Monday, September 13, 2010

Birthday Greetings #13

Happy birthday to John II Komnenos, Byzantine emperor (1118-1143). The date range presented represents his reign not his life which was somewhat longer. Apparently I do have to explain such things.

John II was the second emperor of the Komnenos dynasty and spent his reign rebuilding the empire. For those who came in late a quick recap is in order. In 1071 due to a combination of over confidence, mismanagement, treachery and suicidal idiocy at the highest levels of government the Byzantine empire suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert. Normally a serious military threat would prompt a rallying round the flag. Instead the Byzantine aristocracy chose this moment to engage in a series of crazy civil wars, throne seizing, plotting and anarchy. As a result after the battle (which needn't have been such a major setback) the Seljuk Turks, much to their own surprise, were able to pretty much wander into and conquer by default about half the empire.

Finally in 1081 one military thug managed to beat the crap out of all the others and bring the tattered and bankrupt empire some much needed stability. His name was Alexios Komnenos father to our birthday boy. Somehow Alexios dragged the empire back from the brink and managed to see off multiple threats from the Seljuks, Normans, Pechenegs and Paulicians. He was further aided when a group of heavily armed psychopaths turned up at Constantinople asking for directions to Jerusalem. Alexios lent them a map and as they slaughtered their way across Asia Minor he followed and stuck Byzantine flags on everything still standing. The capture of Jerusalem by this force (which history has dignified with the term The First Crusade) gave the Moslem population something else to worry about and Alexios gained a much needed breathing space. Finally after nearly thirty years of rule Alexios died (much to the joy of the populace who kind of hated him) and his son John took the throne.

Not without difficulty however; John's elder sister Anna had imperial ambitions for her husband and she had hated John from the day he was born. Anna and her mother (who like most people seems to have disliked Alexios despite being married to him) formed a plot to put Anna's husband on the throne. John moved swiftly and Anna spent the rest of her life in a nunnery where she occupied her time writing a biography that praised her father to the skies and insulted John as much as she dared.

Alexios had shored up his power base by promoting relatives to key commands but John who had learned not to trust his relatives looked to outsiders for support. Principal among them was a Turkish former slave named John Axouch who would act as John's commander in chief and closest confidant.

With the empire at least stable (if badly battered) John could start the process of restoration. It was probably beyond the depleted resources of the empire to regain everything that had been lost after Manzikert but what could be done John did. He shored up the European provinces (very important now that most of Asia was gone) and defeated both the Hungarians and the Serbs when they tried to raid imperial territory. Many of the defeated Serbs were transplanted to Anatolia in a typical piece of internal immigration. The imperial government would take rebellious subjects (or captured enemies) and dump them in the middle of a war zone with a strong hint that if they didn't want to end up slaves or dead they might like to defend the place.

John maintained good relations with the Holy Roman Empire in the west which was handy since his relations with Norman Sicily varied between hostile and outright war. With his European rear secured John then campaigned in Anatolia pushing back the Seljuks and recapturing a good deal of territory. Most of this territory was along the coast, the most valuable and easy to capture land. The rugged Anatolian hinterland remained beyond his grasp but with the Seljuks pushed back and the most financially useful territories back in the imperial fold money again started to flow into imperial coffers. Using his new gains as a springboard John moved down into the Levant where the Crusader states were nominally his vassals. Unfortunately while they liked the idea of imperial protection the rulers of Edessa and Antioch were less crazy about having the emperor backed by a victory hardened army in their midst. They sabotaged his campaign against the Muslim rulers of Damascus and eventually John had to pull back.

After a reign of twenty five years John suddenly died after scratching himself with a poison arrow while on a hunting trip. He was succeeded by his younger son Manuel.

Throughout his reign John was noted for his piety, frugality and mercy. It is said that no one was executed or mutilated by his order during his entire reign. Unlike his father (who admittedly had a harder row to hoe) John was loved by his people which may explain why one of the ugliest of the Byzantine emperors was given the apparently non ironic nickname "John the Beautiful".

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