Alexius — The Last Years


Listening to them, you would think that my roads were covered with cheese, that my mountains ran with rivers of milk, that I was immeasurably rich, that I lived like a satrap, that the luxury of Media was as nothing in comparison with mine, and that the palaces of Susa and Ecbatana were hovels compared to my own dwellings.

Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid, on the imperial tax-collectors, Letter No. xli

Alexius Comnenus returned to Constantinople during the last weeks of 1108, well satisfied with what he had achieved. His Empire was, for the moment, at peace. It was true that Tancred of Antioch had already disavowed the Treaty of Devol, thus making it effectively a dead letter; but the treaty, having broken Bohemund, had served its purpose well enough and Tancred, together with his fellow-Crusaders, was temporarily too occupied with his Saracen enemies to cause any serious trouble to Byzantium. Thus, for the next two years, the Emperor was able to concentrate on domestic matters; and since the pressure of events in the international sphere has allowed little opportunity to consider these during the last two chapters, it might be as well for us, briefly, to do the same.

The first decade of Alexius's reign had been hard indeed. As a brilliant and apparently invincible young general during the reign of Nicephorus Botaneiates, he had appeared to many of his subjects as the only hope of survival that remained to a beleaguered Empire; but once the supreme power was in his hands, his magic had quickly faded. In the very year of his coronation, he had suffered at Durazzo the most shattering defeat of his career. Admittedly he had had his revenge at Larissa eighteen months later; but the Normans had been back again in 1084, and but for the sudden death of Robert Guiscard they might easily have advanced to Constantinople. Meanwhile, apart from one relatively unimportant and indecisive campaign against the Emir Chaka of Smyrna, he had made no serious attempt to dislodge the Turks from Asia Minor. By Easter 1091, after ten years on the throne and with virtually no major achievements to his credit, Alexius was generally accounted a failure; and people were beginning to wonder whether Byzantine Europe, under almost constant pressure from Normans, Pechenegs or Bogomils, was not going the same way as Byzantine Asia. Would there, they asked themselves, within a very few more years, be any Empire worthy of the name outside the walls of Constantinople itself?

The Patriarch of Antioch, John the Oxite, went further and, in the course of two bitter diatribes against the Emperor which were published at about this time, referred to this whittling away of the Empire as a fait accompli. The people, he continued, were depressed and disillusioned. In the past they had believed that defeats and reversals of fortune were God's punishment for their sins; now they increasingly felt that God was no longer concerned with them at all. The rich were becoming poor, and the poor - particularly those of Macedonia, Thrace and the northern Balkans - were facing starvation and death from exposure as they fled from the barbarian invaders. The only exceptions to the general misery were the members of the imperial family, 'who have become the greatest scourge upon the Empire and upon us all'.

The Patriarch may have been exaggerating a little; since Antioch was a good six hundred miles from the capital and still in Saracen hands, he was not in any case particularly well qualified to pronounce on the situation in the European provinces. But there was much truth in what he said. What is less certain is how justified he was in holding the Emperor responsible. It was not Alexius's fault that first the Normans and then the Pechenegs had devastated an immense area of the Balkan peninsula, burning towns and villages, killing thousands of their inhabitants and rendering many more thousands homeless. He had fought back fiercely and, only a few weeks after the Patriarch had launched his attack, had decisively defeated the Pechenegs at Levunium. The Normans, admittedly, were to take him a little longer, but it is hard to see how he could have done more than he did.

The accusations of nepotism are more difficult to answer; nor was the Patriarch of Antioch by any means the only man to make them. The chronicler John Zonaras bears him out:

He provided his relatives and some of his retainers with cartloads of public money and made them generous allowances, so that they abounded in wealth and kept retinues more appropriate for Emperors than for private citizens. Their dwellings were comparable to cities in size, and not unlike imperial palaces in the luxury of their appointments.1

It could of course be argued that all reigning families, in all countries and periods, have enjoyed special privileges of one kind or another. We must also remember that, at least in the early years of his reign, Alexius had few people that he could trust outside his immediate family. Given the chaotic conditions prevailing in Byzantium during the middle decades of the eleventh century, the circumstances of his accession and the number of enemies he had in Constantinople, some degree of nepotism was surely permissible; without the support of a powerful family around him, he would not have remained basileus for long. Was he not to some extent justified, therefore, in raising his mother Anna Dalassena, his brother Isaac, his brother-in-law Nicephorus Melissenus, his son John, his son-in-law Nicephorus Bryennius and several other of his close relations to key positions, and rewarding them accordingly?

