Byzantium in the 11th Century

By Count Mummolus

The eleventh century was one of great uncertainty within the East Roman Empire. No fewer than sixteen emperors took the throne under a variety of circumstances, ranging from abdications to military coups. As with the so-called ‘Third Century Crisis’ of the earlier empire, the entity which emerged at the end of such strife was one of a significantly different nature. Changes to the structure of the Empire itself were a necessity to ensure its survival, and this necessity was reflected in the economic, military, and political differences between the empire of Basil II and the empire of Alexius I Comnenus – the first and last emperors, respectively, of the eleventh century. Contemporary sources for the eleventh century provide a detailed depiction of events from a variety of different viewpoints within the empire – Michael Psellus describing the reign of fourteen emperors beginning with Basil II and ending with Michael VII, and Anna Comnenus beginning her Alexiad with the career of Alexius I Comnenus, who rose to the rank of supreme commander during Michael VII’s reign.

Basil II was without doubt among the most successful Byzantine emperors. Raised in Constantinople under the guardianship of the general-emperors Nicephoros II Phocas and John Tzimisces, Basil could not have asked for a better military education. His near fifty years in power saw the complete destruction of the Bulgar state, which had long been a thorn in the side of the Empire. Also of significance was the conversion of the Russian Grand Prince to the Orthodox brand of Christianity, extending the reach of the church and therefore the Empire substantially. Despite his brilliant successes, however, the reign of Basil II in many ways foreshadowed the difficulties which were to threaten the empire over the century after his death in 1025. Nicephoros II and Tzimisces had both reigned in the name of the young emperors Basil II and his brother, Constantine VIII, the legitimate sons of Romanos II. Both Nicephoros and Tzimisces could be regarded as military geniuses, Nicephoros becoming known as the ‘Pale Death of the Saracens’ and Tzimisces humbling the Russian ruler Svyatoslav and doing much to subdue Bulgaria. Both men, however, were representatives of the military aristocracy (donatoi), an aristocracy which had been largely opposed to the policies of the Macedonian dynasty of which Basil was the legitimate heir. Thus, when Tzimisces died in 976 and Basil, aged eighteen, announced his intent to rule with his younger brother, he faced immediate opposition from members of the military aristocracy which had done much to stabilize the empire’s frontiers.

The conflict between the military and civil aristocracies was to play a major role throughout the eleventh century, and its partial resolution by Alexius I was one of the key changes in the empire which allowed it to survive another three hundred years. Fortunately for Basil, the donatoi were divided, opposing each other nearly as much as they did him, and the first revolt, that of Bardas Sclerus, was put down by imperial forces under Bardas Phocas. Sclerus himself eluded capture by the Byzantines, fleeing to Baghdad. Simultaneously jockeying for power in Constantinople was the chamberlain, also named Basil, a eunuch related to the young Emperors. The emperor Basil deposed the chamberlain Basil in 985, exiling him and confiscating his territories. Michael Psellus describes the chamberlain sympathetically despite his notorious corruption and wealth, and this reflects Psellus’ own position as a courtier and scholar rather than as a member of the military aristocracy. The empire’s preoccupation with its own subjects came at a price. The Balkan garrisons were severely weakened by the internal dissension, and the only recently subdued Bulgarian state arose once more intent on establishing itself as a major power. Basil responded immediately, personally leading an army into an ambush which saw a major Byzantine defeat. This defeat, under the direct command of the emperor no less, strengthened the cause of the donatoi to such an extent that Bardas Phocas revolted, and Bardas Sclerus returned leading another army of his own. Basil’s solution to this latest and most severe uprising became one of the defining moments of European history. The Kievan ruler Vladimir, in exchange for marriage to the Emperor’s sister Anna, not only sent decisive military aid but converted his entire realm to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, placing Russia under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople rather than the Pope in Rome. Victory over Phocas and Sclerus quickly followed, and the Kievan alliance marked a turning point in Basil’s reign – from this point forward Basil would win decisive victories over all rivals. Michael Psellus describes Basil as ‘having purged the Empire of barbarians’ and how during his reign ‘the great families had been humiliated and put on an equal footing with the rest’.

