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7-08-2015, 23:59

The legacy and successors of manuel i : 1180–1204

Choniates believed that the empire and its rulers had incurred God’s displeasure by their impious behaviour, and he identified the beginnings of this sinfulness in Manuel – in the emperor’s belief in astrology, in his jealousy of popular and talented nobles, in his extravagant expenditure, in his favouritism towards kinsmen and foreigners and in his assumption of authority in church matters.17 These were flaws thatManuel could be seen, with hindsight, to have shared with the emperors who reigned after him with obviously disastrous effect. But in picking on these characteristics, Choniates also undoubtedly echoed criticisms which had surfaced during Manuel’s lifetime. His military failures in Italy and Asia Minor, together with his failure to produce a male heir by his first wife or in the first eight years of his second marriage, must have led to speculation that he had offended God by his style of government, and the speculation would have been encouraged by those male relatives, notably Manuel’s cousin Andronikos, who were suspected of harbouring designs on the throne. Thus the insecurity which Manuel had faced at his accession stayed with him throughout his reign, and the soundness of his imperial edifice was already under scrutiny during his lifetime. The imperial image projected by the voluminous court rhetoric of his reign seems altogether too confident to be plausible.18 Yet on the whole the image commanded respect from foreigners and subjects alike.Manuel controlled his subjects, his resources and his policies as well as any of his imperial predecessors or royal contemporaries. What he did not control was beyond the control of any ruler: the tender age at which his son succeeded him. The crisis of Byzantium after 1180 was in a very obvious way the familiar story of a monarchy thrown into disarray by a minority. However, Byzantium had experienced minorities in the past without falling apart and falling prey to foreign conquest. Is there a case for thinking that the disasters of the period 1180–1204 were waiting to happen, inherent in the structure of the empire of the Komnenoi? In the mid-twentieth century, the view prevailed that although the Komnenian emperors gave the empire a temporary reprieve by their vigorous military leadership, their aristocratic dynastic priorities undermined the efficacy of the state system that had made Byzantium great in the ‘imperial centuries’. According to the classic formulation of George Ostrogorsky, in structure the empire now differed considerably from the rigid centralised state of the middle Byzantine period. The age of theKomnenoi saw an intensification of the feudalising process and those very feudal elements in the provinces, against which the tenth-century emperors had battled with such insistence, were to become the mainstay of the newstate . . . Byzantium had thrown over its once solid foundations and its defences, and its economic and financial strength were greatly diminished. This is the explanation why the successes of the Komnenoi were not enduring and were followed by the collapse of the Byzantine state.19 Recently, this view has been replaced by the realisation that the privileges and immunities bestowed by the Komnenian emperors did not in themselves decentralise,weaken or impoverish the machinery of government and warfare. The Komnenian empire had all the apparatus of a fully developed pre-industrial state: a standing army and navy, regular monetary taxation and an elaborate bureaucracy. The armed forces performed indifferently, the taxation was oppressive and iniquitous and the bureaucracy often inefficient and corrupt, but under strong leadership the apparatus worked.Moreover, the resource base on which it worked was not obviously diminished by either the loss of territory in Asia Minor or the granting of exemptions. Rather, all the indications from written and material evidence are that agricultural production and trade intensified throughout the twelfth century, and that the government was reaping the benefits as well as the aristocracy, the monasteries and the Italian merchants. The most eloquent testimony to the wealth of Byzantium in the late twelfth century comes from the observation of an Anglo-Norman writer, Gerald ofWales, that the revenues of the German and English monarchies were as nothing compared with those of the kingdom of Sicily and theGreek empire before these were destroyed ‘by the Latins’; the yearly income from Palermo alone (a smaller city than Constantinople) exceeded that from the whole of England.20 Interesting here is the coupling of Byzantium and Sicily as wealthy states which were destroyed by northern European conquest.Gerald goes on to recall a remark of Louis VII of France, reported somewhat differently by Walter Map,21 contrasting the great resources of other kingdoms with the simple self-sufficiency of his own. The king of Germany had many armed men but no wealth, the rulers of Sicily and Greece were rich in gold and silk, but had no men who could do anything but talk, and the king of England had something of both. In the perception, and the reality, of statehood in twelfth-century Europe, strong finances and a strong war machine did not necessarily go together. Byzantium’s problem was one of survival in a world where weak, wealthy Mediterranean societies were in the way of northern warrior aristocracies with slender means and big appetites. Survival lay in the effective use of wealth to manage the bonds which kept the empire together and free from confrontation with potential aggressors. These bonds consisted in three characteristic features of the Komnenian empire which had either not existed or had been less pronounced before 1081: the deep involvement of the empire with the Latin west, the centralisation of power and resources in Constantinople and the emphasis on family, lineage and kinship as the defining elements in the Byzantine political system. The unravelling of all three features is clearly visible in the disintegration of imperial power at the end of the twelfth century.