Perhaps he was; unfortunately, he did not content himself with loading the members of his family with highly remunerative offices and specially minted new titles; he gave them regional power as well. In former times, public lands — those, that is, which belonged to the state rather than forming part of the Emperor's personal demesne — were the direct responsibility of the imperial government; Alexius now granted to his relatives the administration of large tracts of such lands, together with their revenues. These grants, technically known as pronoia, were admittedly only temporary: he could take them back whenever he liked, and they anyway reverted to him on the death of the holder. But they were nevertheless a dangerous precedent, and a further drain on his hard-pressed treasury.

Already for a good half-century before his accession, the Byzantine economy had been in steady decline. We have already seen2 how, twenty years before, the value of the gold nomisma had already fallen by 25 per cent; under both Botaneiates and Alexius this debasement had continued, to the point where six different nomismata, of six different baser metals, were in circulation - though the imperial exchequer, which had minted them, at first insisted that all payments to itself should be made in the original gold. The resulting confusion caused economic chaos through-

1Zonaras, Book III.

2See p. 4, note 2.

out the Empire. In 1092 Alexius introduced the gold hyperpyron ('highly refined') which became the standard Byzantine coin for the next two centuries; but it was not until 1109 that he finally managed to restore some sort of order by establishing a proper rate for the whole coinage. The situation was still far from satisfactory; but at least it allowed an effective operation of the fiscal system - and that, for Alexius Comnenus, was the most important consideration.

It had to be. Through most of his reign, the Empire was facing attack either from the East or from the West, and quite often from both. He had inherited from his predecessors only a poorly-equipped and heterogeneous army and a small and long-neglected fleet — so ineffectual that when Robert Guiscard had sailed against him in 1081 he had had to seek aid from Venice. If Byzantium were to survive, the former had to be reorganized and strengthened, the latter rebuilt virtually from scratch; and neither of these objectives could be achieved without considerable cost. Alexius had set to work at once, seeking the money wherever it could be found; and ten years later, as we have seen, he scored important victories on both land and sea. For him, it had been a labour of love. He had always been, first and foremost, a soldier. The art of warfare fascinated him. As The Alexiadmakes clear time and time again, he was never happier than when taking part in military exercises, transforming his soldiers from ill-disciplined barbarians into trained fighting men. And once he had moulded his army as he wanted it, he was determined to keep it to himself. He knew - no one better - how easy it was for a brilliant and successful commander to win the support of his soldiers and then, at the first sign of weakness in the government, to stage a coup d'etat; and he had no intention of allowing any of his own generals to topple him as he had toppled his predecessor. It was for this reason as much as for his genuine love of battle that he would assume personal command whenever possible, placing himself at the head of his troops and, incidentally, proving himself the greatest military commander that Byzantium had seen since Basil II nearly a century before.

Given the huge expenditure necessary for adequate imperial defence, it is understandable that Alexius's fiscal policy should have been harsh and, at times, none too scrupulous. He never repeated his action of early 1082, when he — or, more accurately, his brother Isaac - had seized the treasures of the Church to pay for the campaign against Bohemund; but the aristocracy (excepting, of course, members of his own family and other close adherents), the senatorial families (whom he hated) and the richer monasteries suffered greatly from his extortions. With the economy in such confusion it was easy to claim that previous payments had been insufficient or paid in the wrong coin - or even that they had not been paid at all - and then to impose swingeing surcharges.

