Post-classical history

5

On the Brink of Disaster

THE DETERIORATING SITUATION in Asia Minor was not the only problem Alexios Komnenos had to contend with. On the eve of the First Crusade, Constantinople itself imploded. The failure to make any progress against the Turks led to serious concerns about the emperor’s judgement and his abilities. As further threats emerged, in the form of renewed nomad attacks deep into the Balkans and Serbian raids on the north-western frontier, Alexios’ rule was in jeopardy. The situation became critical shortly before envoys were sent to the Pope in 1095, when the emperor was faced with a coup that was supported by almost the entire Byzantine elite: senior officers, senators, aristocrats and some of Alexios’ closest intimates rose up against him, including many who had helped propel him to power. The spiral of disintegration that would lead Alexios to seek help from the west continued.

Pressure began to mount on the emperor in Constantinople as soon as the situation in Asia Minor began to worsen. After the first wave of Turkish successes in 1090–1, Alexios was already being roundly criticised in the capital. To John the Oxite, the patriarch of Antioch, the emperor had become a liability; endless wars in the 1080s had achieved nothing and military setbacks had brought great suffering.1 And the patriarch’s admonition fell on fertile ground. Dissatisfaction was widespread amongst those who were not part of the golden circle that Alexios had set up around him at the start of his reign. He was assiduous, reported one Byzantine commentator, in promoting members of his family, lavishing vast amounts of money on them: ‘When it came to his relations or some of those who served him, [Alexios] distributed public funds by the cartload. They received fat yearly donations, and enjoyed such wealth that they could have at their service a retinue which was not appropriate to a private person but to emperors; they could have houses the size of cities, not distinct in their splendour from palaces.’ The rest of the aristocracy, the author remarked sadly, was shown no such generosity.2

The favouritism shown by the emperor to members of his family was extensive. Nikephoros Melissenos, one of Alexios’ brothers-in-law, was granted the tax revenues of the important city of Thessaloniki, while the emperor’s brother Adrian was settled with the income of the peninsula of Kassandra in 1084.3 A myriad of monastic establishments set up or endowed by members of the imperial family in this period, such as the church and monastery of the Saviour Pantepoptes established by Anna Dalassene, or the Kosmoteira monastery of the Mother of God founded by Alexios’ son Isaac Komnenos, attest to substantial disposable wealth in the hands of those close to the emperor at a time of huge economic strain.4

Many of the most sensitive positions in Byzantium were handed over to close relatives of the emperor. The governorship of Dyrrakhion, one of the most important towns in the western half of the empire, was entrusted to two of the emperor’s brothers-in-law, George Palaiologos and then John Doukas, before being placed in the hands of Alexios’ eldest nephew.5 Adrian and Nikephoros Komnenos, the emperor’s two younger brothers, were appointed to senior commands in the army and the navy respectively. Their elder brother Isaac, meanwhile, became the main enforcer of policy in Byzantium, with special responsibility for stamping out dissent in Constantinople. Constantine Dalassenos, a cousin on the emperor’s maternal side, was entrusted with the responsibility of recovering the town of Sinope from the Turks in the mid-1080s, before being put in command of the maritime operations against Çaka and coastal Asia Minor.6 Others too were similarly awarded elevated titles and status in Alexios’ Byzantium.7

The emperor’s dependence on his family has shaped posterity’s view of him. This concentration of power is seen as ushering in a new system of government in Byzantium, replacing a wide civil administration with a small interest group made up of the emperor’s inner circle.8 However, while it is tempting to see Alexios as basing his authority solely on his relatives and in-laws, in fact he drew support from a more strategically selected and considerably wider group than is usually assumed.

For example, there were many cousins, nephews, nieces and in-laws who did not find favour, position or high rank during the first decade and a half of Alexios’ reign.9 There were also many beneficiaries of the new regime who were not related to the emperor – Gregory Pakourianos, for example, who came from a distinguished family from Georgia and was appointed commander of the imperial army in 1081.10 Constantine Opos, who was given important military responsibilities in the mid-1080s, likewise had no family link with the Komnenoi.11 The most outstanding example was Leo Kephalas, governor of Larissa when the town was subjected to a horrific Norman siege in 1083, during which the inhabitants reportedly resorted to cannibalism.12 He was later appointed commander of the town of Abydos in western Asia Minor at a time when the threat of the Turks was rising sharply. His ability and loyalty marked him out as a rising star under the Komnenoi. Throughout the 1080s, he was granted a series of villages and other lands, together with exemptions from taxation and eventually the right to pass these properties on to his heirs.13

