Komnenian dynasty (1081-1185)

1. Introduction

Members of the Komnenos lineage took over the imperial throne twice: the first time for a very short period of two years (1057-1059), and the second time for more than a century (1081-1185). Over this period, five generations and six emperors of this dynasty ascended the throne: Isaac I, Alexios I, John II, Manuel I, Alexios II και Andronikos I. This aristocratic lineage originated from the village of Komne, which some scholars place in the region of Thrace, while some others, and it seems with reason, have associated it with the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire and locate it in Asia Minor.1

2. Beginnings

The beginnings of the Komnenos family are to be traced in the years of Basil II (976-1025). At that time, patrikios Manuel Komnenos Erotikos – Erotikos was his maternal family name – was strategos-autocrator of the East, and protospatharios Nikephoros governed at Vaspurakan, a region in southeastern Armenia. All in all, the Komnenoi were a "new" lineage compared to the Argyroi, the Doukai, the Skleroi, the Bryennioi, the Botaneiatai, and even to the Bourtzes family, who were prominent at this period. In the middle of the 11th century the estates of the Komnenos family were in the region of Kastamon, in Paphlagonia. Therefore the rise of the lineage took place in the eastern provinces of Byzantium, the power base of their political, military and financial influence.

Manuel Komnenos Erotikos entrusted before his death his sons Isaac and John to the emperor Basil II, and they spent their childhood at Constantinople. The fact that the emperor took personally care of the education of the two children is evidence of the attests the authority that the patriarch of the Komnenos family enjoyed under the great emperor. Having resided in the monastery of Stoudios and educated in the arts of warfare, the two brothers started their careers, first in the imperial hetaireiai, in the tagmata that formed part of the imperial guard, and later on in the provinces of the Empire. In general, in the 11thcentury Komnenoi were mainly landowners and military commanders.

Like the brothers Isaac and John, who was domestikos ton scholon, the members of the next generation of Komnenoi followed a military career.Thus John’s son Isaac became likewise domestikos ton scholon; John’s second son, Manuel, was protostrator and the third one, Alexios, was crowned Emperor in Constantinople in 1081.

An important occurrence for the Komnenos family was the rebellion of the generals of the East, namely of the most prominent representatives of the military elite at the times, which brought Isaac I Komnenos (1057-1059) to the throne. The fact that Isaac was put at head of this rebellion clearly attests to the prestige he had come to attain. Nevertheless, at the time of the 1057 rebellion, the Komnenoi were not superior in relation to the other notable Byzantine lineages, and it can be said that Isaac Komnenos ascended the imperial throne as primus inter pares.

Although a short one, the reign of Isaac was not at all unimportant with regard to the family of Komnenoi in the next decades. However, it would be a mistake to overestimate its importance. When Isaac I abdicated the throne and prepared to become a monk, in the midst of a highly complicated political situation, he appointed his friend and ally Constantine (X) Doukas as his successor. This choise caused the disagreement of some of the members of the Komnenos family, mostly by Isaac’s wife Catherine, as well as by Anna Dalassene, wife of his brother John. The truth is that Isaac I initially wanted to assign the throne to his brother John; however, he, for unknown reasons, denied this honor. It seems that Isaac chose Constantine Doukas next, in the understanding that the interests and the safety of the Komnenos family would be secured by the new emperor.

The actual dynasty of the Komnenoi did not derive from Isaac's branch, but from that of his brother John. Neither did Isaac I manage to set a solid ideological base for their nephews to claim the throne for their family. For these reasons, true founder of the dynasty is considered Alexios Komnenos, the youngest son of John Komnenos and Anna Dalassene.

3. The uncrowned Komnenoi (1059-1081)

3.1. The strategy of matrimonial alliances

In the years after 1059, and especially after the death of John Komnenos (1067), leader of the family became the remarkably capable widow of John, Anna Dalassene. At this time begins the skillful and gradual association, by means of matrimonial alliances, of the Komnenoi with the rest of the prominent aristocratic families. This became the core from which emerged the actual Komnenian dynasty: allied to the families of Doukai and Dalassenoi, they were gradually related to most prominent aristocratic families. The members of the subsequent imperial dynasties of the Angeloi (1185-1204) and of the Palaiologoi (1259-1453) proudly boasted about their kinship with the Komnenoi.