For the Emperor's more humble subjects, too, times were hard. This had been one of the themes of the Patriarch of Antioch in 1091; twenty years later, the situation was very little better. Archbishop Theophylact of Ochrid - whose remarks about the imperial tax collectors, quoted at the head of this chapter, will arouse the instant sympathy of all those who have ever been subjected to a wealth tax - writes to the Emperor's nephew, Duke John of Durazzo, of the conditions in one of his dioceses that had been trampled over time and time again by Normans and Greeks, Pechenegs and Crusaders:

I could not hold back my tears. In the church the people no longer sing, the candles remain unlit; the bishop and clergy have been forced to flee, and the townsfolk have left their houses to live hidden in the woods and forests. And in addition to all these evils, which are the results of war, the peasants have had their land seized by the great landowners, both lay and ecclesiastical, and are as heavily oppressed by the demands of military service as by taxation.

True, the Archbishop was writing only of one particular diocese; but the conditions he described could have been found throughout the European provinces of the Empire. He was right, too, about the compulsory military service, which was bitterly resented wherever it was enforced. The peasantry, even more than the dwellers in cities and towns, lived under constant dread of the imperial recruiting sergeants, who were for ever scouring the Empire for able-bodied young men. Their fears were well justified — and not only because they desperately needed the labour in their efforts to restore their ravaged fields; there was also the very real danger that those same young men, when their period of service was over, would settle in Constantinople or elsewhere and never return to their old homes.1 It was all very well to say - as Alexius himself would have said - that any sensible family would prefer to provide a soldier for the Empire than to have its house destroyed, its sons slaughtered and its daughters violated by foreign invaders; hungry and frightened peasants are little impressed by such logical

1 In the Theme of Pelagonia, writes the Archbishop, the population has declined to such a point that the Theme ought to be renamed Mykonos - in his day (though not in ours) one of the smallest, poorest and emptiest of the Cyclades.

arguments. The truth was that the Emperor, held responsible for all these tribulations, was hated by the vast majority of his people. And he knew it.

What steps, if any, did Alexius Comnenus take to brighten his image in the eyes of his subjects? From the outset of his reign he had struggled hard to win, if not their love, then at least their respect. In the fifty-six years between the death of Basil II in 1025 and his own accession in 1081, the Empire had acknowledged no fewer than thirteen rulers; his first task, therefore, had been to show that he had no intention of being just such another. His message was clear. His pathetic predecessors had been the products of a system that was rotten through and through: depraved, decadent and corrupt. He would reform that system, and restore the Empire to its former greatness.

Before it could be restored, however, it must be cleansed and purified. While his mother tackled the alleged Augean stables of the gynaeceum in the imperial palace,1 he himself launched a campaign to free the Empire of heresy. His first victim, a pupil of Michael Psellus named John Italus, whom he believed had gone too far in his advocacy of the works of Plato and Aristotle at the expense of those of the early Christian Fathers, was found guilty at an elaborate show trial and condemned to lifelong seclusion in a monastery. Similar investigations continued throughout his reign, including one which took place in its very last year and which resulted in the principal representative of the Bogomils - known to us only by his Christian name of Basil - being burnt at the stake in the Hippodrome: a penalty hitherto almost unknown in Constantinople.

Although all these proceedings obviously contained a strong element of propaganda, there can be no doubt of Alexius's profound religious faith. However involved he might be with other, more immediately urgent preoccupations - on campaign against Robert Guiscard or Bohemund, defending the Empire against the Pechenegs, or striving to control the flood tide of the Crusading armies as it swept across his frontiers - he never for a moment forgot his religious responsibilities as basileus, Equal of the Apostles. Nor were these confined to questions of

1 'The women's quarters in the palace had been the scene of utter depravity ever since the infamous Constantine Monomachus had ascended the throne ... but Anna [Dalassena] effected a reformation; a commendable decorum was restored and the palace now enjoyed a most praiseworthy discipline. She instituted set times for the singing of sacred hymns, and fixed hours for breakfast... the palace assumed the appearance rather of a monastery' (The Alexiad, III, viii). There must, one feels, have been many around the place who dreamed nostalgically of the good old days.

