Roman Emperors Dir Alexius Ii Comnenus
Alexius II Comnenus (24 September 1180- before 24 September 1183)
University of Western Australia
The reign of Alexius II Comnenus (24 September 1180- before 24 September
1183) marks the beginning of a rapid decline in Byzantine affairs, following
the restoration effected by the first three emperors of the Comnenian dynasty.
Throughout, the spectre of the boy emperor's second cousin Andronicus
loomed, whether it be as a rallying-point to the opponents of the regency
of the first years of Alexius' reign, be it as regent in succession to
the legitimate regency of Maria of Antioch
(Maria-Xene) (appointed by Alexius' father Manuel),
or as co-emperor. The boy-emperor took no part in government due to his
tender age (he was but eleven on his succession, and had not been given
any training by his father, as the panegyrists of the time happily admit),
and was but a puppet, dominated at first by the regency of his mother Maria
of Antioch (Maria-Xene) in collusion with her lover the protosebatos
and then by Andronicus; he was even coerced
by the latter into signing his mother's death-warrant. The tragedy of Alexius'
reign is testament to the fact that the Comnenian style of government required
a strong and capable autocrat to be effective.
Alexius as heir-apparent
Alexius was born on 14 September 1169 and crowned co-emperor in 1171.
By 1174 this "sprout of purple" or "gleam of purple" was being celebrated
in contemporary panegyrics for his alleged precocity in wielding spears
(for hunting) like Achilles, and in the 1179 speech of Eustathius of Thessalonica
welcoming his fiancée, the nine-year-old Agnes
of France (daughter of King Louis VII) [],
the rhetor praises him for his physical beauty. The speeches reveal that
spared his son the rigours of governmental responsibility[],
despite his official status as co-emperor, and those of campaigning, with
the possible exception of the 1175 campaign in Phrygia, where the boy emperor
may have witnessed the rebuilding of the key fortresses of Dorylaeum and
Siblia[]. Alexius' wedding
to Agnes was celebrated on the 2nd of March 1180, a double bill with the
wedding of his half-sister Maria to Renier of Montferrat[].
The regency of Maria of Antioch (Maria-Xene) and the protosebastos Alexius (1180-early 1182)
Manuel had, on his deathbed, appointed a regency council of twelve,
headed by his wife Maria of Antioch (Maria-Xene),
with the assistance of Theodosius Boradiotes, the patriarch[].
The new boy emperor (he was only eleven years old) took absolutely no interest
in government, but indulged in his favourite pastimes of hunting and attending
chariot races. In short order, the protosebastos and protovestiarios
Alexius Comnenus, Manuel's nephew, prevailed
over the other members of the council, and became Maria
of Antioch's (Maria-Xene) lover, much to the chagrin of Maria
Porphyrogenita, Manuel's daughter from
his first wife, who was thus excluded from power. Another party desirous
of power was Manuel's cousin Andronicus,
who, after returning from exile before Manuel's
death to become reconciled with him, now sojourned in Paphlagonia. The
situation was a veritable powder-keg, and would shortly be ignited.
Once in power, the protosebastos sold offices to the upper tier
of the aristocracy at high prices, alienating the middle and lower classes
of Constantinople by his greed and parsimony. We are told something of
the condition of the provinces by the metropolitan bishop of Athens Michael
Choniates. The great landowners were favoured by the régime, as
were the monasteries (their fiscal privileges being reaffirmed in July
1181). The people at large however fell victim to the rapacity of the governors
(praetors) in Hellas[].
One notable diplomatic initiative of the protosebastos was the meeting
between Byzantine envoys and Saladin in Cairo, May-June 1181[].
Maria Porphyrogenita's plot and the associated riot (early 1181)
The kaisarissa Maria Porphyrogenita opposed the new régime openly and was forever scheming against it. An attempted coup (for 7 February 1181) failed, and the plot was revealed (March 1 1181). Some of the conspirators are listed for us by Nicetas Choniates, and also by Eustathius of Thessalonica[]: important were two sons of Andronicus Comnenus. They were tried and condemned, Maria and her husband Renier of Montferrat seeking refuge in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia (before Easter, 5 April 1181). The protosebastos and Maria of Antioch (Maria-Xene) offered Maria an amnesty, which she refused, demanding that her co-conspirators be re-tried. She was emboldened by the fact that the populace was sympathetic to her cause. Accordingly, she had the Great Church garrisoned with supporters, including Latins and Iberians (despite the protests of Theodosius, as Choniates tells us[]), and a riot broke out among the people, who proceeded to sack certain buildings, including the palace of the eparch of the city, Theodore Pantechnes.
Alexius the protosebastos decided to send soldiers against the
these soldiers rallying at the Great Palace. In the meantime, Maria's(Maria-Xene)
demolished the buildings adjacent to the Great Church and the Augusteum,
which were her strongholds. On 2 May a great battle began between the imperial
troops and the outnumbered troops of the kaisarissa Maria. After
a while some of her supporters withdrew and the remaining survivors shut
themselves in the Great Church. At first, neither side dared to risk continuing
battle following this development. Then Renier led a sally forth from the
Great Church, and held his own, but further fighting had to be left aside
due to the lateness in the day. Theodosius in the meantime had sent a messenger
to the regents asking for a truce on the
kaisarissa's behalf. This
was granted, and the
megas doux Andronicus Contostephanus and the
hetaireiarches John Ducas sent to negotiate with Renier and Maria.
