Theodora Comnena (1145–after 1183)

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Theodora Comnena (1145–after 1183)

Byzantine noblewoman, briefly queen of Jerusalem, who later was associated with Andronicus I Comnenus, future emperor of Byzantium. Born in 1145; died after 1183; daughter of Isaac Comnenus; granddaughter of the Byzantine emperor John II Comnenus (r. 1118–1143); niece of Manuel I Comnenus (c. 1120–1180), emperor of Byzantium (r. 1143–1180); married Baldwin III, king of Jerusalem (r. 1143–1162), in 1158; children: (with Andronicus I Comnenus) Alexius; Irene Comnena.

Theodora Comnena was the granddaughter of the Byzantine emperor John II Comnenus (r. 1118–1143), and niece of Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (r. 1143–1180). Theodora's father Isaac Comnenus, a sebastokrator (imperial agent), died a prisoner of the Vlachs when she was young. In 1157, the Crusader king of Jerusalem, Baldwin III (r. 1143–1162), sought an alliance and a wife from the Byzantine emperor Manuel. He did so for several reasons. First, ever since a Crusader army had won Jerusalem for Christendom in 1099 and made it the seat of one of several realms carved out of what had been Islamic territory, Baldwin's kingdom had been under the constant threat of a Muslim counterattack. This threat was made all the more palpable because of the disunity which had arisen amongst the second and third generations of Latin Christians in the east. Within the Kingdom of Jerusalem itself, Baldwin's father Fulk V of Anjou died when Baldwin was a minor. His mother Melisande dominated the kingdom as regent until 1152, in which year Baldwin rebelled against her unwillingness to step aside in his favor. Baldwin won the civil war which followed, although in order to do so, he was forced to enhance the power of his nobility in order to overcome the faction which remained faithful to Melisande. This turmoil allowed the Islamic ruler of Syria, Nurredin, to seize Damascus, on the frontier of Baldwin's kingdom, and thus to reunite Syria (1154). Of course, the more the Islamic world was unified, the more it threatened Christian interests in the region.

Although he proved to be a good king, Baldwin needed a stalwart ally upon whom he could rely against foreign enemies and domestic rivals. In addition, Baldwin and Manuel had common enemies, both Christian and Muslim. Chief among these were two: the aforementioned Nurredin and Reynald of Chatillon, the prince of Antioch and Baldwin's nominal subordinate. This lord had recently ravaged Byzantine territories on Cyprus and had more than once tested Baldwin's feudal authority. In appealing to Manuel, Baldwin knew that the Byzantine Empire remained the most potent Christian power in the east, however much it might have declined over the centuries. Baldwin also recognized that Manuel sought to build bridges with the Latin west (although he did maintain some enmities there, especially with the Norman lords of Sicily), against the wishes of many of his subjects who believed that the growing military and commercial power of the west represented at least as much of a threat to Byzantine interests as did anything emanating from the Islamic world.

Manuel received Baldwin's marriage delegation well, and an alliance was arranged between Byzantium and Jerusalem. Securing this pact was Theodora Comnena, who went to Baldwin with a dowry of 100,000 hyperperi (gold coins), another 10,000 to pay for wedding expenses, and yet another 30,000 to be distributed as gifts. Baldwin endowed Theodora with the city of Acre and its revenues, to be her private possession if she outlived him and if he died childless. Both parties to this agreement promised military and political aid against Reynald and Nurredin. In 1158, the 13-year-old Theodora and her entourage came to Jerusalem where she was married to Baldwin by Aimery, the patriarch of Antioch. Theodora is said to have been very beautiful, and subsequent events suggest that this was so. As far as Baldwin was concerned, despite a wild youth, he settled down into a faithful marriage with Theodora. Nevertheless, in 1162, after a marriage of less than four years, Baldwin (age 33) died, childless, in Beirut after a short illness.

Thereafter, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was inherited by Baldwin's brother, Amalric I, formerly the count of Jaffa and Ascalon—an elevation which was ratified by the knights of his kingdom, although not without some disquiet. Theodora settled into her possession at Acre: a beautiful widow, who was still just 16 years old. For five years, she remained there. When she was 21, however, her 46-year-old second cousin, Andronicus I Comnenus, made his way to Acre.

