Post-classical history


The Recovery of Constantinople

CONSTANTINOPLE WAS DESIGNED to inspire awe. Like Old Rome, it was a vast and immensely imposing capital. A visitor approaching over land would have first seen the massive walls and the huge aqueducts carrying water into the city. Fortified to a height of twelve metres, the Land Walls ran from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. Rebuilt by the emperor Theodosios in the fifth century, they were designed to deter even the most ambitious enemy. Five metres thick, the walls were protected by ninety-six towers, offering views over the approaches from the west and the north. Entry was controlled by nine well-guarded gates, but those only provided access past the outer walls. The traveller then had to cross a deep moat and pass through another ring of walls before passage opened up along one of the main roads leading into the heart of the city.

If anything, arrival by sea was even more spectacular. Constantinople lay on the north bank of the Sea of Marmara at the narrowest point separating Europe and Asia Minor. The monuments, churches and palaces of the city, glimpsed from the deck of a boat, made for a breath-taking first impression. The capital stretched as far as the eye could see, covering 30,000 hectares. Its population, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, was about ten times greater than that of the largest cities in Europe.

Constantinople’s principal buildings too were astonishing. Most astounding of all was the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia, constructed by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Its enormous suspended dome, over thirty metres wide and fifty-five metres high, seemed to float like ‘a tent of the heavens’. It was a marvel of engineering and the church was magnificent in its beauty. Golden mosaics twinkled, caught by the light streaming through the windows.1 Yet Constantinople was strewn with outstanding landmarks: hundreds of churches and monasteries, a vast hippodrome for chariot and horse racing, bathhouses, the Great Palace and even a zoo. One poem extolling Constantinople suggested that where there were once Seven Wonders of the world, there were now Seven Wonders of Constantinople.2

Such a bustling city needed to be provisioned. Markets were monitored and regulated by the office of the eparch, the governor of Constantinople, whose agents made sure that weights were standardised and maintained control of the consistency of produce being sold. Quality was also ensured by a system of guilds: grocers and fishmongers, butchers and chandlers, rope makers and saddlers, all had clear rules and codes of conduct as to what they were allowed to sell, and where they could sell it. There were even clear guidelines as to pricing, at least on staple goods, to control inflation. The result was a steady supply of fruit and vegetables, dairy products, meat and fish, alongside more exotic goods such as spices, wax, silverware and silk – the commodity for which Byzantium was most famous.3

One eleventh-century tourist marvelled at the cosmopolitan population of the city and at the magnificence of its buildings, also recording with wonder the religious processions which took place around the capital. He was fortunate enough to witness the miracle of the icon of the Virgin in the church of the Theotokos of Blakhernai, where the Virgin’s veil slowly rose to reveal her face, before falling back into place.4 Another visitor from the late eleventh century could also barely conceal his excitement: ‘Oh, what a noble and beautiful city is Constantinople! How many monasteries and palaces it contains, constructed with wonderful skill! How many remarkable things may be seen in the principal avenues and even in the lesser streets! It would be very tedious to enumerate the wealth that is there of every kind, of gold, of silver, of robes of many kinds, and of holy relics. Merchants constantly bring to the city by frequent voyages all necessities of man. About 20,000 eunuchs, I judge, are always living there.’5

The city had long been a magnet for traders and adventurers, seeking to find fame and fortune. There were many like Bolli Bollason, who journeyed to Constantinople from Iceland in the 1020s, to see and experience the capital for themselves. ‘I have always wanted to travel to southern lands one day,’ he told his peers, ‘for a man is thought to grow ignorant if he doesn’t ever travel beyond the country of his birth.’6 It was to Constantinople, many thousands of miles away, that he journeyed. When he reached Byzantium, Bolli joined the Varangian guard, a corps of mercenaries from Scandinavia, Russia and, by the eleventh century, the British Isles who formed the emperor’s bodyguard. ‘They fight like madmen, as if set on fire with anger’, wrote one eleventh-century writer, ‘they do not spare themselves and do not care about their wounds.’7 When Bolli eventually returned to Iceland, he made a striking appearance: ‘He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king [the Byzantine emperor] had given him, and on top of them a scarlet cape; and he had [an outstanding sword] with him, the hilt of which was brilliant with gold, and the grip woven with gold; he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands. Wherever he went, women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur.’8

