Manuel I Comnenus

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Manuel I Comnenus Megas (November 28, 1118? – September 24, 1180) was Byzantine Emperor from 1143 to 1180. He was the fourth son of John II Comnenus and Piroska, daughter of King Ladislaus I of Hungary.

Raymond of Antioch and the Second Crusade

The first test of Manuel's reign came in 1144, when he was faced with an appalling atrocity: Raymond of Antioch invaded the Byzantine province of Cyprus, and having ransacked the island and plundered all its wealth, his army mutilated the survivors before forcing them to buy back their flocks at exorbitant prices with what little they had left. Manuel responded to this threat in a characteristically energetic way. He assembled a huge imperial army, and lost no time in marching on Antioch. Indeed, the speed of his advance was such that he managed to surprise the Armenian Thoros of Cilicia, who had participated in the attack on Cyprus. All the towns and cities of Cilicia fell to Manuel immediately, and Thoros himself only just managed to escape into the mountains at the last moment.

News of the astonishingly swift advance of the Byzantine army soon reached Antioch, where it struck terror into the heart of Raymond. Realising that he had no hope of defeating Manuel's formidable army, he also knew that he could not expect any help from the King of Jerusalem. The King of Jerusalem did not approve of Raymond's attack on Cyprus, and in any case had already made an agreement with Manuel. Thus isolated and abandoned by his allies, Raymond decided that abject submission was his only hope. He appeared before the Emperor, dressed in a sack and with a rope tied around his neck, and begged for forgiveness. The Latin historian, William of Tyre, commented that this ignominious scene continued for so long that all present were disgusted by it. Eventually, Manuel forgave Raymond on condition that he became a vassal of the Empire, effectively surrendering the independence of Antioch to Byzantium. The terms of this arrangement demonstrate that from the beginning, Manuel was not only interested in achieving the aim of his father and grandfather in restoring Antioch to the Empire, but was also interested in a broader sense in using the Latins and the West to bolster the Empire's position in the eastern Mediterranean as a whole. This interest was to involve him in Crusading adventures in Egypt later on, a region where the Byzantine Empire had not been active for many centuries.

Satisfied with his efforts thus far, Manuel headed back to Constantinople. On their way back, his troops were surprised in line of march by the Turks. Despite this, they won a complete victory, routing the enemy army from the field and inflicting heavy losses. In the following year he drove the Seljuk Turks out of Isauria. However he was prevented from following up his early successes in the east, for events to the west meant that his presence was urgently required in the Balkans. In 1147 he granted a passage through his dominions to two armies of the Second Crusade under Conrad III of Germany and Louis VII of France. At this time, there were still members of the Byzantine court who remembered the passage of the First Crusade. The Crusade was a defining event in the collective memory of the age and one which had fascinated Manuel's aunt, Anna Comnena, who describes some of the leaders of the Crusade in an entertaining biography of her father, (Emperor Alexius I), called the Alexiad (available in Penguin). Many Byzantines feared the Crusade, and this view was encouraged by the numerous acts of vandalism and theft practiced by the unruly armies as they marched through Byzantine territory. Byzantine troops followed the Crusaders, attempting to police their behaviour, and further troops were assembled in Constantinople, ready to defend the capital against any acts of aggression. This cautious approach was well advised, but still the numerous outbreaks of overt or secret hostility between the Franks and the Greeks on their line of march, for which it seems both sides were to blame, nearly precipitated a conflict between Manuel and his guests. Wisely, by 1148 Manuel had secured an alliance with Conrad of the Holy Roman Empire, whose sister-in-law he had earlier married. But Conrad died in 1152, and, despite repeated attempts, Manuel could not reach an agreement with his successor, Frederick I Barbarossa.

