Alexius I, Comnenus (1081-1118)


Alexius I, Comnenus (1081-1118),a brilliant ruler came to power in 1081. He overthrowed Nikiphorus 3rd Votaneiates, an incompetent ruler, and Alexius was crowned emperor by Patriarch Kosmas. He was just 24 years old. Alexius gained victories as much by intrigue and diplomacy as by tactical skill. He was a dedicated and capable soldier, and very well educated.

That time enemies threatened the empire from every side: on the East Seljuk Turks had devastated Minor Asia, on the West the Normans who had conquered the greek provinces of Kalavria, Apoulia in south Italy, on the North Slavs, Bulgarians, and Petchenegs. Alexios dealt with these problems one by one. Mastering them more by diplomacy than by military force.

The Norman peril to the Byzantine Empire was real. Robert Guiscard landed in 1081 on what is now the Albanian coast. Alexius had sent general Georgius Palaeologus to face the enemy and later came himself having under his command 70000 men. But Robert Guiscard defeated Byzantine army at Dyrachion, 18 October 1081, and advanced into Macedonia and Thessaly. But Alexius defeated Normans in Kastoria, 1084, ending the invasion of the enemy in the Greek State. In 1085, as Guiscard was about to renew his invasion, died and the Byzantine State won a half-a-century of peace in that direction. In 1091 Alexios defeated the Pechenegs, a turkish tribe who threatened on the north the empire.

Relations with the West were complicated by the empire's dependence on Italian maritime cities for naval assistance. The fleet was inadequate so Alexios in 1082 granted tax exemptions, a quarter in Constantinople, and trading rights in towns of the empire to the Venetians in return for naval aid. Venetian merchants partially replaced Byzantines in their own territory. The Italians had long regarded the empire merely as their prey, and so it was inevitable that the hatred of the Greek nation should be slowly gathering strength.

This period marked the beginning of that great movement of the West towards the East: the Crusades. But the invasion of Latins to South Italy, the siege of Dyrachion, Corfu island, the venetian bases in Galata area, had already increased the suspiciousness of Greeks towards Latins. The attitude of crusaders who behaved like an unorganized mob who pillaged most of greek cities and villages, through which they passed, converted this suspiciousness to a hatred which was reciprocal. Later it was turned out that crusades intended also to the submission of Eastern church to Pope's authority. The treasures of Constantinople was naturally an objective to all those adventurers.

The victory of the crusaders at Dorylaeum (now Eski Sehir) in 1097, against turks brought the western part of Asia Minor directly under Byzantine control. Antioch, contrary to the agreements that were made came under Normand Bohemond's control in June 1098. Alexios had previously attacked Nicaea and after a siege the city surrendered to the emperor. Following his recovery of Nicaea, Alexios waged a series of campaigns (1112-1116) to repel turkish raiders; he liberated Smyrne, Effesus, Philadelfeia and advanced as far as Philomelion.

That the crusaders behaved like a brutal horde is confirmed by the terrible massacres they committed in the city of Jerusalem in 15 July 1099. Thousands of Musulmans and Jews were slaughtered without merci. The crusaders rampaged through the streets of Jerusalem, killing everyone they came upon. Some of the locals took shelter in the Dome of the Rock where Tancred, with an eye towards the ransom money, promised them his protection. Even this was to no avail, as men not under his command tore through the al-Aksa Mosque and slaughtered its occupants.Likewise, many of the city's Jews took refuge in the main synagogue. It was burned to the ground, killing all inside. Not everyone was killed – some were made captive and used as labourers to cart the bodies out of the city.  Iftikhar ad-Daula and his bodyguard shut themselves in the Tower of David, negotiated a surrender with Raymond of St Giles, and were allowed to go free.

Alexius died in 15th August 1118. The period of Comneni was a period of restoration. They hoped again to raise literature to the standard of the classic authors and to revive the ancient language and thus they hoped to restore the glory of the old Empire. But the old Byzantine army was demoralized, foreign mercenaries had replaced the native troops. Saddest of all was the decay of the fleet. The trade was in the hands of Italian marins.

Still, not a little was achieved. Clever diplomacy replaced actual power, and succeeded in preserving for some time the Byzantine Supremacy. Also the economic administration was admirable this period.Alexius's biography, the Alexiad, was written by his daughter, Anna Comnena. It is a valuable source of historical information. Anna was born in 1083, and received, as was the custom for Byzantine princesses, an excellent education in the Greek classics, history, geography, mythology, and even philosophy.