Bolli was just one of many drawn to Constantinople. Harald Hardrada, later king of Norway, whose exploits appear in the Heimskringla, the cycle of sagas about the rulers of Norway, journeyed to Byzantium where he served on galleys, scouted for pirates in the Aegean, and took part in an attack on Sicily in the early 1040s. While in imperial service, he came up with an ingenious flying bomb, coating young birds with pine resin mixed with wax and sulphur before setting fire to them and dispatching them back to their nests inside the walls of the city he was besieging. Serving the great emperor of Constantinople, or Miklegarth – the old Norse name for the city – was exotic, exciting and awesome. It was both an honour and a rite of passage for many Scandinavians.9

Then there were men like Odo of Stigand, a young Norman who trained as a doctor and vet in Constantinople in the 1050s, picking up a smattering of several foreign languages in the process. His brother, Robert, also spent time in the capital, bringing gold, precious stones and relics of St Barbara with him when he eventually came home to Normandy.10 Knights with military experience were welcomed in Byzantium, with several rising to high positions in the imperial army. Some of the Anglo-Saxon leaders who fled England after the battle of Hastings in 1066 also found their way to Byzantium, looking for a new start in the wake of William’s conquest.11

By the end of the eleventh century, therefore, a great swathe of different nationalities could be found in Constantinople and elsewhere in the empire. Armenians, Syrians, Lombards, Englishmen, Hungarians, Franks, Jews, Arabs and Turks were all living, visiting and trading in the capital.12Amalfitan traders even carved out their own quarter in Constantinople;13 one became so favoured by the emperor that he was given the unusual privilege of having bronze doors cast in the imperial foundries to send back to Amalfi, where they hang to this day at the entrance to the cathedral of St Andrew.14 Byzantium was diverse, cosmopolitan, and well connected: trade networks and diplomatic links, as well as the connections of the immigrant population, meant that the empire was famous in the most distant corners of Europe.

The sharp increase in the number of foreigners visiting and settling in the city was due in part to a rapid acceleration in the economic prosperity of the empire following a series of major military successes by the great emperor-generals of the tenth century. Arab pirates who had interrupted maritime traffic in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean for centuries were finally dealt with, their attack bases systematically knocked out. The frontiers both in the Balkans and in the east were first stabilised and then rolled back by a succession of competent and ambitious military commanders, who heralded a golden age for the empire.

Major new projects were commissioned in Constantinople, including the magnificent complex of St George on Mangana, which included a hospital, homes for the aged and the poor, a sumptuous palace, and a monastic church where Constantine IX, the emperor who commissioned the works, was eventually buried. Schools of law and philosophy opened to cater to an increasingly socially mobile population. Traders and merchants grew wealthy and as a result found the doors of the senate opened to them. Private individuals began to use their disposable income to invest in land and precious objects. Men like Eustathios Boilas, a landowner in Cappadocia, were encouraged by the empire’s stability and prosperity to develop barren land that was ‘foul and unmanageable … inhabited by snakes, scorpions and wild beasts’ and lovingly transform it into vineyards and gardens, supplied by watermills and aqueducts.15

Around the middle of the eleventh century, however, Constantinople’s progress began to falter. Norman mercenaries, who had originally been recruited by central Italy’s city-states, began to realise that they could exploit the fractious competition between Amalfi, Salerno, Capua, Benevento and Naples. Within a matter of decades, they had used this rivalry effectively to build up their own power base, and by the mid-1050s the Normans were starting to challenge the Byzantine provinces of Apulia and Calabria. The empire found itself under pressure elsewhere too. Constantinople had long had to keep a careful watch over the steppe lands to the north of the Black Sea. For centuries, these tracts of land had been populated by nomads who were volatile and dangerous if not carefully dealt with. One of the most aggressive tribes was the Pechenegs, who excelled in raiding poorly defended targets. Based on the northern banks of the Danube, the Pechenegs now turned on Byzantium, intensifying their assaults from the 1040s onwards and causing havoc in the Balkans.

In the east the empire was threatened by the Turks’ spectacular rise to power. While they had been on the periphery of the caliphate of Baghdad at the start of the eleventh century, their military prowess became highly valued by rival factions in the Muslim world, and they soon involved themselves in the tangled politics of Baghdad itself. In 1055, one of the tribal leaders, Tughril Beg, became sultan – effectively the secular leader of Sunni Islam in the Middle East. And this was not the end of Turkish ambition. Even before becoming masters of Baghdad, bands of Turks had made their way westwards to the edges of Asia Minor and begun launching small-scale attacks into the subcontinent’s Byzantine interior.

