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The Empire recovered during the Comnenus dynasty, rising again to become a pre-eminent power in the Eastern Mediterranean by the late eleventh century, rivaling the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. Despite more losses to the Seljuks, the empire began to concentrate on its northern borders. By the 1400's, it had underwent a massive transformation into one of the largest nations in Europe, with the conquest of much of Russia. Byzantine rule extended from Syria in the east to Switzerland in the west, and ushered in a new golden age remembered today as the 'Glory Years of Great Byzantium'.
The town of Byzantium was originally founded as the key to two continents, on the land of Thrace, which connected Greece and Anatolia, and thus, Europe and Asia. It was absorbed into the Roman Empire sometime in the 100's BC. In 324, Constantine I became emperor of the Roman Empire. He made Byzantium the new Roman capital because he recognized the richer eastern Roman provinces had become even more important than Rome itself. Byzantium was renamed Nova Roma, but was soon called Constantinople, after Constantine.
In 395, the empire was permanently split into a Latin Western Roman Empire and a Greek Eastern Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire quickly disintegrated and collapsed with the fall of Rome in 476. The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire's early history was marked by struggle after struggle to repel encroaching Germanic and Slavic tribes. Persian invasions also weakened the crumbling empire. In 610, the emperor Heraclius temporarily rid Constantinople of the Persian threat by winning the Romano-Persian wars and driving the Persian shahs back to Mesopotamia. In 634, the Byzantines begin to collapse again when they were struck by an invasion of the Arab Muslims, who went on to overrun North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. A large Byzantine army was destroyed in Syria by 642, and the Arabs went on to defeat the Byzantine navy off the coast of Anatolia.
By the 700's, the Byzantine Empire had barely managed to turn back the Muslims from the gates of Constantinople itself. During the 800's, however, the Byzantines begin to expand again. Their control of the major trade routes made Constantinople one of the richest cities in the known world. Business grew, and the empire prospered. However, the Byzantine Greeks were shaken again when a quarrel with Western Europe began in 1054 over matters of religion. That year, growing disputes over Papal authority led to a permanent split between the Roman church, into eastern (Orthodox) and western (Catholic) sections.
The Komnenian Era
The Komnenian era was born out of a period of great difficulty and strife for the Byzantine Empire. Following a period of relative success and expansion under the Macedonian dynasty (c.867-c.1054), Byzantium experienced several decades of stagnation and decline, which culminated in a vast deterioration in the military, territorial, economic and political situation of the Byzantine Empire by the accession of Alexios I Komnenos in 1056.
After Manzikert, a partial recovery was made possible due to the efforts of the Komnenian dynasty. This is sometimes referred to as the Komnenian restoration. The first emperor of this royal line was Alexios I Komnenos (Comnenus). Alexios's long reign of nearly 37 years was full of struggle. His early years were marked by battles to suppress revolts and repel Normans in southern Italy. By the time he had ascended the throne, the Seljuks had also taken most of eastern Asia Minor.
Alexius was able to secure much of the other Anatolian regions by campaigning a series of defensive movements against the Turks, but was unable to recover any lost territory. As early as 1090, Alexios had taken conciliatory measures towards the Papacy, with the intention of seeking western support against the Seljuks. In 1095 his ambassadors appeared before Pope Urban II at the Council of Piacenza. The help which he wanted from the West was simply mercenary forces and not the immense hosts which arrived, to his consternation and embarrassment, after the pope preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont later that same year. Not quite ready to supply this number of people as they traversed his territories, the emperor saw his Balkan possessions subjected to further pillage at the hands of his own allies. Alexios dealt with the first disorganized group of Crusaders, led by the preacher Peter the Hermit, by sending them on to Cilicia, where they were massacred by the Turks in 1096.
