Monday, 24 October 2016

A Psychopathic Emperor, and What Followed

The young general Alexius Comnenus, who seized power in Constantinople in 1081, at the age of just 24, founded a dynasty that ruled the Byzantine Empire for a century. His exploits are recoded in a biography written by his daughter, Anna Comnena. He and his successors faced formidable problems.
   In 1071 the Seljuks, a Turkish people coming originally from Central Asia, had defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert, which proved to be one of the most important battles in world history. Soon vast numbers of Turks were flooding westwards across Anatolia, almost reaching the coast. They destroyed the farms to make pasture for their sheep, and many towns were abandoned. The empire at a stroke lost one of its main sources of food and also of soldiers for its armies. At the same time a pagan nomad tribe from the Ukraine, the Pechengs ( or Patzinaks), crossed the danube and raided right up to walls of Constantinople.
    Could Alexius save the empire?  His early problems came not in Asia and the Balkans but in the west. In the same year as Manzikert, the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy, Bari, fell to the Normans under Robert Guiscard. Norman knights under the terrifying warlord Robert Guiscard landed in Albania in 1081, slaughtered Alexius's army and prepared to march on Constantinople; but Alexius, probably by judicious bribery, was able to stir up trouble back in Italy and the expedition abandoned. But the wildly ambitious Normans probably always had eyes on ultimate prize: the Empire. In 1085 Robert died, and the subsequent struggle for power between his sons and his brother Roger ended the Norman threat  for the moment. In 1091 the Pechens were roundly defeated, and the Danube frontier remained secure for a long time.
      
There remained the problem of  the Turks, now controlling all Asia Minor apart from a few ports. But even this threat now diminished. The Sultan Malik Shah died in 1092, and the vast Seljuk territory disintegrated into petty states ruled by Seljuk chieftains or local warlords. Even so, Alexius felt obliged to appeal to the west for help; and appeal which famously resulted in the First Crusade and the formation of Christian states in Palestine. We can be certain that this was not what Alexius had intended, and he would have been particularly alarmed when Bohemond, the son of Robert Guiscard, established himself as Lord of Antioch.

There was uneasy peace around the diminished Byzantine Empire for the next century. Alexius was succeeded on the throne by his son, John II (1118-43) and grandson, Manuel I (1143-80). Meanwhile a rich and powerful Norman kingdom had been established in Sicily and sounthern Italy; and in 1182 William II of Sicily thought he saw a dramatic opportunity for further greatness.
          When the Emperor Manuel Comnenus died, he left only an 11-year-old son, Alexis II, as his successor. He seems to have been an unpleasant boy, and his mother Mary of Antioch, who was a scion of the crusaders, was unpopular. Distrust of the Latins was increased by the fact that young Alexius was married to Agnes, daughter of the King of France.
      Into this fluid situation there now stepped Andronicus, a grandson of Alexius I. In 1182 he was 64 years old; a tall, handsome, charismatic man who had enjoyed a distinctly chequered career as a result of his constant changes of allegiance and reckless womanising. For some years he had been living in internal exile in a remote castle on the Black Sea. Now, hearing of the troubles in Constantinople, he set out to march on the city. Forces sent to stop him promptly changed sides, and in the capital itself mobs rose up and massacred large numbers of the hated Latins. Alexius, his mother and their supporters were arrested, and Alexius was compelled to sign his mother's death-warrant. In September 1183 Andronicus was crowned co-Emperor, and two months later young Alexius himself was strangled and his body thrown into the Bosphorus. Andronicus then married the boy's 12-year-old widow Agnes. It had been a swift, efficient coup d'etat.

Andronicus was an energetic ruler, who worked hard to stop corruption and improve government efficiency. Unfortunately he also began to show signs of paranoid suspicion, which quickly led to the mass arrest, torture and execution of suspected opponents. Instead of  ensuring stability, this only made things far worse. Soon the Serbs were rising in revolt against the empire, and on Cyprus a distant cousin, Isaac Comnenus, declared himself independent. Other relatives fled to the west, and a mysterious youth turned up in Sicily, claiming to be Alexius II himself.
     Whether King William believed him or not, he saw a golden opportunity in prospect. Ever since days of Bohemond in the First Crusade, the Normans of Sicily had always held visions of themselves as rulers of Constantinople; so in 1185, William assembled an enormous force of 80,000 soldiers and 300 ships, for an invasion. (He didn’t lead it himself , having never commanded in battle, showing how un-Norman the family had become. The army was led by a certain Baldwin, about whom little is known)

