Post-classical history


Stability in the East

THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE was under great pressure when Alexios took the throne – threatened by the incursions of aggressive neighbours, weakened by a collapsing economy, and riven with political infighting. Looking back through the distorting prism of the First Crusade, it would seem natural to assume that the greatest of these dangers came from hostile Turkish expansion in the east. This was certainly the impression created by Anna Komnene; her testimony even suggested that Asia Minor had been essentially lost to the Turks before Alexios came to power. In fact, Asia Minor was relatively stable in the 1080s; indeed, the relationship between Byzantium and the Turks in the first part of Alexios’ reign was generally robust and pragmatically positive. It was only in the early 1090s, in the years immediately before the beginning of the First Crusade, that there was a dramatic deterioration of Byzantium’s position in the east. Conflict with the Muslim world, in other words, was by no means inevitable; it appears that the breakdown in relations between Christians and Muslims at the end of the eleventh century was the result of a spiralling political and military process, not the unavoidable conflict between two opposing cultures. It was, though, in the interests of Anna Komnene to create the opposite impression; and it is an impression that has lasted down through the centuries.

At the start of his reign the new emperor’s attentions were focused squarely on the Normans and the Pechenegs. The Byzantine position in Asia Minor, on the other hand, was fairly resilient: there were many locations which had mounted stern resistance against the Turks in the decade following the battle of Manzikert, and they continued to hold out effectively after Alexios took the throne. In many cases, the defiance was the result of effective local leadership, rather than of the actions of Constantinople. The area around Trebizond on the north coast of Asia Minor, for example, was secured by Theodore Gabras, a scion of one of the town’s most prominent families. Such was the ferocity of Gabras’ defence of the surrounding region that his exploits and bravery were remembered with admiration by the Turks more than a hundred years later in a lyrical poem about their conquest of Asia Minor.1 A substantial area around Amaseia, meanwhile, had been held extremely effectively in the 1070s by Roussel Balliol, a Norman initially in imperial service before declaring himself independent of Byzantium, frustrated by the lack of support he was being given by the government and inspired by the strong support of the local population which lionised him for the protection he provided.2

Commanders were holding out far into the eastern extremities of Anatolia, even into the Caucasus. Three sons of Mandales, ‘Roman magnates’ according to a Caucasian chronicler, were occupying strong-points in the region of Kaisereia in 1080–1, presumably on behalf of the empire, rather than opportunistically for themselves.3 Basil Apokapes held the important town of Edessa before Alexios’ usurpation and after, to judge from lead seals issued in his name.4 The appointment of a new governor of Mesopotamia by Alexios’ predecessor in 1078 likewise provides an indication that there were significant Byzantine interests worth protecting hundreds of miles east of Constantinople.5

Some Byzantine commanders were actually flourishing in the eastern provinces – most notably Philaretos Braakhamios, a talented general whose career had suffered a serious setback after refusing to support Romanos IV Diogenes’ successor, Michael VII Doukas, when he became emperor in 1071. As the empire imploded with one revolt after another in the 1070s, Philaretos wrested control of many towns, forts and territories and built up a substantial power base in the process. He continued to prosper after Alexios became emperor, and by the early 1080s held the important cities of Marash and Melitene as well as much of Cilicia, before becoming master of Edessa in 1083.6

The Alexiad’s sweeping – and damning – account of the situation in the east has shaped modern opinions about the situation in Asia Minor at the time of Alexios’ seizure of power. A common consensus has emerged that the eastern provinces were overrun by the Turks in the early 1080s. There is also wide agreement, likewise based on Anna Komnene’s account, that there was a significant Byzantine recovery on the eve of the First Crusade which, taken together with the death of the sultan of Baghdad in 1092, provided an inviting and enviable opening for the empire to exploit in Asia Minor.7 Yet commentary provided by the Alexiad needs to be treated cautiously for the author’s aim in stressing the parlous state of the empire in 1081 was to underline Alexios’ achievements, to emphasise that he saved Byzantium from the very brink of disaster. There was a darker motivation as well: to absolve the emperor of blame for a series of major disasters which occurred not before he took the throne, but afterwards – and which are cleverly concealed in Anna’s history.