By that time, Alexios had consolidated and stabilized Byzantine Italy, as well as accepting a formal union with the states of Georgia. He saw the chance for more such gains when the second and much more formidable host of crusaders gradually made its way to Constantinople, led by the Holy Roman emperor and other important members of the German nobility. Many of the other Western medieval kingdoms were at the time paralyzed by various expansionist wars and unwilling to send troops for the Crusade. Alexios used the opportunity of meeting the crusader leaders separately as they arrived and extracting from them oaths of homage and the promise to turn over conquered lands to the Byzantine Empire. Transferring each contingent into Asia, Alexios promised to supply them with provisions in return for their oaths of homage. The crusade was a notable disappointment for Byzantium, as the Turks were able to destroy it and capture the German emperor. Upon his execution, the Crusading spirit began to fall apart at the seams.
Checked by the failure of the Crusade, the Byzantines turned their attention away from the Turks and, with the Crusading spirit in Western Europe broken, began focusing their attention elsewhere. First, Alexios used a considerable amount of diplomatic and military pressure to force a peace with the Norman County of Sicily to stabilize his western borders. He then turned his attention to a grand conquest he had envisioned of the northern Black Sea area and the people that dwelt there: The Khazars.
Conquest of Khazaria
The Byzantines had found themselves utterly checked by Normans and Western European nation-states in the west, and by the Turks and the Fatimid Caliphate in the east and south. Thus, it was only inevitable that a warlike emperor would choose to turn the Greek theater of war towards the north.
The conquest of Khazaria was done swiftly and with an impressive amount of little bloodshed. Crimea was the first to be completely absorbed, as the Khazar governor was bribed by the Greeks to join them and cede Crimea to them. As a reward, he was appointed Duke of Crimea. In the following years, all of the Khazar commanders in Ukraine had received offers to join the Byzantine ranks for considerable amounts of gold, corrupting the military and crippling the Khazars' ability to resist Byzantine conquest, accomplished through diplomacy instead of warfare.
With Crimea in Byzantine hands, the last Khazar Khagan attempted to raise his army to retake the region but was unsuccessful. Instead, finding his generals deserting him, he retreated to a castle in eastern Ukraine and refused to come out. After a week of siege, the Byzantines convinced the Khagan he could only profit by surrender. Indeed, the Khagan was allowed to retain control of Khazaria as a Byzantine-appointed governor. Thus, by 1114, the Khazars had quietly ceased to be as an independent nation. The Khazars remained content under Byzantine rule, but the Eastern Orthodox Church began a series of religious reforms across Khazaria, bringing in Greek clergymen from Georgia to help convert the population.
The Khagan was the force behind several plots against Alexios, however, ensuring his downfall. Frustrated with his growing unwillingness to cooperate with Constantinople, the emperor stripped him of his command and committed the ultimate insult: Turning over the title and office of governor to a common Black Khazar. The would-be Khagan was then sent to fight a Bulgar tribe in the north, where he was taken prisoner. Alexios refused to pay the demanded ransom and the last of the Khazar rulers was executed by a Bulgar Khan as a warning to future Byzantine incursions into their territory.
Further Expansions into Russia and Middle Eastern Conquests
Alexios took only three years to govern and keep Khazaria before he was eager for further Russian expansion. From 1118-1124, the Byzantines made massive territorial gains in Russia. The Kievan Rus' former territories were soon overrun, and the Greeks continued to push further and further north, meeting less and less resistance.
Around this time, Alexios also annexed Bulgaria and Serbia, adding them to his growing empire. Bulgaria fell due to treachery, corruption, and diplomacy. The Bulgar khan was assassinated by a Byzantine agent, and his heirs played off against each other. After a three year war had spent them and devastated the entire country, the Greek forces marched in and restored order. The Serbs, meanwhile, were able to offer only token resistance due to the massive sizes of the Byzantine armies sent against them.