doctrine; he was also deeply concerned with Church affairs, and early in his reign instituted a radical reform in the long-established practice of what was known as charisticum, by which the administration of monasteries and monastic property was handed over to lay patrons. This practice, which had increased dramatically during the eleventh century, was aimed principally at the economic development of such properties and usually worked well enough; but the inevitable element of secularization had its dangers. The patron could introduce lay brothers, who lived off the monastery while making no contribution to its spiritual life; he could put pressure on the abbot - and even on the monks — to involve themselves in business; he might even, if he chose, milk the monastery dry.

As the founder of several generously-endowed monasteries himself, Alexius was determined to prevent such abuses. He did not abolish the system, which he had found extremely useful during his first months on the throne when he had wished to recompense his supporters and endow members of his family. He decreed, however, that all transactions in monastic property must be registered with the appropriate patriarchate, thereby increasing the degree of patriarchal control over the monasteries and monastic life. In 1107 he went still further, with a general reform of the clergy and, in particular, the foundation of a special order of preachers, each of them working within his own 'parish' and serving also as a one-man vice squad and guardian of public morals. How effective these preachers proved in practice is uncertain: later chroniclers scarcely mention them. A good deal more effective was the vast 'orphanage' - really more of a hospital and refuge - which he established next to the church of St Paul on the acropolis of Constantinople, on the site of the present Topkapi Palace. His daughter describes it as 'a city within a city':

All around it in a circle were innumerable buildings, houses for the poor and -even greater proof of his humanity - dwellings for the disabled. Seeing it full of those who were maimed or completely incapacitated, you would have said it was Solomon's Porch. The buildings were in a double circle and were two-storeyed ... So large was the circle that if you wished to visit these people and started early in the morning, it would be evening before you were done. They had no land or vineyards, but each lived in his appointed house and all their needs of food and clothing were provided by the Emperor's generosity . . . The number of persons catered for in this way was incalculable.1

1 TheAlexiad, XV, vii.

Alexius's motives were not, however, entirely altruistic. One of thesymptoms of the breakdown of morale under his predecessors was the enormous number of professional beggars in the city. Any minister or senior civil servant, on promotion to higher rank or office, was expected to make generous dispensations to the poor and would on occasion find himself literally besieged in his house by those laying claim to his generosity; and the almost incredible number of promotions with which Nicephorus Botaneiates had sought to boost his waning popularity had still further increased the number of claimants. Strangely enough, they were not always unpopular with those whom they pestered; social standing in Constantinople at this time was largely governed not only by rank but also by patronage and charitable donations, and many a rich man asked nothing better than to be given the opportunity of publicly demonstrating the extent of his largesse. Certainly, the opening of St Paul's enabled Alexius to control the beggars of the city; but it also tended to diminish the prestige of his senior officials, thereby correspondingly increasing his own.

Consummate diplomatist that he was, it would have been surprising indeed if the Emperor had not worked hard during his reign to heal the breach between the Eastern and Western Churches. Unfortunately, he was too devoutly - some might say narrowly - Orthodox in his beliefs to show much flexibility in negotiations: when in 1089 Pope Urban sent the Abbot of Grottaferrata to Constantinople with an urgent appeal to permit services in the Latin rite, Alexius's only reply had been to suggest a joint council to discuss matters. The findings of this assembly have not come down to us; it seems however to have had at least a measure of success, since at its conclusion the Pope is known to have lifted the ban of excommunication that lay over the Empire of the East. Only two years later, though the breach was by no means entirely healed, relations were friendly enough for Alexius to have appealed to him for help against the Pechenegs. Further talks were held at intervals: in 1108 a papal legate was present to witness the signing of the Treaty of Devol, and in 1112 — if we are to believe the Chronicle of Monte Cassino - Alexius went so far as to suggest the union of the two Churches in exchange for the crown of the Western Empire, actually planning a visit to Rome in the summer of that year.

