Comnene) refuses to accept that this meeting was an accident. If so, he argues, why - as Anna Comnena specifically reports (The Alexiad, Book II) - did George Palacologus, by his own admission, have all his movable wealth with him? Is it not more likely that the whole thing had been carefully planned in advance, and that George was in fact an accomplice from the beginning? What Anna actually reports, however, is that this wealth had been deposited with the monastery. She docs not seem to see anything surprising in this and nor, I think, should we. She adds that Palaeologus was at first most reluctant to give the Comneni his support, and that he finally did so only at the insistence of his mother-in-law. Why, at such a moment, should he have feigned opposition if it were not genuine?

stopped for the night at the little village of Schiza was the question put to the army, and even then in the form of a choice: whom would they prefer as basileus, Alexius or Isaac? It was not altogether the foregone conclusion that might have been imagined: Isaac - who was after all the elder, and whose military successes in the East had already earned him the Dukedom of Antioch - had plenty of champions among the soldiers. But he himself seemed happy to defer to his brother, and the influence of the Ducas family finally carried the day. Alexius was enthusiastically acclaimed with the imperial titles and, there and then, formally shod with the purple buskins, embroidered in gold with the double-headed eagles of Byzantium, which were reserved for the Emperor - and which, we can only assume, he had prudently abstracted from the palace before leaving.

The new claimant and his brother were not the only members of their family in revolt against Botaneiates. On the very day of the ceremony at Schiza, their brother-in-law Nicephorus Melissenus — husband of their sister Eudocia - had drawn up his own rebel army at Chrysopolis,1 immediately opposite Constantinople on the Asiatic shore of the Bospho-rus. Having just arrived from distant Anatolia, Nicephorus had till then heard nothing of their activities; when he did, he at once sent a letter to Alexius suggesting that they should divide the Empire between them, one taking the East, the other the West. Alexius had no intention of sharing his Empire with anyone; fearing, however, that a categorical refusal might induce his brother-in-law to make common cause with Botaneiates against him, he deliberately prevaricated with a noncommittal reply. Meanwhile he pressed on with all speed to the capital.

He was still uncertain of his next step. There could obviously be no question of a siege: having himself defended Constantinople against the forces of Bryennius three and a half years before, he knew that those great triple ramparts could withstand forces far greater than any that he might fling against them. A day or two's careful reconnaissance with the Caesar, however, suggested to him that although certain of the regiments defending the various sections of the walls (the Varangian Guard, for example, or the so-called 'Immortals') could be trusted to fight to the death for the reigning Emperor, others might prove susceptible to blandishments of one kind or another - most notably the regiment made

1 The modern Uskudar - the Turkish form of the Greek Scutari, to which the city's name was changed in the twelfth century after the construction of the imperial palace of Scutarion.

up of Germanic tribesmen who guarded the Adrianople Gate. Somehow George Palaeologus managed to make contact with their leader, and the matter was soon settled. One evening, just as darkness had begun to fall, he and a few followers put ladders against one of the German-held towers and slipped over the bastion; then, under cover of night, Alexius concentrated his entire force at the foot of the tower. By daybreak all was ready. Palaeologus, standing high on the wall, gave the signal; his men opened the gates from within; and the rebel army poured into Constantinople.

It met with little resistance. The citizens had scant love or respect for their old Emperor. A good many of them must have known that he was bound to be deposed sooner or later, and were probably only too happy to see him replaced by an energetic and popular young general. What they did not expect was to be treated like a conquered enemy; but the barbarian element in Alexius's army was too strong, and quickly infected the rest. No sooner were the soldiers inside the walls than they scattered in all directions, looting, pillaging and raping; before long they were joined by the local riff-raff, and confusion quickly spread throughout the city, to the point where the success of the whole operation seemed in doubt and those who had remained loyal to the legitimate Emperor began to wonder whether the insurgents might not after all be defeated. One of these was Nicephorus, father of George Palaeologus, who had been horrified by his son's defection; another was Alexius's old enemy Borilus, who seems to have possessed some kind of military command and who now drew up the Varangian Guard, with such other units as could be implicitly relied on, in close order between the Forum of Constantine and the Milion.1

