The Komnenoi (1071-1204)

Aleksandar Jovanović

The Roman Empire as Alexios I Komnenos’ Family Affair

In 1071 the Romans lost their last stronghold in Italy to the Norman settlers and a major part of Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks. These losses came as a shock once more to the Romans that had to deal with the lessened state, irrupted tax collection, and a series of refugees fleeing the Normans and Seljuk Turks. The crisis lasted for a good ten years until a young nobleman by the name of Alexios I Komnenos took the reins of the state in his hands and, after repelling the initial Norman attacks on the Balkan Peninsula, focused on reforming the Roman state. Alexios I’s reforms were consequential both in terms of simplifying the vast bureaucratic apparatus that the empire did not need at a time of territorial contraction, as well as in terms of the restructuring of the elites. Namely, Alexios I Komnenos ended the rivalry between different clans of the empire’s prominent families­­––both those connected to military and civilian affairs––through a series of intermarriages that at the time of his death in 1118 left the empire’s elites connected through kinship. The newly intermarried elites were granted titles and offices of importance in the state, which allowed them to exercise influence. The closer the married couple was to the emperor, the higher the title they held. The immediate offspring of Alexios I continued to rule the empire for another two generations when the side branches of the family entered the competition for the imperial office. While the imperial office was technically still open to anybody, as in the past, Alexios I’s dynastic policies made the elites so interconnected that all the emperors that ruled the Roman state until 1453 were in some way related to him.

The de facto change in the ways in which the empire was governed was noticed by Alexios I’s contemporaries, not least of all the emperor’s daughter Anna Komnene, who wrote The Alexiad, a historical account of her father’s reign, making her the only female historian in pre-modern Mediterranean and Europe. In the excerpt provided here, we see how Komnene describes Alexios I’s decision to leave the reins of the state in the hands of his mother Anna Dalassene while he was going to war. While Komnene had a very positive view of her father’s familial policies, other contemporaries of Alexios I saw these changes as harmful to the state. The second excerpt written by an ecclesiastic official by the name of Ioannes Zonaras testifies to opposition that was growing to Alexios I’s running of the state.

Anna Komnene on Her Grandmother’s Regency

VIII Such was the beginning of Alexius’ reign, for to style him ‘Emperor’ at this time would be scarcely correct, as he had handed over the supervision of the Empire to his mother. Another person might yield here to the conventional manner of panegyric, and laud the birthplace of this wonderful mother, and trace her descent from the Dalassenian Hadrians and Charons, and then embark on the ocean of her ancestors’ achievements-but as I am writing history, it is not correct to deduce her character from her descent and ancestors, but from her disposition and virtue, and from those incidents which rightly form the subject of history. To return once again to my grandmother, she was a very great honour, not only to women, but to men too, and was an ornament to the human race. The women’s quarter of the palace had been thoroughly corrupt ever since Monomachus assumed the power of Emperor, and had been disgraced by licentious ‘amours’ right up to my father’s accession. This my grandmother changed for the better, and restored a commendable state of morals. In her days you could have seen wonderful order reigning throughout the palace; for she had stated times for sacred hymns and fixed hours for breakfast and for attending to the election of magistrates, and she herself became a rule and measure for everybody else, and the palace had somewhat the appearance of a holy monastery. Such then was the character of this truly extraordinary and holy woman. In sobriety of conduct she as far outshone the celebrated women of old, as the sun outshines the stars. Again, what words could describe her compassion for the poor and her liberality to the needy? Her home was a refuge, open to any of her kinsfolk who were in want and equally open to strangers too. But above all she honoured priests and monks, and nobody ever saw her at table without some monks. Her character as outwardly manifested was such as to be revered by the angels, and [87] dreaded by the very demons; even a single look from her was intolerable to incontinent men, mere wild pleasure-seekers, whereas to those of sober conduct she was both cheerful and gracious. For she understood the due measures of solemnity and severity, so that her solemnity did not in any way appear fierce and savage, nor on the other hand her tenderness slack arid unchaste. This, methinks, is the due bound of orderliness, viz.: when kindliness has been mingled with elevation of soul. She was naturally inclined to meditation and was constantly evolving new plans in her mind, which were not subversive of the public weal, as some murmured grumblingly, but were its salvation and destined to restore the State which was now corrupt to its former soundness, and revive, as far as possible, the almost bankrupt finances. Moreover, although she was very busy with public business, she never neglected the rules of conduct of the monastic life, but spent the greater part of the night in singing hymns, and became worn out with continual prayer and want of sleep ; yet at dawn, and sometimes even at the second cock-crow, she would apply herself to State business, deciding about the election of magistrates and the requests of petitioners, with Gregory Genesius acting as her secretary. If an orator had wished to take this theme as the subject for a panegyric, who is there of those of old times of either sex distinguished for virtue whom he would not have cast into the shade ‘ lauding to the skies the subject of his panegyric (as is the way of panegyrists), for her actions, ideas, and conduct, as compared with others? But such licence is not granted to writers of history. Wherefore if in speaking of this queen we have treated great themes somewhat too slightly, let no one impute this to us for blame, especially those who know her virtue, her majestic dignity, her quick wit on all occasions and her mental superiority. But now let us return to the point from which we deflected somewhat to speak about the Queen.