Andronicus was a physically striking and charismatic member of the imperial family, whose potential assets were counter-balanced by his lusts for women and political ambition. His early career had been somewhat checkered, privately as well as publicly. In 1152, he had notably not distinguished himself as the governor of Cilicia when some Armenian chieftains based in the Taurus Mountains had descended upon the Byzantine lowlands and caught him unaware. Potentially more destructive to his career, however, were two issues: Andronicus' opposition to Manuel's overtures to the west, and his seduction of Eudocia Comnena , the emperor's niece (and thus also a close relative of Andronicus). This latter escapade had especially antagonized the emperor, because Manuel had been eyeing Eudocia for himself. (Manuel is known to have had incestuous relations with another niece—a Theodora Comnena [fl. 1140], the daughter of his brother Andronicus. The frequent repetition of names within families was not uncommon at the Byzantine court. Manuel's liaison with Andronicus' daughter produced a son, Alexius Comnenus, of whom more below.)

Despite the tensions which resulted from such nefarious episodes, Andronicus' charm worked well diplomatically, so when trouble broke out again in Cilicia in 1166, Manuel sent Andronicus there a second time to work toward a negotiated settlement. While there, official business took Andronicus to Antioch, ruled by the Crusader Bohemund III. Bohemund's sister, Marie of Antioch , was Manuel's second wife, and she was a woman Andronicus especially despised, mostly because she was a Latin and symbolized the influence of the west on Manuel. The importance of Antioch to Manuel is additionally underscored by the fact that Bohemund's second wife, also named Theodora, was yet another relative of the Byzantine emperor. At Antioch, Andronicus met Bohemund's young sister, the princess Philippa of Antioch . Lingering in the city far longer than he should have, Andronicus wooed and seduced Philippa, perhaps through scandal hoping to drive a wedge between Manuel and Bohemund, although Andronicus did not need an ulterior motive to court women. When Bohemund became cognizant of the relationship between Andronicus and Philippa, he angrily complained to Manuel, who, equally irked by Andronicus' improper behavior, demanded his immediate return to Constantinople. Andronicus, however, abandoned the empire and his Antiochene mistress (possibly wife) entirely, and, with a considerable percentage of the imperial revenues recently collected from Cilicia and Cyprus, made his way south to offer his services to Amalric of Jerusalem. Probably not knowing everything about Andronicus' recent activities, Amalric welcomed him to his realm and offered him Beirut, a fief then vacant.

Not long thereafter, Andronicus met Theodora Comnena at Acre. They perhaps knew each other when Theodora was a child, but now she was a stunning, mature beauty. Apparently, both fell in love, but they were far too closely related for legitimate ecclesiastical authorities even to consider the sanction of marriage. This did not keep them apart. Theodora abandoned Acre for Beirut, where she took up residence as Andronicus' mistress. When he learned about Andronicus' flight and his latest sexual conquest, Manuel became truly enraged. Orders were sent to ambassadors already at Jerusalem on other business, demanding that they secretly arrange for Andronicus' arrest and extradition. These orders, however, fell into Theodora's hands (as the one-time queen of the land, she still had friends in influential places) and she warned her lover. Knowing that Amalric could not afford to alienate Manuel by refusing to comply with his wishes and that Manuel intended to blind him as a punishment for treason, Andronicus arranged a flight with Theodora. Letting it be known that he was going to return to Byzantium so that Amalric would think that Manuel's purpose would be achieved without the king of Jerusalem suffering the embarrassment of having to remove a recently instated vassal, Andronicus returned to Beirut to settle local affairs. There he was met by Theodora, ostensibly come to say her last goodbye. Theodora, however, came with all of her movable wealth. To this Andronicus added his own, and the two surreptitiously slipped into Syria where Nurredin welcomed the renegades with hospitality as a gibe at both Manuel and Amalric. Acre reverted to Amalric.