Botaneiates himself, on the other hand, knew that he was beaten. An attempt to enlist the services of Melissenus and his men had been frustrated by the imperial fleet, which had been won over by George Palaeologus and now blocked the straits, and he no longer possessed the will to resist. The aged and much-respected Patriarch Cosmas was imploring him to abdicate in order to avoid the shedding of any more Christian blood; in fact, he needed little persuasion. His first offer, brought to the Comneni by Nicephorus Palaeologus, was that he should adopt Alexius as his son, make him his co-Emperor and surrender to

1 The 'First Milestone' - in fact a set of four triumphal arches forming a square - from which all the distances in the Empire were measured. It stood some hundred yards south-west of St Sophia. Sec Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. 65.

him all effective authority, retaining only his imperial title and privileges; but when this was scornfully rejected by the Caesar John he did not argue. Covering his imperial robes in a loose cloak, he crossed the square to the church of St Sophia, where he declared his formal abdication. Later he was sent on to the monastery of the Peribleptos, the huge and hideous building on the Seventh Hill endowed by his distant predecessor Romanus Argyrus half a century before,1 where he embraced — somewhat reluctantly, it must be said — the monastic life. Anna Comnena tells of how, some time afterwards, a friend came to visit him and asked how he was getting on. 'Abstinence from meat,' the old man answered, 'is the only thing that worries me; the other matters give me little concern.'2

The young man who now found himself the seventy-sixth Emperor of Byzantium was short and stocky, with broad shoulders and a deep chest. His eyes, deep-set beneath arched, heavy eyebrows, were gentle but curiously penetrating. His beard was thick and full. Even his daughter Anna admits that when standing he did not strike people as particularly impressive; once seated on the throne, however, it was a different matter: 'he reminded one of a fiery whirlwind . . . radiating beauty and grace and dignity and an unapproachable majesty'.3 Particularly when she writes of her father, Anna's testimony must obviously be treated with caution; at the same time there can have been little doubt among those with whom Alexius came in contact that he would prove the ablest ruler since Basil II and that, for the first time in over half a century, the Empire was again in strong and capable hands.

On his arrival at the Great Palace he went immediately to work. The overriding need was to reimpose discipline over his soldiers; not only because he would rightly be held responsible for their recent behaviour, but because if they were not properly controlled there was always the possibility that they might break out into open mutiny. The task was not easy, since by now they had permeated every district and thoroughfare in the capital; but after twenty-four hours they had been rounded up and confined to their barracks to cool off. Constantinople was again at peace. But Alexius was a Byzantine, and his conscience still troubled him. It

1See Byzantium: The Apogee, pp. 274-5.

2The Alexiad, III, 1. All quotations from The Alexiad are based on the translation by E. R. A. Sewter.

3Ibid., Ill, 3.

was he, after all, who had brought these barbarians into the city; was he not as guilty — perhaps guiltier - than they? On his mother's advice he confessed his anxieties to the Patriarch, who set up an ecclesiastical tribunal to settle the matter. There was, the tribunal concluded, evidence of guilt: the Emperor, his family and all who had participated in the coup - together with their wives - were sentenced to an appropriate period of fasting and to various other acts of penance. He himself, according to his daughter, went even further: for a further forty days and nights he wore a coat of sackcloth beneath the imperial purple, sleeping on the ground with only a stone for a pillow.

Meanwhile, however, there were serious affairs of state to be dealt with - and, in particular, the breach which was already appearing between his own followers and the family of Ducas. Its point of departure was the relationship between himself and the Empress Mary of Alania. As the wife of the deposed basileus, she might have been expected to leave the palace on his arrival; in fact she did nothing of the kind. True, she was also the new Emperor's adoptive mother; but even that did little to explain Alexius's decision to settle his fifteen-year-old wife Irene Ducas in another, smaller palace on lower ground, together with her mother, her sisters and her paternal grandfather the Caesar, while he himself remained with the fabulously beautiful Mary at the Boucoleon.1 The reaction of the Ducas family to this arrangement can well be imagined; they had supported the Comneni not for any reasons of special affection, but simply because Alexius was married to one of their own clan. George Palaeologus — Irene's brother-in-law — had actually admitted as much when a party of Comnenus supporters had refused to couple her name with her husband's in their acclamations. 'It was not for your sakes,' he had told them, 'that I won so great a victory, but because of that Irene that you speak of; and after winning over the fleet he had insisted that all the sailors should cheer for both Irene and Alexius - in that order.

