Should I not be considered mad if, having acquired the crown in a manner that was scarcely legitimate, and indeed scarcely Christian, I were to place it upon the head of a stranger, rather than upon that of my own son?
Alexius Comnenus to his wife, quoted by Nicetas Choniates, 'John Comnenus',
The account of the death of Alexius Comnenus as given in the previous chapter, which is principally based on the testimony of John Zonaras and Nicetas Choniates,1 bears little resemblance to that with which Anna Comnena ends The Alexiad. Anna paints an affecting picture of the distinguished doctors bickering round the bedside; of the increasing horror of the Emperor's sufferings; of the selflessness of his wife Irene, weeping 'tears more copious than the waters of the Nile' as she tended him through the long, agonizing days and nights; of the devoted ministrations of their daughters — Maria, Eudocia and of course Anna herself; of the candles that were lit and the hymns that were chanted; and, at the moment of death, of the widowed Empress kicking off her imperial purple slippers, tearing aside her veil, seizing a knife and slashing away at her beautiful hair. Anna gives, however, no hint of her father's last, not entirely creditable coup, when he prevented the succession of herself and her husband in favour of John, the rightful heir — whom, in her entire chapter, she mentions only once, and then does not even deign to call by his name.
Anna's hatred for John, which lasted all her life, was a simple matter of jealousy. As Alexius's eldest child, she had been betrothed in her infancy to the young Prince Constantine - son of Michael VII - and thus,
1 Nicetas began his career as an imperial secretary at the court, and ended as Grand Logothctc under the Angeli. His History, which begins with the death of Alexius and continues until 1206, is the most descriptive and colourful that has come down to us since the days of Psellus and will, I hope, do much to enliven the following chapters.
for the first five years of her life, had been heiress-presumptive to the throne of Byzantium. Then, on 13 September 1087, the Empress Irene had given birth to a son, John; and Anna's dreams of the imperial diadem were shattered. But not for long. On the premature death of Constantine she had married in 1097 Nicephorus Bryennius, son1 of that general of the same name who, having made a bid for the throne in 1077, had been captured and blinded by Botaneiates. Nicephorus too had proved himself a fine soldier and leader of men, to the point where, in 1111 or thereabouts - the precise date is uncertain - Alexius had conferred upon him the title of Caesar; and immediately all his wife's ambitions were resurrected. The story of her recruitment of her mother Irene and her brother Andronicus to her cause has already been told, as has that of their ultimate failure; but even now Anna did not give up. She was almost certainly behind a plot to murder John at their father's funeral - from which her brother, having received advance warning, wisely stayed away; and a few months after John's accession she organized a conspiracy - to be led by her husband Bryennius - to murder him in the Philopation, a country palace just outside the Golden Gate. Unfortunately, Bryennius's courage failed him at the last moment and he never turned up at the rendezvous. Meanwhile his fellow-conspirators, whom he had failed to inform of his defection, were caught wandering about in the palace and immediately arrested.
The new Emperor showed himself surprisingly merciful. There were no blindings, no mutilations. The guilty were sentenced to nothing worse than the confiscation of their possessions - which most of them were later able to recover. Nicephorus Bryennius escaped scot-free and served the Emperor loyally in the field for another twenty years until his death, occupying his idle hours in the composition of a remarkably boring history. His wife was not so lucky. On hearing of what had happened at the Philopation, she had flown into a hysterical rage and had cursed Providence in the crudest possible terms for having endowed her husband with certain attributes of virility which, she claimed, had far better been given to her. She too suffered the temporary confiscation of her property; worse, she was barred in perpetuity from the imperial court. Abandoned and humiliated, she settled in the convent of the Theotokos Kecharitomene,2 where she lived for the next thirty-five
1Not, I think, the grandson as is often claimed; see The Alexiad, VII, ii.
2i.e., the Virgin Full of Grace. This convent adjoined the monastery of Christ Philanthropos and was also founded by the Empress Irene; the two buildings were separated by a wall, but shared a single water system. The forty nuns of the Kecharitomene lived a strictly coenobitic life, sleeping in a common dormitory; Irene had, however, considerately added one or two rather more comfortable apartments for the benefit of female members of the imperial family.
years, writing the life of her father and endlessly lamenting her injuries, nearly all of which - had she had the honesty to admit it - were self-inflicted.
At the time of his accession, John Comnenus was a month short of his thirtieth birthday. Thanks to his sister's reticence on the subject, we know disappointingly little of his early years, although she does give us a brief description of his appearance at birth:
The child was of a swarthy complexion, with a broad forehead, rather thin cheeks, a nose that was neither flat nor aquiline but something between the two, and darkish eyes which, as far as one can divine from the look of a newborn baby, gave evidence of a lively spirit.
For once, Anna was letting her brother off lightly: even so great an admirer of John Comnenus as William of Tyre1 admits that he was small and unusually ugly, with eyes, hair and complexion so dark that he was known as 'the Moor'. He had, however, another nickname too: Kaloiannis, 'John the Beautiful'. It has been suggested that this was intended ironically, but even a cursory reading of the chroniclers shows that it was nothing of the kind. The description referred not to his body, but to his soul. Both his parents - whatever their failings in other respects -had been unusually devout, even by the standards of the time; John carried their example further still. Levity and ribaldry he hated: members of the court were expected to restrict their conversation to serious subjects, or otherwise to hold their peace. Luxury, too, was frowned upon. The food served at the imperial table was frugal in the extreme; wealthy noblemen and their ladies, seeking to impress the Emperor by the opulence of their palaces or the sumptuousness of their robes, would receive instead a stern lecture on the vanity of such adornments - which, in his eyes, could lead only to decadence and depravity.
