Quote of the Day

“Self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and self-respect is the chief element in courage.”


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Quote of the Day

“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”


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Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 9

Alexios Komnenos and the Crusaders

“When Pope Urban had said these … things in his urbane discourse, he so influenced to one purpose the desires of all who were present, that they cried out ‘It is the will of God! It is the will of God!’. When the venerable Roman pontiff heard that, [he] said: ‘Most beloved brethren, today is manifest in you what the Lord says in the Gospel, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.” Unless the Lord God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry. For, although the cry issued from numerous mouths, yet the origin of the cry was one. Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted this in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let this then be your war-cry in combats, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: It is the will of God! It is the will of God!’”

 - Urban II: Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095, Robert the Monk (11??)

Alexios Komnenos was not the first usurper to come to the throne of the Caesars in Constantinople. But he would be one of the last who did so for the betterment of the Empire. He stands alongside Heraclius and Basil (who we spoke about here http://ethanreilly.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/tides-of-war-byzantiums-vacillating-imperial-fortunes-part-5/ and here http://ethanreilly.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/tides-of-war-byzantiums-vacillating-imperial-fortunes-part-7/) as the (almost) founder of a ruling dynasty that restored Byzantine Imperial fortunes…

At least for a while.

Alexios_I_KomnenosLionised most famously by his daughter Anna, in her history The Alexiad, Alexios was born in 1056AD to one of the most powerful families in the capital, and entered Imperial service during the reign of Romanos IV Diogenes. He served under the preceding emperors Michael VII Doukas and Nikephoros III Botaneiates, and gained renown with the victories he won against would-be usurpers and the western mercenaries under Roussel de Bailleul who rebelled in 1074.

When he seized the throne in 1081AD, it was partially thanks to the machinations of his mother, Anna Dalassena, who blindsided the old emperor in order to pave the way for her sons, Alexios and Isaac.

Coming into power a proven battlefield commander and able administrator, Alexios would spend the majority of his reign fighting wars and reforming the Imperial bureaucracy; by the end of his time on the throne it more closely resembled the courts of Medieval Western Europe, with a complex web of inter-familial alliances and appointments replacing the traditional meritocracy, strengthening factional stability.

In the field he fought wars against the Pechenegs in the north, the Paulician and Bogomil heretics in Thrace, and rebellions all around. His two greatest foes though would be the always-conquering Normans in the west, and the Seljuk Turks in the east.

A recently emerged threat, the Normans were originally Scandinavian raiders (Vikings) who had settled in northern France and adopted Christianity, as well as many other “Frankish” customs. Under William the Conqueror they would seize the kingdom of England, and under Roger and Robert Guiscard they would drive the Arabs out of Sicily and occupy the heel of Italy, bringing hem inexorably into conflict with the Byzantines across the Adriatic.

In 1081AD Guiscard and his son Bohemond invaded the Balkans with 16,000 men, under the pretext of restoring Michael VII Doukas to the throne. Here was a real test for the Emperor Alexios, a vigorous and battle-hardened enemy determined to be writ-large in history. It took 4 years for the Byzantines to drive them out.

Whatever the seriousness of the threat from the Normans though, the continued threat of the Seljuk Turks was just as bad.

They had by now settled into their new lands in Anatolia and looked keenly across the waters at Constantinople. Alexios, mindful of the empire’s dwindling manpower, and having seen the effectiveness of western heavy cavalry (knights), was looking for a new weapon to combat the growing power of Nicaea, Damascus and Baghdad.

Thus, in 1090AD he made reconciliatory overtures to the Papacy in Rome, looking to heal the rift between the eastern and western churches sufficiently to elicit the help of some of Europe’s most seasoned professional soldiers.

What he got, was a crusade.

Pope_Urban_II_Preaching_the_First_CrusadeNo one knows for certain whether the Pope at the time, Urban II, merely misunderstood the Emperor’s appeal or chose an opportune moment to make a play for the Levant. What we do know is that at the Council of Clermont he preached holy war and called on all the Christian lords of Europe to lend their arms, and their lives, to the reclamation of the Holy Land promising eternal salvation to all those who “took the cross”.

The first to arrive in the east were not lords though, but peasants. A great mass of them, inspired by the Pope’s plea, made the arduous journey overland to Constantinople. Espousing their pious intent, the pilgrims nevertheless preyed on some of those they encountered and were subsequently preyed upon themselves, before reaching the relative safety of Imperial territory. Led by Peter the Hermit, the paupers of the “People’s Crusade” arrived at the gates of the capital in July, 1096AD.

