The history of the Eastern Roman Empire (or the Byzantine Empire, as it was never known to the Byzantines themselves) is sadly not as well known as that of the Roman Empire before the fall of the West in AD 476. It’s a shame because the Romans would continue to wield influence and play a serious role in European and Middle Eastern affairs for a further thousand years, and also because skipping the history of the Eastern Empire means we miss out on great characters like Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos, who is one of the most violent and interesting rulers in medieval history. Before going into the misadventures of Andronikos, though, we have to lay out some history.
Andronikos was born into the most central and powerful family in an empire that had been mired in warfare and turmoil for generations. In 1118, around the time of his birth, the Byzantine Empire was ruled by the either about-to-die or already-dead Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, a long-lasting ruler who managed to fend off the advances of the Seljuq Turks, who had invaded Anatolia (most of modern Turkey) and threatened Constantinople. In the century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, the remnant of the empire in the East had gained power, wealth, and land, but it lost the Levant and North Africa to the Arab invasions of the 7th century and had become a shell of its former self by the 11th century. It was in this new world that Alexios I bolstered the waning strength of the Byzantines during his 37-year reign.
The Turks weren’t the only enemies Alexios and his successors had to worry about. Byzantium’s fellow Christian states to the west, as it turned out, would pose just as much of a threat to her future as would the Muslim states to the east. In the course of his struggles against the Turks, Alexios called for help from the West, and the West responded. Pope Urban II proclaimed a crusade – now known as the First Crusade – against the Muslims to relieve the pressure on Byzantium and to recover Jerusalem. Despite their promises to recover lands lost by the Byzantines to their control, the Crusaders who settled in Anatolia and the Levant set up their own states – most notably the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The upshot of this development was an increase in the power of the seafaring Italian city-states, especially of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, and some hard feelings between the Byzantines and the western Crusaders who had settled down in their former lands.
Fast forward to the 1150s. Andronikos had grown up a Byzantine prince in the court of his cousin and childhood friend, Emperor Manuel I Komnenos. He was, by all accounts, an athletic and attractive man and an effective general. This might have made him believe that he would have been a better emperor than his cousin, because in 1153 and despite his personal history with Manuel, Andronikos was implicated in a coup plot against the Emperor and was thrown into prison in Constantinople, where he’d stay until a successful escape attempt in 1165. After running to far-away Kiev and eventually more or less patching things up with Manuel Andronikos returned to Constantinople. Soon thereafter, however, he left the city and ended up tangled up in the complex politics of the Crusader states, seducing one and then another young western princess in the states’ ruling families and visiting a series of Muslim and Christian courts through Syria and the Caucasus with his new bride before finally carving out a section of northern Anatolia to rule. Long story short, Andronikos’ prodigious philandering and adventuring managed to piss off Manuel several times again before his death in 1180.
At this point, it’s important to note that the Komnenos dynasty under Manuel had some quite western European tastes, including a love for jousting. This annoyed the native Greeks of Constantinople. Their annoyance only grew when the ten year-old Emperor Alexios II succeeded Manuel to the throne under the regency of the Empress Maria, who herself was of French blood. Under Alexios II, resident traders from Venice, Pisa, Genoa and other Italian city-states continued to enjoy trading concessions established in the days of Alexios I and Manuel. At the time, there was great tension between the westerners (commonly called the Latins) and the Greeks of the city, and the indulgence shown to the Latins by the last few emperors didn’t help this situation. The trading concessions especially rankled the native Greeks, whose own businesses suffered as a result.
This volatile arrangement wouldn’t last. In 1182, Andronikos took advantage of Empress Maria’s extreme unpopularity to enter Constantinople with an army at his back. In an effective Machiavellian move, Andronikos declared himself the protector of the young Emperor Alexios, which naturally meant that he would soon be strangling him to death – but not before forcing Alexios to sign his own mother’s death warrant. In 1183, Andronikos I Komnenos assumed the ancient throne of Constantinople as sole emperor. After poisoning a few more members of the royal family for good measure, the somewhere-in-his-60s Andronikos took the late Alexios’ fiancee, the 12 year-old Agnes of France, as his bride.1
Andronikos primarily sought to achieve two goals as emperor. One of these goals wasn’t so bad – in fact, when taken on its own, it makes him look like an upright and honest ruler. The new emperor declared an end to the corruption and nepotism of the previous emperors’ rules. This was what initially made him popular, because unlike so many politicians, Andronikos actually acted upon his promises. He didn’t favor the rich over the poor. He went after tax farmers (people who contracted with the government to collect taxes and who often extorted massive amounts from the citizens and skimmed a commission off the top for themselves.) He also appointed officials on the basis of merit, instead of on the basis of family ties, a long-standing Byzantine practice that presumably put a lot of incompetent officials into positions of responsibility and power.