Mixobarbaroi, ‘half-caste’ nomads who took service with the emperor and prospered, such as Monastras and Ouzas, also enjoyed Alexios’ confidence. So did westerners like Constantine Humbertopoulos, nephew of the emperor’s nemesis Robert Guiscard, and Peter Aliphas, who became a trusted lieutenant in spite of his role in the Norman attack of 1081–3, during which he nearly killed Alexios in combat.14 In addition, the emperor personally oversaw the baptism of Turkish allies and their admission to the senate.15

It was not just the imperial family, therefore, who were beneficiaries of Komnenian government. There was a never-ending stream of supplicants, seeking preferential treatment, exemptions, rewards or favours from Alexios – men like Manuel Straboromanos who presented flowery eulogies to the emperor, extolling his virtues in detail, in an attempt to have lands which had been confiscated restored to him.16 Not all petitioners were well received, however, and from time to time the pious emperor lost patience even with the monks who appeared in Constantinople to plead their cases: ‘I want to slit their nostrils’, he wrote to the patriarch Nicholas III, ‘and then to send them home so that the rest of the monks will understand what the imperial view of things is.’17

What shaped Byzantium under Alexios was not the concentration of power into the hands of the Komnenoi and their supporters, but rather the iron grip which the emperor himself established over the apparatus of the state from the start of his reign. It was Alexios personally who took decisions, made appointments, gave promotions and rewards – or cast enemies into the wilderness. Such close control over every aspect of military, civilian and even ecclesiastical affairs was in sharp contrast to the rule of many of his predecessors. It was a strategy that allowed Alexios to shape Byzantium in his own image.

The promotion of those that the emperor was comfortable with – whether members of his family or outsiders – came at the expense of Byzantine aristocrats who found themselves excluded from positions of influence. The problems this caused were more acute than lost status. The bedrock of imperial society was the distribution of annual salaries to those with positions in Constantinople and the provinces. Funds were channelled from the centre to a wide group of officials in the civilian and military administrations, and changes to this system were a cause not just of resentment but of financial loss. In fact, it had been Alexios’ predecessor, Nikephoros III Botaneiates, who first reduced the salaries paid out by the central government in an attempt to cut costs. Yet Alexios took things further, reducing and in many cases suspending payments altogether to reduce expenditure and bolster the precarious economy. These steps were bound to prove unpopular, as were the confiscations of property belonging to high-ranking officials accused of plotting against Alexios, which was used to boost the sparse imperial coffers. The emperor’s policy of using debased coinage to pay for government expenditure while insisting on higher-value coins when it came to collecting tax, further aggravated the situation.18

Alexios took these steps because of the substantial costs of funding military operations against Byzantium’s neighbours. Maintaining the army in the field almost continuously for more than a decade after 1081 was expensive in terms of salaries, equipment and provisioning. It was costly in indirect terms too, with the diversion of manpower from agricultural production resulting in lower yields, falling tax revenues and rising prices. The payment of tribute to the Pechenegs and to the sultan in the 1080s also required funding, as did other efforts to improve the empire’s situation. An alliance with Henry IV of Germany against the Normans came at great expense: the Byzantines agreed to pay the enormous sum of 360,000 gold coins – with the stipulation that this was to be paid not in newly minted (and heavily debased) currency, but in coins of substantially higher quality.19

Dramatic steps were taken to boost the state’s income. In 1082, Alexios swore on oath that he would never again take treasures from the church, having expropriated high-value objects to fund his campaign against the Normans after they attacked Dyrrakhion. But three years later he again resorted to seizing precious ecclesiastical objects. The emperor was furiously criticised for breaking his promise, with attacks on his character led by the bishop of Chalcedon, a highly vocal and effective agitator, even if Anna Komnene dismissed him as ‘incapable of expressing his ideas accurately and without ambiguity, because he was utterly devoid of any training in logic’.20 Although Alexios managed to weather the controversy, his efforts to extract funds from the church for a third time at the start of the 1090s earned him a stinging rebuke from the patriarch of Antioch.21