Ever the pragmatist, Alexios gave this first batch of crusaders what they wanted: passage to Asia-Minor. When he requested aid, he hadn’t thought to receive 20,000 of Western Europe’s hungry, tired and poor. To keep them at Constantinople would surely only do the Byzantines harm, so he ferried them across the Bosphorus. And unwilling to wait until he could organise safe passage, Peter the Hermit and his flock pressed on into the territory of the Turks. Now, Almighty God would be their only shield…

They were cut down by the thousands, killed or enslaved.

The next lot of Crusaders to arrive fared better. Led by various princes from Western Europe (including Alexios’ old enemy, Bohemond), feudal knights and their retinues soon arrived before the Theodosian walls. Suitably wary, Alexios used diplomacy to counter the implied threat of 35,000 soldiers at his doorstep – from each of the leaders (but one, who swore only to do the Empire no harm) he extracted an oath of fealty and a promise to return to the Empire any territory they took from the Seljuks.


Crossing into Asia-Minor, the crusaders advanced first to Nicaea which they took after a lengthy siege. Honouring their oaths, they returned the city to the control of the Byzantines. Thereafter, any gains for Alexios would be small. Some territories were brought back into the fold, but once the crusaders passed through the Cilician Gates, the lands they conquered became their own. First at Antioch, and then Jerusalem itself they were victorious (although the uninhibited slaughter that followed the fall of the Holy City quickly became legendary, and has been used ever-since as an example of Western barbarism).


Now that the crusaders had achieved their primary objective, many returned home, while others stayed to establish the Crusader States – the Counties of Edessa and Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch (ruled initially by Bohemond) and the Kingdom of Jerusalem – that would last for approximately two hundred years.

CrusaderstatesNow in his mid-forties, Alexius would spend some of the remainder of his life fighting his long-time enemy (some would say, nemesis), Bohemond, eventually defeating and humiliating him after a failed siege of Dyrrhachium.

Despite the success of the Komnenian Restoration (as it would later be called), Alexios spent his last few years agonising over the succession.

He died in 1118AD, leaving the Byzantine Empire to carry on without him. And though they once again occupied a strong and influential position in the eastern Mediterranean, never again would the Byzantines be on the offensive…

Next part: The Fourth Crusade

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Unleash the “Fury”!

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Quote of the Day

“I can’t tell if a straw ever saved a drowning man, but I know that a mere glance is enough to make despair pause. For in truth we who are creatures of impulse are not creatures of despair.”

Joseph Conrad.

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Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 8

The Seljuks and Manzikert

“…the fortunes of the Roman Empire had sunk to their lowest ebb. For the armies of the East were dispersed in all directions, because the Turks had over-spread, and gained command of, nearly all the countries between the Euxine Sea and the Hellespont, and the Aegean and Syrian Seas, and the various bays, especially those which wash Pamphylia, Cilicia, and empty themselves into the Egyptian Sea.”

 - The Alexiad, Book 1, Anna Komnene (1148)

Manzikert must have been a word synonymous with “disaster” to the Byzantines of the Middle Ages. Conversely, to the Turks it might have meant “victory”.

In truth, Manzikert is just a place (now called Malazgirt) in eastern Anatolia. But it was here that the army of Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes met that of Sultan Alp Arslan, and history turned soundly against the Romani (the name the residents of the Byzantine Empire would have used for themselves, literally “Romans”).

The architects of their demise were the Seljuks, a collection of Central Asian nomadic tribes that converted to Islam in the 10th century and embarked on a series of conquests, eventually forming an empire that encompassed all of the former lands of Persia (absorbing elements of the Arabic Abassid empire) and threatening the eastern territories of the Byzantines.

Manzikert 1

Early victories by the Seljuks afforded them control over the strategically important territory of Armenia. Seemingly outmatched, the emperors in Constantinople sought peace, and the Seljuks agreed, preferring to direct their efforts against the Fatimids in Egypt (for the time being).

For Romanos Diogenes though, a conveniently timed treaty allowed him the opportunity to launch a sneak attack and attempt to wrest back the lands his predecessors had lost. Unfortunately he was beset by political problems at home that forced him to entrust a significant part of his forces to Andronikos Doukas, his co-regent and direct rival.

The army they marched across Anatolia was composed of the bulk of the professional Byzantine forces: the western and eastern tagmata; Frankish, Norman, Bulgarian and Pecheneg mercenaries; and most of the Varangian Guard. It numbered somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 men (medieval sources were notoriously inaccurate about such things) and was the largest concentration of the Empire’s military seen in some time.

It was an army designed to strike a decisive blow: to end the threat of the Seljuks and restore Constantinople’s authority in the east, once and for all.

It would fail.