Yet even the Alexiad inadvertently reveals the strength of the empire’s position in 1081. As the new emperor prepared to deal with the Norman invasion of Epirus he put together as large an army as he could, summoning men from all over the empire to gather in Constantinople. This included the withdrawal of men stationed in Asia Minor: Alexios ‘realised that he must quickly recall all the toparkhes [senior officers] in the east, men who as governors of forts or towns were bravely resisting the Turks’. At once, the emperor gave orders that these commanders, in provinces like Paphlagonia and Cappadocia, secure their respective regions, ‘leaving for that purpose enough soldiers, but with the rest they were to come to Constantinople, bringing with them as many able-bodied recruits as they could find’.8 There were officers in other regions in Asia Minor as well who were also holding out against the Turks, and they too were ordered to send men to a new emperor preoccupied with preparing a large army to deal with the attack by the Normans.9This freeing-up of manpower in Asia Minor suggests that the Byzantine hold over the region was fairly robust.

In fact, there is little to suggest that the Turks posed a major problem in this period. There were bands of raiders who were a menace, attacking soft targets like Kyzikos, which were poorly defended and offered little resistance.10 But even the presence of such opportunistic groups was not necessarily unwelcome: when one aristocrat came across a party of Turks while on his way to join Alexios and Isaac Komnenos during their rebellion, he did not engage them in combat but persuaded them to join him as mercenaries.11

Other evidence too presents a picture that is dramatically different to the idea that the Byzantine east had collapsed by the time of Alexios’ usurpation. For example, Attaleia, an important trading post and naval base on the south coast of Asia Minor, was raised in status to an archbishopric in the early 1080s, a sign that the town was not only still in Byzantine hands but growing in importance.12 Archaeological finds reveal the existence of an extensive cast of bishops, judges and officials holding positions in many provinces and towns in Asia Minor immediately before Alexios came to the throne as well as afterwards, which demonstrates that the damage done by the Turks to the provincial administration around this time was hardly extensive.13

In fact, the situation in the east improved significantly after Alexios took power, with the return of stability to much of Asia Minor during the first half of the 1080s. This was a major achievement, especially in view of the fact that Alexios’ regime had been so fragile at the outset: there had been concerns about the loyalty of his own troops during the entry to Constantinople in 1081, while some of his most prominent supporters considered abandoning him soon after. His failure to have his wife, Eirene, crowned empress alongside him provoked a violent reaction from her powerful family, who bristled at Alexios’ attempt to show himself to be independent. Their menacing warnings had the desired effect: Eirene was crowned a week later.14 In addition, Constantinople’s high-ranking clergy had been demanding a public apology – as well as penance – from Alexios for the behaviour of his men after they rampaged through the capital during his coup.15 And as we have seen, the western flank of the Byzantine Empire was in chaos in the early 1080s with a major Norman invasion of Epirus under way and Pecheneg raids devastating the Balkans in the north.

When it came to Asia Minor the emperor was less concerned with the Turks than with the more significant problem posed by this region in the previous decade: uprisings by Byzantine aristocrats. The eastern provinces were home to most of the major landowners in Byzantium, and had proved a fertile breeding ground for insurrection since the battle of Manzikert. The new emperor was anxious that another challenge did not emerge while he was away from Constantinople to fight Normans and Pechenegs. In the very first weeks of his reign, therefore, Alexios turned his attention to the east. According to the Alexiad, he sent an expedition into Bithynia to drive back the Turks, personally issuing detailed instructions which included advice on how to pull oars through the water silently to retain the element of surprise and how to tell which rocky inlets the enemy might be hiding in, ready for ambush.16

To ensure the stability of this region, Alexios turned to a man whom he had dealt with before. Anxious not to entrust too much military power to a Byzantine aristocrat – mindful of the fact that he had himself wheeled the imperial army back on the capital when given similar responsibilities – Alexios sought to reach an agreement with an ally with a rather different profile. Sulayman was a Turkish chieftain who had made his way into Asia Minor in the 1070s in search of opportunity and fortune. He quickly found both, being hired by Constantinople to fight against rebel aristocrats on several occasions and being richly rewarded in the process.17 Alexios first co-operated with him when the Turkish warlord sent men to help him put down an attempted coup in the western Balkans shortly before his own successful revolt. Turkish auxiliaries proved loyal, brave and highly effective, playing a decisive part in putting down rebellions against the emperor and even being responsible for capturing their leaders.18

