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7-08-2015, 23:54

Alexios’ piety and pragmatism

Many great families were not included in the Komnenian circle and it was from these that the main opposition to Alexios’ regime came. The senatorial families which had run the administration under theDoukai had most to lose. The underlying current of hostility that existed between them and the Komnenoi surfaced during Alexios’ seizure of Constantinople. We are told that his supporters deliberately set upon any senators they came across in the streets. Patriarch Kosmas I (1075–81) forced Alexios and members of his family to do public penance for the violence that accompanied their seizure of power. It was one more demonstration of the patriarch’s moral authority, which was such a powerful factor in the politics of eleventh-century Byzantium. It was a deliberate humiliation of the imperial family. Alexios’ reaction showed his mettle: he procured the dismissal of the patriarch and replaced him by Eustratios Garidas (1081– 4), a monk cultivated by his mother. It revealed how ruthless he could be, but it earned him the hostility of a powerful section of the clergy led by Leo, bishop of Chalcedon. Leo objected to the way that Alexios had seized church treasures in order to pay for his first campaign against the Normans, a measure for which there were in fact good precedents. This was, in other words, chosen as a suitable issue through which to attack the emperor. Patriarch Eustratios was not strong enough to defend either himself or the emperor and was replaced in 1084 by Nicholas the Grammarian. Leo of Chalcedon switched the attack to the new patriarch, but Alexios I Komnenos was now sufficiently sure of himself to have Leo exiled. The emperor’s new confidence owed much to the successful outcome of the trial of John Italos on a charge of heresy. Italos had been a leading figure at the court of Michael VII Doukas, who entrusted him with negotiations with Robert Guiscard. He was also a teacher of note. He had succeeded Michael Psellos as consul of the philosophers and took over his responsibilities for the supervision of education in the capital. Unlike Psellos his bias was towards Aristotle rather than Plato. His application of philosophical method to theological questions earned him an enthusiastic following but also laid him open, like Psellos before him, to charges of heresy. Michael VII encouraged him to submit a profession of faith to Patriarch Kosmas as a way of exonerating himself. The patriarch demurred; and there the matter rested. The case was reopened by the Komnenian regime in the winter of 1081– 2, when its stock at Constantinople was very low following Alexios’ defeat at the hands of the Normans. Italos numbered among his former pupils members of prominent Constantinopolitan families who were seen by the Komnenoi as potential centres of opposition to their rule. If successful, an attack on Italos would help to discredit them. After a preliminary hearing before the emperor Italos was passed over to the patriarch, so that his case could come before the patriarchal synod. It duly convened in the church of St Sophia. There was a good chance that Italos would be acquitted, because feeling among the bishops was beginning to turn against the Komnenoi, but before this could happen a mob broke into St Sophia and hunted Italos down. He escaped by hiding on the roof of the Great Church. The patriarch was out of his depth and handed matters back to the emperor, who had Italos condemned as a heretic. On the feast of orthodoxy, which in 1082 fell on 13 March, Italos publicly abjured his errors. The trial of John Italos was a significant episode. It allowed Alexios I Komnenos to establish an ascendancy over the orthodox church. There were three distinct strands to this process. The first was his use of the mob. The Constantinopolitan mob had proved itself over the eleventh century to be a significant political factor, but had normally been mobilised in support of the church. Now Alexios was able to win it over to his side and deploy it against the church. How and why he managed this has to remain a matter of speculation. The most likely explanation is that the mob responded to Alexios’ pose as the guardian of orthodoxy. This receives some support from the timing of Italos’ condemnation to coincide with the Feast of orthodoxy, which was a celebration of the victory over iconoclasm in 843 and the occasion on which the Synodikon of orthodoxy was read out (see above, p. 290). This statement of faith condemning heresy in general and iconoclasm in particular had remained virtually unchanged from 843 down to the eleventh century. It was Alexios who hit upon the device of bringing it up to date by adding the condemnation of John Italos and, as his reign progressed, that of others condemned for heresy. It was a concrete expression of the emperor’s role as the guardian of orthodoxy. Alexios was not content with the condemnation of Italos alone. He also pursued his pupils: they were forbidden to teach and remained under the shadow of their master’s condemnation for heresy. This had two consequences. The first was that it discredited members of families potentially opposed to the Komnenoi. The second, paradoxically, was a rapprochement with the clergy of the patriarchal church. Among Italos’ most prominent pupils were a number of deacons of St Sophia. Induced to disown their master, they were not only reconciled with the church but also permitted to continue teaching. One was Eustratios, the future bishop of Nicaea, who was soon to become Alexios’ most trusted religious adviser. An understanding with the patriarchal clergy was useful to the emperor because at synod they constituted a counterweight to the episcopal presence. Alexios acted to guarantee the privileges of the patriarchal clergy. He also issued a chrysobull defining the privileges and role of the chartophylax of St Sophia. It upheld the precedence of the chartophylax over bishops, on the grounds that he was the patriarch’s deputy. In practice, the holder of the office came to oversee the patriarchal administration. This was much to the advantage of the emperor because he still controlled appointments to this office. Alexios’ measureswent a long way towards neutralising the independence of action which the eleventh-century patriarchs had displayed. They had, for instance, taken the initiative over marriage legislation and litigation, and this produced differences between canon and civil law. Alexios intervened to re-establish imperial control of this important area