In the context of the alliance strategies, some members of the Komnenos family got married to foreign princesses: Isaac I was married with the princess of Bulgaria Katerina, daughter of John Vladislav, last ruler of Samuel’s empire. Alexios I's older brother, Isaac, also married a foreign princess, Irene, of the royal house of Georgia. The same practice was continued after the dynasty's accession to the throne: Emperor John II married the Hungarian princess Irene-Piroska, and his son Manuel I, was married twice: the first time the German princess Bertha of Sulzbach, and the second the French Mary of Antioch.

3.2. The rebellion of Isaac and Alexios Komnenos

It is worth noting that the history of the Komnenos family summarizes the prevailing tendency in the evolution of Byzantine aristocracy in the 10th-11th centuries: that of the coordinated efforts by the members of an aristocratic lineage to prevail over rival families struggling for the imperial power. The internal agreement in interests, both in the inner family circle and among the allied families, was succesfully expressed in the case of the rebellion of the brothers Alexios and Isaac Komnenos against the authority of Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078-1081), a rebellion which brought Alexios upon the throne. Before that, Isaac and Alexios had successful careers as military officials, while Alexios, who was the younger of the two, had become prominent for stopping aspiring usurpers of Nikephoros III's throne. Besides, in contrast to other claimers of the Byzantine throne at the time, Alexios was not only the best general, but also the only true politician. Estimating that the time came for the ascension of the Komnenoi to the Byzantine throne, the brothers Alexios and Isaac abandoned Constantinople on February 1081, and two months later they returned triumphally; on the Easter day, the 4th of April 1081, Alexios Komnenos was crowned emperor of Byzantium.

4. On the throne of Constantinople (1081-1185)

The three first representatives of the Komnenian dynasty, Alexios I, John II and Manuel I, ruled the Empire for 99 years in total and are prominent figures of the Byzantine history. We should note that the 12th century was a period of remarkable stability for Byzantium, but for the conflicts inside the imperial house of the Komnenoi.

4.1. Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118)

In the first years of his reign, Alexios I managed to foil various attempts of aspiring usurpers against him, while later he proved himself able to control the dangerous attacks of the Normands, the Pechenegs and the Seljuks. He had to compromise with the participants in the First Crusade, the cream of the crop of the western European feudalism and the mighty Latin army; to support the provincial towns and to put some order in their trade; to reorganise state administration, and to restore the Byzantine currency. He showed generosity in his church policy, although in a crucial moment for the Empire he had resided to the hard and very unpopular measures of confiscating church treasures in order to strike coins.

With Alexios’ accession, the family comes out of the narrow framework of private life and transforms to a means of governing the Empire. Thus, what was established was not merely a dynasty, but rather a stable and hierarchically arranged structure, which coincides with the imperial family. Upon its smooth operation resided the power of each emperor of the Komnenian family. The whole administrative and bureaucratic apparatus passed in the hands of a circle of aristocrats, who were related by blood or by marriage, and whose titulature reflected their degree of relationship and their proximity to the Emperor. This appropriation of the Empire did not go unnoticed by Alexios’ contemporaries. John Zonaras writes of this matter: «He fulfilled his duties not as if these were public or state affairs, and saw himself not as a commander but as a master, considering and deeming the State his own home.»2

It is also noteworthy that the Komnenian dynasty managed to subdue, so to speak, historiography and litterary production in general to the interests of the lineage, in a development that reflects the all-embracing appropriation of political power by the family. A decade into Alexios’ reign –and after 1091, when the well-known tirade against Emperor Alexios I were penned by John the Oxite, titular Patriarch of Antioch– the Komnenoi had already succeeded in dominating completely over the cultural and intellectual life of the Empire, establishing their own paradigm rather than adopting and adapting the common principles of the Byzantine ideology to the needs of their dynastic lineage.

4.2. John II Komnenos (1118-1243)

Among the emperors of the dynasty, the less we know about the reign of John II, who carried out successful campaigns in the East as well as in the West. However, some scholars consider him «the greatest from the Komnenian dynasty».3 It has been furthermore suggested that he was by far the most wise and responsible Emperor of that dynasty.4 His strategy of organising careful, annual expeditions and raids, with no extreme goals, proved fruitful both in the northern territories of the Empire, where he basically put an end to the threat posed by the Pechenegs, and in AsiaMinor, where he succesfully repelled the Seljuks, regained territories for Byzantium and imposed Byzantine suzerainity upon the Crusader states and their kings. Married to Hungarian Piroska-Eirene, he found himself involved in the dynastic struggles of the Hungarian dynasty and had to face an invasion in the Balkans in 1128. But in this case too he managed to regain control after a two-year campaign. Finally, John II tried to take back the generous priviledges that his father Alexios had granted the Venetian merchants in Constantinople, but this resulted in grave tensions in his relations to Venice. In the face of Venetian raids against the islands of the Aegean, which were becoming a distraction to his other affairs, John had to back down and re-confirm the treaty of 1082, all the more because the Empire was residing upon the Venetian ships for its naval force.