Heavy increases in taxation were introduced to cover the mismatch between revenue and expenditure. According to one Byzantine commentator, officials were appointed to gather taxes by inventing debts that needed to be paid off. Failure to meet these phantom obligations was used as a pretext to confiscate property and to provide yet another shot in the arm for the imperial treasury.22 These tax rises had devastating consequences. The increased obligations resulted in death, famine, depopulation and homelessness. In some cases, according to the patriarch of Antioch, it had caused people to join ‘the barbarians who murder Christians, judging that servitude and life with them was more palatable than with us’.23

Even the monks on Mount Athos attracted the attention of an emperor desperate for funds. Athos was home to several monastic communities, and the monks had accumulated an impressive range of land and property and proved adept at gaining exemptions from taxes. The lands they owned were concentrated in one of the few regions of the empire that had not come under pressure from the Normans, Pechenegs or Turks. These territories were also amongst the few places where productivity had not declined in the late eleventh century, and in 1089 Alexios turned to them to raise money. Three charters record the introduction of a new charge, the epibole, which made fresh demands on landowners. Those who could not or would not pay immediately were penalised, amongst them the monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos, which had lands of almost 20,000 acres confiscated by the emperor.24

By the time the situation in Asia Minor started to deteriorate at the start of the 1090s, Alexios had run out of options. Debasement of the coinage had reached a nadir, while central government had been stripped to the barest bones to save money. To make matters worse, around the start of 1091, Crete and Cyprus, the two largest and most important islands in the eastern Mediterranean, rose up in revolt against the emperor and declared effective independence from Constantinople. This rebellion was the result of heavy overtaxation.25 Raids on the north-western frontier likewise put yet more pressure on the embattled emperor – as well as stretching Byzantium’s resources further still.26

At the start of 1092, Alexios reached a decision that was to have a major impact on the history of the eastern Mediterranean. During the Norman attacks of the 1080s, the emperor had worked closely with Venice, with Venetian ships patrolling the Adriatic to prevent Norman supplies crossing over from southern Italy to provision the invaders, in exchange for an upfront payment.27 Alexios issued a series of grants to ensure further co-operation during the Norman assaults of 1081–5, which included the award of titles to the doge as well as an extension of Venetian authority in the Adriatic to include Dalmatia.28

Desperate to stimulate the empire’s financial system, Alexios concluded that this could only be achieved with a major injection of foreign capital. In the spring of 1092, therefore, the emperor issued a grant giving a sweeping set of privileges and concessions to Venice.29 The ruler of Venice had used the title of doge of Venice and Dalmatia and imperial protosebastos in the 1080s; after 1092, however, he was also granted jurisdiction over Croatia in a further enlargement of Venetian authority – an important concession from Constantinople. This was further reinforced by the doge being given the right to pass these new honours on to his successors.30 In addition, the churches of Venice were to receive funds, with St Mark’s singled out for particularly generous treatment to help pay for the major restoration works undertaken at the start of the 1090s in advance of its imminent reconsecration. Part of the quayside in Constantinople, stretching from the Gate of the Hebrews to the Vigla tower, was to be set aside for the exclusive use of Venetian traders, with provision for similar arrangements in a range of other ports in the empire, including Antioch, Laodikeia, Tarsos, Mamistra, Attaleia, Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Thessaloniki and Dyrrakhion.31 This gave Venice a significant competitive edge over other Italian city-states in the eastern Mediterranean.

Yet Alexios’ grant went further, as he offered unprecedented incentives to encourage Venetian traders to invest in Byzantium. For example, immunity was awarded to protect against claims made on the properties they were given.32 All taxes on Venetian shipping and the goods they were transporting, imports and exports alike, were removed.33 By not giving similar concessions to Amalfi, Pisa and Genoa – other Italian city-states with important trade links with the empire – the emperor provided Venice with a major competitive advantage and incentive to boost their investment in Byzantium. So significant was this development that the patriarch of Grado himself, the head of the church in Venice, journeyed to Constantinople in the spring of 1092, presumably to witness the signing of the trade privileges in person.34

Alexios’ move was another one of his gambles. There was the risk that other Italian city-states might demand the same terms. There was also the question of how to cancel or modify the terms of this generous grant in the future, to which the emperor seems to have given little thought in 1092. More significant in the short term was that the advantage handed to Venice placed further pressure on Byzantine merchants, as the widening of margins for the Italians made them dangerously competitive to local traders.