The accuracy of this report has been challenged, and probably with good reason. First of all, the Western Empire was not for sale. The Emperor Henry V was admittedly a bitter enemy of Pope Paschal -whom he had actually imprisoned, with sixteen of his cardinals, for two months in 1111. But Paschal had bought his freedom by performing Henry's coronation on 13 April, and he could hardly crown a rival Emperor little more than a year later. What is a good deal more probable is that Alexius had his eye on South Italy, which had been without a master since the deaths of Bohemund and his half-brother Roger Borsa within a week of each other in that same year of 1111 and which he would have dearly loved to regain for Byzantium. Even so, though his position was by now a good deal more secure than it had been in the past, it is unlikely that in the circumstances then prevailing he could ever have contemplated so long an absence from Constantinople.

Such plans that he might have had would anyway have been in vain, for in the summer of 1112 Alexius fell gravely ill and seems to have been incapacitated for several weeks. Correspondence with Rome continued intermittently; but the Pope insisted as firmly as ever on his supremacy, Byzantium refused to compromise its independence and nothing was settled. In any case, the Emperor soon found his attention taken up with other, more immediate problems.

The peace that had begun at the end of 1108 with the Treaty of Devol continued for three years; then, in 1111, the wars began again and continued for the rest of the reign. That autumn, indeed, Alexius narrowly avoided having to fight simultaneously on two fronts, when a new outbreak of hostilities against the Turks coincided with the arrival of a fleet of Genoese and Pisan ships which threatened to ravage the Ionian coast. Fortunately he was able to buy them off by concluding a treaty with the Pisans, by which he undertook not to impede them in their Crusading activities, to make an annual present of gold and silk to their cathedral and - most important of all - to allow them to maintain a permanent trading colony in Constantinople, the most prominent members of which would enjoy reserved seats both for services in St Sophia and for games in the Hippodrome.1

The Turks were less easily dealt with. Fortunately for Alexius, they were not yet out for conquest; they still had more than enough territory to absorb and consolidate in Asia Minor. Their invasions across the imperial border were more in the nature of carefully planned raids than anything else: they avoided pitched battles wherever possible, attacking

1 This was not the first treaty between the Empire and the Italian trading republics: Basil II had concluded one with Venice as early as 992. (See Byzantium: The Apogee, p. 257.) Strangely, perhaps, the Genoese did not insist on similar privileges - which they were not to receive until 115 5, from Manuel I.

on a wide front at several points simultaneously - thus obliging the Byzantines to spread their forces - and then making a quick getaway with as much plunder and as many prisoners as they could. In 1111 they had crossed the Hellespont into Thrace, where Anna reports that her father was campaigning against them early the following year. In 1113 another Turkish army, estimated this time at fifty-four thousand, laid siege to Nicaea; but it failed in its attempt, was surprised by Alexius near Dorylaeum and soundly defeated. The next year saw the basileus back in Thrace to defend the northern frontier against a new invasion by the Cumans; and scarcely had they been successfully repulsed than, in 1115, the Turks were once again on the march, this time beneath the banners of Malik-Shah, Seljuk Sultan of Iconium.

But the Emperor was slowing down. By now nearly sixty - sixty-eight if we are to believe Zonaras1 - and already prey to the disease that was to destroy him, he delayed his reaction until the following year: only in the autumn of 1116 did he set off with his army to attack the Sultan in his own Anatolian heartland. He advanced as far as the city of Philomelion, meeting with little of the resistance that he had expected; his progress was, however, appreciably delayed by the appearance at every halt of vast numbers of homeless Greeks - families who had fled the Turkish invaders and who now emerged from their various places of refuge, attaching themselves to the army for protection. At this point, for reasons unclear, he decided to retire; and it was only after he had started on his homeward road that Malik-Shah decided to attack. This, according to Anna,2 proved a serious mistake. The Sultan's army was, she reports, so destroyed by the Byzantines that he was forced to sue for peace, abandoning his recent conquests and recognizing the imperial frontiers that had existed immediately before Manzikert, in the reign of Romanus Diogenes.