4.3. Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180)

John's son Manuel I, brave and chivalrous, who led many campaigns in all fronts, is by far the most ambiguous personality among the Komnenoi. State leader of undoubtful skills and of daring and bold ideas, he was inspired by the idea of a universal empire. Such aspirations inevitably clashed with similar expectations of the German emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. (1152-1190). During Manuel’s reign, Byzantium absorbed a considerable amount of influence from Latin Europe. Thus, the new values of the knightly society were more and more decisively penetrating the Byzantine society, while in the court of Constantinople the once traditional formality of the pompous celebrations was replaced by a more loose atmosphere. However, the western influence on Byzantium should not be overestimated, as this was limited mainly in the higher strata of the Byzantine society.

4.4. Alexios II Komnenos (1180-1183) and Andronikos I Komnenos (1183-1185)

Alexios II Komnenos succeeded his father Manuel when he was only ten years old. His mother, Mary of Antioch, became his regent and sidestepped her son in favour of protosebastos Alexios, who was also believed to be her lover. The young emperor's supporters instigated popular uprisings in Constantinople, but their party was defeated. However, this turmoil gave Andronikos Komnenos (who was Alexios II's uncle) the opportunity to step in and overthrow Mary of Antioch; he then took over as regent of the underage emperor in April 1182.

Andronikos had counted on the anti-latin sentiment of the populace of Constantinople to find supporters to fis coup and, upon assuming power, he allowed extensive assaults and massacre against the Pisans and the Genoese of Constantinople, who held in their hands the greatest part of the commercial activity of the city. Andronikos also organised the murder not only of Mary of Antioch, but also those of Maria Komnene, the sister ofAlexios II, and her husband who had been leaders of the opposition to Mary of Antioch. In September 1183, Andronikos was crowned co-emperor, ordered the murder of Alexios II and remained sole emperor.

In the meantime, the Empire was under attack, by the Hugarians in the Balkans and the Seljuks in Asia Minor. Andronikos did not succeed in repelling those threats and had to turn to the Venetians for naval reinforcements, an unpopular move in the eyes of the Byzantine populace. As regards his internal policy, he took measures to restrain the power of the aristocracy, but his policy soon turned to cruel persecutions, which naturally turned the aristocracy against him. Finally, under the Norman threat, the populace of Constantinople overthrew Andronikos I in September 12 1185. He was put to torture and death, while Isaac II Angelos ascended the throne, thus putting an end to Komnenian reign over the throne of Constantinople.

5. Assessment of the dynasty

5.1. Social and political changes

As it has already been noted, when the Komnenians assumed power, members of their family and of the families related to them assumed almost every higher state office and they were granted the most prominent dignities. Thus the Komnenian dynasty was established. According to the facts, in the period between 1118 and 1180, ninety per cent of the Byzantine elite consisted of members of the Komnenos family and their relatives.5 They were efficient commanders of provinces in Kilikia and in the Balkans. Rarely did they undertake non-military offices, and those who did hold such dignities – parakoimomenos John during the reign of John II, megas droungarios Stephan, pinkernes Alexios and Constantine – were distant relatives of the emperor. Only one representative of the Komnenos family was a high rank church official: Hadrian Komnenos, a nephew of Alexios I, under the monastic name John, who became archbishop of Ohrid in 1142.

Similarly, historiography and the literary production of this period was soon engaged to serve the dynastic interests. Never before had there been delivered so many embellished and flattering orations in honor of the emperors. On the other hand, never before was so extensive the imperial interference in the clergy’s responsibilities; the Komnenian emperors went as far as undertaking the role of theologians and canonists, appropriating church treasuries, managing bishops’ estates for «the wellbeing of the state» and the strengthening of the army. The well-known 12th-century canonist Theodore Balsamon wrote –with a touch of flattery– that the power of the emperor extended to both the souls and the body of his subjects, while the authority of the patriarch extended only to their souls.6

5.2. Intellectual life and artistic activity

As far as the role of the Komnenian dynasty in the cultural developments of Byzantium is concerned, we should underline the role of its members as founders of important churches and monasteries. Among the most prominent examples are Panagia Kosmosoteira at Ferres, Thrace, founded by Isaac, son of Alexios I; the monastery of Virgin Kecharitomene at Constantinople, foundation of Irene Doukaina, wife of Alexios I; and finally the well-known Pantokrator monastery at Constantinople, founder of which was John II.