The fact that Alexios relied on a Turk was, if anything, a positive advantage to the new ruler who was not secure in his position. Choosing Sulayman, someone who was not part of the Byzantine elite, to become the key military figure in Asia Minor was not without logic – even if it was unusual. But then Alexios was much more open-minded than his peers when it came to outsiders. Byzantines generally took a dim view of foreigners, regardless of where they came from, perceiving them as useful mercenaries, but also as uncouth, driven by lowly passions and motivated by money. This was not how Alexios Komnenos saw things. As he showed on countless occasions during his reign, Alexios was more than happy to entrust sensitive tasks to foreigners living in Byzantium. Indeed, one writer commented that the emperor liked nothing better than being surrounded by ‘barbarians from captivity’.19 It was a reputation that spread across Europe and was recorded as far away as Normandy.20 Alexios felt comfortable with such people, men like him who were from military backgrounds and had come to Constantinople to find service. Ethnicity and religion were of little importance to him, perhaps the result of being brought up alongside Tatikios, the son of a Turk captured by his father, and who later became the emperor’s most trusted confidant.21

After limited operations in Bithynia, therefore, Alexios approached Sulayman in the summer of 1081 and came to an agreement with him. Lavish gifts were presented by the emperor in return for setting a boundary at the river Drakon beyond which the Turks were not allowed to encroach. Sulayman was effectively appointed as the emperor’s representative in western Asia Minor, with the remit not only to prevent incursions of his own men, but of all Turks in this region.22 Additionally, Alexios received a commitment that military assistance would be provided as, where and when it was needed. When the emperor found himself overstretched near Larissa in 1083, struggling to relieve a Norman siege of the town, ‘he called on [Sulayman] to supply forces with leaders of long experience. The request was answered without delay: 7,000 men were sent along with highly skilled officers.’23 Turkish auxiliaries who fought alongside him against the Normans on other occasions in the early 1080s may likewise have been supplied by Sulayman.24

Alexios gained much from the agreement. It left him free to deal with the troubles in the western provinces being caused by Normans and Pechenegs. It also provided him with the security of knowing that he had not inadvertently provided a platform from which an ambitious Byzantine aristocrat might mount a challenge against his rule. Best of all, however, was the fact that Sulayman proved to be an outstanding ally.

For one thing, the truce agreed in 1081 was extremely effective. Turkish raids on Byzantine territory were brought to an immediate end, with the peace agreement diligently enforced by Sulayman. As a message from the sultan of Baghdad to the emperor reveals, the treaty concluded between Alexios and Sulayman remained intact until at least the middle of 1085 and possibly later still.25 It provided the basis for stability in Asia Minor at a time when the empire was elsewhere teetering on the brink of collapse. Indeed, it appears that the agreement brought further benefits to the emperor that were not limited to western Asia Minor alone. A chronicler from the Caucasus noted that soon after terms were reached, the ‘entire country of Cilicia’ came under the control of ‘a certain emir, Sulayman, son of Kutlumush’.26 To judge from the comments of another author, writing in Syriac, this expansion of Sulayman’s power was advantageous to Byzantium. ‘In the year 475 [AD 1082]’, he wrote, ‘Sulayman departed from the territory of the Rhomaye [Byzantium] and went and captured the cities on the sea coast, namely Antarados and Tarsos.’27 The nuance here is easy to miss: Sulayman was not attacking targets that were held by Byzantines; he was recovering towns which had fallen to the Turks. In other words, through the treaty concluded in 1081 Sulayman effectively became Alexios’ agent, securing strategically important locations in Asia Minor as the emperor’s representative.

Although the emperor’s reliance on the Turks was inspired, it was not wholly unprecedented from the wider perspective of Byzantine foreign policy. As one tenth-century manual on the craft of diplomacy makes clear, setting neighbours off against one another and hiring warlords to attack unruly enemies was an accepted way of establishing and maintaining a favourable balance with the peoples outside the empire.28 Alexios’ use of Sulayman was bold; but it was not revolutionary.