By 1126, Moscow and Kiev had both been overrun by a Byzantine expeditionary force. The Greeks' main advantage was their ability to move swiftly over winter wastelands and use local militia troops, guides and mercenaries for their conquest. Georgia in particular became a recruiting ground for many mercenaries. Members of the Teutonic Knights were among those who traveled to Georgia seeking mercenary work. In 1129, Alexios realized his chance had come for revenge against the Seljuk Turks. The sultans of Egypt and Turkey alike had offered him alliances, all of which he had rejected. When central Anatolia revolted against the Turks, Alexios himself led a large army out to capture it. The rebels were only defeated after a narrowing, fierce, battle. Greek casualties were especially staggering, and included among them were over one half of the Varangians, the emperor's Scandinavian bodyguards.
But their battle was far from over. The same year, the Turkish sultan Mesud I marched a large army into Anatolia. The Byzantine forces crushed the Turks after the sultan unwisely attempted to draw the Greeks into a pitched battle on an open field. Mesud himself fell slain on the plains, and his own bodyguards decapitated his corpse. Upon his death, the Seljuk sultanate broke apart into several minor Turkish sultanates and emirates, based in Armenia, the Caspian Sea, and Syria. The Fatimid Caliphate went on to seize some of these minor states, but Armenia was absorbed into the Byzantine Empire. Alexios died the same year, mourned all over the empire as a true Roman conqueror. His age is incredible; Greek sources state that he died at 93, which was extremely old for his time. He was perhaps the longest ruling Roman emperor. Alexios was succeeded by his relative Alexios II Komnenos, who was born the same year Alexios I had ascended to the throne.
Reign of Alexios II
The reign of Alexios II saw further Byzantine expansion into Russia and the conquest of Syria. His early reign proceeded peacefully as he attempted to begin administrative reforms in the new territory conquered by Alexios I. In 1134, seeing the Byzantines recalling many of their border troops for conflicts in faraway Russia and the Middle East, the Norman County of Sicily launched an invasion of Byzantine Italy, hoping to strike out towards Naples and crush the Byzantine garrisons. However, their onslaught was repelled with such tenacious violence that the count was forces to withdraw his troops. A pitched battle near Croton doomed the ravaging Norman army, and destroyed the bulk of the county's forces.
Alexios himself proceeded to southern Italy to access the damages of war. He concluded a profitable peace treaty with the Normans, and forced them to pay him an annual tribute. However, the Normans continued to harass Greek ships in the Adriatic and continually launched probing expeditions into southern Italy. Alexios seemed unwilling or unable to deal with these problems during his reign. In 1136, the Byzantines pushed the borders of their Russian empire as far west as Prussia, where they finally halted.
Alexios had his eye on the Fatimid Caliphate and was continually wary of them. After surviving two attempted assassination attempts orchestrated by the Egyptians, Alexios ordered an invasion of Syria. Several especially bloody battles were fought in the Syrian desert, which the Byzantines only won with agonizing difficulty. Alexios also hired Egyptian and Moorish mercenaries to help him better combat the Fatimid forces. By 1140, Antioch itself was in his hands. The Fatmid Caliphate called a Jihad against the Byzantine Empire, but Alexios had wisely developed an alliance with the faraway Almoravids, who retracted the alliance but refused to join the Fatimids in the Jihad.
As many as 50,000 Byzantine troops were amassed on the borders of southern Syria to prevent the Jihad, but the Fatmids continually tried to attack isolated Byzantine positions in the Syrian desert instead. After four years of scattered fighting and skirmishes, the Arab forces withdrew back to Palestine, leaving Syria firmly in Byzantine hands. Alexios II ended his reign with a forced white peace on the Fatimid Caliphate.
In 1160, the Normans proved once again to be a thorn in Byzantium's side. That year, they blockaded Naples itself. The Byzantines had had enough. In 1164, the last straw came when the Normans pushed upward into southern Italy again.
The Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos decided it was time to take action against the County of Sicily once and for all. In 1167, the entire Norman fleet was destroyed off the coast of Sardinia. By 1168 they had been driven back to Sicily itself. The Byzantines then made a massive land and sea invasion into Sicily. A number of ferocious battles were fought along the coast, including the Battle of Alcantara River, in which nearly five hundred Norman knights were slaughtered by heavily armored Byzantine infantry wielding pole-arms.