Some members of the Komnenos lineage had literary activity, such as Alexios I and his elder brother Isaac; however the most gifted one was Anna Komnene, whose historical work, the Alexiad, dedicated to the reign of her father, is really a masterpiece of Byzantine literature. Very important role was the one played by some of the members of the dynasty as patrons of certain poets and learned men in general. Among them was Irene Komnene, wife of the sebastokrator Andronikos, of the elder son of Manuel I, who supported writers such as Theodore Prodromos, «Prodromos» of Mangana, John Tzetzes and Constantine Manasses. Though it can be said that the arts and the literary creativity flourished to some extent during the reign of the Komnenoi, the term «Komnenian Renaissance», which occasionally appears in the scholarly literature, still remains somewhat disputable.7

5.3. Fall and later legacy of the dynasty

During the last decades of the 12thcentury, partly because of the anti-aristocratic policy of Andronikos I, the power of the Komnenoi was diminished and the dynasty came to an end with his overthrow from the throne of Constantinople in September 1185. In the eyes of his contemporaries, the death of Manuel I on September 1180 took the meaning of a fatal turning point. Thus Eustathios, metropolitan of Thessalonica, wrote: «It seems that it was God’s will that whatever was healthy within the Empire of the Romans should die along with emperor Manuel Komnenos and all of us should sink into the opaque darkness at the setting of this sun.»8 It is known that shortly after Manuel’s death, conflicts and ruptures broke out among the Komnenoi, inside the inner circle of the blood relatives. These conflicts showed clearly and beyond any doubt the eclipse of the familial solidarity, upon which the dynastic power had resided. The fall of the Komnenoi meant also the erasure of the family ideal of their ideology.

However, the name of the Komnenoi retained its prestige, and later it was widely used by various dynasties, starting from the late 12th century: Angeloi, Batatzes, Palaiologoi. Certain representatives of the Komnenos family appear in the second half of the 13thcentury, but they occupy relatively low rank positions: for example megas domestikos Theodore Angelos Komnenos or sebastos George Doukas Komnenos. A branch of the Komnenos family was established in the Sultanate of Iconium, in the state of the Seljuks, according to an inscription.9

However, the most prominent pretenders of the imperial prestige of the Komnenoi were the Grand Komenoi of Trebizond. The brothers Alexios and David, grandsons of Andronikos I, established in 1204, along the south shore of the Black Sea, the Empire of Trebizond, a state that lasted around two hundred and fifty years and, after the recapture of Constantinople in 1261 and the re-establishment of the Byzantine Empire, it even developed competitive tendencies towards Constantinople under the Palaiologoi. It even survived for some years the fall of Constantinople. Mehmet II the Conqueror finally occupied in 1461 the small empire on the Black Sea – «the last Greek empire».

Opinions and assessments regarding the Komnenian dynasty vary from scholar to scholar. According to some researchers, the adopt of western feudal ideals led to the decline of the distinct Byzantine institutions and greatly affected the Empire.10 Others insist on the positive consequences of Komnenian policies and on the restoration of Byzantine glory and power in their days.11

6. Some interesting trivia about the Komnenoi

It would be interesting to compare the average rate of life of the Komnenian dynasty’s rulers with some of the dynasties of the Latin Europe. According to the calculations, the average rate of life for the Komnenian dynasty (1081-1118) - but for young Alexios II, who was murdered at the age of 14 - is 61 years. The contrast is impressive compared to the members of the Saxon dynasty (919-1024) of the Holy Roman Empire whose average rate of life was only 40,5 years, namely two decades less. On the other side, the rulers of the Komnenian family lived a little longer than the emperors of some other Byzantine families: the emperors of the Macedonian dynasty (867-1056) lived on an average for 59 years, and the emperors of the last Byzantine dynasty of Palaiologoi (1259-1453), for 60 years.12

