Post-classical history

Chapter Nineteen


Foreign Relations

Between 1157 and 1168, the emperor of Byzantium expands his borders and inadvertently sets Serbia free

IN 1157, the Great Seljuk of the Turks died, broken.

Ahmed Sanjar had begun his reign as supreme Turkish sultan with a huge realm under his hands, the largest a Muslim ruler had held since the days of the old Abbasid caliphate.* By the end of his life, he had lost the Ghurids, who were busy plundering the eastern reaches of the lands he had once ruled; he had been driven out of his lands Transoxania (east of the Oxus river) by nomadic Chinese tribes called the Western Liao; Nur ad-Din, theoretically owing him allegiance, was doing as he pleased in the Mediterranean lands. At the very end of his life, Sanjar had tried to put down a native revolt in Khorasan itself and had failed so badly that the rebels had actually taken him captive and pillaged his capital city of Merv. His greatest achievement had been to build himself a gorgeous mausoleum in the city of Merv, where he was now laid to rest.1

He was the last Great Seljuk. No one else even tried to claim that the Turkish lands were a unity. Khorasan became a no-man’s-land, and from the Oxus to the Mediterranean shore, each Turkish sultan looked out for his own interests.2

This changed the landscape for the Byzantine emperor. The First Crusade had been sparked by Constantinople’s fear of a united Turkish front. Now Manuel I was looking at a fractured landscape filled with separate powers.

Almost all of them were threats; and the most dangerous enemies were no longer Turkish.

At its height under the emperor Justinian, six hundred years earlier, Byzantium had stretched from the tip of the Spanish peninsula, across North Africa and Egypt, up the Mediterranean coast, across Asia Minor, Greece, and all of Italy. Since Justinian, it had been shrinking. At his coronation in 1143, Manuel had been crowned emperor over Greece, half of Asia Minor, and the western and southern coasts of the Black Sea. And this was an improvement; his grandfather Alexius had inherited an empire that included little more than Greece, and only ceaseless campaigning by Alexius and his son John had recovered the lands that Manuel now ruled.

In the first decade and a half of his reign, Manuel had not managed to improve his position much. He had attacked the Sultan of Rum, who lay just east of his Asia Minor lands, but had taken no land away; he had forced the princes of Antioch and Jerusalem to swear allegiance to him, but he did not control their kingdoms. And in 1156, his yearlong campaign to take southern Italy (the “Dukedom of Apulia and Calabria”) away from the Normans had ended in complete embarrassment. His general John Ducas, attempting to force the surrender of the coastal city of Brindisi, had been trapped by the Norman navy and captured, along with what remained of the Byzantine fleet.

Encouraged by the Byzantine defeat in Italy, the Prince of Antioch decided to try his own fortunes against the bruised Byzantine troops. After the troublesome Raymond of Antioch had been decapitated by Nur ad-Din, the rule of Antioch had passed to his young wife, Constance, granddaughter of the original Prince of Antioch, Bohemund the rogue. Now the mother of four, Constance was still only twenty-one years old. She held the rule of Antioch by blood right, but her cousin the king of Jerusalem, the Patriarch of Antioch (the senior clergyman in the city), and her overlord Manuel himself all insisted that she marry and proposed useful (and pliable) prospects.

Constance rejected them all and instead married the French crusader Raynald of Chatillon, a young opportunist only two years her senior who had lingered in the east after the disastrous end of the Second Crusade. It was probably the first adult choice she’d ever had the opportunity of making, and it turned out to be a poor one. Raynald, handsome and dashing, was also reckless, spoiled, and a very bad judge of a fight. He decided to free Antioch from Manuel’s control, and proposed to start by attacking the island of Cyprus, a peaceful and well-to-do Byzantine possession.3

To prepare for the fight, he first ordered the Patriarch of Antioch, a wealthy and worldly Frankish nobleman named Aimery of Limoges, to lend him the necessary funds. Aimery, who hadn’t approved of the marriage in the first place, refused; so Raynald had his henchmen waylay the patriarch and beat him up. Then, says William of Tyre, Raynald “forced the aged priest . . . although an almost helpless invalid, to sit in the blazing sun throughout a summer’s day, his bare head smeared with honey.” After a few hours on top of the Antioch citadel, battling the insects, the patriarch handed over the funds.4

This childish exercise in power was followed by a much more serious action: Reynald approached one of Manuel’s bitterest enemies and proposed an alliance.