It is difficult to quantify the impact of the grant, but it is no coincidence that shortly after awarding the trading concessions, Alexios undertook a complete overhaul of the Byzantine monetary system. In the summer of 1092, the hyperpyron (literally’ ‘refined gold’), a new high-value coin, was introduced alongside several lower denominations, fixed in value in relation to each other. Although the new coins appeared only in limited numbers to start with, the re-coinage was a prerequisite for international exchange, as a stable currency was essential for foreign trade. Reforming the tattered currency was also crucial for the recovery of the severely depleted economy which had been battered by successive debasements which left little clarity over what the coinage was actually worth. Whether or not it would resuscitate the empire’s ailing aristocracy was another matter.

* * *

There had been remarkably little opposition to Alexios I Komnenos in the first decade of his reign. In spite of the difficulties posed by Byzantium’s neighbours and the worsening economic situation, the emperor was not put under serious pressure in Constantinople. Criticism of Alexios after the fall of Dyrrakhion in 1082 did not turn into direct action against him, and nothing came of the rumours of plots against the emperor which circulated in the capital in the winter of 1083.35 Nor did a calamitous expedition to the Danube region a few years later prompt rebellion, even though the emperor was wounded in battle and had to hide one of the empire’s most revered relics, the cape of the Virgin Mary, in a bed of wild flowers to prevent it being captured by the Pechenegs.36

The passivity of the ruling elite in the 1080s is all the more striking when set against the disturbances of the previous decade, when the empire was racked by civil war as several magnates took turns to try to seize the throne. This apparent calm was partly caused by the sharp decline in the fortunes of the aristocracy during this period. The removal of salaries, the collapse of independent incomes from lands which had come under pressure from raids by Byzantium’s neighbours, and the unstable financial system had significantly weakened the empire’s elites. But the failure of the aristocracy to challenge Alexios was also the result of the new emperor’s grip on the realm. Carefully targeted confiscations of property at the outset of his reign made it clear to potential rebels that dissent came at a high price. Those seen as a threat were dealt with ruthlessly; as the deposition of two patriarchs in the first three years of Alexios’ reign showed, the new emperor would not tolerate signs of mutiny or disloyalty.

By the start of the 1090s, however, Alexios could do little to prevent his position coming into question. It was becoming increasingly apparent that Alexios had steered the empire backwards. Scarce resources had been all but exhausted, with tax burdens leading to rebellion in places like Crete and Cyprus that could evade the fading grasp of Constantinople. The grant to Venice had antagonised too many, with properties given to the Italian traders taken from private individuals and from churches who were not only deprived of compensation, but also the right of appeal.37

Yet nowhere were Alexios’ limitations clearer than in Asia Minor, where the emperor’s attempts to reverse Turkish advances had proved woeful. Attempts to recover the coast had failed completely and efforts against Nicaea had been embarrassingly ineffective. As Alexios’ reign began to look like a disaster, minds inevitably turned to the alternatives.

Remarkably, the efforts to replace the emperor did not come from the most obvious sources – those who had lost status and position as a result of the Komnenoi coup in 1081, or landowners in Asia Minor whose properties had been lost to the Turks or were under threat. Nor did it come from those whose prospects had been dented by Alexios’ predilection for promoting outsiders to important positions in Byzantium, as articulated darkly by one author offering advice to the emperor in this period: ‘whenever you honour a stranger coming from the rabble [of foreigners] by naming him as primikerios or as a general’, he wrote, ‘what possible position can you give to a Roman which is worthy? You shall make him your enemy in every way’.38 In fact, the bitterest opposition to the emperor came from those who had been his strongest supporters: his own family.

Matters reached a climax in the spring of 1094 when Alexios prepared a major expedition to reinforce the north-western frontier, following repeated Serbian incursions into Byzantine territory. This was the final straw. With Asia Minor in tatters, the decision to focus on an outlying area of limited strategic importance appeared to show a profound lack of judgement. It provided confirmation, if confirmation were needed, that the emperor needed to be replaced.