The empire did not just struggle to respond to these threats: it failed to deal with them altogether. Southern Italy was left to its own devices and fell swiftly to the Normans, who turned their attention to attacking Muslim Sicily after capturing the southern Italian city of Bari in 1071. The Byzantines also did little to counter the Pechenegs, with the empire feebly resorting time and again to bribery, paying tribute in return for peace. There was at least some co-ordinated defence in the east, but only after major towns like Trebizond, Koloneia and Melitene had been raided. In 1067, after a band of Turks reached and sacked Kaisereia, desecrating the tomb of St Basil and carrying off the doors to the church, which were covered with gold, pearls and precious stones, the clamour for decisive action became overwhelming. All eyes turned to Romanos IV Diogenes, a general elevated to the throne after marrying the widow of the previous emperor.

Romanos set off on several expensive campaigns that achieved little. But then, in the summer of 1071, the emperor allowed himself to get drawn into battle near the important fort of Manzikert by Turkish forces which he believed to be modest in number and easy to defeat. They were in fact part of the main Turkish army, under the personal command of the sultan, Alp Arslan. Faulty intelligence, poor decision-making and bad leadership contributed to a defeat that was less significant from a military point of view, but humiliating in terms of prestige. Romanos IV himself was captured and, dishevelled and caked in the dust of battle, brought before the sultan, who initially refused to believe that the man being presented to him was really the emperor. The encounter, during which Alp Arslan behaved with conspicuous kindness and dignity before releasing Diogenes, was celebrated soon after by writers and poets, quickly becoming a defining event in Turkish history and identity.16

The campaign that ended at Manzikert in 1071 had been intended to reinforce Byzantium’s eastern frontier and protect the interior of Asia Minor from the debilitating and demoralising raids that scarred it. Its failure – and the lack of corrective action in its aftermath – led to a growing sense of panic. Many Byzantines abandoned the region, fleeing to Constantinople for fear of further Turkish raids. One was the future patriarch, Nicholas Grammatikos, who left Antioch-in-Pisidia to set up a new monastery in the capital; an archdeacon from Kaisereia made the same decision, gathering up the treasures from his church in Cappadocia to head for the safety of the capital.17

The influx of refugees put a strain on the resources of Constantinople. As it was, the pressure on the provinces had thrown the empire’s finances into disarray, sharply reducing the tax revenues. In addition, military operations like the Manzikert campaign, or more limited efforts against the Pechenegs, were costly. Increasing military commitments also meant that agricultural production fell as manpower was diverted from the fields by conscription, adding to the depopulation of the countryside as the rural population fled to the safety of the cities.

Attempts to deal with the mounting financial crisis were not successful. The government attempted to correct the fiscal imbalance by debasing the coinage – lowering the gold content while maintaining the same notional value. This might have helped had it been managed carefully, but by the 1070s, debasement was spiralling out of control, the precious-metal content being further degraded with almost every issue.18 Tax collection became rapacious and chronic inflation set in, with the price of wheat driven up by a factor of eighteen in the mid-1070s.19

Economic meltdown was accompanied by political chaos, as aristocrats rose in revolt against the government in protest at the rising demands being made of them and at the deteriorating situation within the empire. In the late 1070s, one leading magnate after another rebelled, plunging Byzantium into civil war. Although many of the most serious uprisings were eventually put down, the disruption they caused was profound. And the empire’s neighbours were quick to take advantage. Having made themselves masters of southern Italy, the Normans set about preparing an attack on Epirus, the gateway to the empire’s western provinces. In Croatia and Duklja, the ruling dynasties sought to realign themselves with Old Rome rather than Constantinople, contacting the Pope to ask that their leaders be recognised as sovereign rulers – an unequivocal challenge to Byzantine claims over this region.20

In Asia Minor, the empire’s crisis offered opportunities that were too good to miss. Bands of Turkish marauders continued to make forays deep into the region, meeting with little opposition. In 1080, for example, some reached as far west as Kyzikos, duly sacking the city, and plunging the emperor into deep despair.21 The lure of plunder was only one attraction that drew Turks into Byzantine territory. Another was the insatiable appetite of rebellious aristocrats for military support. Almost every rebel in this period employed Turkish auxiliaries, often after competitive auctions between rival factions for the same band of mercenaries.22 Byzantines seemed more than willing to make common cause with Turks in their squabbles with each other.23