This was Thoros II, the exiled prince of Cilician Armenia. His kingdom had been overrun by Manuel’s father twenty years earlier, and Thoros II, probably still in his teens, had been taken to Constantinople in chains along with his father the king and his older brother. Both had died in captivity; only Thoros had survived, escaping from his prison in 1142 by some unknown means and returning to his occupied country. He had been fighting a desperate guerrilla war ever since, with its high point in 1152 when he managed to kill the local Byzantine governor.

At Raynald’s suggestion, the two men joined together into an anti-Byzantine assault force; with the patriarch’s money, they sacked a few outposts and then headed for the island of Cyprus. Cyprus, unaccustomed to war, had only a small garrison, headed up by the Emperor Manuel’s own nephew. The combined Antiochene-Armenian troops overwhelmed the garrison and, given free reign by their commanders, proceeded to murder and sack their way through the island. Crops burned, herds were stolen; the old and young who fell in their way were viciously slaughtered, the women raped. Gregory the Priest writes that Raynald, in a gesture of mockery, had the noses of the priests cut off, and sent them back to Constantinople to present themselves to the emperor.5

Manuel was furious. The Normans had been a strong foe; Raynald was merely an annoyance to be swatted. In person, Manuel led a massive Byzantine army across into Cilicia and rapidly retook the land Thoros had claimed; Thoros escaped to a ruined castle deep in the mountains just in time.

Raynald was not so lucky. When he got news of the size of the approaching army, he realized that he would never be able to fight it off; his only hope lay in humility. He put on sackcloth and went to Manuel’s camp barefoot. There he threw himself in the dust in front of the emperor and begged for pardon. “He cried for mercy,” notes William of Tyre, with distaste, “and he cried so long that everyone had nausea of it.” Manuel let him weep for some time before deigning to notice that he was even present. Finally, he agreed to forgive Raynald, on condition that the Prince of Antioch surrender the citadel of Antioch to imperial control and house a detachment of the Byzantine army in his city indefinitely.6

Raynald had no choice but to agree. In 1159, Manuel entered Antioch as a conqueror, wearing the imperial diadem and his purple robe (with mail beneath it), surrounded by courtiers, guards, and attendants. The emperor’s flags were flown from Antioch’s walls, and Raynald himself was forced to walk on foot, bareheaded, beside the emperor’s stirrup. After sixty years of hostility, Antioch was finally in imperial hands.7

Raynald himself did not trouble Manuel again. A year later, he took a band of his men on a livestock-stealing foray across the countryside. Near Edessa, as they were driving a slow and unwieldy herd of stolen horses, cattle, and camels, he was caught and imprisoned by the governor of Aleppo, Nur ad-Din’s younger brother. No one offered to pay a ransom for Raynald, and he spent the next sixteen years in an Aleppo prison.

His wife Constance took up the rule of Antioch, and the year after Raynald’s capture she achieved the greatest advance in Antiochene politics yet; she made a match between her daughter Mary, child of her dead husband, Raymond, and the widowed emperor himself. The forty-three-year-old Manuel and the sixteen-year-old Mary (“fair in face,” says the historian Nicetas Choniates, “and of incomparable beauty”) were married on Christmas Eve, 1161.8

IN THE REMAINING YEARS of his reign, Manuel struggled more with the west than with the east, more with his Christian neighbors than with the Turks. To his north lay the kingdom of Hungary, and to his west the territories of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, all of them contested lands, all of them teetering uneasily between alliance and hostility.

