Did the Byzantine Empire See a Revival Under the Comnenian Emperors?

Tristan Hughes

3 mins

19 Jul 2019

By the end of the 11th century, the power of Byzantium was fading. Controlling an Empire surrounded by a variety of nations with differing cultures and military techniques, but shared hostility to the Empire, became increasingly difficult, rendering the Empire in a ‘state of weakness’ by the time of Alexios I.

Nevertheless, during the Comnenian Period it is argued that there does appear to be a reversal of fortune for Byzantium.

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New tactics and changing fortunes

In terms of military policy, the Comnenian dynasty did temporarily reverse Byzantine misfortune. In particular it appears the military policy of the first two Comneni Emperors was very successful. Alexios I Comnenus realised that the Byzantine army needed reform when he came to power in 1081.

Byzantium fought a variety of army styles due to differing cultures. For example, whereas the Patzinaks (or Scythians) preferred to fight skirmishes, the Normans preferred pitched battles.

Alexios’ war with the Patzinaks made him learn that fighting pitched battles, risked the possibility of an army’s annihilation which was not necessary to defeat other nations such as the Sicilians.

Portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos.

As a result, when Alexios faced the Normans from 1105-1108, rather than risk a field battle with the heavier armoured and mounted Normans, Alexios disrupted their access to supplies by blocking the passes around Dyrrachium.

This military reform did prove successful. It allowed Byzantium to repel invaders such as the Turks and Sicilians, superior in fighting pitched battles, by fighting with this new style. This tactic was continued by Alexios’ son John II and it allowed John to extend the Empire even further.

John restored territories in Asia Minor long lost to the Turks such as Armenia Minor and Cilicia, as well as receiving the submission of the Latin Crusader state Antioch. This new military policy by the early Comnenian emperors significantly reversed Byzantine decline.

John II directs the Siege of Shaizar while his allies sit inactive in their camp, French manuscript 1338.

The fact that Comnenian Emperors Alexios, John II and Manuel were military leaders contributed to the reversal of Byzantine military decline.

The Byzantine army consisted of both native Byzantine troops and foreign troop contingents such as the Varangian Guard. Therefore experienced military leaders were needed to navigate this issue, a role the Comnenian Emperors were able to fill.

Before a battle against the Patzinaks, it has been recorded that Alexios encouraged and motivated his soldiers, raising morale. Clearly Alexios appears not only a capable emperor, but also a skilled military leader.

Subsequent victories on the battlefield show that Byzantine military decline was halted during this period because of their effective leadership.

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Decline

Unfortunately, Byzantium’s fortunes were not permanently reversed. Whilst Alexios and John II were largely successful in their military operations, Manuel was not. Manuel appears to have abandoned Alexios’ and John’s reformed tactic of avoiding pitched battles.

Manuel fought many pitched battles where the victories were without gain and the defeats crushing. In particular, the disastrous battle of Myriokephalon in 1176 destroyed Byzantium’s last hope of defeating the Turks and driving them out of Asia Minor.

By 1185, the work Alexios and John II had done to reverse Byzantium’s military decline had been undone.