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7-08-2015, 23:53

Alexios i komnenos’ military defeats and political skills

Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates was an old hero, but incapable of mastering circumstances that were spinning out of control. As if the loss of Anatolia was not bad enough, Robert Guiscard, the Norman leader, was massing his forces in southern Italy for an invasion. The commander of Byzantium’s western armies was now Alexios Komnenos, but his abilities, ambition and family connections marked him out as a threat to the regime in Constantinople. The young commander found himself in an impossible position. He struck in the spring of 1081. On 1 April 1081 Alexios with the help of his brother Isaac and the support of the caesar John Doukas seized Constantinople and overthrew the old emperor. In the meantime Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemond had crossed to Albania and laid siege to Dyrrachium at the head of the Egnatian Way. Guiscard justified his actions by proclaiming that he was coming to restore to the throne of Constantinople the rightful house ofDoukas. These dynastic pretensions made him all the more dangerous at a time when the new emperor’s hold on power was still shaky. Alexios I Komnenos assembled all available forces and made for Dyrrachium, only to suffer a shattering defeat. His troops were no match for the Normans. In military terms it was a far more serious defeat than Manzikert. While one Norman army advanced down the EgnatianWay to within striking distance of Thessaloniki, another under Bohemond headed south into Greece. The key position was Larissa in Thessaly. If it fell to the Normans, then the rich provinces of Hellas and the Peloponnese were lost. With a scratch force of Turkish archers Alexios marched in 1083 to the relief of Larissa. The emperor was careful not to engage the Normans in open battle, relying instead on skirmishing tactics. He was able to raise the siege of Larissa and forced the Normans to evacuate Thessaly. The Norman threat only ended with the death of Robert Guiscard in 1085, which prompted a succession crisis in southern Italy and the withdrawal of the Normans from their bases in Albania and the Ionian islands. More by luck than judgement Alexios I emerged from the first test of his reign with his reputation enhanced. His next task was to restore the Danubian frontier. The key this time was the fortress city of Dristra. This was under the control of the Pechenegs, who in 1086 caught Alexios by surprise. Yet another Byzantine army was lost and, once again, Alexios was lucky to escape. The Pechenegs pushed south towards Constantinople. The danger was even more serious because they allied with Tzachas, a Turkish amir who had turned Smyrna into a pirate base. By the winter of 1090–1 Alexios controlled little more than Constantinople itself, with no army to speak of. The force that he led out against the Pechenegs consisted very largely of the retainers of his relatives and supporters. He headed for the port of Ainos at the mouth of the Maritsa, in the hope of preventing the Pechenegs from linking up with their Turkish ally. The situation was further complicated by the appearance of another nomadic people – the Cumans – who had crossed over the Danube into the Balkans. Their original intention was to cooperate with the Pechenegs, but Alexios succeeded in winning them over to the Byzantine side. Thanks largely to their help, Alexios crushed the Pechenegs at the battle of Lebounion in Thrace. The Pechenegs ceased to count. The Cumans were still a potential threat to Byzantine control of the Balkans, but in 1094 Alexios defeated them outside the walls of Anchialos on the Black Sea. At long last, Alexios was in full control of the Danubian frontier. Alexios displayed great tenacity in the face of a series of military defeats. But this cannot disguise the fact that they were often of his own making. It was largely his own foolhardiness which had jeopardised Byzantine control of the Balkans.Without the support of his family it is doubtful whether he could have survived his early years as emperor, so patchy was his military record. Alexios had, however, wisely entrusted the running of the government to his mother AnnaDalassena. While he was campaigning, Anna kept control of Constantinople and managed to meet his military requirements. This necessitated a harsh administrative regime. Alexios’ survival also depended on the support of the great families. He came to power as the leader of an aristocratic faction and his overthrow would almost certainly have meant their downfall. The Komnenoi were linked by ties of blood and marriage to all the major aristocratic families. Alexios turned this into a principle of government, accomplishing this very largely through a radical reform of the honours system. His daughter Anna Komnena perceptively singles this out as a major achievement.26 In the past the honours system had been hierarchical rather than dynastic; membership of the imperial family did not bring rank at court as of right. The inflation of honours over the eleventh century resulted in a collapse of the old honours system. Alexios rebuilt it by creating a series of new ranks that were reserved for members of his family. The imperial epithet sebastos was now accorded to the imperial family in its widest sense. The sebastoi became a distinct hierarchy with their own gradations. At the top came the rank of sebastokrat¯or which was a conflation of sebastos and autokrat¯or. This Alexios created for his elder brother Isaac who shared the burdens of the imperial office. The rank of pr¯otosebastos went to one of the emperor’s brothers-inlaw. It was normally combined with the position of pr¯otovestiarios. This too marked a profound change in the texture of government. In the past the pr¯otovestiarios had almost always been a eunuch and one of the chief officers of the imperial household. Alexios did away with eunuchs and created an imperial household staffed very largely by members of his family, while the more menial positions went to retainers of the house of Komnenos. The imperial household had always been the instrument for the exercise of direct imperial authority. Its identification with Komnenian family interest gave it a different quality. In the past, office and rank brought lucrative salaries. One of the attractions of reforming the honours system was that it provided a way of abolishing these profits of office. Alexios found other ways of rewarding members of his family, granting them administrative and fiscal rights over specific areas. This was the basis of grants that were later known as pronoiai. In the past similar grants had been made out of the imperial demesne, but Alexios extended this principle to state lands. In a sense, he was parcelling out the empire among his family and creating a series of appanages. He rebuilt imperial government as an aristocratic connection; family business might be a more accurate description. It was a radical step which would later create tensions, because the theory of imperial autocracy could not easily accommodate the transformation that occurred in practice. But it provided Alexios with the strengths necessary to hold on to power during his difficult early years.