Today, more likely than not, most of us would find the Emperor John Comnenus an insufferable companion; in twelfth-century Byzantium he was loved. He was, first of all, no hypocrite. His principles may have been strict, but they were sincerely held; his piety was
1 William of Tyre (c. 1130-86), Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Archbishop of Tyre, whose History (see Bibliography) is the most important source we possess for Byzantine relations with the Crusader states of Outremer.
genuine, his integrity complete. Second, there was a gentle, merciful side to his nature that was in his day rare indeed. Nicetas Choniates's testimony that he never condemned anyone to death or mutilation may seem to us faint praise; but John's treatment of his sister Anna and her fellow-conspirators certainly seems in retrospect to have been almost dangerously lenient. He was generous, too: despite the austerity of his own life, no Emperor ever dispensed charity with a more lavish hand. Never was he accused, as his father had been, of favouring his family at the expense of his subjects; on the contrary, he deliberately kept his brothers and sisters, as well as his more distant relations, at arm's length, often choosing his ministers and closest advisers from men of relatively humble origins. Most trusted of all was a certain John Axuch, a Turk who had been captured in infancy by the Crusaders at Nicaea, given as a present to Alexius Comnenus and brought up in the imperial household, where he soon became the young prince's boon companion. On his accession John at once took Axuch into his service, after which his promotion was swift. Before long he had been appointed Grand Domestic, or commander-in-chief of the armies.
It was a sensible appointment for a man whom the Emperor wished to keep at his side; for John Comnenus was, like his father, a soldier through and through. He believed, as Alexius had believed before him, that the Empire had been bestowed on him by the Almighty as a sacred trust, together with the responsibility for its protection; but whereas Alexius had been largely content to defend it against its manifold enemies, John saw his duty in more positive terms - to liberate all those imperial territories now occupied by the infidel, and to restore to Byzantium the glory and power that it had known in the days of Basil the Great, or even Justinian. Here was an enterprise indeed; but he embarked on it with determination and energy, continuing his father's programme of military reorganization, improving still further his methods of training, constantly setting his soldiers an example of courage and endurance that few of them could hope to follow. To his subjects it seemed as though his life were one long campaign; and though he seems to have loved his Empress - the Hungarian princess Piriska, who had adopted the more euphonious but distressingly unoriginal Byzantine name of Irene - and remained faithful to her all his life, he certainly spent far more of his time in the field than in his palace at Constantinople, as did his four sons as soon as they were old enough to accompany him.
In one important respect John Comnenus was more fortunate than his father: the situation in the West was, in Alexius's day, seldom settled enough to enable him to concentrate on the Muslim threat in Asia. At the time of John's accession, however, and for several years afterwards, Europe presented comparatively few immediate problems. Across the Danube, the Cumans and the Pechenegs were quiet; in the Balkan peninsula, the Serbs acknowledged Byzantine suzerainty and were anyway too divided to make trouble, while the Hungarians were fully occupied in consolidating their position on the Dalmatian coast - a region which, though remaining technically an imperial province, had in fact long been abandoned to the Venetians. Further west again, Pope and Holy Roman Emperor were still locked in their long struggle for supremacy. As for the Normans of Apulia - who had caused poor Alexius more anxiety than all his other European enemies combined -Robert Guiscard's pathetic son Roger Borsa and, after Roger's death in 1111, his equally feckless son William had failed utterly to assert their authority over the local barons, and their Dukedom was little by little subsiding into chaos. True, their cousin Count Roger of Sicily was rapidly making a name for himself and by 1130, as King Roger II, would have gathered all the Norman lands of the south under his sceptre; but that was twelve years away in the future and John, as we shall see, was far too good a diplomatist to allow the King of Sicily to become an immediate threat to Byzantium.
He could thus focus his attention on Asia Minor - where, nearly half a century after Manzikert, the situation was still hopelessly confused. Roughly, it could be said that the Empire controlled the northern, western and southern coasts and all the land to the north-west of a rather wavy line drawn from the mouth of the Meander a few miles south of Ephesus to the south-eastern corner of the Black Sea a little beyond Trebizond - which was an imperial fief under its own Duke, Constantine Gabras. To the south-east of that line were the Turks, most of them subject to the Seljuk Sultan of Iconium, Mas'ud; but recent years had seen a diminution of the Sultan's effective power due to the rise of another Turkish tribe, the Danishmends, whose Emir Ghazi II now ruled from the Halys river1 to the Euphrates and was steadily pressing westward into Paphlagonia. There were also large numbers of armed Turcoman tribesmen who may have paid lip-service to one or the other of these potentates, but who effectively did as they wished. Throughout the second half of the reign of Alexius, these nomads had
1 Now known as the Kizil Irmak.
been infiltrating the fertile valleys of Phrygia and Pisidia, where the climate was more gentle and the pasture for their flocks incomparably richer than that of the scrubby plateau of central Anatolia. They had thus succeeded in virtually cutting off the Byzantine port of Attaleia (Antalya), which was now accessible only by sea. It was they, as much as the Seljuks themselves, who were the target of John's first campaign.
He set out in the spring of 1119, and made straight for the old Phrygian capital, Laodicea on the Lycus, some four miles to the north of the modern city of Denizli.1 Captured by the Seljuks in 1071, Laodicea had been briefly recovered by Alexius Comnenus twenty-five years later; but like so many other towns and villages along that all too flexible frontier, it had since fallen away again. John had sent Axuch and a party of men out in advance to prepare the siege, and his Grand Domestic had done his work well. Resistance collapsed at the first assault; the local Emir Abu-Shara fled; and John surrounded it with a line of new walls to ensure that he did not return.
At this point the Emperor, for reasons unknown, returned hurriedly to Constantinople. It has been suggested2 that the intrigues of his sister may have had something to do with his decision. Obviously her unsuccessful plot was not to blame, since that must have been timed for when John was already in the capital; but there were very likely other intriguers besides Anna, and during the first possibly insecure years of his reign he seems to have been reluctant to leave it for too long. At all events he was back again a few weeks later for the fall of Sozopolis — some thirty miles north of Attaleia - and for the capture of a whole string of castles and strong points commanding the road leading from the Meander up to the central plateau. By late autumn the vital land links with Attaleia had been re-established; John and Axuch returned to the Bosphorus well satisfied with what they had done.