There was, however, a price to pay: Nicaea. One of the most important towns in Asia Minor, Nicaea was enviably situated, defended by vast walls and fortifications, with a lake to the west side offering additional protection, as well as its own independent water supply. Its location made it the gateway to the rich river valleys of Lycia and Phrygia and the lush western and southern coasts, as well as into the Anatolian plateau. It was a vital node through which all communication flowed between Constantinople and the Byzantine east.

The circumstances of Nicaea’s occupation by the Turks are murky. It is normally assumed that the town was lost during the failed uprising of Nikephoros Melissenos, which was contemporaneous with Alexios’ own revolt against his predecessor in 1081. A member of one of Asia Minor’s leading families, Melissenos won sweeping support as he moved towards Constantinople: ‘The inhabitants of the towns recognised him as though he were emperor of the Romans and surrendered to him’, wrote one author several decades later. ‘He in turn placed them in the care of the Turks, with the result that all the towns of Asia, Phrygia and Galatia quickly came under the sway of the Turks; [Melissenos] then took Nicaea in Bithynia with a sizeable army, and from that location sought to take the empire of the Romans.’29 It therefore seems that Melissenos passed Nicaea – as well as many other towns of Asia Minor – into Turkish hands. Melissenos made a convenient scapegoat, however, not least since he was to cause significant problems for Alexios later in his reign and would live out the rest of his life exiled in a monastery.30 The blame attached to him is rather unconvincing: pinned too neatly by Alexios’ son-in-law, Nikephoros Bryennios, whose history was commissioned by the emperor’s wife.31

In fact, the more natural and logical explanation for the handover of Nicaea lies in the agreement reached between Sulayman and Alexios in 1081. Just as a new governor was sent out to Dyrrakhion after Alexios took power, therefore, the appointment of someone who could be trusted as the emperor’s representative in Nicaea – and would not challenge for the throne – was an important step. The fact that a Byzantine was not immediately dispatched to the town after Alexios’ usurpation suggests that other arrangements had been made to secure Nicaea – that is, to place it in the hands of Sulayman. It is not surprising that some accounts refer to the Turk as the governor of Nicaea.32

The decision to entrust Sulayman with Nicaea became a sensitive issue, though not because this policy backfired in the short term. The problem was that by the start of the 1090s Sulayman was dead and his successor Abu’l-Kasim proved to be a different proposition entirely. As a result, obscuring how and when Nicaea came to be occupied by the Turks became an important part of protecting the emperor’s reputation. Yet the fact that the loss of Nicaea can be traced back to none other than the emperor Alexios I Komnenos completely undermines the Alexiad’s careful and repeated assertions that all of Asia Minor had been lost before Alexios took power.

The attempt to suppress the truth was made easier by the fact that although many histories were written in Byzantium in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with only two exceptions, they either end at the point of Alexios’ seizure of power or begin with the reign of his son and heir, John II.33Even after his death, it was difficult to write about Alexios, and for the most part, historians did not try. This stemmed in large part from deliberate efforts by the Komnenos family to control the image and reputation of the emperor as the founder of the dynasty.34

Nevertheless, Alexios’ role could not be completely disguised, at least to well-informed westerners. The chronicler Albert of Aachen knew that Nicaea had been lost by Alexios, though he was not aware of the details; he was led to believe that it happened after the emperor had been tricked by the Turks.35 When Ekkehard of Aura was told that the emperor had surrendered the town to the Turks, he was appalled, accusing Alexios of committing a most disgusting crime in handing over this jewel of Christianity. Ekkehard had, though, misunderstood the situation: he thought that Alexios had given away Nicaea some time after 1097, when in reality the emperor had placed it in the hands of the Turks in 1081.36

However, it was not in Nicaea or western Asia Minor where things began to go wrong but much further east – in Antioch. The consequences were devastating. Like Nicaea, Antioch was a vital location in the eastern half of Byzantium: a town of great economic significance, strategic value and prestige whose church was overseen by a patriarch and whose governor was one of the highest-ranking officials within the empire.37 As with Nicaea, it was essential for Antioch to be controlled by a loyal lieutenant, someone who did not seek to take advantage of Alexios’ preoccupations elsewhere to plot against him. As a commander who had proved himself time and again on the eastern frontier, Philaretos Braakhamios seemed to fit the bill. But Philaretos was an erratic and difficult figure. He was an excellent general, wrote one Byzantine historian who knew him, but he was also an impossible man who would not take orders from anyone.38