By 1081, things could scarcely have been worse. The Balkans were in flames with Pecheneg raids and uprisings by local leaders who rejected imperial control over some of the most important towns of the region. A major Norman attack from southern Italy was also under way, led by Robert Guiscard, one of the most ruthless and successful military commanders of the early Middle Ages. Meanwhile, the Turks had reached the shore of the Bosphorus, the neighbouring regions completely exposed to their raids. ‘The Byzantines saw them living absolutely unafraid and unmolested in the little villages on the coast and in sacred buildings’, reported Anna Komnene. ‘The sight filled them with horror. They had no idea what to do.’24 The Roman Empire had once ruled from the straits of Gibraltar in the west to India in the east, from Britain in the north deep into Africa. Now little remained beyond the imperial capital itself.25 The Turks had ravaged Asia Minor, wrote Anna, destroying towns and staining the land with Christian blood. Those who were not gruesomely murdered or taken prisoner ‘hurried to seek refuge from impending disaster by hiding in caves, forests, mountains and hills’.26

With the eastern provinces seemingly lost to the Turks and the empire on its knees, Byzantium was in crisis long before imperial envoys reached Pope Urban at Piacenza to appeal for help against the Turkish threat. Why then, was a sudden, dramatic request for support sent from Constantinople in 1095 if Asia Minor had fallen nearly fifteen years earlier? The timing of this passionate plea for help and the Pope’s spectacular response were both politically driven. The Byzantine appeal was strategic; Urban’s response was motivated by self-interest and the desire to establish himself over his rivals in the Western Church. At the heart of the First Crusade, therefore, lies a knotty story of crisis and realpolitik emanating from Asia Minor. And behind the spark that ignited the expedition was the young man who emerged as the ruler of the Byzantine Empire exactly ten years after the disaster at Manzikert: Alexios Komnenos.

In the early 1080s, Constantinople desperately needed a man of action, who would reverse the decline of the empire. There were several self-appointed candidates to save New Rome: Nikephoros Bryennios, Nikephoros Basilakios, Nikephoros Botaneiates and Nikephoros Melissenos – all owing their first names, ‘the one who brings victory’, to a different age, when the empire could look forward to continued success and prosperity. None of these men, though, could provide the answer to Byzantium’s problems. Alexios Komnenos, however, inspired hope.

Alexios Komnenos came from a respected and well-connected family in Byzantium. There was also a dash of imperial purple in the blood, for Isaac Komnenos, Alexios’ uncle, had held the throne for two years in 1057–9 before being deposed by a group of disgruntled senior officers whose personal ambitions had not been sufficiently tended to. Although this background provided the Komnenos family with an imperial pedigree, few can have thought that the young man who, as one account reveals, begged to go on campaign against the Turks while barely old enough to shave, would end up ruling the empire for thirty-seven years and laying the cornerstone of a dynasty that would rule for more than a century.27

One person who did have this vision, however, was Alexios’ mother. A tough, determined woman, Anna Dalassene came from one of the empire’s leading families, many of whose members had served Byzantium in important positions in the civilian and military administrations. Anna had serious ambitions for her five sons. The eldest, Manuel, rose quickly through the ranks of the army to become a senior commander during the ill-fated reign of Romanos IV Diogenes, but was killed in battle. The rise of two of Anna’s other sons, Isaac and Alexios, was meteoric and nigh on unstoppable.

As Byzantium began to disintegrate, a vacuum opened up for ambitious young men who were able and loyal. The Komnenos brothers were the prime beneficiaries, with Isaac, the older of the two, appointed first to command the army of the eastern provinces and then governor of the city of Antioch, while Alexios was repeatedly promoted for his outstanding success defeating rebels in central Asia Minor and the western Balkans in the 1070s.

