Post-classical history

Chapter Twenty


The Venetian Problem

Between 1171 and 1185, Manuel I falls out with Venice and lights a fuse in Constantinople

NOW THAT HE CONTROLLED Croatia and Bosnia, Manuel had become a neighbor to the maritime republic of Venice.

Venice: the wealthiest of the Italian sea-trading cities, queen of the trade routes, and wary of any threat to her dominance. Until this point, Manuel and the Venetians had been on friendly but fragile terms. The Venetians traded tax-free in some parts of the empire and had their own quarter in Constantinople, and in exchange had sent ships to help out with Manuel’s doomed invasion of southern Italy.

Venice’s goal wasn’t friendship with Byzantium. Instead, the Venetians wanted to keep the competing rulers in Italy in balance, so that no one would gain enough strength to dominate Venice. The Norman kingdom of southern Italy (the “Dukedom of Apulia and Calabria”) had been joined to the Norman kingdom of Sicily around 1130, when a single Norman count had inherited both titles, and the entire realm was now ruled by the young Norman nobleman William the Good. As long as Frederick Barbarossa and William the Good were both struggling for control in Italy, Manuel’s presence would help prevent either from taking over.

But as Manuel approached along the coast, the balance of power seemed to be tilting his way. To restore the useful tension that kept them independent, the Venetians now offered to make a treaty with Hungary, and the Doge of Venice—the chief magistrate and prince of the city—offered to ratify it by marrying both of his sons to Hungarian princesses. When Hungary had controlled the land next door, the Hungarian king had been their enemy; now he was a useful counterweight.1

Manuel, stung, retaliated by doing a balancing act of his own. He granted both the Pisans and the Genoans, Venice’s rivals, more trading privileges and enlarged quarters within Constantinople itself.


20.1 Byzantium and Venice

At this, the whole scale fell over. An enraged mob of Venetian expats attacked and sacked the new Genoese quarter, tearing off roofs, knocking over walls, and leaving it uninhabitable. Manuel sent a sharp message to the Doge, Vitale Michiel, demanding that Venice both rebuild the quarter and pay damages to Genoa. The Doge refused, blaming the destruction on the citizens of Constantinople. Manuel had anticipated the refusal; he had already sent secret messages all across Byzantium, ordering his officials to arrest every Venetian citizen on Byzantine soil at one time. The date set was March 12, 1171.

On that morning, the emperor’s decree was carried out. Men, women, and children were taken into custody and imprisoned; all of their property—houses, shops, ships, land—was confiscated. In Constantinople, the Venetian captives very soon filled up the prisons, and monasteries were pressed into service.2

This gave Manuel over ten thousand hostages to hold against future Venetian aggression. But Doge Vitale Michiel, apoplectic with fury, declared war anyway. The Venetians spent four months building a special war fleet to retaliate, and then set sail for Byzantine territory. The first city they came to was Chalcis, the largest city on the Greek island of Euboea. They laid siege to the city; the Byzantine governor there, alarmed by the size of the fleet and unwilling to act as a sacrifice to the quarrel, offered to play mediator with Manuel if the Venetians would lift the siege.3

Mindful of all those hostages, the Doge—who was leading the fleet in person—agreed. He chose two of his men to accompany the Byzantine officials to Manuel’s court, and the Venetians removed themselves to the island of Chios, where they settled in and waited for the negotiations to proceed.

Even though he was feeding all of his Venetian prisoners at his own expense, Manuel decided to play the waiting game himself. When the ambassadors from Venice arrived, he explained that he couldn’t see them yet, but that another embassy would certainly receive his full attention. The ambassadors went back to Chios, then back to Constantinople again. All of the back-and-forthing took time; and although this could have backfired on Manuel, luck was on his side. The Venetian camp at Chios was struck with plague; one contemporary report says that more than a thousand people died in the first few days of sickness.

Manuel continued to stall, the Venetians continued to die, and finally Vitale Michiel surrendered to the inevitable. He loaded the survivors onto his ships and staggered home. According to Manuel’s private secretary John Cinnamus, the emperor sent a blistering letter after him. “Your nation,” it began, “has for a long time behaved with great stupidity”:

Once you were vagabonds sunk in abject poverty. Then you sidled into the Roman Empire. You have treated it with the utmost disdain. . . . Now, legitimately condemned and justly expelled from the empire, you have in your insolence declared war on it—you who were once a people not even worthy to be named, you who owe what prestige you have to the Romans; and . . . you have made yourself a general laughing-stock. For no one, not even the greatest powers on earth, makes war on the Romans with impunity.4

This certainly proved true for Vitale Michiel; when he arrived in Venice, his angry subjects assassinated him for his failure.