Basil II’s military victories and territorial acquisitions necessitated the expansion of Byzantine bureaucracy, and Basil’s mistrust of the donatoi resulted in the weakening of a significant component of the Byzantine defensive system. These two factors combined to dramatically increase the strength and influence of the civil aristocracy, in many ways exacerbating the conflict between the military and civil branches of government, the latter aptly represented by Psellus. Basil’s humiliation of the donatoi began with his reinstatement of the land policies of the Macedonian dynasty, but after his personal experiences with the aristocrats Basil was taking no chances. Basil forbade the alienation of peasant land, and even went so far as to make the aristocracy responsible for the tax burden of peasants who were unable to pay. Simultaneously, Basil issued a decree that any land claim less than sixty-one years was entirely invalid. Acquisitions made during that time were null and void, the land to be returned to its previous owner or the immediate family thereof. In many ways Basil’s treatment of the donatoi was similar to the attempted reforms of the Gracchi over 1000 years prior – if successful both sets of reforms would have limited the power of the landowning class and replenished the peasant farmers who had previously formed the bulk of the Roman armies until the eighth and ninth centuries. While Basil clearly intended to make the empire stronger by weakening the powerful donatoi, and indeed may have succeeded in the short term, the effective crippling of the military aristocrats and resulting prominence of the civil faction was to have catastrophic consequences for the empire in the eleventh century, beginning almost the moment Basil II died in 1025, age sixty-seven.

The two emperors immediately following Basil reigned for a combined nine years, during which nearly nothing was accomplished. His younger brother Constantine VIII, himself sixty-five at the time of Basil’s death, reigned for only three years, and upon his death Romanus III Argyros took the throne in a hastily arranged marriage to Constantine’s daughter, Zoe. Due to the brevity of the reigns of Constantine VIII and Romanus III, it is difficult to determine which emperors were responsible for exactly what, but it is clear that during the nine years following Basil’s death his land reforms and attempts to curb the power of the donatoi were effectively reversed. Romanus III attempted to emulate his predecessors in a number of ways, but unfortunately for the empire he was neither a Basil nor a Justinian. In 1030 Romanus led an embarrassing military expedition into Syria, but fled at the first sign of danger, and subsequently devoted his time to the building of churches, leaving his military affairs in the capable hands of George Maniakis. Even at building Romanus proved inept, and is described by Psellus as constantly redesigning and spending massive sums on projects never to be completed. The large treasury left behind by Basil II was all but exhausted on Romanus’ failed projects of both the military and civil variety. The increasing power of the donatoi simultaneously limited the manpower available to the empire, putting yet another burden on the treasury as mercenaries became increasingly necessary in order to protect the imperial frontiers. Mercenaries had long been a key component of the imperial forces, but partly as a result of the mistrust between the government and the donatoi, mercenaries became rapidly more important during the late tenth and eleventh centuries. Reliance on mercenaries severely taxed the empire in a number of ways. Previously, native forces had been called up for defense or campaigns and dismissed when not needed. No such option existed for mercenary forces. Great numbers of troops came to be maintained year round at the expense of the population of a region, whether urban or rural, weakening the infrastructure of the empire even as expenses increased. In fact, the eleventh century marks the first recorded financial difficulty encountered by the Byzantines since the eighth century, and the increasing prominence of mercenaries within Byzantine forces can not be a coincidence.

Romanus III made the mistake of ignoring his wife in favor of a mistress, and was murdered in his bath in 1034. The Empress Zoe then married Michael, who was to take the throne as Michael IV. Michael was an epileptic of humble origins, but despite his shortcomings he was to prove a reasonably capable emperor. Like Romanus, Michael was to emulate his predecessors, but unlike Romanus, Michael understood his own shortcomings. A military expedition against the Saracens in Sicily was launched under the command of the same George Maniakis who had defended the East during Romanus’ reign, and achieved significant early success only to crumble as a result of a dispute between Maniakis and the emperor’s brother-in-law Stephen. Maniakis was recalled under accusations of treason, but there was nobody capable of replacing him and by 1040 the expedition was a failure. The defeat of Romanus III in Syria and the Byzantine failure in Sicily combined had the effect of presenting the empire as vulnerable, and under Peter Deljan, Bulgaria revolted from Byzantine rule. The emperor decided to lead a campaign against the rebels in person, but was becoming increasingly ill and prepared accordingly. Every aspect of the campaign was meticulously planned, and prior to leaving the capital Michael appointed his nephew, another Michael, as his successor. The campaign was a complete victory for Michael and he returned to Constantinople in 1041, dieing shortly afterwards. While Michael’s reign was not disastrous like that of Romanus III, it was nonetheless an expensive one. The Byzantine defeat in Sicily had cost the empire a great deal of money and men, and even Michael’s meticulous planning could not escape the cost of his Bulgarian efforts. Michael IV seems to have taken the unfortunate step of devaluing the Byzantine currency by adding base metals and thereby stretching the state’s supply of precious ores, providing a temporary windfall but serving only to harm the economy in the long term. Combined with the decline of the native army and increasing reliance on mercenaries, the economy of the empire was continuing in a steady recession.

