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Alexios I Komnenos

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology

Paul Stephenson

Alexios I Komnenos (c. 1057–1118), Byzantine emperor 

(1081–1118). Alexios, third son of John Komnenos and Anna Dalassene, was born around 1057, the same year that his uncle, Isaac I Komnenos, ascended the imperial throne. Alexios died 15 August 1118. Alexios’s reign is the subject of the Alexiad, by his daughter Anna Komnene, completed a generation after his death. A contemporary, and often highly critical, account is contained in the Epitome historion of Zonaras. The divergence between these sources has been perpetuated in modern scholarship, where Alexios is considered either a paragon or an arch reactionary.

Alexios came to prominence as a ruthless and effective general. As megas domestikos, supreme military commander, after 1078 he defeated the imperial pretenders Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros Basilakes, thus securing Nikephoros III Botaneiates’s tenuous hold on power. This was ended by his own coup, when Alexios’s troops entered Constantinople on 1 April 1081. He entrusted general administration to his mother and older brother, Isaac, and forged an association with the Doukas family, marrying Irene Doukaina and betrothing his infant daughter, Anna, to Constantine Doukas (son of Michael VII Doukas). Alexios was thus free to remain in the field, where for the next decade he campaigned against both the Normans, under Robert Guiscard, and the nomadic Pechenegs (Patzinaks). To defeat the Normans, Alexios required the support of the Venetians, to whom he granted extraordinary trading privileges. The first phase of his reign ended with the crushing victory over the Pechenegs at Levounion on 29 April 1091. Consequently, Alexios was able to disinherit Constantine Doukas in favor of his own infant son, John.

Wishing to recover territory in Anatolia from the Seljuk Turks, Alexios appealed to Pope Urban II for aid. The response provoked by Urban’s preaching—the First Crusade—was a shock and a challenge for Alexios, who succeeded to some extent in turning the crusaders’ energies to his advantage, recovering the southeastern and southeastern littorals of Asia Minor. Nevertheless, the tensions between East and West that resulted, and the establishment of the Latin crusader states free from Byzantine suzerainty, set the agenda for future Byzantine foreign policy. An immediate consequence of soured relations between Alexios and certain Latins was the threat of a second crusade aimed at capturing Constantinople, which was promoted by the Norman Bohemond of Taranto. Although this greater menace was averted by Alexios’s diplomacy, a second phase of Byzantine-Norman wars in the western Balkans ensued. The treaty of Devol, which brought these to an end in 1108, sealed Alexios’s last major foreign policy success, but to a great extent revealed how hollow were his achievements. Alexios failed to drive the Seljuk Turks from Anatolia, and his last campaign of 1116 reinforced this failure: he created a frontier zone around Bithynian Olympos and evacuated the local population.

Alexios’s last years were plagued by illness, and among the most powerful scenes in the Alexiad are those that describe his death, surrounded by his kin. John II had a series of panels commissioned that celebrated Alexios’s exploits in war, but also featured his death. Alexios’s image was created and recreated after his death as a means to legitimate the competing imperial claims of his children. In this context we might better understand the Mousai, a work attributed to Alexios, and supposedly intended as advice to his son, to be another posthumous creation.

[See also Levounion, Battle of.]


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            Paul Stephenson