By the end of the decade, speculation mounted in Constantinople about the brothers’ ambitions, spurred by their successful cultivation of both the emperor Nikephoros III and of his wife, the empress Maria. Gossip swirled through the capital about Alexios’ relationship with the latter, described as a striking woman, ‘very tall, like a cypress tree; her skin was snow white, her face oval, her complexion wholly reminiscent of a spring flower or a rose’.28 The emperor, meanwhile, a doddery old man with a keen eye for fashion, was enthralled by the clothes made from fine materials which Isaac Komnenos brought him from Syria.29

Speculation about the brothers’ ambitions proved correct. Around the end of 1080, they decided that the time had come to try to take the throne for themselves, prompted by rival figures at court who began openly briefing against them. They were spurred on too by the moves of other leading aristocrats like Nikephoros Melissenos, who had already minted coins depicting himself as ruler and produced a seal that bore the uncompromising legend: ‘Nikephoros Melissenos, emperor of the Romans’.30 Such was Melissenos’ progress that the emperor considered formally naming him as his heir in a bid to appease him.31

Isaac and Alexios realised that they had to move quickly. Although he was the younger of the two, it was agreed that Alexios should take the throne if the coup was successful, his marriage to a member of the powerful Doukas family proving vital in winning the support of one of the most powerful families in Byzantium. The decisive moment came when news reached Constantinople that a major Norman attack had begun on the empire’s western flank at Epirus. For once, the emperor reacted decisively, entrusting a major force to his leading commander – Alexios Komnenos. Yet having reached Thrace with his army, the young general did what all Roman rulers feared most: he turned round to march back on the capital.32

The city’s defences were formidable; there was no real prospect that the Komnenoi would be able to take it by storm. Contact was therefore made with the German mercenary contingent that was protecting the Kharisios gate, one of the main entry points on the western side of the city. After terms had been agreed with its commander, the huge wooden doors were swung open and the Komnenoi and their supporters surged into the city.33 Alexios and his men advanced swiftly through the city as support for the emperor melted away. Met with only limited opposition, they looted wildly. Even Anna Komnene could not hide her horror at the scenes which accompanied the entry of her father’s supporters: ‘No writer, however earnest could possibly do justice to the terrors by which the city was enveloped in those days. Churches, sanctuaries, property both public and private were all victims of universal pillage, while the ears of its citizens were deafened by cries and shouts raised on every side. An onlooker might well have thought an earthquake was taking place.’34

Violence was directed particularly at the capital’s elites. Senators were pulled from their horses; some were stripped naked and left humiliated in the street.35 The emperor himself yielded meekly as he slunk away from the palace, his imperial vestments stolen by courtiers who put them on and mocked him.36 Captured and handed over to the Komnenoi, Nikephoros was placed in a monastery where he is reported to have taken to the life of prayer and contemplation – although he was not impressed by the strict vegetarian regime on offer.37

Soon after taking control of the city, Alexios I Komnenos was crowned emperor of the Romans in the Great Church of St Sophia in Constantinople. The elaborate coronation ceremony would have followed the rituals laid out in a tenth-century text, with Alexios arriving at Hagia Sophia, changing into the imperial robes and then entering the church with the patriarch. After being prayed for and acclaimed with the chant ‘O great emperor and autocrat! May you reign for many years!’, Alexios would have been crowned, before dignitaries came forward one by one to kiss the new sovereign’s knees.38

To consolidate his position, the new emperor quickly appointed allies to key posts in the empire. A new commander-in-chief of the western armies was named, and a new governor was appointed for the town of Dyrrakhion, the focus of the ongoing Norman attack.39 The support of Nikephoros Melissenos was diplomatically ensured by giving him a prominent role, as well as the gift of the tax revenues of Thessaloniki, one of the largest towns in the empire. Isaac Komnenos, meanwhile, was appointed to a newly created rank, placing him second to the emperor in the hierarchy of government. Many members of the new emperor’s immediate family also received promotions, status and rewards to mark them out as part of the new establishment.40 This creation of a new tier of loyalists provided Alexios with the secure power base he needed to contend with external threats, as well as with the empire’s economic meltdown.

From the outset, Alexios took control of military affairs himself, rather than leaving them in the hands of subordinates, as most of his predecessors had done. A few months after taking the throne he personally led an army to Epirus to confront the Normans, who promptly inflicted a crushing defeat on Alexios and his forces at Dyrrakhion in October 1081. Over the next two years, as the Normans penetrated deep into Macedonia and Thessaly, the emperor himself commanded the army in a series of exhaustive operations which finally resulted in the withdrawal of the invading army back to Italy. In 1084, when the Normans launched a second invasion on the empire’s western flank, it was Alexios again who set out from Constantinople in person to repel the attack – and on this occasion with rather more success. After supplies and communications were cut, the Normans sustained heavy casualties from starvation and disease and were slowly strangled into submission. ‘Greece, freed of its enemies, was liberated and rejoiced fully’, acknowledged one Norman contemporary.41

Alexios’ success was a powerful vindication for the young usurper. He had seized the throne promising a new future for the empire, and although his efforts against the Normans were not without regular setbacks, he had done something that the Muslims of Sicily and King Harold of England had failed to achieve: successfully resist a large-scale Norman invasion.