Hungary, settled by an alliance of Magyar tribes at the end of the ninth century, had by the end of the tenth reached a stable and Christianized existence under a Church-recognized king; Croatia, part of the old Roman province of Illyricum, had been claimed as an independent realm by a younger branch of the royal Hungarian family. In 1102, King Colomon of Hungary had drawn it under his authority by crowning himself both king of Hungary and rex Croatiae. This “personal union” didn’t merge the two countries into one. Instead, the Croatians continued to live by their own laws, speak their own language, and serve in their own army, with loyalty to the same sovereign serving as the sole point of unity between themselves and the Hungarians.9

The rest of old Illyricum was divided into Dalmatia, an ancient coastal region that had once spoken its own language and by now had been folded into Croatia, with the king of Croatia as its protector and ruler; Bosnia, settled by another wave of Slavic tribes, but under Hungarian control since 1137; and Serbia. The Serbs, sharing a language and an old tribal identity, were divided into two territories under two families of princes who sometimes cooperated with each other, but were more often at odds. The Prince of Duklja, the coastal land, was a Byzantine vassal; Raska, the inland territory, was also more or less under Byzantine control, since Manuel had sent soldiers to help a younger brother push an elder off the throne.


19.1 The World of Manuel I

In 1161, the powerful and elderly Hungarian king Géza II died. His young and inexperienced heir was Stephen III, only fifteen when he inherited his father’s crown. Manuel I, who had long hoped for a chance to reduce Hungarian power, chose to weaken his northern neighbor by meddling in the succession. He sent weapons and money to Stephen’s two uncles, both of whom mounted challenges for the throne; and in 1164 a Byzantine army crossed the Danube in support of Stephen’s younger brother Béla.

Stephen fought back. The Byzantine-inspired civil strife dragged on until 1167, when a Byzantine army—reinforced by Turkish mercenaries and strengthened by the emperor’s personal soldiers, the Varangian Guard—met a massed Hungarian force at Semlin. Despite a letter from the emperor ordering him to delay because the astrological signs were unfavorable, the Byzantine general Andronicus led the attack and won a staggering victory. Stephen III kept his throne but was forced to accept a peace that handed over control of Croatia, Dalmatia, and eventually Bosnia to Byzantium, which was exactly what Manuel had intended.10

But Manuel’s triumph had a sting in the tail. The resentful Hungarians sent troops into Serbia to help out a budding independence movement there; it was led by the Raskan prince Stefan Nemanja, the brother of the Byzantine-supported ruler of Raska. With Hungarian help, Stefan Nemanja deposed his brother and declared himself Grand Prince of all Serbia.

Sometime late in 1168, Manuel sent an army to drive the upstart out, but Nemanja’s army met the Byzantine troops in the north of Serbia, near the Sitnica river. In the fighting that followed, Nemanja’s brother drowned in the Sitnica. But the Serbs managed to drive the Byzantines back; the Byzantine army retreated without victory, forced to give up control of the Serbian lands.

Stefan Nemanja now ruled a newly independent Serbia. His dynasty, the Nemanjić, would remain on the Serbian throne for two centuries. Manuel’s landgrab had extended the Byzantine borders; but it had also, unintentionally, set Serbia free.11


*The “Abbasid caliphate” was established in AD 750 by Abu al-Abbas, a caliph from the clan of the Prophet himself who was elected in opposition to the reigning caliph, Marwan II. Marwan II belonged to the Arab clan of the Banu Umayya, the clan of Muhammad’s companion Uthman. After his election, Abu al-Abbas had managed to wipe out most of the surviving Umayyad clan members, bringing an end to the era of the “Umayyad caliphates” which had ruled since the Prophet’s death, and introducing the Abbasid caliphate in its place. (See Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 363–370.) The Fatimid caliph who controlled Egypt and Jerusalem and the Abbasid caliph who still ruled in Baghdad were enemies of each other (as well as enemies of Byzantium and the Crusader kingdoms).

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