Unfortunately, the way in which he acted on his goal of cleaning up Constantinople got him into trouble, because his other primary goal was to scare everyone else so shitless that they wouldn’t even think about revolting against him. To Andronikos, every problem was a nail, and he was the hammer. In 1182, before formally taking power, Andronikos either presided over or let happen an event now known as the Massacre of the Latins during which the tens of thousands of Latin residents of Constantinople were brutally put to death by angry native Greek mobs incited by tensions following decades of West-East conflict.
Andronikos’ wrath also extended to his own people. The Emperor ordered the late Manuel’s chief advisor impaled on a stake. He then ordered hundreds more who hadn’t supported his power play impaled on stakes. In 1184, Andronikos took off to the Balkans to put down opposition to his rule and put many of the inhabitants of Nicaea and other cities to the sword. The historical records indicate that Andronikos ordered further impalements and other extravagant forms of torture and execution in the course of his domestic campaign.
The new emperor’s policy of poisoning, strangling, or impaling anyone who might oppose him or plot against him would backfire badly. On September 11, 1185, Andronikos sent a couple of armed goons after Isaac Angelos, a prince he hadn’t gotten around to killing yet. The arrest/summary execution attempt was botched when Isaac killed one of his attackers and escaped into the Hagia Sophia, where a congregation had gathered. The people of Constantinople had badly been worn down over two years of their new emperor’s purges, and the recent Norman capture and violent sack of the major Byzantine city of Thessalonika – caused largely by the incompetence of the city’s military leadership – pissed them off badly. So it couldn’t have been much of a surprise when the congregation proclaimed the young prince Emperor Isaac II Angelos and went out for Andronikos’ blood.
The old emperor, only two years into his formal reign, received word of the lynch mob coming for him, grabbed his wife and his favorite mistress, and tried to escape from the hordes of furious Constantinoplians by boat. Andronikos was captured during his flight, and soon thereafter he was bound and dragged before Emperor Isaac. Isaac, perhaps understandably not in a charitable mood, had Andronikos’ right eye gouged out, his right hand cut off and his teeth broken, then sent him to the angry mob to receive mob justice.
At this point, we give the narrative over to Edward Gibbon, the 18th century author of the classic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
Astride on a camel, without any danger of a rescue, he was carried through the city, and the basest of the populace rejoiced to trample on the fallen majesty of their prince. After a thousand blows and outrages, Andronicus was hung by the feet, between two pillars, that supported the statues of a wolf and an a sow; and every hand that could reach the public enemy, inflicted on his body some mark of ingenious or brutal cruelty, till two friendly or furious Italians, plunging their swords into his body, released him from all human punishment. In this long and painful agony, “Lord, have mercy upon me!” and “Why will you bruise a broken reed?” were the only words that escaped from his mouth. Our hatred for the tyrant is lost in pity for the man; nor can we blame his pusillanimous resignation, since a Greek Christian was no longer master of his life.
Thus ended Emperor Andronikos I, the last of the Komnenos family to rule in Constantinople. While he was a bloody tyrant who enjoyed torturing and killing people, he also pursued anti-corruption programs that most today can probably agree were good policy. Andronikos’ combination of practicality and sense with viciousness and cruelty make him a sort of spiritual ancestor of Ivan the Terrible, who managed his respective domain in similar ways. Luckily for Ivan, he was able to hold power for far longer than Andronikos, who ultimately fell victim to the turbulent politics of 12th century Byzantium.
So Isaac II Angelos is now the emperor, acclaimed by the people of Constantinople, and the tyrant is dead. It’s always nice to see a happy ending. If only it were a happy ending.
Isaac immediately brought back the political culture of corruption that Andronikos had fought against, and his son, the future short-lived Emperor Alexios IV Angelos, would open the gates of Constantinople to the barbaric western Crusaders in exchange for their support of his claim to the throne against a usurper, which ultimately led to the violent and merciless sacking of the city and the establishment of the Latin Empire ruled over by the Crusaders themselves. But that’s a story for another day. For now, we’ll let the people of Constantinople enjoy their murderous revenge.
1 If the contemporary accounts are any indication, even people in the 12th century, who had quite a different concept of age of consent than we do today, found this creepy.