Whilst she was directing the Empire, as we said, she did not devote the whole day to worldly cares but attended the prescribed services in the chapel of the martyr Thecla, which the Emperor Isaac Comnenus, her brother-in-law, had built for a reason I will now relate. At the time when the chieftains of the Dacians decided no longer to observe their treaty with the Romans arid broke it treacherously, then, directly they heard of this, the Sauromatoe (anciently called Mysians) also decided not to remain quiet in their own territory. Formerly they dwelt on the land separated from the Roman Empire by the Ister, but now they rose in a body and migrated into our territory. The reason for this migration was the irreconcilable hatred of the Dacians for their neighbours, whom they harassed with constant raids. So the Sauromatae seized the opportunity of the Ister being frozen over and by walking over it as if it were dry land, they migrated from their country to ours, and their whole tribe was dumped down within our borders and mercilessly plundered the neighbouring towns and districts. On hearing this, the Emperor Isaac decided to go to Triaditza and as he had formerly succeeded in checking the enterprises of the eastern barbarians, so he effected this stroke too with very little trouble. He collected the whole army and started on the road thither intending to expel them from Roman territory. And when he had set his infantry in battle-array, he led an attack against them, but directly they saw him, the enemy broke up into dissentient parties. Isaac, however, thinking it unwise to trust them overmuch, attacked the strongest and bravest part of their army with a strong phalanx, and on his approaching with his men, they became panic-stricken. For they did not venture so much as to look straight at him, as if he were the Wielder of the Thunder, and when they saw the phalanx’ unbroken array of shields they turned faint with fear. So they retreated a short distance and offered to meet him in battle on the third day from then, but that very same day they deserted their camps and fled. Isaac marched to the spot of their encampment and after destroying the tents and removing the booty found there, he returned in triumph. When he had got to the foot of Mount Lobitzus, a violent and most unseasonable snow-storm overtook him, for it was the 24th September, a day sacred to the memory of the martyr Thecla. The rivers at once became swollen and overflowed their banks, so that the whole plain on which the royal tent and those of the soldiers stood, looked like the sea. In a short time all their baggage had disappeared, swept away by the raging torrents, and men and beasts were numbed by the cold. Thunder rumbled in the heavens, lightning was continuous with scarcely any interval between the flashes which threatened to set all the country around on fire. The Emperor in this dilemma knew not what to do; but during a short cessation in the storm, as he had already had a great many men carried off by the wildly rushing streams, he with a few picked men left his tent and went and stood with [89] them under an oak tree. But because he heaxd a great noise and rumbling which seemed to proceed from the tree itself and the wind was rising quickly, he was afraid that the tree might be blown down by it, and therefore moved far enough away from the tree to ensure his not being struck by it if it fell, and there he stood dumbfounded. And immediately as if at a given signal, the tree was torn up by the roots and was seen lying along the ground; whereupon the Emperor stood amazed at God’s solicitude for him. Tidings of a revolt in the East were now brought to him, so he returned to the palace. In gratitude for his escape he had a very beautiful chapel built in honour of the proto-martyr Thecla, at no little cost, richly furnished and decorated with various works of art ; there he offered sacrifices of a kind befitting Christians for his safe delivery, and for ‘ the rest of his life he attended divine service in it. That was the origin of the building of the chapel of the martyr Thecla, in which as I have said, the empress-mother of the Emperor Alexius regularly paid her devotions. I myself knew this woman for a short time and admired her, and all who are willing to speak the truth without prejudice, know and would testify that my words about her are not empty boasting. Had I preferred writing a laudatory article instead of a history, I could have greatly lengthened my story by different tales about her as I made plain before; now however I must bring my story back to its right subject.

Ioannes Zonaras’ Conclusions about Alexios I Komnenos’ Reign

[Alexios I Komnenos] was such a man who had many good traits, and how wouldn’t he? These would suffice for a praise of a private citizen, but these surely are not the only qualities useful to an emperor. For the virtues for a private citizen and those for an emperor are not the same: for a private person it suffices to be of moderate character, reasonable, not easily moved by anger, and prudent in the way of living. [In order to be a good] emperor, one must add to these virtues the care for justice, the consideration for the subjects’ wellbeing, and the preservation of the ancient customs of the state. He, quite on the contrary, wished to change the old ways of the polity and achieving this transformation [of the empire’s customs] was his main goal. He did not manage the affairs of the state as common or public, nor did he handle himself as a public administrator, but he thought of and named the imperial duties as his own lordship and a private matter. To the members of the senate, he did not give the expected honour, nor did he provide them with sustenance as each would deserve, rather he hastened to humble them all. Nor did he support the virtue of distributing justice in the same way for everybody, even though the very equal distribution of justice to everybody according to merit [is its characteristic]. Rather, he distributed all the public wealth by the cartload to his relatives and those in his service and to them he granted bulky yearly subventions that they were all surrounded by vast richness, they could even dismiss their service not as private citizens but in way suitable of emperors, and they obtained houses that were the size of whole cities, not in any way behind the imperial palace in terms of luxury. He did not show the same level of generosity to the remaining nobles; in order not to say anything worse, I will refrain myself from [talking about] the man.

Translation from the original source: Aleksandar Jovanović

Questions for Consideration

  1. How does Anna Komnene describe her father and her grandmother in the excerpt? How does she describe Alexios’ reasons for leaving the state to his mother?
  2. How is Anna Dalassene represented by her granddaughter? Does Komnene approve of her grandmother’s regency?
  3. How does Ioannes Zonaras see Alexios I’s governing practices? Of what does he accuse Alexios I?


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Aleksandar Jovanović is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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