Reports of misgivings about Alexios reached the ears of his nephew John Komnenos, who had recently been appointed governor of Dyrrakhion following the recall of John Doukas. Yet rather than warn his uncle about the rumours, John presented himself as a possible successor. It was a position he had become used to in the 1080s when he had been offered as a suitable match for the daughter of Henry IV of Germany during discussions to seal the alliance against the Normans.39 But the coronation of Alexios’ eldest son, John II Komnenos, as co-emperor alongside his father in the autumn of 1092 dealt a blow to John’s hopes of succession.40 When the archbishop of Bulgaria, Theophylact, informed the emperor about his nephew’s plot against him, John was summoned and put in his place by Alexios. But although the matter was swiftly resolved, the affair revealed that even some of his own family had come to believe that Alexios was living on borrowed time.41

John’s ambitions were part of a wider movement in Byzantium and there were plenty of other candidates to challenge the emperor. One was Constantine Doukas, the son of Michael VII, a young man with an impeccable pedigree but a limp character, and prone to bouts of ill health. Alexios had watched him carefully after taking power, aware that he was a potential rival to the throne, and to secure his loyalty had arranged Constantine’s betrothal to his eldest daughter, Anna Komnene, soon after she was born in December 1083.42 If reports that spread throughout the empire and beyond are to be believed, this union was not going to produce an heir: Constantine had apparently been castrated by Nikephoros III Botaneiates in 1078.43

After Constantine showed little appetite for insurrection, attention fell on another man whose breeding was matched by his character. Nikephoros Diogenes was the son of Romanos IV, who had been humiliated at Manzikert in 1071. Along with his younger brother, Nikephoros had also been watched closely by Alexios as he grew up. The two boys were like lion cubs, says Anna Komnene, the emperor nurturing them as if they were his own children. He never had a bad word to say about them, and consistently looked to their best interests. Where others might have viewed the Diogenes boys with suspicion, reported Anna, Alexios chose to treat them with honour and affection. That, at least, is what the emperor’s daughter says.44

Nikephoros now emerged as the strongest contender for the throne. Unlike Alexios, Nikephoros was ‘porphyrogennetos’ – meaning, literally, ‘born in the purple’, the designation given to all children of ruling emperors who were born in the porphyry chamber of the imperial palace. He also possessed strong personal qualities: natural charm, a magnetic character and good looks. Even Anna Komnene was impressed: ‘He was physically strong and boasted that he rivalled the Giants; a broad-chested, blond man, a head taller than others of his generation. People who saw him playing polo on horseback, shooting an arrow or brandishing a spear at full gallop stood open-mouthed, almost rooted to the spot, thinking they were watching a genius never seen before.’45

As the emperor embarked on his campaign in the Balkans in the summer of 1094, Nikephoros decided to take the initiative. Resolving to murder Alexios in person rather than delegate the task, Nikephoros approached the imperial tent one evening with a sword concealed under his arm. But he could not seize the moment, put off, it was said, by a young girl fanning mosquitoes away from the sleeping emperor and the empress who was accompanying Alexios on campaign. Nikephoros was thwarted again soon after, when he was challenged by a guard who saw him carrying a weapon, despite being ostensibly on his way to bathe.46

Informed of this suspicious behaviour, Alexios asked his brother Adrian, the military commander in charge of the western armies, to intervene quietly, fearing that a public confrontation would further weaken his position. Yet Adrian knew more about Diogenes’ plans than the emperor realised and returned claiming to have found out nothing about the supposed conspiracy.47 The emperor now resorted to more blunt measures and after being arrested and tortured, Nikephoros confessed all.

When he discovered exactly who had been implicated in the conspiracy, Alexios was dumbfounded.48 They included both the former empress Maria, ex-wife of Michael VII and Nikephoros III Botaneiates, who had once been so close to Alexios, and Michael Taronites, the husband of his sister Maria Komnene.49 Nikephoros had also won the support of leading members of the senate, senior army officers and influential aristocrats.50 They are not identified by name in the Alexiad, which provides the main account for this period, curtailing the list of conspirators in a diplomatic lacuna rather than recording the embarrassing extent of the plot. Nevertheless, it is possible to establish some of the conspiracy’s leading supporters. Chief amongst them was Alexios’ brother Adrian.

The commander of the empire’s western armies was a prize asset for Nikephoros. The men were brothers-in-law through Adrian’s marriage to Nikephoros’ half-sister, and the fact that Adrian appears to have known the details of a previous attempt against the emperor suggests that he may have been involved.51 But something else reveals that he was implicated in the plot against Alexios: after it was uncovered, he vanished.