The Italian campaign and Pope Alexander III

In the same year the emperor made war upon Roger II of Sicily, whose fleet had captured Corfu and plundered the Greek towns, but in 1148 Roger was defeated with the help of the Venetians. In 1149 Manuel recovered Corfu and prepared to take the offensive against the Normans. With an army mainly composed of mercenary Italians he invaded Sicily and Apulia, and with the help of disaffected local barons including Count Robert of Loritello, achieved astonishingly rapid progress as the whole of southern Italy rose up in rebellion against the Sicilian Crown.

Several cities, including Bari which had been the capital of the Byzantine Catapanate of Southern Italy for centuries before being lost to the Normans in 1071, opened their gates to the Emperor's army. Although the progress of both these expeditions was arrested by defeats on land and sea, Manuel maintained a foothold in Southern Italy, which was secured to him by a peace in 1155, and continued to interfere in Italian politics. Encouraged by the success he dreamed of restoration of the Roman Empire at cost of union between Orthodox and Catholic Church, a prospect which would frequently be offered to the Pope during negotiations and plans for alliance. The union, however, would have to be accompanied by the general acceptance of the Byzantine emperor's ultimate secular authority over all Christians. To the Pope in Rome, it was he and he alone who had the ultimate authority over Christians everywhere. Thus the two cultures that had grown up around the Pope and the Emperor would have been very difficult to reconcile, perhaps ultimately impossible. In order for the agreement to have been reached on the Pope's conditions, Manuel would have had to accept the supremacy of the Pope in some form. Even to such a pro-western Emperor as Manuel, this would have been unacceptable, particularly in view of the Greek Orthodox population and their hostility to the west. It seems likely that they would have refused outright to acknowledge such a deal. Indeed this is precisely what happened about two hundred years later when, briefly, the Orthodox and Catholic churches were united under the Pope. However a defeat in 1156 at Brindisi put an end to the restored Byzantine reign in Italy, and by 1158 the Byzantine army had left Italy.

After Manuel's death, the Normans of Sicily would invade Byzantium again in 1185, sacking Thessalonica, the second city of the Empire, and causing devastation in the western Balkans. The Norman kingdom of Sicily was one of the constant thorns in the side of the later Byzantine Empire, repeatedly launching invasions and encouraging other powers to attack the Empire. Had Manuel succeeded in restoring these long lost provinces (Sicily itself had succumbed to an Arab invasion in 902), one of the greatest threats to the Empire would have been removed. Manuel understood this, and he also knew that the situation in the central Mediterranean would change as a result. His influence over the Pope was one factor in the decision to invade Italy. In the early history of the Byzantine Empire, the Pope was actually arrested and brought to Constantinople by Imperial troops on more than one occasion. Although by Manuel's day things had changed to such an extent that this would have been almost impossible (the reaction of the other Western powers can scarcely be imagined), since the Pope dominated western Christendom, by gaining influence over the Pope Manuel would have changed the entire scope of the Empire's relations with the Western powers. Thus Manuel's intervention in Italy can be seen within the context of his broader strategy of attempting to influence the West.

If there was ever a chance of reuniting the eastern and western churches, and reconciling the Pope permanently, this was probably the most favourable moment. The Pope was never on good terms with the Normans, except when under duress by the threat of direct military action. Having the 'Civilised' Byzantine Empire on its southern border was infinitely preferable to the Papacy than having to constantly deal with the troublesome Normans of Sicily. It was in Pope Alexander III's interests to reach a deal if at all possible, since doing so would greatly increase his own influence over the entire Orthodox Christian population. However, ultimately such a deal proved elusive, and the two churches have remained divided ever since. Such is the strength of feeling that these issues can arouse, that even when Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to Greece on May 4 2001, he apologised to the Greek Orthodox community and the Patriarch of Constantinople for the sins of the Crusader attack on Constantinople in 1204, nearly 800 years earlier. In his endeavor to weaken the control of Venice over the trade of his empire Manuel made treaties with Pisa and Genoa; to check the aspirations of Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor he supported the free Italian cities with his gold and negotiated with Pope Alexander III. In spite of his friendliness towards the Roman church Manuel was ultimately refused the title of "Augustus" by Alexander. Manuel nowhere succeeded in attaching the Italians permanently to his interests. Nonetheless in a brief war with the Venetians Manuel not only held his ground in Italy but drove his enemies out of the Aegean Sea.

