Post-classical history

CHAPTER V

CONFUSION IN THE EAST

‘Yea, though they have hired among the nations, now will I gather them, and they shall sorrow a little for the burden of the king of princes.’ HOSEA VIII, 10

The Battle of Manzikert was the most decisive disaster in Byzantine history. The Byzantines themselves had no illusions about it. Again and again their historians refer to that dreadful day. To the later Crusaders it seemed that the Byzantines had forfeited on the battlefield their title as the protectors of Christendom. Manzikert justified the intervention of the West.

The Turks made little immediate use of their victory. Alp Arslan had achieved his object. His flank was now protected; and he had removed the danger of a Byzantine-Fatimid alliance. All that he demanded of the captive Emperor was the evacuation of Armenia and a heavy ransom for his person. He then marched off to campaign in Transoxiana, where he died in 1072. Nor did his son and successor, Malik Shah, whose empire was to stretch from the Mediterranean to the boundaries of China, himself ever march into Asia Minor. But his Turcoman subjects were on the move. He had no wish to settle them in the ancient lands of the Caliphate; but the central plains of Anatolia, emptied and turned into sheep-farms by the Byzantine magnates themselves, were perfectly suited to them. He gave to his cousin, Suleiman ibn Kutulmish, the task of conquering the country for the Turkish people.

The Turks enter Asia Minor

The conquest was made easy by the Byzantines themselves. The next twenty years of their history were spent in a tangle of rebellion and intrigue. When the news reached Constantinople of the disaster and the Emperor’s captivity, his stepson, Michael Ducas, declared himself of age and took over the government. The arrival of his cousin Andronicus with the remnants of the army confirmed his position. Michael VII was an intelligent, cultured youth, who in kindlier times would have been a worthy ruler. But the problems that faced him required a far greater man. Romanus Diogenes returned from his captivity to find himself deposed. He attempted to fight for his position but was easily defeated and taken as a prisoner to Constantinople. There they put out his eyes so savagely that he died a few days later. Michael could not afford to let him live; but Romanus’s powerful relatives and the friends that his gallantry had won him were shocked and angry at the brutality of his end. Their resentment was soon to find its expression in treachery.

The Turkish invasions of Asia Minor began seriously in 1073. They were neither concerted nor uniform. Suleiman himself wished to establish an orderly sultanate that he could govern under the suzerainty of Malik Shah. But there were lesser Turkish princes, men like Danishmend, Chaka or Menguchek, whose aim was to capture some town or fortress from which they could rule as brigand chieftains over whatever population might be there. Behind them, giving the invasion its full force, were the Turcoman nomads, travelling lightly armed, with their horses, their tents and their families, making for the upland prairies. The Christians fled before them, abandoning their villages to be burnt and their flocks and herds to be rounded up by the invaders. The Turcomans avoided the cities, but their presence and the destruction that they caused interrupted communications throughout the country and forced provincial governors into isolation and enabled the Turkish chieftains to follow their own desires. They formed the element that would render impossible any Byzantine attempt at reconquest.

Roussel of Bailleul

The Emperor Michael had tried to oppose the Turkish advance. The prudent treachery of Roussel of Bailleul had enabled his Franco-Norman regiment to survive the disaster at Manzikert. Unreliable though Roussel had proved himself, Michael was obliged to make use of him. To him he attached a small native army, under the young Isaac Comnenus, nephew of the former Emperor. The choice of Isaac was wise. He and his brother Alexius, who accompanied him, belonged to the family that most bitterly hated the Ducas clan; but, despite their mother’s urging, they remained loyal to Michael throughout his reign, and both proved their worth as generals. But Isaac’s loyalty was cancelled out by the perfidy of Roussel. Before the Byzantine army had met the Turks, Roussel and his troops threw off their allegiance. Isaac, attacked both by Turks and Franks and hopelessly outnumbered, was taken prisoner by the Seldjuks.