It is unclear whether they were back in Asia Minor in 1120; our principal chroniclers,3 admirable as they are in many respects, show maddeningly little interest in precise chronology. In the following year, however, the Emperor's attention was brought back forcibly to Europe, where there was a dangerous irruption of Pechenegs across the Danube.
1There is not much to see of Laodicea today. Formerly an important Hellenistic city, famous for its wool and cloth production and one of the Seven Churches of Asia, its ruins arc nowadays deserted and rather sad. Few tourists stop there at all, and even those that do pass on hurriedly to the petrified waterfalls of Pamukkale, a dozen miles further on.
2F. Chalandon, Les Comnene, Vol. II, p. 47.
3Nicetas Choniates, John Cinnamus and Michael the Syrian.
Since its defeat by Alexius at Levunium in 1091, this restless people had given little trouble; but thirty years had now passed, a new generation had grown up, and in the summer of 1121 tens of thousands of barbarian tribesmen overran Thrace, causing the usual havoc. As an invasion, it was nowhere near on the scale of its predecessor; on the other hand, John's ambitious programme in Asia depended absolutely on peace in Europe, and it was essential that he should deal with the invaders firmly and expeditiously. While preparing his army and bringing it into position he attempted to buy time by sowing discord among the various Pecheneg tribes - fortunately they had no supreme leader - and by offering them rich presents, as recommended by Constantine Porphyrogenitus nearly three centuries before;1 but the Pechenegs had learnt a lot since Constantine's day and remained unimpressed.
It hardly mattered. Once the army was ready, the Emperor saw no reason to delay the action any longer. The first phase of the battle proved indecisive. John himself was slightly wounded, and though a fair number of the enemy were captured, the large majority managed to regain their camp, where they drew up their chariots to form a great circular rampart and dug themselves in. Several times the Byzantine cavalry attacked, but the chariots stood firm. At last the Emperor -who, whenever not actually engaged in battle, had been on his knees before an icon of the Virgin — gave the general order to dismount and, flanked by his Varangian Guard with their long shields and huge battle-axes, led the way forward on foot. The battle-axes made short work of the chariots, and the Pechenegs' morale disintegrated. Some of them managed to escape; the rest were taken prisoner. Many of the captives were however later released and given lands within the Empire on which to settle, in return for joining the imperial army on the spot or giving an undertaking of future military service. The Emperor doubtless remembered how invaluable the Pecheneg regiments had been to his father in policing the Crusader route across the Balkans; he must devoutly have hoped that they would not be necessary again in such a capacity, but they would certainly have their uses during the years to come. Meanwhile, to celebrate his victory, he instituted an annual 'Pecheneg holiday', which was still being celebrated when the century ended.
With the Pechenegs effectively subdued - so effectively, indeed, that
1 See Byzantium: The Apogee, p. 164.
they never troubled Byzantium again - John Comnenus would have liked to return as soon as possible to Asia Minor; but his work in Europe was not yet over. The Venetians were on the war-path; and both the Hungarians and the Serbs, so quiet and well-behaved during the first years of his reign, were now in similar mood.
In Alexius's day, Venice had been the Empire's closest ally; she had had to be, because her fleet was of vital importance against the Normans of South Italy - first Robert Guiscard and later Bohemund. To keep the Venetians well-disposed, the Emperor had not hesitated in 1082 to grant them trading privileges enjoyed by no other foreign merchants, including the complete remission of all customs dues. Thus their colony on the Golden Horn had grown both in size and in wealth to the point where it had aroused the intense resentment of the Byzantines, many of whom had appalling stories to tell of Venetian arrogance and hauteur. By the time of John's accession, however, the Norman menace had faded; and when Doge Domenico Michiel, elected in the same year, sent ambassadors asking for the renewal of the current arrangements and the confirmation of all the old privileges, the new Emperor refused point-blank. From now on, he told them, they would enjoy only the same treatment as was accorded to their competitors. The Venetians were furious, and on 8 August 1122 the Doge's flagship sailed out of the lagoon with seventy-one men-of-war in its wake.
Their objective was Corfu, an important Byzantine outpost, defended by a strong and determined garrison. They besieged it for six months, and would probably have continued longer had they not received, in the spring of 1123, a desperate appeal from Palestine: King Baldwin had been taken prisoner, and their help was essential if the Latin East were to survive. So the siege was raised and Corfu enjoyed a brief period of tranquillity; but over the next three years the Venetians continued to be active in the eastern Mediterranean, capturing Rhodes, Chios, Samos, Lesbos and Andros. When, early in 1126, they sent troops to occupy Cephalonia, John Comnenus had had enough. His own fleet was powerless to stop the aggression, which was costing him far more than the commercial privileges he had withheld. In August that same year he swallowed his pride and restored them. Even taking account of the inevitable loss of Byzantine face, it was a small enough price to pay.
Where Hungary was concerned the Empire's problems had begun in 1095, when the newly-enthroned King Coloman had dispossessed his brother Almus, whom he had later ordered to be blinded, together with the latter's son Bela. Shortly before John's accession, Almus had sought refuge with his kinswoman - the future Empress Irene - in Constantinople, where he had been warmly received; he had even been granted an estate in Macedonia, which had rapidly become a centre for his many compatriots in exile, voluntary or otherwise. Coloman seems to have made no objection; but his brother and successor, Stephen II, growing increasingly concerned over the activities of these discontents, had made a formal protest to the Byzantine court - simultaneously demanding that Almus should be expelled from the Empire. John, predictably enough, had refused; and in the summer of 1128 Stephen attacked. Crossing the Danube, he captured Belgrade and Nish; then, continuing into what is now Bulgaria, he ravaged as far as Sardica (Sofia) and Philippopolis (Plovdiv) before retiring again to the north.
