Post-classical history

Alexios I Komnenos (d. 1118)

Byzantine emperor (1081-1118) and ally of the earliest crusaders.

Alexios was born around 1057, the third son of the nobleman John Komnenos and his wife, Anna Dalassene. He served as a general under the emperors Michael VII Doukas (1071-1078) and Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078-1081) before rebelling in 1081 and seizing the throne with the aid of the Doukas family (he had married Irene Doukaina in 1078). Alexios developed a system of “family government” that concentrated power in the hands of the great aristocratic families related to him and rewarded them for their support; the Doukas, Palaiologos, and Melissenos kinship groups received high posts and titles in the imperial government and were allocated the revenues of the regions they governed.

The first ten years of Alexios’s reign were characterized by serious military threats. In 1081-1083 the western Balkans were attacked by Normans from southern Italy under the leadership of Robert Guiscard and his son, Bohe- mund. After a series of defeats, Alexios was able to recapture Dyrrachion (mod. Durrës, Albania) and Kastoria and secure control of northern and central Greece. He enlisted the help of the Venetian navy to attack the Normans in the Adriatic, in return granting Venice considerable trading privileges in all parts of the empire (except the ports of the Black Sea, Crete, and Cyprus) as well as a trading wharf in Constantinople (c. 1082). In the northern Balkans, the attacks of the nomadic steppe peoples were finally halted by Alexios’s victory over the Pechenegs at the battle of Mount Lebounion (1091) and his defeat of the Cumans in 1094. In Asia Minor, the situation was even more serious. By 1084, Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey), Edessa (mod. Şanlıurfa, Turkey), and Melitene (mod. Malatya, Turkey) had all been lost to the Turks. In 1081, Alexios had made peace with Süleyman, the Saljûq sultan of Rûm, but the Aegean islands were subject to naval attack from Chaka, the emir of Smyrna (mod. Izmir, Turkey), who had even attempted to ally with the Pechenegs.

Alexios’s control of the empire was by no means assured; in 1091, John the Oxite, patriarch of Antioch, criticized the emperor for his harsh taxation and for favoring his relatives rather than more able men, and blamed him for the parlous state of the empire. A debased coinage, not reformed by Alexios until the end of his reign, meant that the imperial administration was being deprived of much of its true monetary revenues, while much income was spent on hiring mercenaries. Turks helped fight the Normans and, in 1089, 500 Flemish knights arrived to fight for the emperor, sent as a result of an oath of loyalty to Alexios taken by Robert I, count of Flanders, on his way home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

By 1095 warfare among the different Saljûq rulers had weakened their power in Asia Minor, and Alexios, now familiar with the valuable fighting power of Western knights, sent emissaries to the Council of Piacenza to ask the pope and Western leaders for help in his projected campaigns against the Turks. Particular mention was probably made of the fate of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, now in Muslim hands.

Alexios’s treatment of the forces of the First Crusade (1096-1099), though much criticized by contemporary Western sources, was consistent with his aim of making the best use of skilled Western knights in his projected reconquest of Byzantine lands in Asia Minor. Thus he exacted oaths of loyalty from the Western leaders; even Raymond of Saint-Gilles, initially reluctant to take an oath, eventually swore to respect the life and honor of the emperor. Alexios provided the leaders with money, food, and military support, and his close adviser, Tatikios, was deputed to accompany the crusaders. Alexios’s policy was initially rewarded by the recapture of Nicaea (mod. Iznik, Turkey) in May 1097, although Westerners were critical that the city passed directly into imperial hands, despite the fact this was in accordance with the agreements made in Constantinople that all reconquered lands should revert to the empire.

However, it was Alexios’s actions at the time of the siege of Antioch (1097-1098) that ultimately served to blacken his reputation with the crusaders. In February 1098 Tatikios abandoned the siege in order to fetch reinforcements. Alex- ios set out from Constantinople with these, but at Philome- lion (mod. Akflehir, Turkey) in the summer of 1098 he was informed by crusaders who had abandoned the city that Antioch could not hold out against an expected Muslim counterattack. The emperor therefore retreated to Constantinople, but as a consequence of his perceived betrayal of his “vassals,” Bohemund refused to hand the city over to the Byzantines, even though he was formally asked to do so in March 1099. By the Treaty of Devol (1108), Alexios later compelled Bohemund to agree that Antioch should revert to imperial control after his death; in fact it never did. Thus one of Alexios’s major aims remained unachieved.

Although Alexios supported the Crusade of 1101 with money and men, its ultimate failure was blamed on “Greek treachery” by Westerners, and the emperor’s image in the West remained that of a man who could not keep his word. By the time of his death (15 August 1118), however, Alexios had succeeded in reconquering parts of western Asia Minor and had been accepted as overlord by some Saljûqgroups. Alexios’s internal government was marked by its suppression of dissent in both political and religious spheres. Accusations of heresy were made against those, like John Italos, who too openly admired the work of secular ancient philosophers; dualists such as the Bogomils were hunted down. Alexios further emphasized his personal orthodoxy by visiting holy men such as St. Cyril of Philea and by carrying out philanthropic works, such as founding an orphanage in Constantinople. His reign is described in a eulogistic history, the Alexiad, written by his daughter, Anna Komnene, who portrays her father as a Homeric hero overcoming all odds. Other Byzantine historians, such as John Zonaras, bitterly criticized his autocratic tendencies and his family’s ruthless pursuit of power.

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