Roussel now made his intentions clear. Fired by the example of his compatriots in southern Italy, he planned himself to found a Norman state in Anatolia. He had only three thousand men with him; but they were devoted to him and well equipped and trained. Man to man they could outfight any Byzantine or Turkish soldier. To the Emperor, Roussel now seemed a more dangerous enemy than the Turks. Scraping together what troops he could gather, he sent them out under his uncle, the Caesar John Ducas. Roussel met them near Amorium and easily routed them, capturing the Caesar. To clothe himself with a legal excuse he proclaimed his unwilling captive Emperor, and marched on Constantinople. He reached the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus without hindrance, burning the suburb of Chrysopolis (Scutari) and camping amid its ruins. In despair Michael turned to the only power that could help him. An embassy was sent to the Seldjuk Sultan, Suleiman. Suleiman, with the approval of his suzerain, Malik Shah, promised assistance in return for the cession of the east Anatolian provinces that he already occupied. Roussel turned back to meet him; but his troops were surrounded by the Turks on Mount Sophon in Cappadocia. He himself with a few men managed to escape and to set himself up in Amasea, further to the north-east. Michael then sent Alexius Comnenus to deal with him. Alexius managed to outbid him for the support of the principal Turkish chieftain in the neighbourhood and induced him to surrender. But so efficient and popular had his government been that the citizens of Amasea only gave up their attempts to rescue him on the news of his being blinded. In truth Alexius could not bring himself so to mutilate him; and such was his charm that even the Emperor was glad to hear that he had not suffered that indignity.

Roussel disappears from history. But the episode left its mark on the Byzantines. It taught them that the Normans were not to be trusted, that their ambition was not bounded by the shores of southern Italy but they wished to found principalities in the East. It goes far to explain Byzantine policy twenty years later. In the meantime Normans were discouraged from entering the imperial service; and even their Scandinavian cousins were suspect. The Varangian Guard was henceforward recruited from a people that had suffered from the Normans, the Anglo-Saxons of Britain.

Fear of the Normans and the constant need for foreign mercenaries prompted Michael to adopt a policy of appeasement towards the West. The loss of southern Italy was irreparable; nor could he afford to continue the war there. The ambassador that he sent to make peace with the Normans, John Italus, an Italian-born philosopher, was considered by many Byzantines to have betrayed the interests of the Empire. But Michael was satisfied, and, knowing the desire of the upstart house of Hauteville to make grand marriage alliances, he suggested that Guiscard’s daughter, Helen, be sent as a bride for his own infant son Constantine. At the same time he sought and obtained the cordial friendship of the great Pope Gregory VII. His policy preserved peace on his western frontier.

But in Anatolia confusion grew worse. The imperial government lost control; and though a few loyal generals, such as Isaac Comnenus, now in command of Antioch, maintained the Emperor’s authority, communications were interrupted and there was no concerted policy. At last, in 1078, Nicephorus Boteniates, governor of the great Anatolic Theme in west-central Asia Minor, partly from personal ambition and partly from genuine exasperation at the weakness of Michael’s rule, rose up in revolt. But Nicephorus was a general without an army. To secure himself the force that he needed he enrolled large numbers of Turks under his standard and used them to garrison the towns that he took on his way to the capital: Cyzicus, Nicaea, Nicomedia, Chalcedon and Chrysopolis. For the first time, Turkish hordes found themselves inside the great cities of western Anatolia. They might be the mercenaries of the new Emperor; but he would not find it easy to dislodge them. Michael made no resistance. When Nicephorus entered the capital he retired into a monastery. There he found his true vocation. Luckier than most fallen emperors, within a few years he had risen, entirely on his merits, to an archiepiscopal throne. His deserted wife, the Caucasian Maria of Alania, the loveliest princess of her day, wisely offered her hand to the usurper.