But the Emperor was also on the march. Reaching Philippopolis shortly after the Hungarian army had left it, he advanced northward -almost certainly up the valley of the Iskur1 - to a rendezvous on the Danube with a flotilla from the imperial navy. Stephen had by now withdrawn to the north bank; he had fallen ill, but had given strict orders from his sickbed that his troops were on no account to follow him across the river. As it happened, they had no opportunity to do so. John found them encamped beneath the fortress of Haram - near the confluence of the Danube with its little tributary, the Nera - and used his ships to make his own secret crossing a mile or two downstream. He then fell on them from behind, pinning them against the bank. Of the survivors, some managed to escape but many more were taken prisoner. All the captured towns were recovered.
At some moment either shortly before or shortly after these events, John Comnenus fought a similarly successful campaign against the Serbs under their leader Bolkan, the Zhupan of Rascia, settling many of them in Asia Minor as he had the Pechenegs. Our knowledge of this episode -as indeed of all Serbian affairs at this time — is lamentably slight; but it seems clear enough that although the Serbs continued to resent imperial domination and to make periodical attempts - often supported by the Hungarians - to shake it off, they were never again to cause John any serious anxiety. By 1130 he was ready to leave Europe to look after itself, and to turn his attention once again to the East.
1 Some historians have suggested the Morava valley; but this would have involved a long and pointless detour to the west for both armies. Nicetas Choniates shifts the whole scene further north still, to the wooded hills between the Sava and the Danube nowadays known as the Frushka Gora; but again the balance of probability is against him.
In the decade that he had been away, the situation in Anatolia had changed considerably for the worse. The Danishmends had continued to spread at the expense of the Sultanate of Iconium, which had been virtually incapacitated by internal dissension; and their ruler, the Emir Ghazi - who had annexed Melitene in 1124 and had gone on to acquire Caesarea, Ankyra, Kastamon and Gangra1 three years later - was now the most formidable power in all Asia Minor. Three years later, in February 1130 on the banks of the river Pyramus (now the Ceyhan) in Cilicia, his army had destroyed that of young Bohemund II of Antioch in a total massacre. Bohemund's head was brought to Ghazi, who had it embalmed and sent it as a gift to the Caliph in Baghdad.
John Comnenus shed few tears for the Prince of Antioch, whose principality he saw - with good reason - as rightly belonging to his Empire; but it was clear to him that Ghazi must be dealt with while there was still time. Between 1130 and 1135 he led no fewer than five separate expeditions against the Danishmends. For the first three years he was seriously hampered by the intrigues of Alexius's third son, the sebastocrator Isaac, who was doing his best to form a league of all the enemies of the Empire with the object of supplanting his brother on the imperial throne; but in 1132 Isaac left for the Holy Land -whether for reasons of piety or for more unworthy motives we cannot tell - and thereafter John's progress was swift. During the remainder of that year and the beginning of 1133he went from one success to the next, marching through Bithynia and Paphlagonia, capturing the important stronghold of Kastamon and advancing to well beyond the Halys river. As he advanced, Christians and Muslims alike from the towns and villages flocked to his banner, while several of the local Emirs surrendered at his approach.
On his return to the capital, he made a triumphal entry in the traditional manner - the first that Constantinople had seen since that of John Tzimisces in 972.2 As befitted the troubled times, the ceremonial chariot that waited for him at the Golden Gate with its four snow-white horses was trimmed with silver rather than with gold; but the streets were decorated, as always on such occasions, with damasks and brocades, and rich carpets hung from the windows of the houses. The whole route from the Land Walls to St Sophia was lined with specially erected stands, where virtually the entire population of the city stood cheering
1The modem Kayseri, Ankara, Kastamonu and Chankiri.
2See Byzantium: The Apogee, p. 224.
as the procession passed by: first the prisoners, next the fighting regiments, then the generals and finally the Emperor himself, on foot and carrying a cross. Like Tzimisces before him, he had refused to mount the chariot, preferring to give pride of place to the icon of the Virgin that had accompanied him throughout his campaigns.
But his work was not over: the following year saw him back in the field. The campaign was tragically interrupted by the sudden death in Bithynia of his wife Irene; he and his sons left the army at once in order to escort her body back to Constantinople. They returned, however, immediately after the funeral and rejoined the army on the road to Gangra where, towards the end of the summer, there came news of another, more welcome, death - that of the Emir Ghazi himself. The Emir's last hours must have been somewhat brightened by the arrival of an embassy from the Caliph, to inform him that he and his descendants had been awarded the title of Malik, or King, and to present him with 'four black flags, drums to be beaten before him whenever he appeared in public, a golden chain to wear about his neck and a golden sceptre with which the ambassadors were to tap him on the shoulder in recognition of his new rank and title'; but none of these were of much use to him. He expired almost at once, and the title passed to his son Mohammed.
The confusion which almost invariably followed the demise of a Muslim ruler ensured that the Byzantines could expect little opposition from the Danishmend army in the immediate future. Individual garrisons, on the other hand, could still give trouble. Gangra for example, although the Governor had recently died and left the command to his wife, put up so spirited a resistance that John decided to pass on to Kastamon, which Ghazi had recaptured in the previous year. It surrendered quickly enough - on one or two conditions that he was happy to accept - and he returned at once to Gangra, this time to besiege the city in earnest. The garrison held out for a little while, in the hopes that certain Turkish troops rumoured to be in the neighbourhood might come to their aid; but by this time the country was in the grip of an unusually hard winter and provisions were short. After a week or two, there being still no sign of a relief force, the Governor's widow sued for terms - among them permission to leave the city for any who wished to do so, and the return of some of the prisoners taken on the previous occasion. Once again John willingly agreed — though Cinnamus tells us that few of the inhabitants took advantage of his offer, many of them preferring to enlist in the ranks of his army.
Leaving a Byzantine garrison of two thousand men in Gangra, early in 1135 the Emperor returned once again to his capital. During the last five years he had achieved much. For Ghazi's death he could hardly take the credit; nevertheless he had succeeded in everything that he had set out to do, restoring to the Empire extensive lands that had been lost to it for over half a century. The Turks were not beaten; but they had sustained several crippling blows and it would be some time before they could return to the offensive. He himself was now almost free to work towards the realization of his greatest ambition of all and to march, not against a Muslim army but against the two Christian states at that time occupying what he considered to be imperial territory: the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia and its close ally, the Norman Principality of Antioch.