Other interesting trivia on the Komnenian rulers include I's love for chess and the fact that he was an excellent orator. It is said of him that nobody could surpass him in the way he extracted conclusions and proofs. However, he faced a problem in pronouncing the letter «rho». As Anna Komnene writes, then his language was stumbling over, while he pronounced normally the rest of the letters.13

Alexios’ grandson, Manuel I had a rather unusually dark skin for a Byzantine. The Venetians, naturally, knew this, and during a war against Byzantium made a rough joke on the emperor. In a sea battle they captured the imperial ship where there was Manuel’s cabin embellished with curtains embroidered with gold and with purple carpets. Then they drove to the emperor’s cabin a humble little man, a black Ethiopian, and after crowning him with a shining wreath, they officially escorted him and saluted him like a Byzantine emperor.14 Manuel I, who learned about this incident, never forgave the Venetians for this insult.

Niketas Choniates writes about an interesting superstition of the emperor Manuel I Komnenos. He explains how the emperor decided to name his long-awaited son, born in 1169, Alexios. He did not do so because of the name of his grandfather Alexios Komnenos, but because of a certain prophecy, the so called AIMA prophecy. AIMA (means blood in Greek) supposedly told how long would the Komnenos lineage remain on the throne of Constantinople. Manuel understood the word as an acronym for the names of Komnenian emperors. Thus «a» was for the founder of the dynasty Alexios I, «i» for his successor John II (Ioannes in Greek), «m» for himself; and the second a should be for his successor's name. Choniates insists that it was for this reason that Manuel named his son Alexios.15 And it is noteworthy that this formula had a long tradition in the Empire of Trebizond where ruled the dynasty of the Grand Komnenoi, the descendants of the Byzantine emperor Andronikos I.16

1. On this issue, see Κατσαρός, Β., Το “πρόβλημα της καταγωγής” των Κομνηνών, Βυζαντιακά 3 (1983), pp. 111-123

2. Ioannis Zonarae Epitomae historiarum III, ed. Th. Bütner-Wobst (Bonnae 1897), p. 766.

3. Ostrogorsky, G., Ιστορία του Βυζαντινού κράτους, vol. III (Athens 1981), p. 43.

4. Stanković, V., Komnini u Carigradu (1057-1185). Evolucija jedne vladarske porodice (Beograd 2006), p. 296.

5. Sorlin, I., Publications soviétiques sur le XIe siècle, Travaux et Mémoires 6 (1976) p. 374.

6. Литаврин Г.Г., "Византийская империя во второй половине VII—XII в.", З.В. Удальцова (ed.), Культура Византии (вторая половина VII - XII век), (Москва 1989), p. 84.

7. Kazhdan A. – Brand C. M., s.v. "Komnenos", "Komnenos, Isaac", Kazhdan A. (ed.) The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium 2 (New York – Oxford 1991), σελ. 1143-44.

8. Eustazio di Tessalonica, La espugnazione di Tessalonica, ed. S. Kyriakides (Palermo 1961) p. 18, 13-15.

9. Wittek, P., L’épitaphe d’un Comnène à Konia, Byzantion 10 (1935) pp. 505-515.

10. Васильевский, В. Г., Из истории Византии в XII веке, труды В.Г. Васильевского, vol. IV (Leningrad 1930) pp. 18-138, and Ostrogorsky, G., Ιστορία του Βυζαντινού κράτους, vol. III (Athens 1981), pp. 46-62, partialy modified the view of Lemerle, P., Cinq etudes sur le XIe siècle byzantin (Paris 1977), pp. 309-312. Also see. Kazhdan A., s.v. "Komnenos", Kazhdan A. (ed.) The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium 2 (New York – Oxford 1991), p. 1143.

11. Каждан А. П., «Загадка Комнинов (Опыт историографии)», Византийский временник 25 (1964) pp. 53-98.; Lilie, R.-J., Des Kaisers Macht und Ohmacht, Varia, I (Bonn 1984), pp. 9-120.

12. Talbot, A.-M., Old Age in Byzantium, Byzantinische Zeitschrift 77 (1984) p. 269.

13. Annae Comnenae Alexias, ed. D. R. Reinsch – A. Kambylis (Berolini et Novi Eboraci 2001) p. 30.

14. Nicetae Choniatae Historia I, ed. J. A. van Dieten (Berolini 1975), p. 86.

15. Nicetae Choniatae Historia I, ed. J. A. van Dieten (Berolini 1975), p. 169.

16. Shukurov, R., AIMA: the blood of the Grand Komnenoi, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 19 (1995) pp. 161-181.