The Accession of Alexius Comnenus

Nicephorus found a rebel’s life easier than a ruler’s. Other generals followed his example. In the west of the Balkans Nicephorus Bryennius, the governor of Dyrrhachium, declared himself Emperor and attracted the soldiers of the European provinces to his standard. Alexius Comnenus was sent against him with a small force of untrained Greek soldiers and a few Franks; who, as usual, deserted. It was only through the timely arrival of some Turkish mercenaries that he was able to defeat Bryennius. No sooner was this campaign ended than Alexius had to go to Thessaly to crush another usurper, Basilacius. Meanwhile, the Turkish garrison of Nicaea rose in revolt. Pope Gregory, on the news of the fall of his ally Michael, had excommunicated the new Emperor; and Robert Guiscard, encouraged by the Papacy and himself furious at the rupture of his daughter’s engagement, planned to cross the Adriatic. In May he landed in full force at Avlona and marched on Dyrrhachium. Early that same spring the leading general in Asia, Nicephorus Melissenus, revolted and made an alliance with the Turkish Sultan Suleiman; thanks to which Suleiman was enabled to march unchallenged into Bithynia, where the Turkish garrisons left by Boteniates welcomed him. When Melissenus failed to capture Constantinople Suleiman refused to hand back the cities that he occupied. Instead, he established himself in Nicaea; and Nicaea, one of the most venerated cities of Christendom, situated within a hundred miles of Constantinople itself, became the capital of the Turkish sultanate.

In Constantinople the Emperor Nicephorus threw away his only chance of survival by quarrelling with the family of the Comneni. Isaac and Alexius had served him loyally and had hoped to keep his goodwill by a close friendship with the Empress, whose cousin Isaac had married and whose lover Alexius was thought to be. But she could not control the court intrigues that turned Nicephorus against them. For their own safety the brothers were forced into rebellion; and Alexius, recognized by his family as the abler of the two, proclaimed himself Emperor. Nicephorus fell as easily as the Emperor that he had dislodged. On the advice of the Patriarch he retired, weary and humiliated, to end his days as a monk.

The Emperor Alexius

Alexius Comnenus was to reign for thirty-seven years and was to prove the greatest statesman of his time. But in the year 1081 it seemed certain that neither he nor his Empire could survive. He was a young man, probably not yet thirty years of age, but he had had many years’ experience as a general, usually as a general with inadequate forces, whose success depended on his wits and his diplomacy. His presence was impressive; he was not tall, but well-built, with a dignified air. His manner was gracious and easy, and his self-control was remarkable; but he combined a genuine kindliness with a cynical readiness to use trickery and terror if the interests of his country required. He had few assets beyond his personal qualities and the affection of his troops. His family, with its connections branching through the Byzantine aristocracy, had undoubtedly helped him into power; and he had strengthened his position by marrying a lady of the Ducas house. But the intrigues and jealousies of his relatives, especially the hatred that his domineering mother bore for his wife and all her clan, only added to his problems. The court was filled with members of former imperial families or the families of would-be usurpers, whom Alexius sought to bind to him by marriage alliances. There was the Empress Maria, desperately jealous of the new Empress, Irene; and Maria’s son, Constantine Ducas, whom he made his junior colleague and soon betrothed to his eldest child, Anna; there were the sons of Romanus Diogenes, one of whom he married to his sister Theodora; there was the son of Nicephorus Bryennius, who actually married Anna Comnena after the early death of Constantine Ducas; there was Nicephorus Melissenus, already married to his sister Eudocia, who yielded his claims to the Empire to his brother-in-law in return for the tide of Caesar. Over all of them Alexius had to keep a watchful eye, calming their quarrels and forestalling their treachery. An elaborate system of titles was created to satisfy their pretensions. The nobility and the higher civil service were equally unreliable. Alexius continually discovered conspiracies against his government and was in constant danger of assassination. Both from policy and from temperament he was gentle in his punishments; and this clemency and the calm long-sightedness of all his actions are the more remarkable in view of the personal insecurity in which his whole life was spent.

The state of the Empire in 1081 was such that only a man of great courage or of great stupidity would have undertaken its government. There was no money in the treasury. Recent Emperors had been spendthrift; the loss of Anatolia and rebellions in Europe had sadly diminished the revenue; the old system of tax-collection had broken down. Alexius was no financier; his methods would have left a modem economist aghast. Yet somehow, by taxing his subjects to their utmost limits, by exacting forced loans and confiscating property from the magnates and the Church, by punishing with fines rather than imprisonment, by selling privileges and by developing the palace industries, he managed to pay for a large administrative organization and to rebuild the army and the navy, and at the same time to maintain a sumptuous court and to make lavish gifts to loyal subjects and visiting envoys and princes. For he realized that in the East prestige depends entirely on splendour and magnificence. Niggardliness is the one unforgiven sin. But Alexius was guilty of two great errors. In return for immediate aid he gave commercial advantages to foreign merchants, to the detriment of his own subjects; and at one crucial moment he debased the imperial coinage, the coinage that for seven centuries had provided the only stable currency in a chaotic world.