Michael IV’s successor, Michael V, would prove almost insignificant. Reigning for only a few months, he was overthrown after exiling the aged Empress Zoe. Zoe and her younger sister Theodora reigned together briefly, but before the year had passed Zoe was married again and Constantine IX had ascended the throne before the end of 1042. Constantine IX was a member of the civil aristocracy, and his military policies were nothing short of disastrous. He failed to control the dynatoi, failed to provide funding for the army, and simultaneously allowed cash payments in lieu of military service in what may have been a misguided attempt to alleviate the state’s financial issues. The already problematic reliance on mercenaries increased drastically during Constantine’s reign, and this led to revolts by a number of the generals who had until now been able to defend the frontiers, including George Maniakis. Despite his failings as an emperor, Constantine spent large amounts of money on scholarly pursuits and was well-liked by the civil aristocracy, including Michael Psellus. Nevertheless even Psellus could not help but find fault with the emperor’s extravagant spending. Despite Constantine’s failures, of which there were many, fortune favored him and through little more than luck he survived multiple revolts by his own generals, one of which was killed in a battle with imperial forces and another who was abandoned by his men after a display of cowardice, as well as a large-scale Russian attack on Constantinople which was repelled primarily by bad weather. Unfortunately Constantine’s luck in military matters was not to extend to his relationship with the western church. To detail the events of the schism of 1054 would require an essay unto itself, and as such only the result will be considered here. The churches of the east and the west were split in a division which remains extant to this day and the condemnation of the Byzantines by the Pope legitimized campaigns against the Empire. This lent a burst of energy to the expanding Normans in Sicily and Italy who by 1055 were well on their way to pushing the Byzantines out of Italy for good.

The loss of the Italian territories contributed substantially to the Empire’s growing financial crisis. Southern Italy not only contained some extremely fertile farmland, it was central to a large amount of Mediterranean trade between Islamic North Africa, Sicily, and Byzantium. This extensive trade did not cease by any means, but changed hands so that Byzantium was no longer able to levy taxes or impose fees, leaving the wealth from such activities wholly in the hands of the Normans. The impending loss of the Empire’s Italian possessions led Constantine to continue the devaluation of imperial currency, a measure which hardly helped in the long-term as inflation increased to match. By 1055 when Constantine IX died, the Empire’s military was in shambles, its church was in open schism with the west, and its finances were in a worse state than ever. Theodora, the youngest daughter of Basil II and younger sister of the now-deceased Empress Zoe, reigned for a year before her own death, just long enough to nominate Michael VI as her successor.

Michael, like Constantine before him, was a member of the civil aristocracy and continued Constantine’s disastrous policies, but when he blamed Isaac Comnenus for the decay of the army he was deposed after only a year by the combined actions by the army and the Patriarch Cerularius. Isaac reluctantly took the throne and the same evening began a very promising reign. Isaac’s reign was one focused on the army – his goal was to repair the damage done by years of civil rule and put the Empire back on its feet. Unfortunately, such activities required money, and the Imperial Treasury had none. Isaac confiscated land from the aristocracy and the church, but in the process offended the Patriarch Cerularius who had been instrumental in the downfall of Michael VI, and knew it. Nevertheless Isaac continued his policies, and by 1059 the army was in significantly better condition than it had been for years. Isaac contracted a fever and died in late 1059, and his successor could not have been more different. Constantine X was a quintessential civil aristocrat, and his reign reflected as much – he continued the disastrous policies of Constantine IX, and the results were much the same. Once again the army was mothballed, the coinage was debased and Constantinople, rather than the Empire as a whole, benefited. Byzantine possessions in South Italy were reduced by this time to a pittance, and in addition the neglect of the army allowed the Seljuk Turks to advance into Asia Minor as far as Caesarea by 1067. Upon his death in the same year, his wife Eudocia reigned as regent for her young son Michael, but soon recognized the military problems and married a member of the military aristocracy who ascended the throne as Romanus IV Diogenes in 1068.