The couple spent the next few years (excommunicated by Christian authorities) wandering around the Islamic middle east. Eventually they found refuge with Saltuq, the Turkish emir of Koloneia and Chaldia, regions abutting Byzantine Trebizond. Here they occupied an extremely well-located and fortified castle and went into the business of organized brigandage, although officially Andronicus held the rank of toparch (district governor) under the emir. Theodora gave birth to a son Alexius and a daughter Irene Comnena . In exile, Andronicus was joined by a legitimate son named John, who for a time helped Andronicus ward off the attempts by Manuel to arrest him. Eventually, however, Nicephorus Palaeologus, the governor of Trebizond, succeeded in kidnaping Theodora and her children, and they were held hostage against Andronicus' return to Byzantium. Loving his children and their mother, Andronicus surrendered to save their lives. When he returned to the empire of his birth (1180), Andronicus made such a show of contrition and so effectively groveled for amnesty that he moved Manuel to tears. Andronicus' theatrical display worked: he was "welcomed" home and was not blinded. (The fact that Andronicus maintained friendships with powerful figures within the empire certainly influenced how Manuel responded to his return.) He was, however, sent into internal exile at Oinaion, on the coast of the Black Sea, for his indiscretions were too great to be overlooked completely by Manuel. Regardless, Andronicus lacked for little at Oinaion, although there was never any question of Theodora, Alexius, or Irene joining him there. The period of intimacy which Andronicus and Theodora had enjoyed was over.

Theodora's historical role, however, was not quite complete. Not long after Andronicus returned to Byzantium, Manuel died, leaving behind as his heir the 11-year-old, Alexius II, under the regency of Marie of Antioch. Marie was not a popular figure among the Greeks at the imperial court (or indeed throughout much of the empire), and she relied heavily upon even more unpopular Latin support to secure her position. The prominence of Latins in her political entourage only exacerbated the antipathy of her Greek subjects. Andronicus saw an opportunity: riding the wave of anti-Westernism, he plotted a political comeback. Andronicus moved on Constantinople in 1182, proclaiming his intention to set Alexius II "free" from the undo influence of foreigners. Andronicus faced almost no opposition as he crossed Anatolia, and even when he established a camp at Chalcedon, Marie's faction found it impossible to mount an effective response to the challenge. Some of her former adherents, seeing the handwriting on the wall, even defected to Andronicus. Finally, incited by Andronicus' diatribes against Latins, a revolt broke out in Constantinople at the climax of which a mob massacred many, if not most, of the foreigners in the city; looting was rampant. Andronicus entered the capital and quickly executed his opponents. Even Marie was eliminated: Andronicus forced her imperial son to sign her death warrant with his own hand. In the fall of 1183, Andronicus deemed the time right to accede to the "wishes" of the court and church and to accept his elevation to the throne. For two months Andronicus played at co-emperorship. By the end of the year, however, Alexius II was murdered at Andronicus' command.

In order to tie the usurped authority of the new regime as much as possible to the one it had ousted, Andronicus decided to engage in marriage politics: Andronicus, aged 65, married the 13-year-old widow of Alexius II, Agnes-Anne of France . Andronicus may truly have once loved Theodora, and perhaps still did. Regardless, politics was politics. What made Andronicus' marriage to Agnes so deliciously ironic, however, was the fact that Agnes' father was Louis VII of France. Thus, she was a Latin and represented precisely the political influence against which Andronicus had so recently been raving.

Andronicus' years with Theodora were not yet forgotten, for he ordained a second marriage in order to associate his new authority even more closely to the memory of Manuel. What Andronicus had in mind was the marriage of his daughter Irene Comnena to Alexius Comnenus. Now this was an interesting proposal, for, of course, Irene's mother was Theodora. As such, Irene was both illegitimate and the product of an incestuous union as defined by the Church. Alexius' case (as briefly noted above) was even more extreme, for he was the son of Emperor Manuel and Manuel's niece, Theodora Comnena, daughter of Andronicus. Thus, not only was Alexius also a bastard, his parents were even more closely related biologically than were Andronicus and Theodora. As such, it is difficult to see how Andronicus expected to benefit from this union's consummation. As things stood, the proximity of Irene's and Alexius' kinship, although not legally recognized since they were both illegitimate, meant that Andronicus needed a special religious dispensation for the marriage to occur. He was able to bully and bribe an ecclesiastical synod to obtain this dispensation, but only over the very vocal outrage of such influential clerics as the patriarch of Constantinople, Theodosius Boradiotes. So mortified by the audacity of Andronicus' wheeling and dealing was Theodosius that, after it became apparent that Andronicus would have his way, he left Constantinople willingly and forfeited his see. Of course, Andronicus was able to fill the position with someone more to his liking (one Basilius II Camaterus), but the scandal of the whole affair did not bode well for Andronicus' continuing popularity.