Alexios worked hard to woo Philaretos at the start of his reign, awarding him numerous titles and responsibilities.39 But the emperor was not the only suitor: in the early 1080s, Philaretos also began to receive overtures from the Muslim world. His major fiefdom in eastern Asia attracted the attention of the Turks and Philaretos was eventually persuaded to abandon Byzantium and Christianity in around 1084 when he ‘decided to join them and offered himself for circumcision, according to their custom. His son violently opposed this ridiculous impulse, but his good advice went unheeded.’40 One author expressed his indignation rather more emphatically: ‘the impious and wicked chief Philaretos, who was the very offspring of Satan … a precursor of the abominable Antichrist, and possessed by a demonical and extremely monstrous character … began to war against the Christian faithful, for he was a superficial Christian’.41

For Alexios this was disastrous news. The prospect of Philaretos recognising the authority of the caliph and the sultan was worrying enough; the threat that, with Melitene, Edessa and Antioch under his control, he might also turn over important towns and provinces to the Turks provoked a serious crisis. Alexios reacted immediately, taking countermeasures to secure the towns and regions the rogue general controlled and transferring them into the hands of loyal supporters. A certain T’oros, or Theodore, whose court title of kouropalates indicates that he was a close retainer of the emperor, took control of Edessa.42 His father-in-law, Gabriel, did the same in Melitene, being named governor of the town.43 Castles, fortresses and other strong-points in this region were also occupied by commanders loyal to the emperor.44

Yet it was to Sulayman that Alexios turned to secure Antioch. According to one source, the Turk moved quickly on the city in 1085, travelling via a ‘secret route’ to avoid detection, presumably shown to him by Byzantine guides. When he reached the city, he entered it with little ado and took control of it, harming no one and treating the inhabitants conspicuously well: ‘Peace was re-established, everyone returning to his place unharmed.’45 Arabic sources likewise comment on the kindness Sulayman showed to Antioch’s inhabitants.46

The peaceful occupation of Antioch contrasts sharply with the experiences of western knights who tried to take the city just a few years later. Protected by fearsome natural and man-made defences, Antioch was all but impregnable. But Sulayman did not have to use force to take control: he was acting on behalf of the emperor and so the inhabitants of the city – the majority of them Greek-speaking Byzantines – were willing to let him in. The fact that Alexios seems to have made no attempt to counter either the threat of Philaretos’ defection by sending his own troops or stop Sulayman’s move on Antioch is revealing. This was another case of fruitful collaboration between the Turk and the Byzantine.

Later Arabic writers came to present Sulayman’s occupation in glorious terms. In the words of one poet: ‘You have conquered Byzantine Antioch which enmeshed Alexander in its toils/Your steeds have trampled her flanks, and, humbled,/The daughters of the pale face miscarry their unborn children.’47 However, this was little more than poetic licence, designed to show Antioch as having a Muslim overlord. In fact, after taking the city, Sulayman showed his intentions and his loyalties by immediately suspending the tribute which Philaretos had been paying a local Turkish warlord. When warned that it was dangerous to act against the authority of the sultan, Sulayman responded angrily that he remained obedient to the ruler of Baghdad. In territories subject to the sultan, he replied, there was no question that he was loyal; by implication, therefore, what he did in Nicaea and Antioch – cities belonging to Byzantium – had no bearing on his obligations to the sultan.48 Using the same logic, Sulayman set out from Antioch for Aleppo in the summer of 1085, which had been razed by the Byzantines a century earlier, demanding that its Turkish governor hand the city over to him. It was another town that Alexios was keen to recover.49

The emperor pinned too much hope on his ally, however. Local Turkish warlords soon recognised that Sulayman was overstretched, with limited resources to hold on to his new gains, let alone make new conquests. In the middle of 1085, shortly after Sulayman had taken Antioch, Tutush, the sultan’s belligerent half-brother, marched on the city and drew him into battle. There was some dispute among contemporaries as to whether Sulayman committed suicide when it became obvious his army had been routed or was killed by an arrow which struck him in the face. Whatever the facts, Antioch was now in Tutush’s hands.50

This was a major setback for Byzantium. It was also a disaster for Alexios. Focusing his attention on the threats to the western provinces in the early 1080s, the emperor had not campaigned once in Asia Minor, pinning his hopes on two dominant local figures, Sulayman and Philaretos. In a matter of weeks, this policy had unravelled catastrophically.