In foreign affairs the situation was even more desperate — if ‘foreign’ was still an applicable epithet; for on all sides enemies had penetrated far into the Empire. In Europe the Emperor maintained a precarious hold over the Balkan peninsula; but the Slavs of Serbia and Dalmatia had risen in revolt. The Turkish tribe of Petchenegs, roaming beyond the Danube, continually crossed the river to raid. And in the West Robert Guiscard and the Normans had captured Avlona and were besieging Dyrrhachium. In Asia little was left to Byzantium except the Black Sea coasts, a few isolated cities on the south coast and the great fortified metropolis of Antioch; but communications with these further cities were uncertain and rare. Several cities in the interior were still in Christian hands; but their rulers were entirely cut off from the central government. The bulk of the country was in the hands of the Seldjuk Sultan Suleiman, who ruled from Nicaea domains stretching from the Bosphorus to the Syrian frontier; but his state had no organized administration and no fixed frontiers. Other cities were in the power of pettier Turkish princes, some of them acknowledging the suzerainty of Suleiman, but most of them admitting no master but Malik Shah. Of these the most important were the house of Danishmend, now in possession of Caesarea, Sebastea and Amasea; Menguchek, the lord of Erzindjan and Colonea; and, most dangerous of all, the adventurer Chaka who had captured Smyrna and the Aegean littoral. The Turkish chieftains had established some sort of order round their main cities; but the countryside was still overrun by nomad Turcoman hordes, while bodies of Greek and Armenian refugees added to the confusion. Large numbers of Christians adopted Islam and were gradually merged into the Turkish race. A few Greek communities lingered on in mountain districts; and the Christian Turks, settled some centuries before round Caesarea in Cappadocia, retained their identity and their religion right down to modem times. But the majority of the Greek population made its way as best it could to the shores of the Black Sea and the Aegean.

The Armenians in the Taurus

The migration of the Armenians was more deliberate and orderly. The various Armenian princes dispossessed by the Byzantines had been given estates in Cappadocia, especially in the south, towards the Taurus mountains. Many of their retainers had accompanied them; and when the Seldjuk invasions began in earnest a continual stream of Armenians left their homes to join these new colonies, till almost half of the population of Armenia was on the move south-westward. The Turkish penetration of Cappadocia drove them further into the Taurus mountains and the Anti-Taurus; and they spread out into the valley of the middle Euphrates, to which the Turks had not yet come. The districts that they had abandoned were soon filled not by Turks but by Moslem Kurds from the hills of Assyria and north-west Iran. The last Armenian prince of the old Bagratid dynasty, a dynasty that proudly claimed descent from David and Bathsheba, was killed by Byzantine orders in 1079, after his own peculiarly atrocious murder of the Archbishop of Caesarea; whereupon one of his relatives, by name Roupen, rebelled from the Empire and set himself up in the hills of north-west Cilicia. About the same time another Armenian chieftain, Oshin, son of Hethoum, founded a similar lordship a little further to the west. Both the Roupenian and the Hethoumian dynasties had parts to play in later history; but at the time Roupen and Oshin were outshone by the Armenian Vahram, whom the Greeks called Philaretus.

Philaretus had been in Byzantine service and had been appointed by Romanus Diogenes to the governorship of Germanicia (Marash). When Romanus fell he refused to recognize Michael Ducas and declared himself independent. During the chaos of Michael’s reign he conquered the chief cities of Cilicia, Tarsus, Mamistra and Anazarbus. In 1077 one of his lieutenants, after a siege of six months, took Edessa from the Byzantines. In 1078 the citizens of Antioch, whose governor, the successor to Isaac Comnenus, had just been assassinated, begged Philaretus to take over the city to save it from the Turks. His dominion now stretched from Tarsus to the lands beyond the Euphrates; and both Roupen and Oshin became his vassals. But he felt insecure. Unlike most of his contemporaries he was Orthodox, and he did not wish to separate himself entirely from the Empire. On Michael’s abdication he announced his allegiance to Nicephorus Boteniates, who left him as governor of the lands that he had conquered. He apparently recognized Alexius also; but he took the additional precaution of paying some sort of homage to the Arab lords of Aleppo.