Adrian played no role during the First Crusade, neither supervising contingents of westerners across Byzantine territory on their way towards Constantinople, nor receiving them in the capital when they arrived. When disputes and misunderstandings spilled over into violence and left the emperor with little option but to use force against the knights, Adrian was invisible, with others appointed to lead the counter-attacks of the imperial forces. He was not present at Nicaea before, during or after the siege of the town in 1097. In spite of his being the highest-ranked officer in the imperial army, it was not Adrian who was sent with imperial troops across Asia Minor to accompany and guide the Crusaders to Antioch. Not one of the many primary sources for the Crusade mentions his name or alludes to his existence. In fact, he had been disgraced; this was why he lived out his last years in a monastery, his name excised from imperial propaganda, and why his children were excluded from power in the twelfth century.52

Other leading figures also disappeared from view, a telling clue to their involvement in the plot. One was Nikephoros Melissenos: once Alexios’ rival for power, Melissenos had turned into a sour figure, sniping at the emperor and openly stirring dissent.53 Now he too was quietly removed.54The same was true for Nikephoros Komnenos, about whom very little is known, apart from the fact that he had been in charge of the imperial navy at some point before 1094.55 He no longer held this post by the time of the Crusade, when it was occupied by Eustathios Kymineianos.56 It was not just the Byzantine elite that had turned on Alexios therefore; his own family were deserting him.

Alexios’ regime was under serious threat. The emperor moved quickly to conceal the true extent of the plot. A report was circulated that the conspiracy had been revealed to the emperor by Constantine Doukas. This simply was not true.57 In a telling admission of just how far the emperor’s stock had fallen, Alexios was forced to rely on lies to claim that he still enjoyed the confidence of leading figures in Byzantium. Public knowledge of the damaging involvement of the ex-empress Maria was also suppressed.58 TheAlexiad indicates that many leading figures as well as the rank and file of the army were implicated in the conspiracy.59 The emperor’s supporters, meanwhile, ‘were now limited to a handful of men and his life was in danger’.60

The emperor called a crisis meeting of his loyal relatives by blood and marriage – ‘those, that is, who were really devoted to him’, according to Anna Komnene. Trying to take control of the situation, Alexios took a courageous decision: he announced that he wanted to hold a general assembly the next day so that he could address all those who were on campaign with him in person. As dawn broke the following morning, a procession accompanied Alexios to the imperial tent, where he took up position in front of the gathered troops. Resplendent on his golden throne, his cheeks burning red with anticipation, he faced the crowd. The tension was all but overwhelming.61

Men loyal to Alexios took position next to the throne, armed with spears and swords, while members of the Varangian guard formed a semicircle behind the emperor with their heavy iron axes slung over their shoulders. Alexios was dressed not in imperial robes, but in the modest clothing of a soldier, a statement rich with symbolism and intent. If he was about to be hacked to death, it was as a soldier that he would fall. The emperor’s reign and the fate of the Byzantine Empire seemed to turn on this moment.

‘You know that Diogenes has never suffered ill at my hands’, Alexios began. ‘It was not I who deprived his father of this empire, but someone else entirely. Nor have I been the cause of evil or pain of any sort as far as he is concerned.’ Although he had always looked after Nikephoros, he had been consistently ungracious and above all selfish, said the emperor. Diogenes had repaid Alexios’ kindness with treachery. He had been repeatedly forgiven for undermining the emperor and even being caught plotting to take power, he continued. ‘Yet none of my favours has succeeded in altering his perfidy. Indeed, by way of gratitude, he sentenced me to death.’62

To the emperor’s relief, his speech had an immediate impact on his audience, as men started to exclaim that they did not wish anyone to take Alexios’ place. This reaction was not simply the result of well-chosen words, but also stemmed from a rising sense of panic as the crowd feared that the emperor’s guard was about to embark on a mass slaughter of the assembled gathering. When Alexios then talked of forgiveness and offered an amnesty to all who were present on the basis that the main conspirators had been identified and would be punished separately, pandemonium broke out: ‘A great clamour arose, such as none of those present had ever heard before and have never heard since, at least to judge from those who were there; some praised the emperor and marvelled at his kindness and forbearance, while others abused [the leaders of the conspiracy], insisting they should be punished by death.’63

The chief conspirators were spared the death sentence in spite of the seriousness of their crime but were disgraced and exiled; Nikephoros Diogenes and his fellow ringleader, Katakalon Kekaumenos, were blinded.64 But Alexios was genuinely shocked that such strong opposition had been fomenting against him, and according to Anna Komnene, the conspiracy had a major impact on his mental and physical health.65 Anna reports that anxiety would plague him later in his reign, causing him on some occasions to find it difficult to breathe.66

