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Emperor Manuel Komnenos — The Pinnacle of Komnenian Byzantium

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Image Source: Manuscript miniature of Manuel I. Wikipedia Public Domain.

Manuel Komnenos has been a controversial figure, even in his own time. He was hailed for his charisma and military victories but also criticized for being overambitious, overconfident and for his failure at the battle of Myriokephalon. He can be considered however the greatest monarch of the Komnenian period of Byzantium. His ambitions have been overstated and his mistakes were not the main cause of Byzantium’s decline after his death though. During his reign, Byzantium was a strong state that made military gains at the expense of its neighbors.

Byzantium at the Age of the Komnenoi

Image Source: Byzantine Empire, c. 1180. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

In the eleventh century, the Byzantine Empire underwent a major crisis. A detailed description of this crisis is out of the scope of this post, so there will be a rather short summary. Due to a multitude of reasons (neglect of thematic/provincial armies, the suppression of the Anatolian aristocracy that previously provided the most effective military leaders by Basil II, conflict between bureaucrats in the capital and provincial military aristocrats, effective cavalry tactics by the Seljuk Turks), the Byzantines suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Seljuk Turks in the East and of the Normans in the West. Large parts of Anatolia fell to Turkish control while southern Italy was conquered by the Normans, who had a base from which to launch raids on the Balkan peninsula.

The first two Komnenoi emperors, Alexios and John, had to deal with this situation. They reorganized the military by reestablishing a properly trained and paid force and adopting Western practices (such as the crossbow and heavy cavalry tactics). With help from the crusaders of the First Crusade, the Byzantines were able to recover much of coastal Anatolia, which was richer and more populous, leaving to the Turks the Anatolian interior which was poorer.

The establishment of crusader states in the Levant though brought problems to Byzantium as the crusaders took for themselves the important city of Antioch which the Komnenoi claimed for Byzantium. Antioch was a great city and had ideological significance for the Byzantine Empire as it was one of the five patriarchates, its church is said to have been founded by St Peter and features prominently in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Byzantines also had an ideological conflict with the Holy Roman Empire in Germany that claimed the Roman imperial title and with the Roman Papacy which attempted to assert itself as the predominant Christian Church. The two worlds, Latin West and Greek East, had drifted apart in the past centuries and those cultural differences were highlighted by the increased interactions that the crusades brought.

The Komnenian Empire was greatly centralized by the standards of the age and it had all the functions of a fully developed pre-industrial state: standing army and navy, elaborate bureaucracy and monetary taxation. Yet it also had weaknesses unique to this period of Byzantine history. The Komnenian Empire was essentially a dynastic state; while previous emperors would also use some of their relatives in the imperial administration, in Komnenian times titles were granted to imperial relatives and graded by degree of kinship to the Emperor and according to the seniority of the kinsman within each degree. The Byzantine Empire was governed by lineage and kinship. This type of government depended on large part on the cohesion of the extensive imperial family. As long as it could be maintained, there was stability. When it could not be maintained, though, it would cause internal conflicts and instability.

The centralization of imperial power in Constantinople meant the limits of the empire coincided with the territory which a mobile military emperor from Constantinople could control without allied aid. This limited the possible territorial extend of the empire. It also meant that a strong hand was needed to maintain this centralization of power. Constantinople, a city with 300,000–400,000 inhabitants, relied on the provinces for the import of raw materials, money, food, men and manufactured goods. In the localities, the imperial center had to accommodate with local elites. The system of pronoia (granting of state lands and revenues to mounted soldiers) allowed the imperial center to build patronage in the provinces. This created an unequal relationship in which Constantinople needed the outer provinces more than they needed Constantinople.

Rise to Power

Manuel was the fourth (and youngest) son of John II. He came to the throne thanks to an essentially bloodless coup. The two eldest sons of John had died before him, but when John died his third son Isaac was still alive. Naturally, it was assumed that he would succeed his father. Yet when John died in Syria, Isaac was in Constantinople while John was on his father’s deathbed. Manuel led the army back to the capital while secretly instructing his supporters in Constantinople to place Isaac under house arrest. Manuel entered Constantinople in June 1143 and Isaac had to accept the facts. So, at the age of 24, he became emperor.