The Seldjuk Conquest of Syria

Alexius on his accession was obliged to decide against which of his enemies it was necessary first to campaign. Calculating that the Turks could only be driven back by a long sustained effort for which he was not yet ready and that in the meantime they were likely to quarrel amongst themselves, he considered it more urgent to defeat the Norman attack. It took longer than he had thought. In the summer of 1081 Robert Guiscard, accompanied by his Amazon wife, Sigelgaita of Salerno, and by his eldest son, Bohemond, laid siege to Dyrrhachium. In October Alexius, with an army whose chief regiment was the Anglo-Saxon Varangian Guard, went to relieve the fortress. But there, as at Hastings, fifteen years before, the Anglo-Saxons were no match for the Normans. Alexius was decisively beaten. Dyrrhachium held out over the winter but fell in February 1082, enabling Robert in the spring to march along the great main road, the Via Egnatia, towards Constantinople. Italian affairs soon obliged him to return home; but he left his army under Bohemond to secure Macedonia and Greece. Bohemond twice defeated Alexius, who was obliged to borrow men from the Turks and ships from the Venetians. While the latter interrupted Norman communications, the former enabled the Emperor to deliver Thessaly. Bohemond retired to Italy in 1083 but returned with his father next year, destroying the Venetian fleet off Corfu. The war only ended when Robert died in Cephalonia in 1085, and his sons quarrelled over his inheritance.

The authority of the Emperor was at last established over the European provinces; but during those four years the eastern provinces were lost. Philaretus fatally involved himself in Turkish intrigues. Early in 1085 Antioch was betrayed by his son to the Sultan Suleiman, together with his Cilician cities. Edessa fell in 1087 to a Turkish chieftain, Buzan, but was recaptured later in 1094 by an Armenian, Thoros, who had been a vassal of Malik Shah and was at first kept in order by a Turkish garrison in the citadel. Melitene meanwhile was occupied by another Armenian, his father-in-law, Gabriel, who, like Thoros, belonged to the Orthodox rite. Quarrels between the Orthodox and the Jacobite and Armenian Churches increased the disorder throughout northern Syria. To the latter the decline of Byzantine power was a matter for rejoicing. They preferred the rule of the Turk.

In southern Syria Seldjuk domination was now complete. Ever since Tughril Bey had entered Baghdad in 1055 the Syrian possession of the Fatimites had been threatened; and growing alarm and suspense there had resulted in disorder and petty rebellions. When in 1056 the Byzantine frontier officials at Lattakieh had refused to allow the pilgrim Bishop of Cambrai to proceed southward, their motive was not, as the westerners suspected, just to be unpleasant to a Latin (though there was probably a ban on Norman pilgrims); they were informed that Syria was unsafe for Christian travellers. The experience of the German bishops who eight years later insisted on crossing the frontier against local advice shows that the Byzantine officials were justified.

In 1071, the year of Manzikert and the fall of Bari, a Turkish adventurer, Atsiz ibn Abaq, nominally vassal to Alp Arslan, captured Jerusalem without a struggle and soon occupied all Palestine down to the frontier fortress of Ascalon. In 1075 he took possession of Damascus and the Damascene. In 1076 the Fatimids recovered Jerusalem, from which Atsiz drove them again after a siege of several months and a massacre of the Moslem inhabitants. Only the Christians, safe within their walled quarter, were spared. Despite this, the Fatimids were soon able to attack Atsiz at Damascus; and he was obliged to call in the help of the Seldjuk prince, Tutush, the brother of Malik Shah, who was trying, with his brother’s approval, to build himself a sultanate in Syria. In 1079 Tutush had Atsiz murdered and became sole ruler of a state stretching from Aleppo, which remained still under its Arab dynasty, to the borders of Egypt. Tutush, and his lieutenant Ortoq, governor of Jerusalem, seem to have provided an orderly government. There was no special animosity shown against the Christians, though the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem seems to have spent much of his time in Constantinople, where his colleague from Antioch now took up residence.

