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7-08-2015, 23:57

John i i komnenos (1118–1143)

Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118) left his successor with a state in good working order. Territorially it was smaller, especially in the east, than the empire of the early eleventh century, but thanks to Alexios’ reforms and good management over a long reign, it was once more an effective financial and military power, and as a result of Alexios’ controversial family policy, it had a structural coherence which was largely new to Byzantium. After the failure of numerous conspiracies against Alexios, the ruling family of Komnenos had established itself not only as the unchallenged source of the imperial succession, but also, in association with the Doukai, as the centre of a new princely aristocracy in which wealth, status and military command depended on kinship to the emperor and were reflected in a hierarchy of titles all of which had originally applied to the emperor. The emperor’s kinsmen were in such a dominant position, and so widely connected, that for almost the first time in the empire’s history the threat to the ruling dynasty from a rival faction was entirely eliminated (see above, pp. 612–13). Instead, competition for power had moved inside the family circle. The weakness of the system was that it gave the whole imperial family a share and a stake in the imperial inheritance without providing any firm rules of precedence. Thus John II, though Alexios’ eldest son and crowned co-emperor in 1092, had to contend with a serious effort by his mother Irene Doukaina to exclude him from the succession in favour of his sister Anna and her husbandNikephoros Bryennios.Only by building up his own group of loyal supporters, inside and outside the family, and making a preemptive strike while Alexios lay on his deathbed did John secure his claim, and only by putting those supporters into key positions did he prevent a conspiracy by Anna within a year of his accession. To gain and maintain power, the emperor had had to create his own faction.He was well served by the members of this faction, especially by John Axouch, a Turkish captive with whom he had grown up and whom he entrusted with the supreme command of the armed forces. But the promotion of these favourites played a part in causing the growth of an opposition at court. Anna andNikephoros were no longer a threat; Nikephoros served the emperor loyally until his death in 1138, leaving Anna to nurse her grievances in writing the epic biography of her father, the Alexiad.6 However, their place as a magnet for the disaffected was taken by John’s brother, the sebastokrat¯or Isaac, who had supported John at their father’s death, but in 1130 sought the throne for himself. When his plot was detected, he fled with his son John into exile among the empire’s eastern neighbours, moving from court to court until he sought reconciliation in 1138. But his son again defected to the Turks in 1141, Isaac remained a prime political suspect and his other son, the future Andronikos I Komnenos, would later inherit his role. John II’s power base in Constantinople was secure enough to allowhim to leave the City on campaign year after year, but this ceaseless campaigning, in which he surpassed most of his imperial predecessors, including his father, is indicative of his need to command the loyalty of the army and prove himself worthy of his inheritance. It was rarely necessitated by emergencies as serious as those Alexios had faced for most of his reign, and it was not clearly dictated by any pre-existing strategy of territorial expansion. Certainly, the recuperation of lost territory was high on the agenda which John took over from his father. The First Crusade had originated in a Byzantine attempt to reverse the Turkish occupation of Asia Minor and northern Syria, and for the last twenty years of his reign Alexios I had expended great military and diplomatic energies in pressing his claims to Antioch and other territories which the crusaders had appropriated (see above, pp. 623–4). Yet over the same twenty years, the empire had learned to live with the eastern borders which Alexios had established in the wake of the crusade and with the new Turkish dynastic states of theDanishmend maliks and the Seljuq sultans, which had formed in the lost territories of central and eastern Anatolia. The empire was left in control of the coastal plains and river valleys which were the most valuable parts of Asia Minor to a ruling elite based, more than ever, on Constantinople; the loss of the Anatolian plateau and the frontier regions of northernMesopotamia, which had been the homeland of many military families, greatly facilitated the integration of the aristocracy into the Komnenian dynastic regime. Alexios’ successor thus had to strike a balance between the completion of unfinished business and the consolidation of such gains as had been made. Either way, he was expected to produce victories, and these John delivered consistently. Their propaganda value was their most lasting result, and possibly their most important objective. The year after his accession, John took and fortified the town of Laodicea in theMaeander valley; the next year he captured and garrisoned