Almost, but not quite. He had one other potential enemy to deal with before that ambition could be achieved. Roger of Sicily had worn his crown for little more than four years; since that time, however, he had gained steadily in power and influence, and he too dreamed of foreign conquest. The Apulian sea-ports were only some sixty miles from the imperial lands across the Adriatic, and the rich cities of Dalmatia constituted a permanent temptation to a little gentle freebooting which, in recent years, Sicilian sea captains had not always managed to resist. Other raids, on the North African coast, had indicated that the King of Sicily would not long be content to remain within his present frontiers and, if not checked, might soon be in a position to close the central Mediterranean at will. He was known, too, to have his eye on the Crusader states. As the cousin of Bohemund II he had a strong claim to Antioch; while the marriage of his mother Adelaide to Baldwin I as his third wife in 1113 had been solemnized with the clear understanding that if it proved childless - which, given the ages of the parties concerned, it almost certainly would - the Crown of Jerusalem was to pass to her son. Baldwin's subsequent behaviour, by which he first spent all Adelaide's immense dowry, then had the marriage annulled and packed her off unceremoniously home to Sicily, was an insult that Roger never forgave; at least in his eyes, it in no way weakened his case. Admittedly he had no similar claim to Constantinople, but such considerations had inhibited neither his uncle Robert Guiscard nor his cousin Bohemund; and even if he were to confine his energies to the conquest of Crusader Outremer the long-term prospects for Byzantium would be grave indeed.
And so, early in 1135, ambassadors set out from the Bosphorus bound for Germany and the court of the Western Emperor Lothair; and by autumn agreement had been reached. In return for generous financial support from Byzantium, Lothair would launch a major campaign in the spring of 1137 to crush the King of Sicily. John welcomed his envoys warmly on their return. With his rear now satisfactorily protected, he could at last set off for the East.
The story of the Armenian settlement of Cilicia — the region extending between the southern coast of Anatolia and the Taurus mountains, from near Alanya to the Gulf of Alexandretta - goes back to the early eleventh century when Basil II, during his surprisingly peaceful incorporation of most of Armenia into the Empire, offered in return to the Princes of Vaspurakan extensive territories running from Sebasteia to the Euphrates.1 Similar grants were made by his successors, so that by 1070 or so there was a steady trickle of emigration from the harsh Armenian uplands to the warmer and more luxuriant country to the south. After Manzikert the trickle became a flood, gradually giving rise to a number of semi-independent principalities, for ever squabbling among themselves; and this was essentially the situation in Cilicia when the Crusaders passed through on their way to Palestine.
It did not last. Once the Frankish Crusader states had established some order in their own affairs, they decided to do the same in Cilicia -which, as their principal link with the West, they naturally wished to have under their control. Most of the Armenian princelings were liquidated; one family only was strong enough, or cunning enough, to survive - that of a certain Ruben, who claimed kinship with Gagik II, last of the Bagratid Kings of Armenia,2 and had established himself in the Taurus in 1071. His grandson, Leo, had succeeded to the throne of what was by now known as Lesser Armenia in 1129, and three years later had embarked on an ambitious programme of conquest, capturing Tarsus, Adana and Mopsuestia - although whether he took them from the Byzantines or the Crusaders is, oddly enough, uncertain.3 Before long, however, Leo overstretched himself: late in 1136, a vendetta with the new Prince of Antioch, Raymond of Poitiers, led to his capture and
1See Byzantium: The Apogee, p. 264.
2'More likely a henchman than a kinsman' - Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium.
3Chalandon (Jean Comnene et Manuel Comnene) devotes two whole pages (108-9) to this knotty problem; the three cities had been taken and retaken again and again and it is hard to say exactly where the frontier lay. He finally concludes that Leo more probably captured them from the Byzantines - but it remains an open question.
a brief period of imprisonment, from which he was released only after surrendering to his captor both Adana and Mopsuestia - though not, apparently, Tarsus - together with sixty thousand pieces of gold. Hardly had he regained his liberty when, in the early spring of 1137, messengers arrived with the worst news he could possibly have received: John Comnenus was marching against him.
The Emperor was taking no chances. He had brought with him not only his old army, tried and trusted, case-hardened after nearly twenty years' hard campaigning; he had also added several new regiments, including one composed of his Pecheneg prisoners and others recruited from the Turkish populations who had rallied so enthusiastically to his standards over the past few years. There may even have been substantial numbers of Armenians; for the Rubenids were no more popular among the majority of their countrymen than were the Frankish Crusaders, and many were the refugees from both regimes who had found their way to Constantinople. From the moment that this tremendous force appeared in Cilicia it carried all before it. The three great cities referred to above changed hands yet again; so too did Seleucia (Selifke), and - after a siege of thirty-seven days - the near-impregnable fortress of Anazarbus (Anavarza) on its 500-foot escarpment above the river Pyramus. Even now Leo did not surrender, but withdrew with his two sons deep into the Taurus. John, anxious not to lose time, did not bother to pursue him. Pausing only to mop up a few more Armenian strong points, he pressed on via Issus and Alexandretta, and on 29 August drew up his army before Antioch.
The city had been passing through a time of crisis. Young Bohemund II, arriving from Apulia at the age of eighteen in 1126, had been killed by Ghazi less than four years later, leaving a two-year-old daughter, Constance. His widow Alice, daughter of King Baldwin of Jerusalem, should properly have waited for her father - as her nominal suzerain - to appoint a successor. Instead, she had assumed the regency herself; and on hearing that the furious Baldwin was on his way to Antioch to settle matters as he thought fit she had gone so far as to send an envoy to Imad ed-Din Zengi, Atabeg of Mosul and effective master of all northern Syria, offering him a magnificently caparisoned horse and the promise of homage in return for his recognition of her right to rule over Antioch as its Princess.