The final results of the Italian campaign were limited in terms of the advantages gained by the Empire. The City of Ancona became a Byzantine base in Italy, accepting the Emperor as sovereign. The Normans of Sicily had been damaged, and now came to terms with the Empire, ensuring peace for the rest of Manuel's reign. The Empire's ability to get involved in Italian affairs had been demonstrated. However, given the enormous quantities of gold which had been lavished on the project, it also demonstrated the limits of what money and diplomacy alone could achieve, a lesson which Manuel would have done well to heed. The expense of Manuel's involvement in Italy must have cost the Treasury a great deal, and yet it produced only limited solid gains.

The Danube frontier: Hungary is defeated, Greece flourishes

On his northern frontier Manuel expended considerable effort to preserve the conquests made by Basil II over one hundred years earlier and maintained, sometimes tenuously, ever since.

He forced the rebellious Serbs to vassalage (1150-1152) and made repeated attacks upon the Hungarians with a view to annexing their territory along the Sava. In the wars of 1151-1153 and 1163-1168 Manuel led his troops into Hungary and a spectacular raid deep into enemy territory yielded substantial war booty. In 1168, a decisive victory near Zemun enabled him to conclude a peace by which Dalmatia and other frontier territories were ceded to him. Efforts were made for diplomatic annex. The Hungarian heir Béla was sent to Constantinople to be educated in the court of Manuel, who intended the youth to marry his daughter, Maria, and to make him his heir, thus securing the union of Hungary with the Empire. In the court Bela assumed the name Alexius and received the title of Despot which had previously been applied only to the Emperor himself. However, when a son was born to the emperor this engagement was broken.

Nevertheless, overall Manuel achieved considerable success in the Balkans, reducing Hungary to client status and even appointing its King late in his reign. He extended the frontiers of the Empire in this region, ensuring security for the whole of Greece and Bulgaria. This allowed the Western provinces to flourish in an economic revival which had begun in the time of his grandfather Alexius I, and which continued till the close of the century. Indeed it has been argued that Byzantium in the twelfth century was richer and more prosperous than at any time since the Persian invasion during the reign of Heraclius, some five hundred years earlier. There is good evidence from this period of new construction, and new churches even in remote areas strongly suggest that wealth was widespread. Although it is true that by the late ninth century the cities of the empire had begun to recover from the cataclysmic wars and dislocations of the Arab and Slavic invasions of Late Antiquity, progress had been interrupted by Manzikert and the civil wars that preceded the accession of Alexius I. It is only the success of the Comneni that prevented the complete collapse of the empire, and it was this success that allowed urban development to resume. The population of Constantinople was approaching half a million during Manuel's reign, making it by far the largest city in Europe. And it was a city undergoing expansion. The cosmopolitan character of the capital was being reinforced by the arrival of Italian merchants and Crusaders en route to the Holy Land. The Venetians and others opened up the ports of the Aegean to commerce, shipping goods from the Crusader kingdoms of Outremer and Fatimid Egypt to the west and trading with Byzantium via Constantinople. These maritime traders stimulated demand in the towns and cities of Greece, Macedonia and the Greek Islands, generating new sources of wealth in a predominantly agrarian economy. Thessaloniki, the second city of the Empire, hosted a famous summer fair which attracted traders from across the Balkans and even further afield to its bustling market stalls. In Corinth, silk production fuelled a thriving economy, and there is far more evidence of urban life across the region in this period than in the 'Dark ages' of the seventh/eighth centuries. All this is a testament to the success of the Comneni Emperors in securing a 'Pax Byzantina' in these heartland territories.