Sozopolis, on the plateau to the east. This might have been the beginning of a campaign of reconquest against the Seljuq sultanate of Rum; on the other hand, both places lay on the land route to Antalya (Attaleia), and John’s later interest in this area suggests that he might have been securing his lines of communication for an expedition to Antioch. Yet if Antioch was the goal, it is surprising that John did not simultaneously revive the negotiations for a dynastic union which Alexios had been conducting at the end of his reign, especially after the disastrous battle of the Field of Blood (1119); this first major crusading defeat at the hands of the Muslims provided an ideal opportunity for John to offer imperial protection in return for concessions. There is no evidence that John tried to take advantage of the crisis in the Latin east, as Venice did by joining the crusading movement. Indeed, the fact that John initially refused to renew his father’s treaty with Venice, and did not change his mind even in 1122, when a Venetian armada passed through Byzantine waters on its way to Palestine, suggests that the new emperor was pursuing a policy of deliberate isolationism with regard to the Latin world. Only when the Venetian fleet ravaged Chios, Samos and Modon on its return journey in 1125 did John agree to renew the treaty. This he did in 1126, acceding to two further Venetian demands.7 Meanwhile, John had been forced to turn his attention from Asia to Europe by an invasion of the Pechenegs which caused great alarm but which he defeated by resolute military action in 1122. No campaigns are recorded for the next five years, during which John became occupied by diplomatic relations not only with Venice but also with Hungary, where he was connected through his wife to the ruling ´ Arp´ad dynasty. In 1125 he welcomed her kinsman Almos as a refugee from the king of Hungary, Stephen II. Stephen took offence at this support for a political rival, and he may have felt threatened by the Byzantine rapprochement with Venice, which disputedHungary’s dominion over the cities of the Dalmatian coast. There followed a two-year war: Stephen attacked the imperial border fortresses and stirred the Serbs into revolt, while John retaliated by leading two expeditions to the Danube to restore the status quo. When in 1130 John II returned to campaigning in AsiaMinor, it was with a new objective: the northern sector of the frontier, where the imperial position in Bithynia and along the Black Sea was being eroded by the aggressive Danishmend polity, and by the defections of the Greek magnates who controlled much of the littoral. For six years the emperor led expeditions into Paphlagonia. The Byzantine sources highlight the successful sieges of Kastamonu (twice) and Gangra, thus giving the impression that this was a war of reconquest. But these and other gains in the area were soon retaken after the emperor’s departure and it is difficult to believe that John realistically expected to be able to hold them with the modest garrisons that he could afford to leave behind (see below, p. 711). On balance, it seems that the aim was to make a show of force, to raid the flocks of the Turkish nomads in retaliation for past depredations and to impress all in Constantinople and in the imperial entourage whose loyalty was wavering. For John’s first campaign against the Danishmends was cut short by the conspiracy of his brother Isaac, and it was to these Turks that Isaac fled to avoid arrest in 1130. A year or two later, John abandoned another campaign in order to deal with a plot to put Isaac on the throne. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that the emperor’s subsequent successes were advertised to maximum effect and that he celebrated the taking of Kastamonu by a triumphal entry into Constantinople, to the accompaniment of panegyrical songs and speeches (1133). These celebrations set the tone for the extravagant glorification of imperial achievements that was to characterise the imperial image for the rest of the century. Isaac’s movements in exile, which took him from Melitene to Armenia, Cilicia, Ikonion and Jerusalem, help to explain why, from 1135, John II made larger plans for political and military intervention further east. The opportunity arose when Alice, the widow of Bohemond II of Antioch, offered their daughter Constance in marriage to John’s youngest sonManuel. The offer was a desperate and doomed attempt to prevent Constance from marrying Raymond of Poitiers, to whom she had been promised, but it encouraged John to focus on Antioch as the key to the strategy for dealing with all the empire’s eastern neighbours,Muslim and Christian. Raymond’s marriage to Constance in 1136 provided a justification for military action in support of imperial claims to Cilicia and Antioch. An imperial expedition in 1137 succeeded in reconquering Cilicia from the Armenian Rupenid prince Leo I, who held the mountainous areas, and from the Latins, who held the cities of the plain, Adana,Mopsuestia and Tarsus. John also compelled the new prince of Antioch to become his vassal, to allow him right of entry into the city, and to hand it over in return for investiture with the cities of the Syrian interior – Aleppo, Shaizar, Homs and Hama – once these were recaptured from the Muslims. The subsequent campaign to take these cities failed, and so did the emperor’s attempt to use the excuse to take possession of Antioch. But overall, the performance of the imperial army and the deference shown by all the local rulers were a triumphant demonstration of the empire’s and the emperor’s power. According to Niketas Choniates, it had the effect of making John II’s exiled brother Isaac seek a reconciliation, ‘for lacking money . . . and seeing the emperor John universally renowned for his feats in battle, he found no one who would fall in with his ambitions’.8 During the following years, John returned to AsiaMinor, to strengthen the frontier defences in Bithynia, to strike at Neocaesarea, the town from which the Danishmends threatened the eastern section of the Black Sea coastal strip, and to secure and extend imperial control in the southern sector of the frontier in western Asia Minor. Yet these last operations, in the area where he had conducted his earliest campaigns, were clearly a prelude to the new expedition to Syria which he launched at the end of 1142. He wintered in the mountains of Cilicia, preparing to strike at Antioch in the spring and from there to go on to Jerusalem. The emperor’s death from a hunting accident in February 1143 aborted what looks like the most ambitious attempt at restoring the pre-Islamic empire that any Byzantine ruler had undertaken since the tenth century. John was finally making up for Alexios’ failure to take personal command of the First Crusade. With the wisdom of hindsight, we may question whether the course of history would have been very different if John had lived. Constant campaigning and drilling had made the Byzantine field army into a superb expeditionary force with an unrivalled siege capability, but John II had pushed its performance to the limit. It had consistently run into problems when operating beyond the empire’s borders and rarely held on to its acquisitions. In addition to the standard logistical constraints of medieval warfare, there was the basic problem that the empire was frequently unwelcome in many of its former territories, even among theGreeks of Turkish-occupied Asia Minor. John had, moreover, developed the army at the expense of the navy. However, Cilicia had remained in imperial control since 1138. If John had succeeded in his aim of welding Antioch and Cilicia together with Cyprus and Antalya into a kingdom for his son Manuel, the benefits to the empire and to the crusader states would have been enormous; at the very least, if the imperial army had remained in Syria throughout 1143, the emperor would have formed a coalition of local Christians that would have checked the Islamic counter-crusade of atabey Zengi (1127–46) of Aleppo and thus postponed, or even prevented, the fall of Edessa and the calling of the Second Crusade. The revival of imperial interest in the crusader states had permanent consequences in that it led to a renewal of Byzantine links with western Europe. During the first half of his reign, John had retreated from the active western diplomacy that Alexios had conducted. But this changed in 1135, when John revived imperial claims to Antioch and sought to cover his back against interference from Roger II of Sicily (1130–54), who also had an interest in the principality. He renewed the empire’s treaty with Pisa, negotiated alliances with the German emperors Lothar III (1125–37) and Conrad III (1138–52), and sent a very conciliatory letter to Pope Innocent II (1130–43) on the subject of church union.Most importantly for the future, the alliance with Conrad III was sealed by the betrothal of Conrad’s sisterin- law Bertha to John’s youngest son Manuel. Manuel not only happened to be available; he had also been proposed as a husband for the heiress to Antioch, and was the intended ruler of the projected kingdom of Antioch, Cilicia, Cyprus and Antalya. Apart from the conspiracies of his sister and brother, the internal history of John’s reign looks conspicuously uneventful. On the whole, it seems fair to conclude that the paucity of documentation generally reflects a lack of intervention or of the need for it. As with the frontiers, it was a case of maintaining internal structures that had stabilised in the last ten years of Alexios’ reign. John’s most significant policy change was to reduce expenditure on the fleet, on the advice of his finance minister John of Poutza. Although he looked outside his family for individual support, John upheld the ascendancy of the Komnenoi and Doukai, and continued to consolidate their connections by marriage with other aristocratic families. In the church, he was by Byzantine standards remarkably non-interventionist, apparently because church affairs had settled down after the disputes of Alexios’ reign. He left his mark on them principally through generous benefactions to churches and monasteries, above all through his foundation of the monastery of Christ Pantokrator. The foundation charter and the church buildings provide the best surviving picture of the appearance, the organisation and the wealth of a great metropolitan monastery and its annexes, which included a hospital.

 

 

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