Here, she continues, was a historic victory indeed. Alas, she seems to have been indulging in more of her favourite wishful thinking. Romanus's old frontiers stretched eastward to Armenia - which, quite apart from other considerations, were not the Sultan's to restore. Subsequent events, in any case, strongly suggest that no such surrender of territory was made. Malik-Shah may well have closed down his advance outposts in western Anatolia; but he remained in Iconium and it is unlikely that the Emperor returned with any major territorial concessions.

1 Seep4, note 3.

2 The

Thanks to the hopeless confusion of Anna's account - as well as her obvious bias - and to the paucity of our other sources,1 we shall never know the truth about Philomelion; all that can be said is that, whether the Emperor's victory was decisive or negligible, it was his last. He returned to the capital a sick man, to find himself in the centre of bitter domestic strife.

Admittedly this was no new experience for him. Ever since his accession, his family had been divided. In the early days the fault had been very largely his own; we have seen how much power he gave to his mother, Anna Dalassena, and how he had rejected his fifteen-year-old wife Irene Ducas - even trying to prevent her coronation - in his infatuation with Mary of Alania. Mary, it is true, had soon faded out of the picture and Irene had returned to her husband's side; but Anna had continued for several years as the principal power behind the throne - more formidable even than her second son, the sebastocrator Isaac, with whom she theoretically shared the regency while Alexius was away on his numerous campaigns. She thus became more and more unpopular in Constantinople, to the point where the Emperor began to see her as a serious liability. Some time around 1090, therefore, she had retired — ostensibly of her own accord — to the monastery of the Pantepoptes where she had died, not altogether in disgrace, a few years later.

With the disappearance of Anna Dalassena, the Empress Irene finally comes into her own. Her daughter Anna - in whom the virtue of filial respect almost becomes a vice — describes her thus:

Her natural inclination would have been to shun public life altogether. Most of her time was devoted to household duties and her own pursuits - reading the books of the saints, or turning her mind to good works and acts of charity . .. Whenever she was obliged to appear as Empress at some important ceremony, she was overcome with shyness and blushes. The story is told of how when the woman philosopher Theano2 once inadvertently bared her elbow, someone lightly remarked 'What a beautiful elbow!' 'But not,' Theano replied, 'for public show.' Thus it was with the Empress my mother ... So far from being pleased to reveal to the common gaze an elbow or her eyes, she was unwilling that even her voice should be heard by strangers .. . But since not even the gods, as the poet says, fight against necessity, she was forced to accompany the

1Our only other valuable authority is Zonaras, who attaches no particular importance to the campaign.

2The pupil, and possibly the wife, of Pythagoras.

Emperor on his frequent expeditions. Her innate modesty would have kept her inside the palace; on the other hand, her devotion to him and burning love for him compelled her, however unwillingly, to leave her home .. . The disease which attacked his feet required the most careful attention; he suffered excruciating pain from gout, and my mother's touch was what he most valued, for she understood him perfectly and by gentle massage could relieve him to some extent of his agony.1

Now all this may be perfectly true so far as it goes; but it seems likely that there was another consideration, apart from his gout, which caused Alexius to insist so firmly on Irene's accompanying him on campaign. He did not trust her an inch. It was not for his own safety that he feared; but he knew that she and her daughter had conceived a bitter hatred for her eldest son John Comnenus, heir apparent to the throne, and were for ever intriguing to disgrace or eliminate him so that Anna's husband, the Caesar Nicephorus Bryennius, might succeed instead. Gradually these two scheming women had become the focus for a number of other malcontents, among them the Emperor's second son Andronicus.