The new emperor now turned his attention to the Pechenegs, whose raids were continuing unabated in spite of major Byzantine successes achieved by one of Alexios’ new appointees, in 1083. ‘I am convinced’, wrote the commander in question after one such victory, ‘that even for many years after my death the miraculous act of Almighty God which happened will not be forgotten.’42 He was wrong: the Pechenegs remained a huge problem in the 1080s, ravaging Byzantine territory on a regular basis. ‘Their attack is like lightning’, wrote one contemporary, ‘their retreat both slow and swift – slow because of the weight of booty they are carrying, swift because of the speed of their flight … They leave no trace at all for those pursuing them. Even if a bridge was built across the Danube, they would still not be caught.’43

Alexios repeatedly led the army out to meet the waves of invasion, to little effect. By the winter of 1090, the threat had become critical, with a vast body of Pecheneg nomads invading the empire and reaching southern Thrace with the intention of settling permanently in the rich pastureland around the mouth of the river Ainos – and dangerously close to Constantinople. The emperor gathered troops from wherever he could, set camp at the foot of a hill named Lebounion, and prepared for battle.

The engagement that followed at the end of April 1091 provided one of the most startling military victories in Byzantine history: ‘It was an extraordinary spectacle’, wrote Anna Komnene. ‘A whole people, numbered not in these tens of thousands but in countless multitudes, with their women and children was utterly wiped out on that day. It was the twenty-ninth of April, a Tuesday. Hence the ditty chanted by the Byzantines: “All because of one day the [Pechenegs] never saw the month of May.”’44 To all intents and purposes, the Pechenegs were annihilated. Many survivors of the battle were executed shortly afterwards; the remainder were dispersed across the Balkans. They would never again pose a threat to the empire.45

Alexios’ first decade in power thus appears to have been remarkably successful. The threat of two aggressive and dangerous neighbours had been seen off, in the case of the Pechenegs permanently. The emperor had installed himself securely on the throne, surrounding himself with reliable family members whose interests were closely aligned with his own. There was little evidence, furthermore, of internal opposition to his rule – no challenges from those who had been removed from power in 1081, or other rivals to the throne. This was undoubtedly the result of the measures Alexios put in place to control the aristocracy. Leading rivals were brought on campaign by the emperor, keeping them close to him and away from Constantinople.46 During Alexios’ absence Isaac was left behind in the capital with an uncompromising brief to deal with any criticism of the new ruling family.47 Yet despite this apparent nervousness about opposition, it seemed that Alexios was widely welcomed as emperor, his leadership a breath of fresh air to an empire that had become stale.

The emperor’s style of rule was certainly not self-indulgent, unlike that of some of his predecessors who were more concerned with what they wore or what they ate: Constantine VIII (1025–8), for example, had spent little time dealing with matters of state, instead setting himself up in the imperial kitchens where he experimented endlessly with flavours and colours.48 By contrast, Alexios was a diffident character with a soldier’s habits, who had simple tastes and disavowed life’s luxuries. Severe and serious, he also had no time for small talk and kept his own counsel.49 He was a man who spurned mirrors, reported his son-in-law, Nikephoros Bryennios, because he believed that ‘for a man and a warrior, arms and simplicity and purity of way of life are adornment’.50 He had similarly puritan views when it came to history writing. Alexios was unimpressed that his eldest daughter wanted to write an account of his reign, encouraging her instead to compose elegies and dirges. His response to his wife, when he learned that she wanted to commission an account of his life for future generations, was even more blunt: ‘It would be better, he said, to grieve for him and deplore his misfortunes.’51

