ALEXIUS I COMNENUS, after guiding the Eastern Empire success fully through Turkish and Norman wars and the First Crusade, ended his long reign (1081–1118) amid a characteristically Byzantine intrigue. His eldest daughter, Anna Comnena, was a paragon of learning, a compendium of philosophy, a poet of parts, a politician of subtlety, an historian of accomplished mendacity. Betrothed to the son of the Emperor Michael VII, she felt herself marked for empire by her birth, her beauty, and her brains, and she could never forgive her brother John for being born and succeeding to the throne. She conspired to assassinate him, was detected and forgiven, retired to a convent, and chronicled her father’s career in a prose Alexiad. John Comnenus (1118–43) astonished Europe by a reign of private virtue, administrative competence, and victorious campaigns against pagan, Moslem, and Christian foes; for a time it seemed that he would restore the Empire to its former scope and glory; but a scratch from a poisoned arrow in his own quiver ended his life and his dream.
His son Manuel I (1143–80) was an incarnate Mars, dedicated to war and delighting in it, ever in the van of his troops, welcoming single combat, and winning every battle but the last. Stoic in the field, he was an epicurean in his palace, luxurious in food and dress, and happy in the incestuous love of his niece. Under his indulgent patronage literature and scholarship flourished again; the ladies of the court encouraged authors, and themselves condescended to write poetry; and Zonaras now compiled his immenseEpitome of History. Manuel built for himself a new palace, the Blachernae, on the seashore at the end of the Golden Horn; Odom of Deuil thought it “the fairest building in the world; its pillars and walls were half covered with gold, and encrusted with jewels that shone even in the obscurity of the night.”1 Constantinople in the twelfth century rehearsed the Italian Renaissance.
This splendor of the capital, and the many wars that the aging empire waged to ward off death, required heavy taxation, which the enjoyers of luxuries passed on to the producers of necessaries. The peasants grew poorer, and surrendered to serfdom; the manual workers of the cities lived in noisome slums, whose dark filth harbored uncounted crimes. Vague semicommunistic movements of revolt agitated the proletarian flux,2 but have been forgotten in the careless repetitiousness of time. Meanwhile the capture of Palestine by the Crusaders had opened Syrian ports to Latin commerce, and Constantinople lost to the rising cities of Italy a third of its maritime trade. Christian and Moslem alike aspired to capture this treasury of a millenníum’s wealth. A good Moslem, visiting the city in Manuel’s heyday, prayed: “May God in His generosity and grace deign to make Constantinople the capital of Islam!”3 And Venice, daughter of Byzantium, invited the chivalry of Europe to join her in raping the Queen of the Bosporus.
The Latin kingdom of Constantinople, established by the Fourth Crusade, endured but fifty-seven years (1204–61). Rootless in the race, faith, or customs of the people—hated by a Greek Church forcibly subjected to Rome —weakened by its division into feudal principalities each aping sovereignty-lacking the experience required to organize and regulate an industrial and commercial economy—attacked by Byzantine armies without and conspiracies within—and unable to draw from a hostile population the revenues needed for military defense, the new kingdom stood only as long as Byzantine revenge lacked unity and arms.
The conquerors fared best in Greece. Frank, Venetian, and other Italian nobles hastened to carve the historic land into feudal baronies, built picturesque castles on dominating sites, and ruled with dash and competence a supine and industrious population. Prelates of the Latin Church replaced the exiled bishops of the Orthodox faith; and monks from the West crowned the ancient hills with monasteries that were monuments and treasuries of medieval art. A proud Frank took the title of duke of Athens, which Shakespeare, by a venial error of 2000 years, would un-Baconianly apply to Theseus. But the same martial spirit that had reared these little kingdoms destroyed them with fraternal strife; rival factions fought suicidal wars in the hills of the Morea and on the plains of Boeotia; and when the “Grand Catalan Company” of military adventurers from Catalonia invaded Greece (1311), the flower of Frank chivalry there was slaughtered in battle near the Cephisus River, and helpless Hellas became the plaything of Spanish buccaneers.
Two years after the fall of Constantinople, Theodore Lascaris, son-in-law of Alexius III, set up a Byzantine government in exile at Nicaea. All Anatolia, with the rich cities of Prusa, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and Ephesus, welcomed his rule; and his just and able administration brought new prosperity to these regions, new life to Greek letters, and new hope to Greek patriots. Farther east, at Trebizond, Alexius Comnenus, son of Manuel, established another Byzantine kingdom; and a third took form in Epirus under Michael Angelus. Lascaris’ son-in-law and successor, John Vatatzes (1222–54), added part of Epirus to the Nicaean kingdom, recaptured Salonika from the Franks (1246), and might have regained Constantinople itself had he not been called back to Asia Minor by learning that Pope Innocent IV had invited the advancing Mongols to attack him from the East (1248). The Mongols rejected the papal plan on the ironical pretense that they were loath to encourage “the mutual hatred of Christians.”4 John’s long reign was one of the most creditable in history. Despite expensive campaigns to restore Byzantine unity, he lowered taxes, encouraged agriculture, built schools, libraries, churches, monasteries, hospitals, and homes for the old or the poor.5 Literature and art prospered under him, and Nicaea became one of the richest, fairest cities of the thirteenth century.
His son Theodore Lascaris II (1254–8) was an ailing scholar, learned and bemused; he died after a brief reign, and Michael Paleologus, leader of the discontented aristocracy, usurped the throne (1259–82). If we may believe the historians, Michael had every fault—“selfish, hypocritical… an inborn liar, vain, cruel, and rapacious”;6 but he was a subtle strategist and a triumphant diplomat. By one battle he made his power in Epirus secure; by an alliance with Genoa he won ardent aid against the Venetians and the Franks in Constantinople. He instructed his general Strategopulus to feint an attack upon the capital from the West; Strategopulus approached the city with only a thousand men; finding it weakly guarded, he entered and took it without a blow. King Baldwin II fled with his retinue, and the Latin clergy of the city came after him in righteous panic. Michael, hardly believing the news, crossed the Bosporus, and was crowned emperor (1261). The Byzantine Empire, which the world had thought dead, awoke to a post-mortem life; the Greek Church resumed its independence; and the Byzantine state, corrupt and competent, stood for two centuries more as a treasury and vehicle of ancient letters, and a frail but precious bulwark against Islam.