Manuel had triumphed in this round. Venice was humiliated, and Stefan Nemanja, the Grand Prince of Serbia, had lost his strongest ally. Manuel marched into Serbia, invaded the capital, and forced Nemanja to swear himself back into vassalhood. Hungary he left alone; he now controlled the coastal territories and had no need to push the issue further.

Manuel still did have a problem: all of those expensive-to-feed Venetian captives in his jails and monasteries. He solved the dilemma by ignoring it. Over the next few years, while he carried on tricky and unsuccessful negotiations with Venice, the Venetian captives seeped out of their prisons a few at a time and limped back home.

MANUEL DIED IN 1180, after thirty-seven years on the throne of Constantinople. He had increased the empire’s power, but ruined its alliances; Byzantium had very few friends left in the west.

His death was followed by five years of violent chaos that damaged the empire still further. His young wife Mary of Antioch had finally given him a son and heir, but Alexius II was still only eleven, and Mary was his regent.

Within the year, Mary had made herself vastly unpopular. As a westerner herself, she was inclined to grant too much favor to the Italian merchants in Constantinople and too little to the citizens of the empire itself. She took as her chief advisor another unpopular official, Manuel’s nephew Alexius; a slug, according to the chronicler Nicetas Choniates, “accustomed to spend the greater part of the day in bed, keeping the curtains drawn lest he should ever see the sunlight . . . also he took much pleasure in rubbing his decaying teeth.”5

Hearing of the unhappiness in Constantinople, Manuel’s cousin Andronicus Comnenus—exiled to Paphlagonia some years earlier for agitating against the throne—set sail for the city. He had always been a popular member of the royal family, and when the people of the city heard that he was on his way, they celebrated by rioting. The riot turned into a bloodbath. Pisans, Genoans, and any remaining Venetians in the city were lynched. By the time Andronicus arrived, hundreds had died.

He rode into the city as its savior. The remaining Italians were rounded up and sold as slaves to Turkish merchants; the incompetent Alexius was arrested and blinded; Andronicus confined both Mary and the young Alexius II to the palace.

Mary was found strangled, not long after, and Andronicus had himself crowned as Alexius’s co-ruler. The joint rule lasted for less than a year. Once Andronicus felt himself secure on the throne, he ordered the fourteen-year-old Alexius strangled as well.6

His violent rule was short, and ended as it had begun, with murder. Andronicus’s method of keeping power was to eliminate anyone who seemed to pose a danger to him. “He left the vines of Bursa weighed down,” one chronicler notes, “not with grapes, but with the corpses of those whom he had hanged; and he forbade any man to cut them down for burial, for he wished them to dry in the sun and then to sway and flutter . . . like the scarecrows that are hung in the orchards to frighten the birds.”7

After two years of this, his subjects had had enough.

In 1185, Andronicus sent an official to arrest and execute (on no good grounds) a distant royal cousin named Isaac Angelus. Angelus, a mild man by all accounts, turned on the hangman and killed him. Instantly, the people of Constantinople hailed him as a hero and shouted for him to be crowned as emperor.

Andronicus, outside the city at the time, rushed back to restore order. But the mob turned against him, and his own guards refused to fight their fellow countrymen. Isaac Angelus seems to have decided that the crowd’s feelings needed an outlet; he ordered Andronicus’s right hand cut off and his right eye gouged out and then turned Andronicus over to the crowd for punishment. “Carried away by unreasoning anger,” writes Nicetas Choniates, “. . . there was no evil which they did not inflict wickedly on Andronikos.”

He was slapped in the face, kicked on the buttocks, his beard was torn out, his teeth pulled out. . . . Some struck him on the head with clubs, others befouled his nostrils with cow-dung, and still others, using sponges, poured excretions from the bellies of oxen and men over his eyes. . . . Thus reviled and degraded, Andronikos was led into the theater in mock triumph sitting on the hump of a camel. When he dismounted, he was straightway suspended by his feet. . . . Even after he was suspended by his feet, the foolish masses neither kept their hands off the much-tormented Andronikos, nor did they spare his flesh, but removing his short tunic, they assaulted his genitals. A certain ungodly man dipped his long sword into his entrails by way of the pharynx; certain members of the Latin race raised their swords with both hands above his buttocks, and standing around him, they brought them down, making trial as to whose cut was deeper.8

After long agonizing hours, Andronicus finally died. The body was left hanging for several days before it was cut down and tossed into the gutters. The dynasty of the Comneni had come to an end. Byzantium—friendless, simmering with hatred, filled with fear—was in the hands of Isaac Angelus.


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