Manzikert 2

On the 23rd of August, 1071AD, after (foolishly) splitting his forces in two, Romanos managed to capture the town of Manzikert, but was immediately repulsed by the advancing army of Alp Arslan, who had abandoned his attack on the Fatamids after learning of the Byzantine double-cross and force-marched 20,000 to 30,000 of his own men to meet them.

After three days of maneuvering, trying to bring the elusive Seljuks (who were fighting in typical nomadic-steppe style) to battle and being constantly harassed by their archers, the Byzantines were exhausted. With night fast approaching and no likelihood of the decisive engagement he was seeking, Romanos ordered a general withdrawal, no doubt hoping to retire to a fortified camp and resume hostilities in the morning.

Unfortunately, in the confusion of battle things quickly began to go awry. Doukas, either accidently or deliberately, abandoned the Emperor (who was commanding the Byzantine centre) with the entire rearguard. Meanwhile, the right wing misunderstood Romanos’ orders and became disordered.

Manzikert 3

It was an opportunity Alp Arslan would immediately take advantage of. Seeing the confusion in his enemy’s ranks, he ordered an attack that overwhelmed the Byzantine right, then the left; and finally surrounded the centre where Romanos Diogenes made his stand with the Varangian Guard.

Despite their valour, the Emperor was wounded and captured, and the forces that stayed close to him were cut down. Somewhere between 2,000 and 8,000 were killed, while another 4,000 were captured. At least 20,000 managed to flee, scattered to the wind for all intents and purposes.

And that was that.

Romanos would later conclude a new treaty with Arslan that redrew the map with Armenia on the Seljuk side of the border, and agreed to pay a regular tribute to secure his own release. He was then promptly deposed at Constantinople in a coup that led to his eventual mutilation and death.

More internal dissension, coupled with the loss of so many of the Byzantines’ armed forces, would lead to the continued erosion of the territories in Asia-Minor until the Seljuks controlled almost all of it but for the Aegean coast.

Manzikert 4

It was a perilous situation to be in: without the vital Anatolian heartland, the Byzantines could no longer furnish themselves with the men or the resources to maintain the viability of their empire.

But it would take a miracle to reverse the tide now. A miracle, or a few words from the Bishop of Rome…

Next part: Alexius Komnenos and the Crusaders

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Quote of the Day

“Be realistic, demand the impossible.”

Che Guevara.

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Assassin’s Creed: Unity

One of the gems from this year’s E3 conference that I can’t stop watching. And I’m not even a fan of the Assassin’s Creed series (although I did love Ubisoft’s ‘Prince of Persia’ trilogy, its spiritual predecessor)!

Maybe it’s the cinematic quality of the action, maybe it’s the historical setting, maybe it’s the eerily human-like computer generated characters…or maybe it’s a combination of those things and Lorde’s ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, that makes it so compelling?

All I know is, it looks epic!

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Quote of the Day

“If the enemy thinks of the mountains, attack like the sea; and if he thinks of the sea, attack like the mountains.”

Miyamoto Musashi.

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Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 7

The Macedonian Dynasty and the Conquest of Bulgaria

“Basil II, who ruled four generations after the first Basil (the Macedonian), is commemorated on many streets in Greek cities as ‘Voulgaroktonos’ (Bulgar-slayer). Yet the defeat of the Bulgars is not his greatest claim to fame. During his extremely long reign, from 976 to 1025, he presided over a major expansion of the empire beyond the Taurus Mountains in the east, the conversion of the Russians, the forging of numerous important foreign alliances, the patronage of art and learning, and the protection of the poor. In all this, he was a worthy grandson of the famous Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos.”

 - Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, Ch. 20, Judith Herrin (2007)

The period between the Second Siege of Constantinople and the rise of the Macedonian Dynasty is characterised by the development of the defensive thematic system of military organisation, the erosion of Imperial territory, a succession of uninspiring emperors (and notably, the Empress Irene), and Iconoclasm.

While the invention of the themeta (quasi-feudal administrative and military divisions within the empire, designed to optimise defensive capability) was certainly a positive (and necessary) step for the Byzantines, other occurrences – like the appearance of Iconoclasm (a cultural schism regarding the veneration of religious icons) and the associated civil strife it inspired, succeeded only in distracting the populace and their leaders from the real threats massing at the borders.


By the time a young Macedonian peasant by the name of Basil appears in the history books, the Empire was struggling. Although the reigning Emperor Michael III managed to score some victories – diplomatic and economic, mostly – there was no denying that the Byzantines were on the back foot.

Coming to the capital a penniless one-time slave, Basil had the good fortune to fall in with the right crowd. Gaining employment with an associate of the ruling family, and enamouring a wealthy widow to the point she left him everything she had, the former peasant then proceeded to impress the inconstant Michael III with his skills at horse-taming and wrestling. Before long, he and the Emperor were inseparable drinking buddies and conspirators. Together they plotted against Michael’s uncle (and Basil’s patron) Bardas, and killed him – Basil himself reportedly did the deed.

