Byzantine Empire under the Komnenos dynasty

'The Lamentation of Christ' (1164), a fresco from the church of Saint Panteleimon in Nerezi near Skopje, in North Macedonia. It is considered a superb example of 12th century Komnenian art.

The Byzantine Empire was ruled by Komnenos dynasty emperors for 104 years, from 1081 CE to about 1185 CE. The Komnenian period comprises the reigns of five rulers, Alexios I, John II, Manuel I, Alexios II, and Andronikos I. It was an era of brilliant, though ultimately incomplete, restoration of the territorial, military, political and economic position of the Byzantine Empire.

Origin of Komnenos Dynasty

The Komnenian period arose out of an era of exceptional strife and difficulty for the Byzantine Empire. Following a phase of relative expansion and success under the Macedonian dynasty (867 CE), Byzantium underwent several decades of decline and stagnation, which climaxed in a vast deterioration in the territorial, military, political and economic situation of the Byzantine Empire by the accession of Alexios I Komnenos in 1081 CE.

The empire’s challenges were partly caused by the aristocracy’s growing power and influence, which undermined the empire’s military structure by weakening the theme system that administered and trained its armies. Starting with the death of the successful soldier-emperor Basil II in 1025 CE, a long series of ineffective rulers had disbanded the large troops defending the eastern provinces from attack; instead, gold was stockpiled in Constantinople apparently to hire mercenaries should troubles arise. In fact, they gave most of the money away in the form of gifts to favorites of the emperor, luxuries, and extravagant court banquets for the imperial family.

The synchronous arrival of aggressive new enemies – Turks in the east and Normans in the west – was another contributory factor.

In 1040 CE, the Normans, landless mercenaries from northern parts of Europe searching for plunder, started attacking Byzantine strongholds in southern Italy. The emperor sent a mixed force of conscripts and mercenaries under the formidable George Maniakes to Italy in 1042 CE to deal with them. Maniakes and his army conducted a wildly successful campaign, but he was summoned to Constantinople before it could be ultimately concluded. Angered by a series of insults against his wife and property by one of his rivals, he was declared emperor by his troops and led them across the Adriatic to success against a loyalist army. However, a fatal wound led to his death shortly afterward. With opposition thus vacant in the Balkans, the Normans were able to complete the Byzantines’ expulsion from Italy by 1071 CE.

Despite this loss’s weight, it was in Asia Minor that the empire’s most prominent disaster would take place. Although largely concerned with defeating Egypt under the Fatimids, the Seljuk Turks carried out a series of damaging raids into eastern Anatolia and Armenia – the principal recruiting ground for Byzantine troops. With imperial troops weakened by years of civil warfare and insufficient funding, Emperor Romanos Diogenes understood that a time of re-equipment and re-structuring was necessary. Consequently, he tried to lead a defensive battle in the east until his forces had gained enough to defeat the Seljuks. However, he suffered a surprise defeat at Alp Arslan’s hands at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. CE Romanos was arrested, and although the Sultan’s peace terms were pretty lenient, the battle in the long term resulted in the complete loss of Byzantine Anatolia.

On his release, Romanos discovered that his enemies had plotted against him to place their own nominee on the throne in his absence. After two defeats in battle against the insurgents, Romanos suffered and suffered a surrendered death by torture. The new ruler, Michael Doukas, refused to honor the treaty that Romanos had signed. In response, the Turks started to move into Anatolia in 1073 CE; the old defensive system’s collapse meant that they met no resistance. To make matters worse, confusion reigned as the empire’s remaining reserves were destroyed in a series of disastrous civil wars. Thousands of Turkoman tribe members crossed the unguarded frontier and pushed into Anatolia. By 1080 CE, an area of 78,000 km2 (30,000 square miles) had been lost to the empire.

After Manzikert, a partial restoration was made viable due to the efforts of the mighty Komnenian dynasty. This is referred to as the Komnenian restoration. The first ruler of this royal line was Alexios I Komnenos (whose policies and life would be written by his daughter Anna Komnene in the Alexiad). Alexios’s lengthy reign of nearly 37 years was full of struggle. At his accession in 1081, CE the Byzantine Empire was in chaos after a prolonged civil war period resulting from the massacre at Manzikert.

Restoration under John II Komnenos

Alexios’s son John II Komnenos ultimately succeeded him in 1118 CE and ruled until 1143 CE. On account of his kind and just reign, he has been called the Byzantine Marcus Aurelius. John was renowned for his lack of cruelty—despite his long dominance, he never had anyone blinded or killed. He was adored by his subjects, who gave him the name ‘John the Good.’ He was also an active campaigner, spending much of his life in army camps and supervising sieges.

Manuel I Komnenos

John’s chosen heir was his fourth son, Manuel I Komnenos. Manuel devoted himself to revive the glory of his empire and to retrieving superpower status. His foreign policy was both expansive and ambitious, reaching out to all corners of the Mediterranean realm. He made several alliances with Western Christian kingdoms and the Pope.

Andronikos I was the last of the Komnenoi to control Constantinople, although his grandsons David and Alexios established the Empire of Trebizond in 1204 CE.

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