But the envoy never arrived. Intercepted by Baldwin's men, he was brought before their master and executed. The King had then continued his journey to Antioch, only to find the gates shut in his face. It was several days before two of his supporters inside the city were able to open them again under cover of darkness to admit him and his troops; and even then Alice had barricaded herself in a tower, emerging only after guarantees had been given for her safety. Her father forgave her, but exiled her to her property at Laodicea and himself assumed the regency - which, after his death in 1131, passed to his son-in-law and successor, Fulk of Anjou, who had married his eldest daughter, Alice's sister Melisende. For four years Alice had bided her time; then in 113 5 Melisende had persuaded Fulk to allow her sister to return, and Alice had immediately sent another envoy - to Constantinople this time, with a proposal of marriage between her daughter Constance (now aged seven) and the Emperor's youngest son Manuel.
In the circumstances prevailing, such an alliance would have been no bad thing for Antioch; but the Franks in the city were outraged at the thought of Constance's marriage to a Greek - even an imperial one -and King Fulk, when he heard the news, had reacted in much the same way. Obviously an alternative husband for Constance must be found, and Fulk did not take long to make up his mind. His choice fell on Raymond of Poitiers, younger son of Duke William IX of Aquitaine, who chanced at that time to be in England at the court of King Henry I. Fulk secretly sent off one of his knights to fetch him, and in April 1136 - narrowly escaping capture by King Roger of Sicily, who as we have seen claimed the principality for himself - Raymond had duly arrived in Antioch. The problem of obtaining Alice's consent was neatly avoided by the Patriarch, Radulf, who told her that this handsome young prince had come to ask for her own hand in marriage. Alice, who was still under thirty and longed for a new husband, was predictably delighted and withdrew to her palace to prepare for his arrival. Meanwhile Constance was carried off to the cathedral, where the Patriarch married her to Raymond on the spot. Faced with a fait accompli, her mother knew that she was beaten. She returned disconsolately to Laodicea where she died shortly afterwards.
When the Byzantine siege engines started their bombardment of the walls of Antioch and the Byzantine sappers began tunnelling beneath them, many of those within the city must have reflected that if only Alice had had her way and Constance had married Manuel Comnenus, they would not be in their present predicament. How much better, they must have thought, if their new Prince had remained in England. Raymond of Poitiers probably felt much the same. After scarcely more than a year in the East, what was Antioch to him, or he to Antioch? He had little love for his new principality, which possessed none of the sophistication that he was accustomed to in Europe. He was bored and lonely, and his child wife had nothing to offer a husband almost thirty years her senior. He knew, too, that against the forces of John Comnenus there was no possibility of holding out for long; nor was there the slightest chance of a Crusader army coming to his relief. For a few days he made a show of resistance; then he sent a message to the enemy camp. If he were to recognize the Emperor as his overlord, would John in return allow him to remain as his Imperial Vicar, or Viceroy?
But John Comnenus was in no mood for bargaining. He demanded one thing only: unconditional surrender. To this Raymond replied that he was not empowered to make such an offer without first consulting the King of Jerusalem. Fulk's answer was careful. Zengi was growing stronger every day and was by now posing a serious threat to the survival of the Crusader states; it would have been folly to antagonize the only Christian power capable of holding him in check. Besides, just how far into Syria and Palestine did the Emperor intend to go? If the sacrifice of Antioch would prevent his further advance to the south, should Antioch not be sacrificed? In any event, his reaction was better than Raymond — or John — can have dared to hope:
We are all aware, as we have learnt from our elders before us, that Antioch was part of the Empire of Constantinople until it was taken away by the Turks, who held it for fourteen years, and that the claims made by the Emperor concerning the treaties made by our forebears are correct. Should we then deny the truth and oppose what we know to be right?1
And so Antioch capitulated, and John for his part showed his usual generosity. Raymond must come on foot to his camp and swear allegiance to him, giving him free access to the city and the citadel. He must also undertake that, if the basileus were successful in his coming campaign and were to return to him Aleppo, Shaizar,2 Emessa (Horns) and Hama in perpetual fief, he would surrender to him Antioch in exchange.3 The imperial standard was then hoisted over the city, the Emperor bestowed
1Ordericus Vitalis, XIII, 34.
2In classical times known as Larissa (not to be confused with the city in Thessaly), and today as Saijar: an important fortress on the Orontes, some twenty miles north-west of Hama.
3Chalandon (op. cit., p. 132-3) is wrong when he suggests that the Emperor also insisted, 'sans doute', on the appointment of an Orthodox Patriarch. In March 1138 Pope Innocent II forbade any member of the Western Church to remain with the Byzantine army should John take any action against the Latin authorities in Antioch. See Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Vol. II, p. 218.
rich presents on Raymond and all the local Latin nobility, and some time in the first half of September the victorious army struck camp. It being by now too late in the year to start a major campaign, John decided to complete his unfinished business with the Armenians and set off for the high Taurus, where Leo and his family had entrenched themselves. A few weeks later their resistance was at an end: all the Rubenid princes were safely in imperial hands, and were sent off to prison in Constantinople.
With the Armenians crushed and his position at Antioch assured, the Emperor was free to embark on the next stage of his plan: to join forces with his Crusader vassals against the Arabs of Syria. Towards the end of March 1138 he was back with his army in Antioch, where he and Raymond were joined by a regiment of Knights Templar and an additional force commanded by Joscelin II of Courtenay, Count of Edessa.1 Joscelin, now twenty-four, inspired neither liking nor trust. From his Armenian mother — the sister of Leo, whose three sons had actually sought refuge with him a few months before - he had inherited his unusually dark complexion, the effect of which was not improved by a huge nose and deeply pock-marked face. Devious and deceitful, lazy and lascivious, he was in every way the antithesis of the popular image of a Crusader. To John Comnenus, a soldier to his fingertips, he appeared even less impressive than the Prince of Antioch.