Alexios was a devout man, whose main relaxation came from studying the Bible. He would often sit late into the night reading the Scriptures in silence alongside his wife, who had similar inclinations.52 He shared such piety with other members of his family; his brother Isaac was much admired by the clergy for his religious zeal.53 And his mother too was similarly devout. The founder of a beautifully appointed church and monastery overlooking the Golden Horn in the capital, she was a strong supporter of monks and clerics throughout the empire, often intervening on their behalf and arranging tax exemptions. Her seal testified to her as not just the mother of the emperor, but also as a nun. The emperor’s daughter reported that it was Anna Dalassene who had ‘deeply implanted the fear of the Lord’ into her son’s soul when he was a boy.54

With Alexios’ rule, Byzantium entered a period of sombre asceticism. Soon after taking power in 1081, the emperor resolved to wear a hair shirt and to sleep on a stone floor to atone for the behaviour of his troops during the coup. He apologised to the clergy the following year for taking unused church treasures to help fund efforts against the Normans, vowing never to do so again. Within the imperial palace, the ‘utter depravity’ of previous generations was replaced by solemn singing of sacred hymns and strictly regimented mealtimes.55

In addition, Alexios was at pains to impose his orthodox religious views. From the start of his reign, stern action was taken against those with opinions and beliefs that were deemed heretic, with the sovereign himself regularly presiding over trials and administering punishment to those found guilty. Championing the interests of the church was of course an entirely sensible policy, especially for a usurper who had seized the throne by force. But in Alexios’ case, it was sincere.

Yet the emperor had no trouble taking on senior members of the clergy: in his first three years on the throne, he engineered the replacement of not one but two patriarchs of Constantinople, until the appointment of Nicholas III Grammatikos provided him with a man willing to co-operate with him. Other leading clerics were also dealt with forcefully, such as the bishop of Chalcedon, who was tried and exiled after criticising the emperor and his policies. Furthermore, as we have seen, Alexios was the driving force behind the rapprochement with Rome at the end of the 1080s, overseeing a meeting of the synod in the capital, and all but insisting on reconciliation with the papacy.

The force of Alexios’ character fashioned the empire. Under his leadership, there was a return to the military values that had characterised the tenth century, a time when emperors were generals, and the army was the cornerstone of Byzantium. Alexios himself was most comfortable in the outfit of a soldier, rather than the lavish vestments of the emperor, and he preferred a small group of intimates over the elaborate ceremonials that characterised the court in Constantinople.56

Alexios abandoned the complicated hierarchy that dictated who sat where while dining in the palace, establishing an altogether more modest and basic regime. The emperor frequently invited the least fortunate in society to share his table, dining with epileptics and reportedly being so eager to help them that he himself forgot to eat.57 Even a contemporary who was otherwise almost uniformly hostile to Alexios commented that his attitude to the poor was both unusual and commendable. In addition, he ‘never drank, and could not be accused of being a glutton’.58 Rather than delegating affairs to bureaucrats, he made himself available to discuss matters of concern with his subjects, and even with foreigners; he would meet with anyone who wanted to see him personally, often staying up late into the night to do so.59

While the close control Alexios maintained over Byzantium was impressive, it was also suffocating. There was violent opposition to his style of leadership on the eve of the Crusade and, as we will see, this played a central role in the emperor’s appeals to the papacy. The heavy emphasis on military affairs was oppressive and drained the empire’s resources; art, architecture and literature stagnated during Alexios’ reign. What little was produced in terms of visual culture was austere and sombre: a mural painted at the Great Palace of Blakhernai depicted the emperor at the time of the Last Judgement acting as a representative of Christ.60 This was an immensely revealing representation of how Alexios saw himself: God’s faithful servant at a time of darkness.

Apart from his coinage, we have only two images of the emperor, but one can get a sense of the impression Alexios made from Anna’s idealised description of him in the Alexiad. He struck an imposing figure, even if he spoke with a lisp: ‘when one saw the grim flash of his eyes as he sat down on the imperial throne, he reminded one of a fiery whirlwind, so overwhelming was the radiance that emanated from his bearing and his very presence. His dark eyebrows were curved, and beneath them the gaze of his eyes was both terrible and kind. A quick glance … [would] inspire in the beholder both dread and confidence. His broad shoulders, muscular arms and deep chest, all on a heroic scale, invariably commanded the wonder and delight of the people. He radiated beauty and grace and dignity and an unapproachable majesty.’61

This was the man who prompted the First Crusade, a seminal moment in the history and development of the medieval world. Yet with the repulse of the Normans and the comprehensive defeat of the Pechenegs, the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire appeared to be well on the mend. Why, then, by 1095, did Byzantium require outside help to take on the Turks?

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