Alexius I Comnenus, Byzantine Emperor

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Reigned: 1081 to 1118; b. 1048, nephew of Emperor Isaac I Comnenus, he inherited the traditions of a military family. Early in his career, he led small Byzantine forces against bands of Turkish marauders who swarmed over Anatolia after Byzantium's defeat at Mantzikert (1071). In April 1081, he usurped the throne, with support from the army, his family (especially his mother, Anna Dalassena), and his wife's relatives, the Doukas family. Subsequently, he alienated state land to his and his wife's relatives, along with titles and incomes; by marriages, he allied other powerful families to the dominant clan. By restoring the currency (1092), he improved the empire's economic situation, but his heavy taxation oppressed the peasantry.

In 1081, he faced Seljuk Turks in Anatolia, Pechenegs from Central Asia on the Danube, and the Norman conqueror of Southern Italy, Robert Guiscard. Since only Robert threatened Constantinople, Alexius made agreements with the Turks and Pechenegs, and enlisted the Venetians against the Norman invasion (1081) of the western Balkans. Only Robert's death (1085) freed the empire from the Norman menace. The Pechenegs were crushed in 1091 with the aid of the Cumans, a rival Asiatic people. The coming of the First Crusade (109697) enabled Alexius to regain Nicaea and repel the Turks from the Anatolian coastlands.

The crusaders, who came in part because of Alexius's appeal to the pope, posed severe problems for the empire. The hordes of commoners who followed Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless (1096) were transferred to Anatolia, where the Turks soon decimated them. Most of the nobles, including Bohemund (Guiscard's son) and Godfrey of Bouillon, were induced to pledge fealty to Alexius, who in return promised military support to them. Because Alexius's assistance proved insufficient, rumor claimed that the Byzantines had covertly aided the Turks. After Bohemund seized Antioch, Alexius struggled to regain it. In 11078, Bohemund secured Pope Paschal II's support for a crusade against the Byzantine Empire; Alexius defeated the Norman forces in the western Balkans.

With regard to the papacy, Alexius endeavored to heal the schism of 1054. Pope Urban II was interested, and dispatched the First Crusade partially to rescue the Eastern Church. But Paschal II repelled the Byzantines when he insisted that they acknowledge papal primacy before discussing other issues. Internally, Alexius strove to repress such heretics as John Italus and Basil the Bogomil. To reinforce Orthodoxy, he instituted a staff of preachers and teachers at Sancta Sophia and other churches in Constantinople.

After 1112, Alexius was repeatedly ill, and his wife, daughter Anna Comnena, and her husband assumed a dominant role. But at his death in 1118, Alexius left his son John II a larger, more secure, and reinvigorated empire. Anna Comnena wrote a laudatory history of the reign, while John Oxites (ca. 1091) and John Zonaras (who wrote ca. 114060) criticized Alexius's appropriation of church treasures and his enrichment of his own family at the empire's expense.

Bibliography: a. comena, The Alexiad, tr. e. r. a. sewter (Harmondsworth 1969). m. angold, The Byzantine Empire 10251204: A Political History, 2nd ed. (London 1997). m. mullett and d. smythe, eds., Alexios I Komnenos, vol. I, Papers (Belfast 1996). r.j. lilie, Byzantium and the Crusader States 10961204, tr. j. c. morris and j. e. ridings (Oxford 1993). m. angold, Church and Society in Byzantium under the Comneni, 10811261 (Cambridge, 1995). t. gouma-peterson, ed., Anna Komnene and Her Times (New York 2000).

[c. m. brand]

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Alexius I Comnenus, Byzantine Emperor

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