The Danishmends and Chaka

In 1085 the Emperor Alexius, freed from the Norman danger, turned his attention to the Turkish problem. Hitherto it had only been by unceasing intrigues, setting one Turkish prince against another, that he had been able to keep any check on them. Now, combining his diplomacy with a show of arms, he secured a treaty that restored to the Empire Nicomedia and the Anatolian shores of the Marmora. Next year his patience was rewarded still further. Suleiman ibn-Kutulmish, having taken Antioch, marched on Aleppo, whose Arab ruler called on Tutush to rescue him. In a battle fought outside the city, Tutush was victorious and Suleiman was slain.

The death of Suleiman brought chaos to the Turks in Anatolia; and Alexius was in his element, plotting with one chieftain against another, playing on their mutual jealousies, offering each in turn bribes and hints of a marriage alliance. Nicaea was held for six years by the Turkish rebel, Abu’l Kasim; but in 1092 Malik Shah was able to replace him by the son of Suleiman, Kilij Arslan I. Meanwhile Alexius had been able to consolidate his position. It was not easy. The only territory that he could recover was the town of Cyzicus; and he could not prevent the Danishmends from extending their dominion westward and taking his own family home, Kastamuni, in Paphlagonia. Palace conspiracies hampered him; and in 1087 he had to meet a serious invasion from over the Danube, led by the Petchenegs with Hungarian help. It was not till 1091 that his diplomacy, aided by one tremendous victory, permanently freed him from the threat of barbarian inroads from the north.

More alarming still was Chaka, the Turkish Emir of Smyrna. Chaka, more ambitious than most of his compatriots, aimed at succeeding to the Empire. He employed Greeks rather than Turks, for he realized the need for sea-power; but at the same time he attempted to organize the Turkish princes into an alliance and married his daughter to the young Kilij Arslan. Between 1080 and 1090 he made himself master of the Aegean coast and the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Rhodes. Alexius, one of whose first cares had been to recreate the Byzantine fleet, managed at last to defeat him on the sea at the entrance to the Marmora; but the menace remained till in 1092 Chaka was murdered by his son-in-law, Kilij Arslan, at a banquet at Nicaea. The murder was the result of the Emperor’s advice to the Sultan, who feared to see another Turk grow greater than himself.

With Suleiman and Chaka dead, Alexius could contemplate a more aggressive policy. He himself was now secure in Constantinople; and the European provinces were quiet. His fleet was efficient; his treasury was temporarily full. But his army was very small. He had few native troops on which to draw, with Anatolia lost to him. His need was for trained foreign mercenaries.

Certainly, by about the year 1095, it seemed that the Seldjuk power was at last declining. Malik Shah, who had kept some control over the whole Turkish empire, died in 1092; and his death was followed by civil war between his young sons. For the next ten years, till they could agree to a division of their inheritance, the main attention of the Turks was given to this struggle. Meanwhile Arab and Kurdish chieftains arose in Iraq. In Syria, where Tutush died in 1095, his sons, Ridwan of Aleppo and Duqaq of Damascus, proved themselves incapable of keeping order. Jerusalem passed to the sons of Ortoq. Their government was ineffectual and oppressive. The Orthodox Patriarch Symeon and his higher clergy retired to Cyprus. At Tripoli a Shiite clan, the Banu ‘Ammar, set up a principality. The Fatimids began to reconquer southern Palestine. In the north a Turkish general, Kerbogha, Atabeg of Mosul under the Abbasid Caliph, gradually encroached upon Ridwan’s territory of Aleppo. To the travellers of the time it seemed that every city had a different master.

The Difficulties of the Pilgrims

It is remarkable that there were still travellers, not only Moslems but also Christian pilgrims from the West. The pilgrim traffic had never entirely ceased, but the journey was now very difficult. In Jerusalem, till Ortoq’s death, the life of the Christians seems to have been very little affected; and Palestine, except when Turks and Egyptians were actually engaged in fighting there, was usually quiet. But Anatolia could now be traversed only if the voyager took an armed escort; and even so the way was full of danger, and wars or hostile authorities often held him up. Syria was little better. Everywhere there were brigands on the roads; and at each small town the local lord tried to levy a tax on passers-by. The pilgrims that succeeded in overcoming all the difficulties returned to the West weary and impoverished, with a dreadful tale to tell.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!