After a siege lasting nearly two years, Palermo fell to the invaders. The count requested a peace, but instead the Byzantines rejected his offer outright. In 1171, the count himself was captured by Greek agents and beheaded. All of Sicily was then swiftly overrun by Byzantine forces, and the Normans retreated to Malta. Manuel opted not to pursue them any further, and instead turned to rebuilding and reconstructing Sicily.
Wars of Byzantine Aggression
Upon the death of Manuel I in 1180, the northern Kingdom of Hungary began to press on Byzantine borders. The Hungarians had soon annexed all of Croatia from the Venetians, with the exception of a few scattered coastal outposts. Venice retained these until the 1300's. Several incursions into Byzantine territory alarmed Alexios III, Manuel's successor, and Polish expeditions began to raid Byzantine territory in Bulgaria as well.
Thus, in 1183, Alexios III launched an invasion of Croatia. The hopelessly outnumbered Hungarians withdrew, and the province fell without a fight. Encouraged by this victory, Alexios proposed a peace with the king of Hungary, but was refused. The remainder of his reign was spent raising more troops to garrison Byzantium's Russian territories. However, in 1190, Alexios was overthrown by Zeno II, an Italian commander in charge of Naples in Byzantine Italy. Zeno's reign of two years marked a steady decline in Byzantine fortunes. During this time Egyptian forces crushed a Byzantine army near Antioch in Syria.
While the Fatmids quickly withdrew before Zeno could catch up with them, this rudely shook the confidence and morale in Byzantine Syria. Zeno was deposed in 1192, and replaced with Andronikos I Komnenos. Andronikos hoped to take the war to Hungary, which was still causing trouble on Byzantium's borders. Until 1200, the emperor waged a bloody war against the Hungarians, defeating them in 1194 and again in 1199. He was ambushed and killed by a band of Hungarian knights in 1201 while away campaigning.
John III Komnenus ascended to the Byzantine throne in 1201. He was made emperor of an empire dissatisfied with his father's constant warfare with the Hungarians and an exhausted treasury. But John proved to be resourceful. His shrewd business and trade dealings with the Muslims and Italians made him a popular man. He was able to replenish the treasury, eliminate most of the national debt to the Venetians, and even reduce taxes in Greece. In 1205, the Second Crusade finally materialized due to the pope's appeals for the Crusading spirit in Western Europe. Unfortunately, unwilling to fight the Turks or deal with the Byzantines by traveling overland, they tried to ask the Venetians to help ferry them by sea directly to Palestine, and the goal of the Crusade: Jerusalem itself.
The Greeks made no secret of their hostility and coldness towards the 'Frankish Barbarians'. It was especially aggravated by the sacking of Trebizond by the Holy Roman emperor during the First Crusade. But the hostility only added to the growing rift when the Venetians turned the Second Crusade aside to attack Constantinople instead. The French knights who comprised it turned aside and began ravaging their way through Serbia. John III hurried to meet them with a massive army. He also posted garrisons across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, and Bulgaria to prevent the Crusaders from slipping through unopposed. The fighting came to a huge battle in Bulgaria. The Crusaders and their Venetian allies at first defeated the armored Byzantine cavalry with the use of mercenary pikemen, but a sudden counterattack by John III and his Turkish archers routed the Crusader army and shattered their front line.
Nearly 1,000 French soldiers were made prisoners of the Byzantines, and most of them were executed, save for the few knights and Venetian barons who were able to ransom themselves and return to Italy. The disastrous Second Crusade not only disillusioned Europe about the Crusading spirit, and mortified the pope, but it drove a permanent wedge between Venice and Byzantium. In 1206, John III accused the Catholic Hungarians of having supported the Crusade and annexed southern Hungary. The king was reduced to the status of a vassal, and forced to pay an annual tribute.