It was thus with two most unsatisfactory allies that the Emperor settled down to plan the coming campaign. His first objective was Aleppo. A month before his departure he ordered the arrest of all merchants and travellers from that city and its neighbourhood, to prevent any word of his preparations reaching the inhabitants; then he set out eastward. He managed to take one or two small castles along the route; but a quick reconnaissance of Aleppo itself, its garrison reinforced in the nick of time by Zengi, showed that it would put up a formidable resistance. Rather than waste time and energy on a long siege, he pressed on to the south until on 28 April he reached Shaizar. In comparison with Aleppo it was a small and commercially unimportant town, the property of an equally insignificant local Emir; but it controlled the valley of the middle Orontes and promised to be invaluable in blocking
1 Joscelin was the son of Joscelin I, who had received the County of Edessa from Baldwin II of Jerusalem as a reward for recommending him for the throne after the death of the childless Baldwin I.
any further advance by Zengi into Syria. The army surrounded it and dug itself in; its eighteen huge mangonels were manoeuvred into position at strategic points along the walls; and the siege began.
All the sources, Christian and Muslim alike, agree on John's energy and courage. Conspicuous in his gilded helmet, he seemed to be everywhere at once, encouraging the faint-hearted, berating the idle, consoling the wounded, instructing the siege engineers, infusing all his soldiers - Greek, Varangian, Pecheneg or Turk - with his own indomitable spirit. If his Latin allies had only proved worthy of him, Shaizar might have been theirs. But neither Raymond of Antioch nor Joscelin of Edessa had stomach for the fight. For Raymond, there was always the danger that if the Emperor made too many conquests he would, by the terms of the recent agreement, exchange them for Antioch; and he dreaded having to move into the front line. Joscelin for his part, who hated Raymond almost as much as he hated the Emperor himself and had no wish to see him extending his territory to the south or east, lost no opportunity of stirring up his suspicions and mistrust. The result was, according to William of Tyre, that the two took virtually no part in the siege and spent most of their time back in the camp, playing endless games of dice.
Meanwhile Zengi was approaching, his army swelled by a strong contingent from the Caliph in Baghdad. Left to himself, John Comnenus could almost certainly have defeated him; but he could not leave his siege engines undefended, nor could he trust the Franks. He was still debating the matter with his sons when a message arrived from the Emir of Shaizar, offering recognition of the Emperor as his overlord, an annual tribute, a large indemnity and presents which included his two most treasured possessions: a table inlaid with precious stones, and a cross set with rubies that had formerly belonged to the Emperor Romanus Diogenes and had been taken from him at Manzikert. Had John succeeded in actually storming the town, he could hardly have asked for more. He accepted the Emir's terms at once. On 21 May he raised the siege and headed back towards Antioch.
On his arrival, he exercised for the first time his rights as its suzerain by making a solemn entry into the city together with his sons, his court and a representative detachment of his army. Received at the gates by the Patriarch, he proceeded on horseback through the decorated streets, while the distinctly surly-looking Prince of Antioch and Count of Edessa escorted him on foot as his grooms. After Mass in the cathedral he passed on to the palace, where he took up his residence. Then, after a few days' rest, he sent for Raymond, Joscelin and the leading Latin barons. The war, he told them, was not ended; Aleppo remained in infidel hands; he could not yet make over to Raymond the territories he had promised him. Future campaigns, however, must be planned in Antioch; furthermore he needed a safe place in which to store his war equipment and his treasure. He must therefore require Raymond, according to the treaty of the previous year, to surrender the citadel forthwith.
Silence followed. Hitherto the Emperor had treated Antioch as an honoured ally; now he was dictating terms as to a conquered enemy. Faced with the prospect of the long-term occupation of their city, the Franks were momentarily speechless. At last Joscelin spoke, requesting time for Raymond and his advisers to consider what they had just heard. Then, slipping out of the palace unobserved, he told his men to go through the streets telling all the Latin population that the Emperor had ordered their immediate expulsion and encouraging them to attack their Greek fellow-citizens. Within the hour the rioting had begun; Joscelin then rode back at full gallop to the palace, where he flung himself breathlessly at John's feet. He had, he claimed, narrowly escaped death at the hands of a furious mob, which had broken down the doors of his house, accused him of betraying the city to the Greeks and threatened to kill him.
After over two months in the company of the Count of Edessa, the Emperor was well aware of the duplicity of his nature; but by this time the tumult outside was clearly audible to those in the palace. He was anxious at all costs to prevent a massacre of Greeks by Latins and vice versa; he was also conscious that his entire army - apart from a few members of his personal guard - was encamped a mile or more away across the Orontes, leaving him dangerously exposed in an increasingly hostile city. In these radically changed circumstances there could clearly be no question of any early resumption of the Syrian campaign. He told Raymond and Joscelin that for the moment he would be satisfied with the renewal of their oaths; he had decided to return to Constantinople. Then he rejoined his army, and a day or two later left for home.
Good news awaited him on his arrival. His brother Isaac and Isaac's son John, who had been intriguing for the past eight years with the Muslim princes, had given themselves up. Whether they had genuinely repented of their past behaviour, or whether the Emperor's recent successes in the East and the consequent increase in his popularity had simply convinced them that their ambitions were doomed to failure, we can only guess; but they received a full pardon - which was a good deal more than they expected or deserved.
The story of John's last campaigns can be quickly told. In 1139 and 1140 he was fully occupied with the son of his old enemy Ghazi, the Danishmend Emir Mohammed. His task was complicated by the fact that Constantine Gabras, Duke of Trebizond, had rebelled against his authority and formed an alliance with the Danishmends. In 1139 all went well: the Emperor marched his army eastwards through Bithynia and Paphlagonia and along the southern coast of the Black Sea, his enemies steadily retreating before him. Before the end of the year the treacherous Duke had made his submission, after which John turned southward against the Danishmend stronghold of Neocaesarea. Here for the first time his good fortune failed him. A natural fortress magnificently defended by Mohammed's garrison, it proved effectively impregnable; the savage and mountainous terrain made communications difficult, and Byzantine casualties were high. For the Emperor, the greatest humiliation of all came when his own nephew and namesake, the son of his brother Isaac who had so recently sought his forgiveness for past disloyalty, defected to the enemy, embracing simultaneously the creed of Islam and the daughter of the Seljuk Sultan Mas'ud.1 Towards the end of 1140 he raised the siege - during which, incidentally, his youngest son Manuel showed great heroism in dealing with a sudden sortie by the defenders2 - and returned to Constantinople, intending to resume operations the following year; by then, however, Mohammed was dead; and the usual squabble between his heirs enabled John to change his plans and concentrate his energies once again on the situation in Syria.