To help offset the unpopularity of such episodes and to help consolidate his personal control over the empire, in addition to his attack on foreigners, Andronicus took up another cause which was popular in the capital and with the peasantry throughout the empire. When Manuel had been emperor, to bolster his support among the landed aristocracy, he had sanctioned the sale of political offices with lucrative financial perquisites for those who were buying. In the area of tax collecting, this had led to grave injustices against the poor, but it won Manuel aristocratic support that had been otherwise jeopardized by his pro-Western policies. Andronicus let it be known that he stood against such practices, and would work strenuously to clean up the system. What won Andronicus support among the many, however, cost him among the nobility, and, when the latter opposed his stand, Andronicus responded with such brutality that even members of his own family came to oppose his rule.

What Theodora thought about all of this is unknown, but she appears to have remained a partisan of her lover, at least for a time. This is suggested by the advice she gave to her nephew, Isaac (the son of a sister). Manuel had appointed this Isaac as the governor of Armenia and Tarsus, but he had been captured in battle by the Armenians and imprisoned by them for several years. After the death of Manuel, the Knights Templar ransomed him, but required to be repaid for their service. Theodora advised him to appeal to Andronicus for the money to repay the Knights. Other relatives and friends of Isaac urged Andronicus to pity this ex-exile and to help him. None of those who sought to bring Isaac into the party of Andronicus would have done so with any thought of success if their own loyalty to the reigning emperor were in question.

Isaac, however, rejected Theodora's advice and Andronicus' aid, seeking instead to rally the growing numbers of the discontented and oust Andronicus from power. Great landowners rallied to Isaac, who seized Cyprus, began minting coins (an imperial prerogative), and commandeered the imperial title. Henceforth, Cyprus would lie beyond the political control of Constantinople, a major loss to the empire. Because of mounting opposition, Andronicus could not amass the force to strike directly at Isaac. Instead, he vented his anger against those of Isaac's friends and family whom he caught in Constantinople. Among those who were so punished was Andronicus Ducas, a brother-in-law of Theodora's.

As domestic order disintegrated, other candidates for the throne were also raised. Among these was Alexius, the husband of Irene, whose marriage had cost Andronicus much moral authority among both ecclesiastics and lay people. Andronicus had Alexius blinded and imprisoned in a secure coastal fortress not far from Constantinople. So also was the fate of many of his supporters. Even Irene, when forced by her father to choose between himself and her husband, chose to mourn the fall of Alexius, thus turning Andronicus' love to hate. She was banished from court. Whether Theodora and/or Alexius survived the banishment of Irene is unknown, for they fall from the historical record. (Indeed, since Alexius is not mentioned after the return of his father to Byzantium, it is possible that he had already died.)

Andronicus' fortunes rapidly declined. With widespread intrigue and open rebellion shattering the domestic peace of the Byzantine Empire, foreign enemies began to take advantage. Already the frontiers of the south and east were overshadowed by the rise of Saladin, who by the time of the reign of Andronicus controlled both Syria (having ousted Nurredin) and Egypt. In the face of increasing pressure on his southeastern frontier, Andronicus could not expect Western help, for he had been responsible for the loss of so many Western lives and so much Western property in the process of his elevation. In fact, in 1183 Bela III of Hungary proclaimed himself the avenger of the executed Empress Marie and took the opportunity afforded by Byzantium's disarray to raid and sack deeply into the empire's Balkan provinces. Most devastatingly, however, the Normans of Sicily renewed hostilities against the empire in 1185 and succeeded that year in conquering Dyrrachium, Corfu, Cephalonia, Zacynthus, and most significantly Thessalonica (Byzantium's second city). From Thessalonica, the Normans continued east toward Serres and Constantinople itself. In the capital, a great fear generated by domestic terror and the Norman advance exploded into violence: on September 12, 1185, Andronicus was torn to pieces in the streets. He was the last Comnenus to rule.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Theodora Comnena (1145–after 1183)

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