Despite the more feudal, dynastic nature of the Komnenian Empire, Manuel’s reign was more autocratic than that of his predecessors, despite his liking for the culture and the company of western knighthood. According to Choniates, ‘he ruled more autocratically, treating his subjects not as free men but as if they were servants who belonged to him by inheritance’. He also made more extensive use of eunuchs compared to his grandfather and father.

Yet the feudalization of the empire proceeded under Manuel. He made changes in imperial ranking, with ranks carefully graded by degree of kinship to the emperor, and within each degree according to the seniority of the kinsman through whom the kinship is traced. Many members of the Komnenian aristocracy were serving in civilian or military offices, while a lot of them married with other influential aristocratic families such as the Kamateroi. As already stated above, the stability of Byzantium depended on the cohesion of the imperial family and this became even more the case during Manuel’s reign.

At Manuel’s time, Byzantium was still the predominant power in the Mediterranean but only by a margin. While it was stronger by each of its neighbors, it was less powerful than an alliance of Muslim states or Catholic states. In order to avoid being overwhelmed by an enemy coalition, the Empire needed firm allies. Due to religious differences with the Muslims, the Western fellow Christians seemed like the obvious choice. This was helped by Manuel’s own friendliness towards the West. He was known as a ‘Latin-lover’ who enjoyed Westerner jousts and made use of Westerners in his court. He had a Hungarian mother and a German fiancee.

Yet this reputation may be a bit overstated. Manuel put Byzantium first and foremost and he did not change traditional Byzantine foreign policy but rather presented it in a more acceptable to the West way. That is the reason why Western sources, which are generally hostile to Byzantium, praise the emperor, extolling him as a ‘generous and worthy man’, ‘beloved of God’, ‘a great-souled man of incomparable energy’.

Manuel’s foreign policy must be seen within this context. While past historians would criticize him for supposedly having a Justinianic agenda, his ambitions were far more modest. Manuel was more concerned with security than expansion. Manuel sought to create a ring of reliable satellite kingdoms. Hungary, Jerusalem, the Sultanate and Norman Sicily were all tried in this role to a greater or lesser extent.

The Norman Wars

Image Source: Arrival of the Second Crusade before Constantinople. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Manuel had to face two rivals upon ascending the throne; the Normans in southern Italy who traditionally raided the Balkans and the French in Antioch who refused to subordinate to Byzantium. Manuel wanted to use the Germans of the Holy Roman Empire against those two enemies, hence why he wanted to marry his German fiancee.

He first dealt with the Principality of Antioch. After a short campaign in Bithynia against the Turks, in 1144 Manuel sent land and naval forces to punish Antioch. They defeated the forces of prince Raymond and raided his principality. This prevented him from aiding the Christian Edessa, which fell to the Turks. This left Raymond exposed to the Turks and he had to travel to Constantinople himself and recognize Manuel as his overlord.

In 1146, Manuel married Bertha (the German fiancee), who was renamed Irene. Manuel mainly went through this marriage in order to secure German aid and he himself kept many mistresses, including his niece Theodora Komnene. Nevertheless, he showed his wife outward respect. Manuel that year also faced a Turkish raid. He mustered his army at Lopadium and marched against the Sultanate of Iconium, defeating the Turks at Acroenus and ravaging up to the walls of Iconium. Yet after reinforcements arrived, Manuel had to retreat. This action may have been used by Manuel as propaganda against his critics, showing off his bravery and strength and trying to also impress the Latins by showing his zeal in holy war.

It was at that time that the Second Crusade began. German armies under Conrad and French armies under Louis VII crossed through Byzantine territory and caused trouble by plundering in order to get the necessary supplies. Open fighting between Byzantines and Germans was prevented thanks to the intervention of Bertha. While Manuel was too busy dealing with the crusaders, the Normans seized the island of Corfu and raided Greece, sacking Thebes and Corinth. Manuel responded by calling on Venetian naval help. He renewed their trade privileges and extended their trade quarter in Constantinople.