Things only got worse when reports were received in Constantinople that Abu’l-Kasim, the man whom Sulayman had left in charge of Nicaea, had launched a wave of raids on towns and villages in Bithynia. Other opportunistic Turks were also taking advantage of the situation to establish themselves in Asia Minor, seizing towns and fortresses which had previously been controlled by Sulayman.51 Byzantine authority in the east was on the point of collapse.

The emperor was not alone in his concern about the sudden changes to the status of Antioch and Nicaea. The sultan of Baghdad, Malik-Shah, also grew alarmed about the situation: the rise in power of local warlords such as Abu’l-Kasim and Tutush threatened to destabilise the Turkish world as much as the Byzantine.52 Like his father Alp Arslan, Malik-Shah was careful to maintain control over his western frontier, often leading expeditions to assert himself over unruly regions which were not of immediate strategic importance to Baghdad but nevertheless vital to the personal power of the sultan. The Turks knew for themselves how important it was to keep an eye on developments in these borderlands; only a few decades earlier they had lingered on the eastern periphery of the caliphate before taking it over completely.

Around the middle of 1086, therefore, Malik-Shah sent envoys to Alexios bearing a letter noting the problems in western Asia Minor. Abu’l-Kasim had failed to respect the agreement which the sultan had made with Sulayman and which had remained intact for several years: ‘I have heard, Emperor, of your troubles. I know that from the start of your reign you have met with many difficulties and that recently, after you had settled the Latin affairs [the Norman attacks of 1081–5], the [Pechenegs] were preparing to make war on you. The emir Abu’l-Kasim, too, having broken the treaty that Sulayman concluded with you, is ravaging Asia as far as Damalis itself … If it is your wish that Abu’l-Kasim should be driven from those districts [that he had attacked] and that Asia, together with Antioch, should be subject to you, send me your daughter as wife for the eldest of my sons. Thereafter nothing will stand in your way; it will be easy for you to accomplish everything with my aid, not only in the east, but even as far as Illyrikon and the entire west. Because of the forces I will send you, no one will resist you from now on.’53 Malik-Shah also promised he would force the Turks to withdraw from the coastal regions and give the emperor his full support to recover all locations that had been lost by the empire.54Anna Komnene reported that the emperor was bemused by the marriage proposal: he burst out laughing and then muttered that the Devil himself must have put this idea into Malik-Shah’s head. Nevertheless, Alexios did not dismiss it out of hand, sending a delegation to Baghdad to offer ‘vain hopes’ about a marriage tie.55

The Alexiad gives the impression that nothing came of negotiations. However, the discussions did in fact lead to a concrete agreement in the mid-1080s, as Anna Komnene herself reveals later in the text. Reporting on the emperor’s preparations for a major battle with the Pechenegs, Anna states that among the men sent to his aid were Turks from the east, dispatched by the sultan in accordance with a treaty that had been agreed previously.56

The outline terms of this treaty can be unscrambled from other passages in the Alexiad. The author reports that her father had the good fortune to woo a Turkish envoy, who defected to Byzantium and handed back to the emperor many towns in Asia Minor in the mid-1080s. Yet the story is too good to be true. It appears what actually happened was that Malik-Shah agreed to expel Turks who had taken control of towns on the coast of Asia Minor and ordered that these locations be restored to Byzantium, with the Turks withdrawing from Sinope on the Black Sea coast, for example, even leaving the town’s treasury behind untouched.57 As a result, all over the region towns were surrendered to Byzantium; this was the result of high-level diplomacy, and not, as Anna Komnene suggests, sleight of hand and cunning on the part of the emperor.

Malik-Shah was well compensated for his crucial help: magnificent gifts were brought to the sultan by Greek envoys in the mid-1080s.58 ‘The rulers of Byzantium brought him tribute’, reported an Arabic writer after the sultan’s death, noting that Malik-Shah’s name was renowned ‘from the borders of China to the limits of Syria, and from the remotest lands of Islam in the north to the confines of Yemen’.59 This hints at a clear demarcation of interest: while Asia Minor belonged to the Byzantine sphere of influence, areas further east were subject to the Turkish sultan.