Amongst the other favours Basil (who was swiftly promoted to the esteemed position of Caesar, or co-emperor) did for Michael was the divorce of his peasant wife Maria and marriage to Michael’s mistress Eudokia Ingerina. Now the Emperor had a pretext to keep his “squeeze” in the palace. This act also calls into question the parentage of Leo VI, the future emperor and supposed son of Basil and Eudokia…who reputedly bore a strong resemblance to Michael III.


The fickle emperor quickly grew bored with Basil though, and began to favour another courtier named Basiliskian. Not willing to let his hard-won position slip away, Basil resorted to murder once again, arranging to ambush the sleeping basileus in his chambers and putting him – and Basiliskian – to death.

By process of elimination (with extreme prejudice), Basil was now left as sole emperor, and wasted no time seizing the reins of power. Despite his (rumoured) illiteracy, he proved to be an able governor and inspiring leader. In contrast to the debauched Michael, Basil was pious, orthodox and upright. He also stabilised the empire’s finances and recodified the law code, earning him the honour of being remembered as “the second Justinian”.


He proved equally adept at promoting the cause of the church, simultaneously placating the Pope in Rome while securing the conversion of the Bulgarians to Orthodox Christianity.

Successful wars against the heretical Paulicians and the Arabs in the east helped secure his legacy, while territorial gains were made in Italy against the empire’s enemies there.

Despite advancing age, Basil remained healthy and robust well into his seventies, and no doubt would have continued to reign successfully had he not suffered a hunting accident and died in 886AD.

Succeeded initially by the (suspect) Leo IV, called “the Wise”, Basil managed to establish a dynasty that would survive for almost two centuries and reach its peak in the person of Basil II, called “the Bulgar-Slayer.”

Only five years old when his father (the emperor Romanos II) died, Basil II’s early life was defined by those who tried to use him as a political pawn – his mother’s suitors and stand-in emperors Nikephoros II and John I Tzimisces, followed by the palace eunuch Basil Lekapenos (a bastard uncle). Unwilling to be a mere figurehead, Basil II first had to deal with the rebellious generals Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas, before he could do away with Lekapenos too.

Basil’s instrument of victory was the Kievan Rus of Prince Vladimir I. Having conquered Imperial territory in the Crimea, Vladimir sent a delegation to Basil II, offering aid for legitimacy in the form of an Imperial marriage to Basil’s sister Anna. Initially reluctant to agree to such a union between a pagan and his own blood, porphyrogenitus, or “born in the purple” (a reference to the purple-decorated birthing chamber in the Byzantine Imperial Palace, where princes and princesses were born), the young basileus was eventually swayed by the offer of 6000 fierce northmen to bolster his forces and a promise from Vladimir to convert both himself and his people to the Orthodox religion.

Those 6000 soldiers would become the core of Basil’s army and eventually would form the famous Varangian Guard, the axe-wielding Imperial bodyguards who would defend the emperors of Constantinople for another three centuries.

At the same time, the conversion of the Rus would set in motion a series of events that would culminate in the establishment of Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church.


Long before that though, Basil II would reap the rewards of his new alliance and an independent rule. Also called “the Father of the Army”, he would spend most of the rest of his life on campaign: against the Fatimid Arabs in the east, culminating – after several Byzantine victories – in a 10-year truce; and against the Bulgars in the west, where protracted campaigning and back and forth victories and defeats eventually led to the final destruction of the independent Bulgar empire and the subjugation of an entire people.

It was after the decisive Battle of Kledion that Basil II was reputed to have gained his cognomen, “the Bulgar-Slayer”. Having narrowly missed capturing the Bulgarian tsar Samuel, Basil did manage to imprison 15,000 others, whom he then released – but not before blinded 99 out of every 100 men, leaving the one man out of every century with a single eye so he could navigate his compatriots back to their ruler.

Samuel was said to have died from the shock of seeing the remnants of his army return in this way.

Having restored the northern border of the empire to the Danube River (for the first time in 400 years), Basil next fought against the Slavs, Khazars, Armenians and, like his namesake, consolidated the Imperial territories in Italy.

He died on 15 December 1025AD, having expanded the Byzantine Empire’s borders to their greatest extent since the arrival of the Arabs during the time of Heraclius.


Unfortunately, a life spent on campaign was not conducive to family-building, and Basil II died childless. He was succeeded by his younger brother Constantine VIII, whose own children, Zoe and Theodora, reigned both via proxy and directly until the dissolution of the dynasty in 1056AD.

Next part: The Seljuks and Manzikert

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