The setbacks in Asia Minor of the early 1090s had been at the heart of the efforts to depose Alexios, but it was the emperor’s decision to take a major military force to review the north-western frontier and tackle Serbian raids that sparked fury with the disillusioned elite in Byzantium who felt their interests in the empire’s heartlands were being deliberately ignored. Central to Alexios’ success after taking the throne in 1081 had been his consolidation of power and his creation of a political system with himself at the heart of every appointment, every military expedition and every policy. This in turn was based on weakening the authority and influence of the aristocracy, which was achieved indirectly through the centrality of the emperor’s own role, and directly through the reduction and removal of salaries. Heavy taxation, officious revenue gathering and politically motivated confiscations also served to reduce the fortunes of the ruling classes in Byzantium.

Such treatment of the empire’s nobles had brought his reign to the brink of disaster. When he returned to Constantinople after the Diogenes conspiracy was uncovered in 1094, the emperor’s first action was to purge the ruling class. Those who had held important responsibilities in the first part of his reign were replaced by a new generation, promoted en bloc. The new officials were chosen not on the basis of their family wealth, connections or political importance, but on a more direct criterion: complete loyalty to Alexios. Amongst the principal beneficiaries were men from the western provinces; in a major recalibration of the empire itself, this marked a decisive swing in the distribution of power from the old dynasties of the Byzantine aristocracy of Anatolia to a new set of up-and-coming families from Thrace.

Others too sprang to prominence. Manuel Boutoumites appeared on record for the first time in the aftermath of the Diogenes revolt, rising from obscurity to hold some of the most sensitive responsibilities in Byzantium; he would play a major role during the First Crusade. Eumathios Philokales, a man so tough that one holy man felt he would not even be saved by prayer, was plucked from the backwaters of the Peloponnese and appointed governor of Cyprus once Alexios’ authority on the island had finally been restored.67 Others, like Niketas Karykes and Eustatios Kymineianos also found themselves promoted to leading positions in the wake of the attempted coup.68 Then there was Nikephoros Bryennios, hand-picked by the emperor to replace Constantine Doukas as fiancé to Anna Komnene.69

The sweeping changes of 1094 saw foreigners rise even higher than they had before. Peter Aliphas, the Norman who took service a decade earlier, became increasingly relied upon by the emperor.70 The imperial navy was placed under the command of Landulph, whose name suggests he was of Lombard origin, and the first non-Byzantine to take charge of the imperial fleet.71 The ever-reliable Tatikios, meanwhile, was pushed to the very top of the army; he too would be given one of the most sensitive and important tasks during the First Crusade.72

Very few leading officials survived the reshuffle. George Palaiologos and John Doukas still had roles to play, the former zealously promoting the emperor’s best interests during his negotiations with the Crusaders, and the other spearheading the recovery of western Asia Minor,73 together with Constantine Dalassenos.74 But the clearing out of the old guard carried risks. There were real dangers in removing in one fell swoop all those who had lent their backing to Diogenes or who had shown other signs of discontent. As a result, it seems that at least in some cases, removals were phased. Nikephoros Melissenos, for example, was still active some months after the conspiracy, serving on campaign against Cuman steppe nomads in the spring of 1095 where he was closely watched by newly promoted senior commanders before quietly slipping from view.75

In spite of all his efforts, Alexios’ hold on power remained precarious. This became even more pronounced at the start of 1095 when news was received that Togortak, a ferocious Cuman chieftain, had crossed the Danube and was attacking imperial territory. The Cumans were accompanied by a man claiming to be Leo Diogenes, one of the sons of the emperor Romanos IV, seeking to capitalise on the discontent in Byzantium and on the headway made by Nikephoros Diogenes, his ‘brother’. Leading the Cumans to Adrianople in Thrace, he subjected this important town to a lengthy siege while nomads caused havoc elsewhere in the Balkans.76 Although eventually the Cumans returned to the Danube, Byzantium’s crisis was continuing unabated.

The most urgent problem, however, remained the reconquest of Asia Minor, and particularly the recovery of Nicaea. Alexios’ previous efforts to take the town by ruse, by buying it or by trying to harass its defences had come to nothing.77 There was only one solution left: a sustained siege. Yet this required a substantial body of men, ideally made up of those with experience in attacking large fortified targets. There was one obvious source for the manpower and technology that Alexios needed.

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