Romanus IV was in many ways a tragic figure. Even Psellus, whose account of events is hardly in favor of Romanus, acknowledged that his behavior was courageous. Romanus focused his attention on the East, leaving Italy to its fate, and the Normans took the city of Bari in 1071, permanently removing the Byzantines from the western shores of the Adriatic. Unfortunately for the Empire, Romanus’ campaigns culminated in his defeat and capture at Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine loss at Manzikert can be attributed almost to one man, who exemplifies the struggle between the civil and military aristocracies. Andronicus Ducas, in command of a wing of the Imperial army, not only withdrew his forces from battle at a crucial moment, but left behind a deliberate (and false) rumor that the Emperor himself had been killed. Ducas was a close relative of the late Constantine X, and realistically the only blame to be placed on Romanus for the defeat at Manzikert should be for letting Andronicus Ducas participate at all. Even so, the outcome of Manzikert was not especially harsh for the Empire – the Turks demanded no territories which were not already under their effective control, and Romanus was released only a week after his capture. The real problem of Manzikert was the civil war which followed. During Romanus’ captivity, the son of Constantine X, Michael Ducas, had taken the throne as Michael VII. Michael refused to honor the treaty with the Seljuks, and in a move which would have lasting consequences married his son to the daughter of Robert Guiscard, the Norman who had taken Italy. As a result the Seljuks overran more of Anatolia and Michael continued to devalue the coinage to hire more mercenaries. In 1078, Nicephoros Botaneiates overthrew Michael’s regime and established himself as Emperor, which while in many ways an improvement resulted in the resumption of hostilities with the Normans and the subsequent further devaluation of Byzantine currency. Botaneiates himself was overthrown by the two brothers Isaac and Alexius, nephews of Isaac I Comnenus. The brothers agreed on Alexius as Emperor while a new position, that of sebastocrator, was created for Isaac and was second only to the Emperor himself.

The reign of Alexius I Comnenus was one of the peaks of late Byzantine civilization. Like Basil II over ninety years before, and with the example of Romanus IV Diogenes fresh in his mind, Alexius had a huge number of problems to solve. Among the first of these were the dynatoi. As a member of the military aristocracy from a family in Anatolia, Alexius understood the situation better than most, and his solution was to revolutionize the way the empire functioned. Alexius himself was the product of intermarriages and alliances between a number of the great donatoi families, and his accession to the throne in and of itself did much to ease the strain caused by incessant scheming and struggles for power. The Ducas family was satiated by the proclamation of Constantine Ducas, son of Michael VII, as Caesar, third in rank behind Alexius and the Sebastocrator Isaac. Additionally, in a reform perhaps inspired by the increasingly effective west European forms of warfare, Alexius enforced the pronoia, in many ways a Byzantine variant of the fiefdoms and semi-independent lords of France. While not originating with Alexius, the system was reformed and regulated much more strictly beginning in his reign. Pronoiars were granted parcels of state-owned land, the revenues from which were theirs to do with as they pleased, in exchange for military service and loyalty to the state. There were significant differences between the pronoia and the feudal lords of Europe: the pronoia was not hereditary, was not divisible, and was theoretically granted only for a limited time. Gradually, however, the pronoia became hereditary and by 1261 when the Byzantines recovered Constantinople after the Latin conquest in 1204, the pronoia was in extensive use. Similarly, Alexius required foreign peoples settled within the empire to provide military service in exchange for the land upon which they lived, and the re-established connection between landholding and military service seems to have played a major part in the empire’s recovery under Alexius. Alexius’ solution to the dynatoi was also somewhat helpful in alleviating the Byzantine monetary crisis, insomuch as the pronoia increased the effectiveness of native forces and theoretically alleviated the need for expensive mercenaries. Nevertheless the finances of the Empire remained in crisis, and Alexius was forced to devalue the Byzantine currency even further and melt down church vessels before he could finally, in 1092, establish a stable and valuable currency of only slightly less value than that diminished by Michael IV fifty years earlier.