The result was a truce, and the kaisarissa did not lose her rank[].
The protosebastos Alexius had Theodosius removed from the patriarchal
throne for his alleged support of the rebels, and confined to the monastery
of the Pantepoptes, but soon relented and reinstalled him. Nicetas
Choniates says that it was the sacrilege of the use of the Great Church
as a fortress which was the immediate cause of the sack of Constantinople
by the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade in 1204[].
The march of Andronicus Comnenus and the massacre of the Latins in 1182
The protosebastos remained as unpopular as ever. Taking advantage of this, Andronicus passed from Paphlagonia, where he had been residing, into the Pontus, all the while writing letters in which he posed as the champion of the boy-emperor's rights[]. He moved slowly, to give a false impression of a large and cumbersome army. However, Nicaea in Bithynia refused to submit, and John Ducas and the Grand Domestic John Comnenus were entrusted with her defence by the regency government. Andronicus Angelus (father of the future emperors Isaac II and Alexius III) marched out from Nicomedia and fought with Andronicus Comnenus at the village of Charax, to be roundly defeated in spite of his superior numbers. Andronicus Angelus was so worried about being punished for this failure in battle, that in the end he defected to Andronicus Comnenus' cause. So it was that Andronicus (Comnenus) arrived at the Bosporus, camping at Chalcedon (on the opposite shore from Constantinople). Although his force was small, he spread his men out, and the impression given by the campfires was of a much greater force[].
The protosebastos Alexius first tried diplomacy, sending George
Xiphilinus to Andronicus promising a
pardon, vast rewards and high office if he would desist. When this failed,
protosebastos, realising how little he could depend on the populace
or army, decided that a naval blockade was the answer. The blockading fleet
was commanded by the megas doux Andronicus Contostephanus. The boy
emperor sent a messenger to Andronicus (Comnenus)
to promise him greater honours should he desist; Andronicus
flatly refused the ultimatum, whereupon, in the next few days, Andronicus
Contostephanus changed sides. Andronicus Comnenus'
two sons, imprisoned for their part in Maria Porphyrogenita's plot, were
released, and the protosebastos imprisoned in their place. Days
later, he was ferried across to Andronicus (Comnenus)
at Chalcedon and blinded as a punishment[].
The populace, incited by Andronicus (Comnenus),
now fell upon those Latins, particularly the Genoese and Pisans, who were
living in Constantinople or there on business. The Latins abandoned their
riches, some seeking refuge in the houses of noblemen whom they could trust,
others escaping by galleys, others, less fortunate, falling to the sword.
The populace persecuted the Latin clergy especially. Those who took to
the sea were not pursued, and they retaliated by sacking those islands
they encountered on their journey away from Constantinople[].
Andronicus' regency (early 1182-1183)
At length the patriarch Theodosius crossed the Bosporus and met with
who, Choniates tells us, feigned obeisance[].
Shortly, Andronicus and his entourage
travelled to Damalis (more precisely opposite Constantinople). From there,
they crossed to the suburb of Philopatium, where once again
Andronicus made a show of respect, this time to the boy emperor.
After many days had been spent there, Andronicus
paid his respects to the sarcophagus of his cousin the emperor Manuel
I, with an ostentatious display of grief. One of his first
actions as new guardian of the emperor was to reward his Paphlagonian and
other supporters with offices and money. Then the persecutions began, many
punished, even by blinding, without a charge being laid formally against
them. One who was a friend of the regent one day was the next day condemned
as an enemy. Choniates accuses Andronicus
of poisoning the kaisarissa Maria Porphyrogenita and her husband
the kaisar Renier, despite their previous support of him[].
They were obviously perceived as obstacles to his true aim, accession to
The next stage was to marry his daughter Irene (by his second cousin Theodora) to the emperor. To do so would have been within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and Andronicus therefore convened a synod of the bishops to give a dispensation. Theodosius remained opposed, but Andronicus obtained the necessary dispensation through strategic bribery. Theodosius therefore departed for the island of Terebinthos. Andronicus appointed his own man Basil Camaterus in his place, and the wedding proceeded, consecrated by the archbishop of Bulgaria[].
In the meantime the sultan of Konya, Kilidj II Arslan, seized the opportunity
to capture Sozopolis in Phrygia, with the surrounding towns, and John Comnenus
Vatatzes, who was residing in Philadelphia, rebelled against the new régime.
sent Andronicus Lapardas against Vatatzes, who took ill, but did not die
before seeing his sons Manuel and Alexius rout the army sent against him.
Upon John Vatatzes' death, however, the inhabitants of Philadelphia changed
sides to Andronicus. His sons took refuge with the sultan of Konya. Departing
from Konya, they set sail for Sicily, but had to make a landfall at Crete,
whereupon they were captured and deprived of their sight[].