Facing such problems, Manuel hastily transported the French and German armies across the Bosporus to Asia Minor. The crusaders ignored his advice on how to proceed and ended up suffering casualties that rendered their armies useless by the time they reach Syria and Palestine. This earned Manuel a rather undeserved reputation as a saboteur of the second crusade. In 1147, Conrad returned to Constantinople to recuperate from illness on invitation of Manuel and the next year the two rulers met in Thessaloniki and agreed to a joint invasion of southern Italy held by the Normans.

In spring 1149, Manuel arrived to Norman held Corfu which was being besieged by his Venetian allies. Manuel forced the surrender of the island. Manuel was to move the war to Italy itself but the Normans persuaded the Serbs of Ras to repudiate Byzantium and attack the Serbs of Dioclea who asked for Byzantine aid. The emperor marched against the disobeying Serbs and took Ras. Manuel prepared a fleet to attack the Normans the next year but the Hungarians came to the aid of the Serbs. Meanwhile the Turks raided his possessions in Asia Minor and the Armenians invaded Byzantine Cilicia. Manuel’s eastern possessions, including his recently bought remnant of the county of Edessa, fell to the Turks. Manuel was too busy with his western troubles. He defeated the Serbs, invaded Hungary sacking Semlin and Sirmium and forced the Hungarian King to make peace in 1151.

A planned German-Byzantine expedition against Sicily in 1152 had to be abandoned as Conrad died that year. The emperor faced further setbacks when his cousin Andronicus, famous for his romantic conquests but a less than able warrior, failed to defeat the Armenians, who took control of the rest of Cilicia. In 1154, the Byzantines paid the Turks to attack the Armenians but they defeated the Sultan’s armies.

Despite those setbacks, Manuel decided to still pursue his war against the Normans. He allied himself with the new German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Hadrian IV and and marched against the Hungarians in 1155, to ensure that there would be peace in the Balkans while he was dealing with the Normans. A Byzantine fleet landed at Ancona in Italy and the invasion of the Norman kingdom finally began. Manuel had secured the help of rebellious Norman nobles and the Byzantines were soon able to overran the coast all the way to Bari. Manuel also allied himself with Genoa, granting the Italian city-state commercial quarters in Constantinople.

Shifting Alliances

Image Source: Maria of Antioch with Manuel I Komnenos. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Yet the next spring the Normans were able to rout the overextended and outnumbered Byzantines. The Byzantine failure also had a lot to do with German unwillingness to join the campaign. Barbarossa denounced the campaign as a Greek initiative that was at odds with his own program of imperial Roman restoration. Yet Manuel continued exchanging embassies with the Germans, even after making peace with the Normans in 1158, making proposals for a carving up of Italy. Manuel did not want to recreate Justinian’s Empire as some scholars argued in the past but rather sought to ensure the eastern coast of southern Italy to act as a buffer preventing raids to the Balkans.

Frederick’s imperial ambitions though meant that the Byzantine-German alliance was a failure. Frederick wanted a restoration of imperial power and he had no wish to share control of Italy with the Greeks. The ties of Manuel with the German royal house were severed when his wife Bertha died in 1159. Manuel, seeking to fight back against Frederick’s ambitions, allied himself with Pope Alexander III, a rival of the German Emperor and his antipope. This also aided relations between the Byzantines and the French, the main supporters of the Pope in the West.

Manuel also sought to gain the support of those in Italy who feared Frederick’s growing powers. He entered in negotiations with the Normans. Manuel also decided to support with funds, spies and even some troops Frederick’s Italian opponents (for example, he supported the Lombard League against Frederick). In 1162 Milan, which had been razed by the Germans, was able to rebuilt its walls with Byzantine funds. The Pope even stated that he would consider recognizing Manuel as the sole Roman Emperor. The peace of Venice in 1177 though which reconciliated Frederick and Pope Alexander without any mention to Manuel put an end to Byzantine ambitions in the West. Manuel had to face the humiliation of Frederick sending him a letter in which the German called himself Emperor of the Romans and Graecorum moderator (ruler of the Greeks), addressed Manuel as king of the Greeks and claimed that his predecessors had passed onto him ‘the monarchy of the city of Rome’, to which the Greeks were also subjects.