However, John was far from finished. He bribed the garrison of Budapest to join the Byzantines and desert the Hungarians. However, the king realized the truth and laid siege to Budapest. As John was unable to send support, he could only watch. But much to his amazement, the garrison bottled up the king and his army within the city walls and massacred 600 of them, including the king himself, who was struck down by a crossbow bolt as he entered the walls on his horse.
A Serbian mercenary sent the head of the Hungarian king to John III, to satisfy him that the king was really dead. The Kingdom of Hungary was dissolved, and completely occupied by the Byzantine Empire. In quick succession, Poland declared war on the Byzantines. Although the reasons for the declaration of war have not been preserved, it is likely that the Poles were fearing the growth of Greek power in Europe and were probably allies of the Hungarians. However, after several minor campaigns, the Polish forces withdrew, leaving the Byzantine forces firmly entrenched in Hungary. To prevent revolts, re-establish order, and guard the empire's northern borders, Emperor John assigned a Byzantine military force with guarding each of the Hungarian border provinces and defending them. A general was assigned to each province to oversee operations there.
When John III died in 1209, he left behind a legacy of warfare and glory. During his reign he had conquered the Hungarians, turned back the Second Crusade, and established strong alliances with the Papacy and France even in the wake of the disaster.
Upon the death of John III, his son Manuel II Komnenos rose to the Imperial throne. He ruled from 1209-1222. His reign was marked by constant attempts to suppress revolts in Sicily and in Hungary. A military rebellion in Constantinople nearly cost him his crown, and severely depleted manpower and morale. His son Alexios III succeeded him. The Imperial treasury was spent on gifts to favourites of the emperor, extravagant court banquets, and expensive luxuries for the Imperial family.
Alexios III was fair and capable as Byzantine emperors went, but he was never very popular in Constantinople and was forced by the growing feudalism in Byzantium to share his power with many of the local aristocracy and the Greek nobles. He died the plot of an assassination and was replaced by his brother David I, who hunted down the killers. David I set up a more constitutional monarchy over the Byzantine Empire, sharing power with a senate of elected members of the imperial ruling family. He also had many of the Greek feudal nobles stripped of their titles and exiled. Their lands and estates were in turn given to the emperor. This did little to help the problem, as peasants were now chained to the state, rather than a particular feudal noble.
David was replaced by George I Komnenos, who released the peasants chained to their feudal lands and allowed them to buy back their own farms from the state. In doing so, George abolished feudalism in the Byzantine Empire. This life soon proved difficult to adjust to for many Hungarians who had known only feudalism their entire life. George sought to reverse the decline of the Byzantines by setting in place a series of bold administrative and military reforms. He also limited the power of the Senate in Constantinople. George died in 1240.
George I Komnenos was succeeded by his son Manuel III, who ruled Byzantium for nine years. Upon his death, the empire plunged into civil war. Manuel's son Manuel IV eventually defeated five of his rivals, after a two-year civil war, in claiming the imperial purple. He sought alliances with Western European countries, particularly the English. However, the king of England had already accepted a strategic trade alliance with the Mamluk Sultanate, ensuring he would refuse the Byzantine offer. Manuel IV also reconstructed a number of palaces and fortifications in Constantinople, which have remained more or less preserved as they were, to this day.
After Manuel IV was killed in battle against the Mamluks in 1263, he was succeeded by his nephew David II Komnenos. David's only noteworthy deed was fighting no less than four civil wars and establishing an alliance with the Principality of Novgorod, which bordered the Byzantine Empire to the north. This would lead to a series of unsuccessful emperors, throwing the empire into serious debt and instability. It was not until 1333, Skantarios II came to power. He sought to reverse the decline of the empire by establishing trade relations with other European nations, allowing the Greeks to profit from business in the western Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
The same year he ascended to the throne, his wife, a Russian princess, died of an unknown disease. Skantarios married again, this time to the daughter of the doge of Genoa. As a wedding payment, Skanatarios granted the Genoese trade rights in Byzantine territories and allowed them to establish colonies in Constantinople and Trebizond. In 1340, he drove the Venetians out of Croatia and eliminated their final outposts in the Balkans. His grandson, Philippos I, established the Said dynasty of Byzantium in 1360.