Manuel's invasion of Egypt

In 1169 he sent a joint expedition with King Amalric I of Jerusalem to Egypt. The expedition was a dramatic demonstration of the power of the Empire, involving a large fleet and army which represented a substantial investment of resources by the Byzantines. One Crusader historian was impressed in particular by the large transport ships which were used to transport the cavalry forces of the army.

Although such a long range attack on a state far from the centre of the Empire may seem extraordinary (the last time the Empire had attempted anything on this scale was the failed invasion of Sicily over one hundred and twenty years earlier), it can be explained in terms of Manuel's foreign policy, which, as outlined above, was to use the Latins to ensure the survival of the Empire. This focus on the bigger picture of the eastern Mediterranean and even further afield thus led Manuel to intervene in Egypt, as it was believed that in the context of the wider struggle between the Crusader states and the Islamic powers of the east, control of Egypt would be the deciding factor: consequently, whoever controlled Egypt would have the edge over the opposing side.

A successful invasion of Egypt would have several advantages for the Byzantine Empire. Firstly, it would prevent the Islamic powers of the region forming a cohesive alliance capable of expelling the Crusaders from the Holy Land. Secondly, Egypt was a rich province, and in the early days of the Byzantine Empire had supplied much of the grain for Constantinople before it was lost to the Arabs in the 7th century. The revenues that the Empire could have expected to gain from the conquest of Egypt would have been considerable, even if these would have to be shared with the Crusaders. Furthermore, it would bind the Crusaders more closely to the Empire, a goal which Manuel would pursue with determination throughout his reign and which would be evident when King Amalric subsequently placed his whole kingdom under the protection of Manuel, effectively extending the agreement on Antioch by making the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem at least nominally part of the Empire. However, this was a personal arrangement, in the feudal tradition of Western Europe, and as such only applied for as long as Manuel and Amalric were the rulers of their respective states.

The invasion of Egypt could even have expected some support from the native Coptic Christians, who had lived under Islamic rule for over five hundred years. However, due to the failure of the Crusaders and the Byzantines to co-operate fully, the chance to capture Egypt was thrown away. The Byzantine fleet sailed only with provisions for three months: by the time the crusaders were ready, supplies were already running out, and eventually the fleet retired after an ineffectual attempt to capture Damietta. Each side sought to blame the other for failure, but both also knew that they depended on each other: the alliance was maintained, and further plans were made, which ultimately were to come to naught.

Overall, accounts of the reign of Manuel Comnenus have tended to pay only limited attention to the expedition against Egypt, due to the failure of the project and the importance of other issues such as the rise of the Republic of Venice and the Seljuk Turks. However, the consequences of failure were serious. Manuel invested a lot of time, money and manpower in the attack on Egypt, resources which might have been better used against the Turks in Anatolia.

Seljuk Sultan Kilij Arslan II used this time to eliminate his rivals and build up his power in Asia Minor. Not long afterwards, the rise of a young Kurdish general, Saladin, was only made possible by his control of Egypt, and he was soon to reconquer Jerusalem from the Crusaders, thus dealing the death blow to the Latin kingdoms of the Holy Land and changing the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean forever.

In 1158-1159 Manuel fought with success against Raymond of Antioch and the Seljuk Turks, but in later wars against the latter he made no headway. On September 17, 1176 Manuel was decisively defeated by Kilij Arslan II in the pass of Myriokephalon, where he allowed himself to be surprised in line of march. This disaster, though partly retrieved in the campaign of the following year, had a serious effect upon his vitality; henceforth Manuel declined in health and in 1180 succumbed to a slow fever.