Andronicus' reign of terror
We are told by Choniates that Andronicus
became more arrogant than ever, and sought to become co-emperor[].
The main remaining obstacle was Maria of
Antioch (Maria-Xene) . Andronicus
incited the populace against her and when some of the judges of the velum
(Demetrios Tornices, Leo Monasteriotes and Constantine Patrenus), who were
to consider the charges laid against her, asked if prosecuting her was
the wish of the emperor Alexius, they nearly lost their lives at the hands
of the mob, so provoked by Andronicus.
Andronicus now tried to eliminate competition from among the extended
imperial family, many of whom were holding long-established or recently
invented offices, under the so-called "Comnenian system". For Andronicus
Angelus, the son of Constantine Angelus, the megas doux Andronicus
Contostephanus, and these two men's sons, along with the logothete of the
drome, Basil Camaterus (not the homonymous patriarch), plotted the tyrant's
destruction. However, the plot was betrayed, and although Andronicus Angelus
escaped, Contostephanus, his sons and Basil Camaterus were not so fortunate,
The regent Andronicus now instituted
a reign of terror, imprisoning, banishing, and undoing in other ways. Maria
of Antioch (Maria-Xene) still needed to be dealt with, so she was
arraigned on a charge of treason (for she had sought the help of her sister's
husband Béla III of Hungary) and a puppet court condemned her to
imprisonment in a dungeon near the monastery of St Diomedes. The sentence
was commuted to death, the decree affirmed by the signature of the emperor
Alexius himself. Even Andronicus' firstborn
Manuel, we are told, was disgusted at this sentence, and so the empress-dowager
had a brief reprieve. In the end however men (in particular the hetaireiarch
Constantine Tripsychus) were found to carry out the sentence of death by
strangulation (? end of 1182)[],
another testament to the bloody nature of the new régime.
The empire's frontiers
While all this was happening, Béla III had taken the opportunity
to conquer the Balkan frontier towns of Branitshevo and Belgrade (he had
already recovered Sirmium and Dalmatia) and he advanced up the Morava to
Nish, proceeding even as far as Sofia, removing the relics of the local
saint, even though he abandoned the latter. The Byzantine army, setting
out in the summer of 1181 under Alexius Branas and Andronicus Lapardas,
was ineffective against him. Stephen Nemanja and the Serbs of Rascia and
Zeta made themselves independent, and Kilidj II Arslan of Konya/Iconium,
after taking Sozopolis in Pisidia, destroyed Cotyaeum (Kutahya). His court
became a haven for Byzantine refugees.
Isaac Angelus and Theodore Cantacuzenus were fomenting insurrection
in the city of Nicaea, and Theodore Angelus was harboured by the city of
Prusa. Andronicus' supporters, the demagogues
who incited the populace, said that this opposition could only be silenced
by granting him the imperial office. Andronicus
at first feigned reluctance to receive the crown, but, needless to say,
was soon proclaimed co-emperor, to the accompaniment of much rejoicing
by the people at large[].
The following day, Andronicus was proclaimed
first in rank among the co-emperors. He was subsequently crowned, and barely
had this happened than he began plotting Alexius Porphyrogenitus' removal.
It was decided, by Andronicus' supporters,
that his co-emperor should become a private citizen. Before the populace
could be apprised of this incident, Stephen Hagiochristophorites, Constantine
Tripsychos and Theodore Dadibrenos fell upon the boy emperor and throttled
him with a bowstring (before September 1183)[].
Alexius' body was decapitated and while the head was being displayed to
the remainder was being thrown into the sea.
The collapse of the Byzantine power was rapid. Now that there was no
strong autocrat at the centre of the extended family of the Comneni to
keep the various members of it in check, there was concomitant splintering
into different factions. Civil war so occupied the capital that foreign
powers could take advantage of it and begin the process of carving out
enclaves from territory which previously recognised Byzantine authority.
The process would continue under Andronicus,
whose tyranny gave the process but a brief reprieve, and accelerate under
the weak dynasty of the Angeli.
-Nicetas Choniates, Historia, ed. J.-L. Van Dieten, 2 vols., Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 11, 2 vols., Berlin and New York, 1975; trans. as O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, by H.J. Magoulias, Detroit, 1984.
-Eustathius of Thessalonica, The Capture of Thessaloniki, ed. and tr. J.R. Melville-Jones, Canberra, 1988.
-Eustathius Thessalonicensis Opera Minora, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, vol. 32, Berlin and New York, 2000.
-M. Angold, The Byzantine Empire, 1025-1204: a political history, 2nd ed., London and New York, 1997.
--C.M. Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West 1180-1204, Cambridge Mass., 1968.
-C. Cupane, "La 'Guerra Civile' della primavera 1181 nel racconto di Niceta Coniate e Eustazio di Tessalonica: narratologica historiae ancilla?', in Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 47, 1997, pp. 179-194.
-F. Cognasso, "Partiti politici e lotte dinastiche in Bisanzio alla morte di Manuele Comneno", in Reale Accademia delle Scienze di Torino memorie classe II 62, 1912, pp. 213-317.
-P. Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180, Cambridge, 1993.
Copyright (C), Andrew Stone. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
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