of law. He re-enacted the novella of Leo VI over the age of consent for betrothal and marriage with its important rider that the emperor could use his powers of discretion to ignore the stipulations of the novella. Having regained the initiative over legislation, he then conceded that marriage litigation should in normal circumstances go before the ecclesiastical courts. Alexios’ church settlement is among his greatest – and most neglected – achievements. It enabled him to rebuild the moral and spiritual foundations of imperial authority, which had been undermined in the course of the eleventh century. He recovered control over the administration of the patriarchal church and regained the initiative in matters of legislation. He was the guarantor of the privileges or liberties of the church. He assumed the role of epist¯emonarkh¯es or regulator of the church, even if this title did not enter official usage until the mid-twelfth century. Above all, beginning with the trial of John Italos, he used heresy as a way of establishing his credentials as the guardian of orthodoxy. Under Alexios the suppression of heresy became an imperial preserve and a series of heresy trials contributed to the image Alexios was endeavouring to project, but there were political undercurrents. They were a means of discrediting potential opponents. The most spectacular heresy trial was that of Basil the Bogomil and his followers. The date can only be fixed approximately to c. 1100. The Bogomil heresy originated in Bulgaria and was a form of dualism. It is impossible to establish any clear connection between the Bulgarian and Byzantine phases of Bogomilism. It is possible that they arose quite separately and spontaneously and that a connection was only perceived in retrospect. Byzantine Bogomilism had its roots in lay piety. It was transformed by Basil the Bogomil’s missionary zeal. He organised his followers around his twelve disciples and was assumed to be aiming at converting the world. It has also been suggested that he was responsible for providing Bogomilism with its theological justification; his dualist teaching transformed unease with the material world into a system of belief. Like other holy men Basil could count some distinguished figures among his followers. He had entr´ee to the highest circles. There is even a suspicion that Anna Dalassena was a supporter. This would explain the comic scene so graphically sketched by Anna Komnena, which otherwise beggars belief. Alexios Komnenos and his brother Isaac interviewed Basil the Bogomil and pretended to be sympathetic to his teachings. By this means they were able to induce Basil to set out his Bogomil beliefs in full. Behind a screen a secretary was taking down his words, which were then used against him.27 What distinguishes Basil from other heretics is that he also possessed a large popular following, which meant that he was doubly dangerous. Though this was not necessarily Alexios’ intention, one of the consequences of Basil’s condemnation was to strengthen imperial authority on the streets of Constantinople. This is apparent from the edict issued in 1107 in the aftermath of the Bogomil trials. Alexios’ purpose was to create an order of preachers attached to St Sophia who would tackle the problem of heresy on the streets of the capital and act as the moral policemen of the different neighbourhoods. His edict shows how effective his control over the church had become. The creation of an order of preachers was originally the work of Patriarch Nicholas the Grammarian (1084–1111). It was now taken over by the emperor, who also took responsibility for reorganising the patriarchal clergy. Nicholas theGrammarian accepted imperial ascendancy.He understood that the church benefited from the emperor’s benevolent supervision. He also recognised the emperor’s piety. This was best seen in Alexios’ patronage of monks and monasteries. This Nicholas the Grammarian would have appreciated; the founder of a Constantinopolitan monastery, he was also famed for his self-denial. Alexios was the heir of his mother’s careful cultivation of monks and holy men, and their support had been useful during his difficult early years as emperor. He and members of his family supported the work of monastic figures, such as Christodoulos of Patmos, Meletios and Cyril Phileotes in the provinces. They also founded and refounded monasteries in the capital. Constantinople had been the scene of a strong current of monastic revival from the middle of the eleventh century, associated with the monastery of the Theotokos Evergetis. Its typikon or rule provided a guide to a series of Komnenian foundations.28 Monastic order also provided the inspiration for the reform of imperial court life begun by Anna Dalassena and continued by Alexios’ empress Irene Doukaina. Anna Komnena noted that under their guidance ‘the palace assumed the appearance of a monastery’.29 Alexios and his family became exemplars of a piety that drew its inspiration from the monastic revival that gathered strength at Constantinople from the mid-eleventh century. This went a long way towards reconciling the church to the Komnenian ascendancy and gave the new dynasty a moral standing which the emperors of the eleventh century had lacked. The monastic revival continued, but under Komnenian auspices. This was typical of Alexios’ church settlement. His main purpose was to assert imperial control, harnessing new forces and ideas that surfaced in the eleventh century and putting them at the disposal of the imperial dynasty. Alexios’ patronage of monastic leaders does not mean that he was therefore hostile to humanism. If he destroyed John Italos, he rehabilitated his pupil Eustratios of Nicaea, who continued his master’s work on Aristotle. The Komnenoi promoted humanist culture. Alexios’ daughter Anna Komnena was one of its adornments. The Alexiad, her history of her father’s reign, owed something to Michael Psellos, whose learning Anna much admired. She was also a patron of Eustratios of Nicaea and Aristotelian scholarship. The sebastokrat¯or Isaac Komnenos, perhaps the brother but more probably the son of Alexios Komnenos, continued Psellos’ Neoplatonic interests. Komnenian self-interest meant that the cultural revival of the eleventh century changed its character. It lost much of its effervescence, but it might have fizzled out, or the Komnenoi might have repressed it. Instead, they preserved its essentials and ensured the cultural breadth and vitality that characterises later Byzantine history.

 

 

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