Manuel was a brave general and an even more skillful diplomat and statesman. Famous for his charisma and his love of the West, he became a personal friend of the Western Emperor Conrad III, and even treated his injuries after the failure of the Second Crusade. Indoctrinated with the idea of a universal Empire, and with a passion for theological debate, he was also perhaps the only chivalrous Emperor-Knight of Byzantium. He is a representative of a new kind of Byzantine ruler who was influenced by the contact with the western crusaders. The customs kept in his court were not inspired by the traditional Byzantine opulence. He loved western customs and arranged jousting matches, even participating in them, an unusual and discomforting sight for the Byzantines.

Less intensely pious than his father, John II Comnenus, he would prove to be an energetic and bright Emperor who saw possibilities everywhere, and whose optimistic outlook shaped his approach to foreign policy. Some commentators have criticized some of his aims as unrealistic, in particular citing his involvement in Egypt as proof of dreams of grandeur on an unattainable scale. However, to Manuel, such initiatives were merely ambitious attempts to take advantage of the circumstances that presented themselves to him.

Having distinguished himself in his father's war against the Seljuk Turks, he was nominated emperor in preference to his elder surviving brother. Endowed with a fine physique and great personal courage, he devoted himself whole-heartedly to a military career. He endeavored to restore by force of arms the predominance of the Byzantine Empire in the Mediterranean countries, and so was to be involved in conflict with his neighbors on all sides.


In spite of his military prowess Manuel achieved but in a slight degree his object of restoring the Byzantine Empire. In fact he succeeded in unifying many of his neighbors in common hatred as enemies, rather than playing one foe against the other. His victories were counterbalanced by defeats, some of them costly not just in terms of lost opportunities, but also in terms of the expense to the Imperial Treasury. Manuel was criticized for raising taxes: the money thus raised was spent lavishly at the cost of his citizens. The expenses incurred by his expansive foreign policy and generous attitude to money combined with the sumptuous magnificence of his court put a severe strain upon the financial resources of the state.

The problems this created were counterbalanced to some extent by his successes, particularly in the Balkans, but in view of the subsequent rapid collapse of the Byzantine Empire, it might have been better to deploy the available resources more carefully, either by building up a strong treasury or by concentrating on less risky ventures. His pro-western policy caused much resentment in the Empire and backfired in the reaction led by Andronicus I Comnenus whose arrival was celebrated by a massacre of the Latins in Constantinople. These events among others ultimately led to the capturing of the Empire in the Fourth Crusade. Manuel would be remembered in France, Genoa and the Crusader states as the most powerful sovereign in the world. During his reign he consistently defeated all attempts by outside powers to attack his Empire: however, in the east, his gains were compromised by the defeat at Myriokephalon in 1176. At his death, the Empire was a great power, economically prosperous, secure on its frontiers, but also there were serious problems. Internally, the Byzantine court required a strong leader to hold it together, and after Manuel's death stability was seriously endangered from within. Some of the foreign enemies of the Empire were lurking on the flanks, waiting for a chance to attack, in particular the Turks in Anatolia, whom Manuel had ultimately failed to defeat, and the Normans in Sicily, who had already tried but failed to invade the Empire on several occasions. It would have taken a strong Emperor to rebuild the Imperial Treasury and secure the Empire against the foreign threats it now faced. Unfortunately for Byzantium, such a man was not forthcoming.


Manuel had two wives. His first marriage, in 1146, was to Bertha of Sulzbach, a sister-in-law of Conrad III of Germany. She died in 1159. Children:

  1. Maria Comnena (1152-1182), wife of Renier of Montferrat.
  2. Anna Comnena (1154-1158).

Manuel's second marriage was to Maria (renamed Xena upon their marriage), a daughter of Raymond and Constance of Antioch, in 1161. His successor, Alexius II Comnenus, was their son.


A portion of content for this article is credited to Wikipedia. Content under GNU Free Documentation License(GFDL)

  • Michael Angold, The Byzantine Empire, 1025-1204.
  • John Julius Norwich, A short history of Byzantium.
  • Jonathon Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades.
  • John Haldon, Byzantium - a history.

External links

  • Manuel coinage: [1]