Under the Saids, the Byzantines entered a new age of wealth and prosperity in the 1400's. In 1406, the Greeks destroyed the last of the rump Hungarian states established after the Byzantine conquest of Budapest. They also developed a stable and friendly alliance with the Genoese. In 1421, the Byzantines amassed at the border of the Republic of Venice itself. The Genoese amassed on the other border. Together, they crushed the Venetians between them. A combined Genoese-Byzantine army inflicted a decisive defeat on the Venetian forces near the gates of Venice, and by the end of the year the city had fallen into their hands. Several German and Florentine mercenaries captured the doge of Venice and executed him.
With the fall of Venice, Genoa became the new 'Lion of the Mediterranean'. Under Byzantine protection, they monopolized trade in the entire sea, controlling European shipping lines from Africa, the Middle East, and Christendom.
However, a year later, the Genoese doge was assassinated by spies of the Holy Roman Empire, throwing Genoa into anarchy. A bloody civil war followed, and the Italians under Genoese rule in northern Italy seized the chance to declare their independence as the Duchy of Tuscany. In 1424, the Byzantine emperor Pavlos I saw his chance to expand further into Italy and invaded Tuscany. The capital, Florence, was taken by the storm and the duke trampled by his own panic-stricken soldiers as they retreated through the gates.
By 1425, the entire former duchy of Tuscany was under Byzantine rule. Surviving armies of Tuscany fled to Genoa, where they were shown no mercy. Emperor Pavlos considered invading Genoa itself to end the chaos there, but in 1426 the Republic of Genoa was officially re-established, with a new doge. The city of Genoa, having been captured by the Holy Roman emperor, was besieged back and the German garrison massacred. Pavlos warmly recognized the new doge, but the response was bitter and cold.
The Genoese demanded the return of Tuscany, but the Byzantines refused. From 1428-1435, the Genoese fought a drawn out war with the Greeks in an attempt to recapture their lost Italian territories. They overwhelmed Florence and captured Milan, but the Byzantines were able to force them out again. The bloody fighting raged until December of 1435, when the war-exhausted Genoese finally retreated back to Genoa, broken. In 1436, Pavlos died and was succeeded by his son Georgios III.
Georgios worked to better relations with the Genoese and repaired their old alliance. Under Georgios and his successors, a war was waged against the Holy Roman Empire to restore lost Genoese territories to the old republic and make more territorial gains. The war ended in 1473 with the fall of Vienna. The Byzantine emperor himself now sat on the throne of the Holy Roman rulers, proclaiming that there was no Roman Empire but the true Eastern one, to the irrepressible humiliation of the German emperor.
In the heart of German territories, the Byzantines now controlled the province of Switzerland. Alexeios VI became the first Byzantine Emperor to rule in Switzerland, and adopted the title 'True Imperator of the Romans and Germania'. He observed through several noteworthy works of poetry that the Byzantines had years and years of heritage to back up their claims as a Roman Empire, but the Germans had only their vanity. His successor, Ioannes VI, adopted the title 'Protector and Imperator of Helvetia', although at this time Greek claims to Swiss territory were exercised but largely nominal.
Ioannes VI was recognized across the Byzantine Empire and the known world for his superior administrative skill and battle against corruption in Byzantine government. He reformed the imperial administration of the emperor's bureaucracy and was able to maximize taxes in Constantinople. He remained consistently popular throughout his lengthy reign and visited many of the courts of Western Europe. In 1480, he secured a peace with the German states, formed an alliance with England, and visited the Spanish royal houses in Iberia. Under his reign, the Byzantine Empire became one of the richest and largest powers of the European continent. When he finally died in 1484, he left behind an enduring legacy and ushered a new age of peace for known civilization.