The army landed unopposed at Durazzo in modern Albania and marched to Thessalonica, the second city of the empire. Andronicus seemed incapable of organising resistance: five different armies he sent to stop the invaders merely camped at a safe distance, His response was to order the execution of the families of everyone suspected of treason. In August Thessalonica fell, with appalling scenes of murder and looting: perhaps 5,000 civilians were killed. Eventually the soldiers moved on eastwards, and the.fleet sent ahead, to wait off Constantinople for the arrival of the army. But the army never got there! In September, even as the fleet was lying offshore, the citizens of Constantinople decided they had had enough of Andronicus. A nobleman by the name of Isaac Angelus was proclaimed Emperor in his place, and a rampaging mob stormed the Great Palace. Vast quantities of bullion and artistic treasures were plundered, and the city's most revered holy relic; a letter said to have been written by Christ himself, vanished without trace. The Byzantine Empire never recovered from this spoilage. As for Andronicus himself; he was caught trying to flee the city in disguise, and was taken to the Hippodrome, where he was mutilated and tortured to death.
   The Byzantine army now unexpectedly bestirred itself into activity, and having first checked to advance of Baldwin's army, it lulled him into a sense of false security by arranging a truce and then caugt him by surprise with a counterattack in November. The Sicilian forces were routed and driven back in disorder. Few of them survived the winter retreat through the hostile Balkan mountains.

Coincidentally with these events, the Crusader states were overcome with disaster. The great Kurdish warlord Saladin, having unified Syria and Egypt under his rule, now destroyed the crusader army at the Battle of Hattin in July 1187, and then three months later took Jerusalem itself. It was never to be recovered by the crusaders, who were now confined to a narrow band of territory along the Palestinian coast. It is said that the Pope, Urban III, died of shock on hearing the news, but his successor, Gregory VIII, was quick to summon the kings of Europe for the Third Crusade.
   The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, was the first to respond, despite being almost 70 years old. He led his German contingent down through the Balkans, and threw the Emperor Isaac into panic as he approched Constantinople. As it happened, his army was ferried across the Bosporus without any untoward incidents; but Barbarossa died before reaching Palestine.
   Richard the Lion-heart of England came by sea. As everyone knows, he failed to recover Jerusalem; but he achieved one long-term change when he seized Cyprus (arresting Isaac Comnenus and imprisoning him in chains), and set up a crusader kingdom there. The island remained under Latin control for several centuries.

Meanwhile in 1189 King William of Sicily died childless. His kingdom was claimed by Barbarossa's son, the Emperor Henry VI, by virtue of his marriage to William's aunt. Henry seized the kingdom by force in 1194, plundered it thoroughly, executed any barons who opposed him, and then died three years later, leaving only a baby son. The richest and most spectacular western state in the Mediterranean had gone for ever, and in a few decades the island began its long descent into poverty and insignificance.

The decline of the Byzantine Empire was sudden and catastrophic. For all his faults, Andronicus had at least been energetic in his attempts to root out corruption. Isaac Angelus, by contrast, quickly turned out to be a completely useless emperor. In 1195 he was deposed, blinded and imprisoned by his own brother, who succeeded him as Alexius III; and who, against all probablilities, proved to be evn worse at the job. The once-proud Byzantine fleet was allowed to rot whilst naval stores were sold off by corrupt officials for their personal profit. The consequences were soon to lead to disaster.
   In 1198 Pope Innocent III proclaimed yet another crusade, the fourth, to cope with the parlous situation in Palestine. This time no monarchs were involved. The crusaders, who were mostly French barons and knights, set sail down the Adriatic in late 1202 in Venetian ships that they had not yet paid for. At Zara they encountered one Alexius Angelus, the son of the deposed Emperor, who promised them that if they helped restore his father to his throne, then Byzantine money would finance the expedition.The crusaders accordingly diverted towards Constantinople.
      Alexius III had plenty of warning of their approach, but, characteristically, took no steps to defend his capital. He duly fled the city and Isaac was duly restored, but then a series of mistakes and broken promises, on top of the longstanding mistrust between Greeks and westerners, led to the crusaders storming the city in April 1204. Constantinople was thoroughly sacked, with appalling scenes of death and destruction; and the great city, which for centuries had resisted Persians and Avars, Arabs and Turks, finally fell to a Christian army. Amidst the carnage the Venetians were the only people to keep their heads, and carried off a magnificent collection of art treasures, many of which can be seen in Venice today.
   A Latin Empire was established in Constantinople, but Serbia and Bulgaria took the opportunity to establish themselves as independent kingdoms. The Greeks did eventually regain Constantinople, but the Byzantine Empire was henceforth only a feeble shadow of its former glory.

So in little more than twenty years, the whole balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean had been irrevocably changed. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily was no more, the Balkans fragmented and the Crusader states and the Byzantine Empire irredeemably weakened. The way was open for the advance of the Ottoman Turks, whose conquests, beginning in the 13th century, would eventually extend through Palestine and Iraq, through Egypt and all along the North African coast, and through south-eastern Europe all the way to the gates of Vienna.

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