In the three years since his departure, during which Zengi had been fully occupied in his attempt to capture Damascus, the Latin princes could have achieved much. Instead, they had missed every opportunity. Not only had they made no further progress against the Saracens; they had failed even to preserve John's earlier conquests, nearly all of which had been retaken and were back in Muslim hands. This did not imply that a further Syrian expedition would be useless; what it did mean was that no trust could be placed in the rulers of Antioch or Edessa. The
1 Much later, the Ottoman Sultans were to claim descent from this couple.
2 There is some doubt over Manuel's precise age at this time. In Book I of the Epitome of John Cinnamus, it is given as eighteen; in Book III - quoting his mother - as 'barely sixteen'. But mothers have been known to miscalculate, or Irene may even have been recalling an earlier skirmish.
Emperor made his preparations; and in the spring of 1142 he set off, once again with his four sons, on his last journey to the East.
They took the road to Attaleia on the south coast, whose land communications were once again under threat. The first weeks were spent driving back the Turkoman nomads and their Seljuk masters and strengthening the frontier defences where necessary; it was high summer by the time they reached Attaleia - and there tragedy struck. John's eldest son Alexius, the recognized heir to the Empire, fell ill; within a few days he was dead. The Emperor, who had loved him dearly, ordered his second and third sons, Andronicus and Isaac, to escort their brother's body by sea back to Constantinople; and on the voyage Andronicus -infected, presumably, by the same virus — died in his turn. This double blow left John heartbroken; but he pressed on by forced marches through Cilicia and then on yet further east, until in mid-September he arrived unexpectedly at Turbessel - now Tell el-Bashir - the second capital of the county of Edessa where Joscelin, taken by surprise, immediately offered him his little daughter Isabella as hostage. The 25th of the month found him at the immense Templar castle of Baghras, from which he sent a message to Raymond demanding the immediate surrender of the city of Antioch — repeating his earlier promise to compensate him from his future conquests.
This was the moment that Raymond had long dreaded. He was incapable of stirring up an immediate riot as Joscelin had done four years before, his incompetence having made him so unpopular that the majority of his native Christian subjects would have been only too happy to welcome the Emperor in his stead. His one chance was to play for time. He replied with elaborate courtesy that he must consult his vassals, which he immediately did; and the vassals refused. Raymond, they pointed out, ruled only as the husband of the city's heiress. He had no right to dispose of her property, and even if she were to signify her consent it would be invalid without their own, which they would in no circumstances give. Any attempt to surrender Antioch would result in the immediate dethronement of both Raymond and his wife.
When this reply was brought to the Emperor at Baghras, he saw that it meant war. But winter was coming, the army was tired and he decided to postpone the offensive until the spring. He allowed his men a week or two to pillage the Frankish estates in the neighbourhood - just to give Raymond and his friends a taste of what was coming to them - and then returned to Cilicia, where there were still a few Danishmend outposts to be dealt with and where he could spend the winter making proper preparations for a campaign that promised to be the most decisive of his life.
Alas, those preparations were in vain. In March 1143, when all was ready, the Emperor set off on a brief hunting expedition in the Taurus, in the course of which an arrow accidentally wounded him in the hand. The wound seemed slight, and at first he ignored it; but it soon became seriously infected, and septicaemia set in. Before long it was clear to him that he was dying. He had faced death too often in his life to fear it now: quietly competent as ever, he began to make provision for the succession. Of his two surviving sons the elder, Isaac, was still in Constantinople; the younger, Manuel, was at his side. Both had their partisans, to whose arguments he listened with close attention; but the final decision, he reminded them all, was his alone.
On Easter Sunday, 4 April, the dying Emperor received holy communion. Next he gave orders that the doors of his chamber should be opened to all in the camp, and that anyone with a request should be allowed to speak to him freely; he was determined that there should be no unfinished business left behind when he died. The following day -during which the whole camp was flooded by driving rain - the doors were opened again, and he distributed his last presents — including food from the imperial table - to those who had served him most faithfully. Then and only then did he call a council to announce his successor. Both his sons, he said, were fine young men - strong, intelligent, full of spirit. Isaac, however, was prone to anger, while Manuel possessed, with all the qualities of his brother, a singular gentleness which enabled him to listen carefully to advice and follow the dictates of reason. It was therefore Manuel - the youngest of his children - who should succeed him. Turning to his son, who knelt at his bedside, he somehow summoned up the strength first to take the imperial diadem and lower it on to the young man's head, then to drape the purple robe across his shoulders.
The Emperor lived on, growing progressively weaker, for three more days. Then, on 8 April 1143, he sent for a holy monk from Pamphylia to hear his confession and perform the last rites. His death, which followed almost at once, was pious, efficient and well-ordered, just as his life had been; and indeed no Emperor had ever worked harder, or sacrificed himself more consistently, for the good of his Empire. To be sure, he died a disappointed man: had just a few more years of life been granted to him, he would almost certainly have extended Byzantine power deep into Syria - perhaps even into Palestine — and might indeed have gone a long way towards undoing the fearful damage sustained at Manzikert. Dying as he did at only fifty-three, John Comnenus was obliged to leave his work in the East unfinished; yet he could take comfort in the knowledge that the Empire he was passing on to his son Manuel was stronger, more extensive and infinitely more respected than it had been at any time in the seventy-two years since the great defeat. And there was another consolation too: Manuel himself - who would, he was convinced, prove a worthy successor.