Irene never let slip an opportunity to blacken John in his father's eyes, representing him as a drunkard and debauchee hopelessly unfit to govern. Alexius, however, always refused to listen. He loved and trusted John, and - rightly, as it turned out - retained complete confidence in his abilities. Besides, he was determined to found a dynasty. One of the chief causes of Byzantine decline in the previous century had, he believed, been the fundamental instability of the throne itself, either passing to one or another of the Empress Zoe's feckless husbands or being looked upon as little more than a toy, to be shuttled backwards and forwards between the richest and most powerful families of the Empire. He himself had acquired it in just this way; but he would be the last to do so. If his own considerable achievements were to endure, the crown must be handed down in orderly succession to his first-born son and, God willing, to his son after him.

After his return to Constantinople his health steadily declined, until by the summer of 1118 it was clear that death could not be far away. By this time he was in constant pain and suffering serious respiratory difficulties; soon he was obliged to sit upright in order to breathe at all. Then his stomach and feet began to swell, while his mouth, tongue and throat became so inflamed that he could no longer swallow. Irene had him carried to her own palace of the Mangana, spending hours a day by

1 The Alexiad, XII, iii.

his bedside and ordering prayers said throughout the Empire for his recovery; but she could bring him no relief, and saw, with everyone else, that he was sinking fast.

Some time in the afternoon of 15 August the news was brought to John Comnenus that his father had only a few hours to live and urgently wished to see him. He hastened to the Mangana, where the dying Alexius gave him his imperial ring and ordered him to lose no time in having himself proclaimed basileus. John did so, then ran across to St Sophia where, in the briefest of ceremonies, the Patriarch crowned him. Returning to the palace, he was at first - presumably on Irene's orders -denied admittance by the Varangian Guard; only when he showed them the ring and told them of his father's imminent death did they stand back and let him through.

What, meanwhile, of Irene herself? Still determined to secure the succession of Bryennius, she would not willingly have absented herself from her husband's last conversation with his son; and yet, although she seldom left his bedside, he had somehow contrived to remove her at this crucial moment for her plans. By the time she returned it was too late. Even now she made one last attempt to force him to recognize the rights of his son-in-law; but he only smiled and - by now too feeble to speak - raised his hands as if in thanksgiving. That evening he died, and was buried the next day with the minimum of ceremony in the monastery of Christ Philanthropos, founded by Irene some fifteen years before.

He deserved a more elaborate farewell; for his subjects owed Alexius Comnenus far more than they knew. First of all, he had achieved his principal object: to halt the political and moral decline that had begun after the death of Basil II in 1025 and to give the Empire a new stability. After fifty-six years during which it had been misgoverned by thirteen different monarchs, he alone had reigned for thirty-seven; his son was to continue for another twenty-five before his accidental death, his grandson for another thirty-seven. Next there was his military record: no Emperor had defended his people more courageously, or with greater determination, or against a greater number of enemies; nor had any done more to build up the imperial forces by land and sea. Thirdly, there was his brilliant handling of the Crusade, organizing the passage of perhaps a hundred thousand men, women and children of all ranks and classes of society, feeding them and so far as possible protecting them from one end of his Empire to the other. Had those Crusading armies marched a quarter of a century earlier than they in fact did, the consequences for them - and for Byzantium - might have been grave indeed.

Thus, in three different ways and in three different capacities - as statesman, general and diplomatist - Alexius Comnenus may be said to have saved the Empire. Inevitably, he had had his failures: the restoration of the economy, the healing of the rift with Rome, the recovery of South Italy. But of these only the first was serious; the other two were little more than dreams, never to be realized by Alexius or any of his successors. He had his failings, too - among them his shameless nepotism and his susceptibility to women: Mary of Alania, Anna Dalassena and his wife Irene all exerted far more power over him than he should have allowed. Even over the supremely important question of the succession he had not trusted himself to impose his will upon Irene, preferring to achieve his ends by trickery rather than by firm imperial command.

Did he regret that - except among his soldiers, by whom he was idolized - personal popularity should always have remained beyond his grasp? Not, probably, very much. He never courted it, and certainly never compromised his principles to win the plaudits of the crowd. From the outset of his reign he had ruled conscientiously, energetically and to the very best of his ability; and he left his son an Empire incomparably stronger and better organized than it had been for a century. He died content - as well he might.

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