The sultan’s warnings to local emirs in Anatolia were followed up by aggressive action to impose his direct authority over warlords on the periphery of the Turkish world. A major expedition was dispatched deep into Asia Minor against Nicaea and its governor Abu’l-Kasim, whose raids on Byzantine territory had so troubled Alexios.60 Malik-Shah also set out on campaign in person, marching into the Caucasus before turning south into Syria where he took Aleppo. After Antioch had surrendered to him, the sultan went down to the Mediterranean shore, dismounted and stepped into the sea, plunging his sword three times into the water with the words: ‘Lo, God has allowed me to rule over the lands from the Persian Sea to this sea.’61

The sultan’s capture of Antioch was likely the price to pay for his co-operation against Abu’l-Kasim and for the restoration of towns in Asia Minor. It is striking that Malik-Shah was welcomed by the Christian populations in many of the places he passed through at this time who saw his involvement in the region as a prerequisite for stability, acting as a restraint on local Turkish leaders. The sultan met with no resistance in the Caucasus, for example, where the grace and ‘fatherly affection’ with which he treated the local Christians did much to allay fears of what the direct overlordship of Baghdad might entail.62 It helped too that Malik-Shah had a reputation for tolerance towards Christianity: around the start of 1074, soon after he became sultan in succession to his father, for example, he had sent a delegation to Constantinople with detailed enquiries about Christian doctrine, belief and practice.63 In addition, during his campaign of 1086–7 he seemed to one observer to have come to impose his authority over his own subjects, and not over Christians;64 although he entered Edessa and Melitene, he neither installed his own governors nor removed those who were holding the towns on behalf of the emperor.65

The emperor also took military action in 1086–7, re-establishing his authority over locations in the regions that did not surrender according to the sultan’s instructions. Attacks emanating from Nicaea were brought to a stop following operations against Abu’l-Kasim. ‘The raids were checked’, noted Anna Komnene, ‘and [Abu’l-Kasim] was constrained to seek terms of peace.’66 Imperial troops were dispatched to recover Kyzikos and Apollonias and other locations in western Asia Minor that had been targeted by local Turkish leaders.67 Kyzikos, which had fallen on the eve of Alexios’ coup, was restored to imperial control around the middle of 1086 and placed under the command of Constantine Humbertopoulos, one of the emperor’s closest supporters, until he was recalled to deal with yet another wave of Pecheneg attacks.68

Other locations were recovered after the promise of substantial rewards persuaded some Turkish commanders to take service with the emperor and to convert to Christianity.69 The conversions were welcomed by clerics in Constantinople, who praised Alexios for his evangelism and his advancement of the true faith.70 The emperor was happy to take the credit, but rather than being motivated by religious fervour, he was acting in line with classic diplomacy: offering imperial titles and financial rewards to leading Turks was an effective way of showing the benefits of co-operation with Byzantium. They were a small price to pay for recovering towns and regions that had been lost.

Consequently, in a speech by a senior cleric delivered in the presence of the emperor and his closest advisers on 6 January 1088, the Feast of Epiphany, little mention was made of affairs in the east. In contrast to the western provinces which continued to suffer from the ravagings of the Pechenegs, this was no longer a region of major concern. After dwelling on the threat posed by the steppe nomads and commending Alexios on a peace treaty which had been concluded with the nomads shortly beforehand, Theophylact of Ohrid had nothing of note to say about Asia Minor. Alexios, pronounced the cleric, was fortunate to enjoy excellent relations with the Turks and above all with the sultan. Such was Malik-Shah’s admiration for the emperor that he raised a toast in his honour whenever he heard mention of the emperor’s name. Reports of the emperor’s courage and glory, noted Theophylact approvingly, resounded throughout the world.71

This upbeat assessment of 1088 could not contrast more sharply with the bleak view of the empire’s predicament in 1081 provided by Anna Komnene and long accepted by modern commentators. Stability, not collapse, marked the eastern provinces, even if occasional challenges required decisive action. The situation had been brought under control by the Byzantines – and there would have been no need to appeal to the Pope for help from abroad. In the late 1080s, there was no need for a Crusade.

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