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Alexius I., Comnenus
ALEXIUS I., ɑ̄-lex´i-us, COMNENUS: Emperor of Constantinople 1081-1118, founder of the Comnenus dynasty. He was the nephew of Isaac Comnenus, who as emperor (1057-59) had tried through the army to save the state from the selfish tyranny of the official class, but had been put to death, with the result that for two decades military weakness, administrative demoralization, and the loss of provinces to Turks and Normans had brought the empire into an almost hopeless condition. During this period Alexius won considerable renown by defeating a Norman mercenary captain named Ursel, who attempted to found a kingdom in Asia Minor, and two pretenders to the imperial throne. He was adopted by the empress Maria, but found himself so zealously watched in Constantinople that his only safety was to seize the crown for himself, which he accomplished by a masterly conspiracy. New dangers, however, threatened him. Asia Minor was largely in Mohammedan hands; the sovereignty of the empire in the Balkan peninsula was scarcely more than nominal; and Robert Guiscard menaced the Adriatic provinces, having already taken the south Italian ones. Alexius summoned his forces, and ratified the burdensome treaty with Venice which his predecessor had made, but he was defeated, and the Normans occupied Durazzo, the western gate of the empire. He tried to create a diversion by inciting the German king, Henry IV., to an attack on southern Italy, which afforded only temporary relief, and nothing but Robert’s death in 1085 saved him from this determined foe.
Steady pressure from the half-barbarous hordes of the Balkans made a new danger, and at one time it seemed likely that the Turkish pirates of Asia Minor and the Sultan of Iconium would join them in an attempt to effect the complete overthrow of the empire. By the aid of the Cumans, however, they were defeated with horrible slaughter (1091). The lack of military force inspired Alexius with the idea of gaining assistance from the West. The first crusade (1095-99), partly due to his appeals for the expulsion of the Turks, assumed far different proportions from those which he had expected; but he might have welcomed it, had it not been that the participation of Bohemund, Robert Guiscard’s son, gave it the appearance of a mere episode in the old Norman inroads. At first all went peaceably, but mutual distrust soon showed itself. At the siege of Nicæa (1097), Alexius did not wait to see if the crusaders would fulfil their agreement to restore to him the territory which had but recently belonged to the empire, but gained the city by a secret agreement with the Turkish garrison. When Antioch fell (1098), it was not restored to the emperor. This marked the crisis of the undertaking. The Turks threatened to recapture Antioch, and Alexius was entreated to send the help he had promised. He saw that by giving it he would make the Turks his irreconcilable foes, without finding submissive vassals in the crusaders, and he drew back, seizing the opportunity to recover possession of the coasts of Asia Minor, with the large maritime cities and the islands, and then using this recovered territory as a base of operations against the new Norman principality in Syria. Bohemund found himself obliged in 1104 to seek help from the pope and the kings of England and France. He spread the belief that Alexius was the enemy of Christianity and a master of all deceits and wiles. A new crusade, led by Bohemund, sought to pass through the Eastern empire, but its purpose was perfectly understood in Constantinople. Preparations were made in time, and in the winter of 1107-08 Alexius won the greatest 127 triumph of his reign. Bohemund was forced to submit to the humiliating conditions of the treaty of Deabolis, and to hold Antioch as a fief of the empire, without the right to transmit it. The last ten years of Alexius’s reign were years of struggle for the maintenance of his recovered dominion in Asia Minor, and for the consolidation of his power at home. To gain the help of the ecclesiastics, as well as to atone for the sins of his youth, he regulated the life of his court with great strictness, and did his utmost to repress the sects (Paulicians, Armenians, Monophysites, and Bogomiles) which had flourished in the anarchy of the time immediately preceding his own.
It is difficult to arrive at an unprejudiced view of Alexius’s character, so much have the one-sided views of the Western historians prevailed. His success in making the weakened empire once more a power must be admired. He was a man of infinite resource, of tremendous energy, of an indefatigable readiness to avail himself of circumstances, not wanting in physical courage, but even greater in moral steadfastness.
Bibliography: Sources: Nicephorus Bryennius, Commentarii, in CSHB, viii., 1836; Anna Comnena, Alexiad, ibid. iii., 1878, and ed. by Reifferscheid, 2 vols., Leipsic, 1884; also Theophylact, CSHB, iv., 1834, cf. Krumbacher, Geschichte, pp. 133 sqq., 463-464. Consult G. Finlay, Hist. of the Byzantine and Greek Empires, 2 vols., London, 1854; A. F. Gfrörer, Byzantinische Gesch., 3 vols., Graz, 1872-77; B. Kugler, Geschichte der Kreuzzüge, Berlin, 1880; H. E. Tozer, The Church and the Eastern Empire, London, 1888; C. W. C. Oman, Byzantine Empire, New York, 1892 (popular but useful); Gibbon, Decline and Fall, v. 232, vi. 79, 1898; F. Harrison, Byzantine Hist. in the Early Middle Ages, London, 1900; F. Chalandon, Essai sur . . . Alexis I. Comnenus, Paris, 1900.
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