In the East the Emperor had some more luck. In 1159 he had managed to march east, defeating Turks and Armenians, reclaiming Cilicia and forcing Antioch and the Armenians into becoming his vassals. At Easter 1159, Manuel made a triumphant entry in Antioch. The following winter the emperor ordered attacks against the Turks, with little success though. Manuel hired western mercenaries and married Maria of Antioch, who was a renowned beauty. His nephew John Contostephanus invaded the Sultanate of Iconium and defeated the Turks, forcing the Sultan to come to Constantinople in person in spring of 1162 to ask for peace.

The Emperor also dealt with Hungary. He intervened in Hungarian succession by supporting a candidate on the throne who lasted only six months before seeking refuge to Byzantium and then he marched in person to Sirmium, forcing the Hungarians to give up disputed land. When in 1165 the Hungarians retook the city, Manuel led another army to Sirmium while other Byzantine expeditions conquered Dalmatia and Bosnia. The conquest of those territories was seen as a major triumph of Manuel by his neighbors.

In Asia Minor Manuel was building fortresses to control the routes to the east while in 1169 Byzantine naval forces joined an ambitious campaign by the Kingdom of Jerusalem on Egypt (which had little success). That same year his wife bore him his first legitimate son, Alexius, who was crowned co-emperor in 1771. Only a few days after this crowning, he had every Venetian in the Empire arrested and expropriated. This asserted Byzantine imperial dominance over the ambitious mercantile city-state. The Venetians incited the Serbs of Ras against the Byzantines but Manuel was easily able to subdue them. He suffered a setback in the east though as his holdings in Cilicia fell to the Rubenin King Mleh. In 1174, however, the Byzantines recovered this territory.

The Emperor broke his truce with the Turks in 1175 and marched against them. Manuel had some initial success, forcing the Turkish Sultan Kilij Arslan, to enter the negotiating table but in 1176 he mustered an even larger force to lead against Iconium itself. His army of 35,000 men was large and unwieldy. In 17 September 1176 Manuel was checked by Seljuk Sultan Kilij Arslan II at the Battle of Myriokephalon. His army was ambushed on a narrow pass which forced him to abandon his siege equipment and retreat. Although not a military disaster, this defeat has been compared to the battle of Manztikert of 1071 for the psychological effects it had. Just like that battle too had not been a disaster but caused the loss of Asia Minor to the Turks, the battle of Myriokephalon ensured that the Turks could not be removed from Asia Minor.

The next year the Emperor had some good news as a general of his was able to ambush the Turks as they were crossing the Meander river and crushed them. This showcased that despite Manuel’s failure, the Byzantine army remained strong and able to defend imperial holdings in Asia Minor. In 1179, Manuel came to an agreement with the Venetians, freeing up prisoners and discussed compensating them for their lost property. The Emperor died the next year.


Manuel was called ‘the Great’ (Ο Μέγας) by his fellow Greeks and inspired intense loyalty to him. He knew the importance of crowd-pleasing and was keen in publicizing his military victories for propaganda value. He was an able general and this was showcased by the many times he successfully led his army to victory. He gained land in Dalmatia, Bosnia and Asia Minor. He was able to maneuver in the crowded diplomatic scene of Western Europe and make Byzantium an accepted monarchy in the family of Western nations. His long reign, along with those of his grandfather and father, stabilized Byzantium.

Manuel did make mistakes. At times he could be overconfident and overambitious, though not as much as his critics thought. However his mistakes have been overstated because after his death the decline of Byzantium began. Historians, both of that period and in modern times, tried to trace Byzantium’s decline back to his reign. In my view, the decline of Byzantium has more to do with structural problems of the Komnenian state (centrality in the capital, dynastic-feudal governance, oppression and relegation of provinces) than Manuel’s own mistakes.

Overall Manuel can be considered one of the great emperors of Byzantium. While his mistakes prevent him from being among the ‘top’, he was certainly among the most capable men to sit on Byzantium’s imperial throne.

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