Unfortunately for Alexius, the half-century of Byzantine weakness preceding his reign had permitted for the growth of powerful new enemies on the empire’s frontiers. Most prominent among these was the new Norman Kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily. Since their rise to prominence beginning during the reign of Constantine IX, the Normans had consolidated their control over Southern Italy and the valuable economic assets there. Already planning expeditions during the reign of Botaneiates, the Normans attacked Durazzo in 1081. The claim of Robert Guiscard to be fighting on the behalf of the ‘rightful emperor Michael VII’ was a potential rallying cry for troublemakers within the Empire, and as such Alexius treated the Normans as the most serious threat, enlisting Venetian aid at great expense. Alexius’ agreement with the Venetians was to have far-reaching consequences. Venetian traders were granted complete access to Byzantine markets both within Constantinople and the rest of the Empire, all tariffs and trade fees were waived, and a Venetian quarter was established within Constantinople itself. Such measures had the impact of strengthening the Byzantine economy by allowing easier flow of goods from one end of the Empire to another, but such advantages given to Venetian merchants simultaneously had a negative impact on many Byzantine traders. Alexius, meanwhile, checked the Norman advance with deft political maneuvering despite his own defeat in battle outside Durazzo. Robert had to cease his invasion of the Empire and return to Italy for two reasons: First, at the instigation of Alexius, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was invading Robert’s territory. Second, with the aid of Byzantine gold, a dispossessed nephew of Robert was raising the standard of revolt. By the end of 1083 the Venetians had retaken Byzantine territory from the Normans, the Byzantines themselves were on the offensive, and the Normans were contained within Italy. By 1084 Robert had the situation well in hand, however, and a second invasion of Byzantine territory in 1085 ended only when Robert died at the age of 68.

Only two years later the Empire was to face another threat, this time from the Pechenegs across the Danube. Once again displaying masterful diplomacy and using one of the oldest tricks in the Byzantine book, Alexius enlisted the aid of another tribe against the Pechenegs and by 1091 they had been almost eradicated. Through all of this the Byzantine economy held out, but only barely, and even more astonishing was its survival in the face of the beginning of the Crusading movement. Responding to a request for aid from Alexius, Pope Urban II called for a holy war against the enemies of Christendom, and the repercussions were to continue until modern times. Hordes of untrained peasants plundered their way East, and Alexius ferried them across the Bosphorus before they could do any more damage to Byzantine lands. The first professional troops to arrive came in 1096, and were treated hospitably, if carefully, by Alexius. Most worrying to the Emperor was the presence of Bohemond, son of Robert Guiscard, among the Crusader forces; nevertheless the Emperor provided logistical support for the Crusaders as they made their way to Antioch. When the Crusaders took the city they informed Alexius that he had not provided enough assistance, and the end result was the establishment of the ‘Crusader States’. Despite this, the situation was not all bad. The Crusader States created a new dynamic in the region which made the Byzantines less of a target for Seljuk raiders, and Alexius used the opportunity provided by the Crusades to re-establish Byzantine control over western Anatolia. With one final invasion in 1107, Bohemond was defeated by Alexius and forced to terms, and only one major opponent was left for Alexius to face – the Seljuks. In 1111, Alexius managed to secure their submission by a major campaign into Asia Minor. The peace did not last, and it was not until 1116 that Alexius had secured the Empire’s eastern frontiers. By 1118 he was dead, and his son John reigned after him.

Beginning with the strong reign of Basil II and concluding with the equally strong reign of Alexius I, the eleventh century was nevertheless a century of crisis for the Eastern Roman Empire. Between these two brilliant Emperors, a space of only sixty years, there were fourteen others of varying capability who presided over a period of dramatic change for the Empire and indeed for the entirety of Europe. The entity which emerged at the end of the century was different in almost every way from that which Basil II ruled when the eleventh century began. Basil’s Empire was divided by two aristocratic groups with mutually exclusive interests; Alexius was the culmination of both. Basil’s Empire had an economy with a significant Italian component and a military based in Anatolia; Alexius’ Empire possessed neither of these territories. Such drastic change was difficult for the Empire to accomplish, especially given the incompetence of some of the fourteen Emperors between Basil and Alexius, but the Empire was to continue as one of the major powers of the Eastern Mediterranean for centuries more.


Primary Sources

Psellus, Michael. 1966. Fourteen Byzantine Rulers. Trans. E.R.A. Sewter. London: Penguin Group
Comnena, Anna. 2003. The Alexiad. Trans. E.R.A. Sewter. London: Penguin Group

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