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 https://ethanreilly.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/tides-of-war-byzantiums-vacillating-imperial-fortunes-part-5/ and here https://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

About ethanreilly

Ethan Reilly is an author and blogger who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Did he mention he blogs?
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