But the indignation was not confined to George and his family. Rumours spread quickly through the city. Some whispered that Alexius was planning to divorce his child wife to become the Empress's third husband; others, that the real force behind these sinister developments

1The Great Palace of Constantinople was not a single building. Instead - not unlike the Palace of Topkapi, its Ottoman successor on the same site - it was a collection of small palaces and pavilions, occupying the entire hillside that slopes downward between St Sophia and the Sea of Marmara. The Boucoleon was one of the more important of these palaces, with its own small harbour below it.

was his mother, the formidable Anna Dalassena, who had always hated the Ducas and was determined - now that her son was safely on the throne — to remove the family once and for all from power and influence. The first of these rumours may well have been true; the second certainly was. A few days later on Easter Sunday, still more dangerously inflammable fuel was added to the flames when Alexius refused to allow his wife to share his coronation.

To the Ducas, and indeed to all respectable Byzantines, this was a gratuitous insult. By long tradition, an Empress was not simply an Emperor's wife; once crowned she was the holder of a recognized rank, which carried considerable power. She had a court of her own and enjoyed absolute control over her own immense revenues; and she played an indispensable part in many of the chief ceremonies of the Empire. There is evidence to suggest that Alexius himself was far from happy at excluding his wife from the coronation that they should have shared. He may have cherished no great love for the Ducas, but he unquestionably owed them an enormous debt; besides, was it really sensible to antagonize, almost before his reign had begun, the most powerful family of the entire Byzantine nobility? For the moment, he allowed his mother to persuade him; but it was not long before he realized that this time she - and consequently he - had seriously overstepped the mark.

Matters were finally brought to a head not by any of the chief protagonists but by the Patriarch. Old Cosmas had reluctantly performed the single coronation, but his conscience continued to trouble him; and when, a few days later, he was approached by representatives of Anna Dalassena with strong suggestions that it might be in his best interests to retire in favour of her own nominee - a eunuch named Eustratius Garidas - he exploded in wrath. 'By Cosmas,' he shouted - to swear an oath by one's own name was, in Byzantium, to give it particular solemnity — 'By Cosmas, if Irene is not crowned by my own hands, I will never resign this patriarchal throne.' Whether he openly committed himself to the obvious corollary of this vow is not recorded; suffice it to say that, on the seventh day after the public proclamation of her husband's accession, the young Empress was duly crowned in St Sophia; and that on 8 May of the same year Cosmas withdrew to the monastery of Callias — to be succeeded, predictably, by the eunuch Garidas.

With this second coronation in a week, the Ducas family knew that it had won; and Alexius had learnt his first lesson. If there had been any emotional ties between himself and his adoptive mother, these were now broken: the Empress Mary agreed to leave the Boucoleon, firstly on condition that she should be given a written guarantee of security, 'inscribed in letters of scarlet and sealed with a golden seal', for herself and Constantine, her son by Michael VII; and secondly that Constantine himself should be made co-Emperor with Alexius. Both these requests were immediately granted; whereupon she and her son retired to the sumptuous mansion adjoining the monastery of the Mangana, built by Constantine IX for his mistress some thirty-five years before.1 They were accompanied by Isaac Comnenus, to whom — the title of Caesar having already been promised to Nicephorus Melissenus - Alexius had awarded the newly-invented rank of sebastocratory second only to the two co-Emperors themselves. He himself at once brought his wife back to the Boucoleon, where their married life proved a good deal happier than anyone had expected, ultimately resulting in no fewer than nine children.

But however brightly the sun might shine on the new Emperor's domestic life, on the political horizon the clouds were gathering fast. Within a month of Alexius's coronation, the Norman Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia, launched his grand offensive against the Roman Empire.

1 See Byzantium: The Apogee, pp. 308-10.

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