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Alexius II Comnenus (24 September 1180- before 24 September 1183)

Andrew Stone
University of Western Australia


The reign of Alexius II Comnenus (24 September 1180- before 24 September 1183) marks the beginning of a rapid decline in Byzantine affairs, following the restoration effected by the first three emperors of the Comnenian dynasty. Throughout, the spectre of the boy emperor's second cousin Andronicus loomed, whether it be as a rallying-point to the opponents of the regency of the first years of Alexius' reign, be it as regent in succession to the legitimate regency of Maria of Antioch (Maria-Xene) (appointed by Alexius' father Manuel), or as co-emperor. The boy-emperor took no part in government due to his tender age (he was but eleven on his succession, and had not been given any training by his father, as the panegyrists of the time happily admit), and was but a puppet, dominated at first by the regency of his mother Maria of Antioch (Maria-Xene) in collusion with her lover the protosebatos Alexius, and then by Andronicus; he was even coerced by the latter into signing his mother's death-warrant. The tragedy of Alexius' reign is testament to the fact that the Comnenian style of government required a strong and capable autocrat to be effective.

Alexius as heir-apparent

Alexius was born on 14 September 1169 and crowned co-emperor in 1171. By 1174 this "sprout of purple" or "gleam of purple" was being celebrated in contemporary panegyrics for his alleged precocity in wielding spears (for hunting) like Achilles, and in the 1179 speech of Eustathius of Thessalonica welcoming his fiancée, the nine-year-old Agnes of France (daughter of King Louis VII) [[1]], the rhetor praises him for his physical beauty. The speeches reveal that Manuel largely spared his son the rigours of governmental responsibility[[2]], despite his official status as co-emperor, and those of campaigning, with the possible exception of the 1175 campaign in Phrygia, where the boy emperor may have witnessed the rebuilding of the key fortresses of Dorylaeum and Siblia[[3]]. Alexius' wedding to Agnes was celebrated on the 2nd of March 1180, a double bill with the wedding of his half-sister Maria to Renier of Montferrat[[4]].

The regency of Maria of Antioch (Maria-Xene) and the protosebastos Alexius (1180-early 1182)

Manuel had, on his deathbed, appointed a regency council of twelve, headed by his wife Maria of Antioch (Maria-Xene), with the assistance of Theodosius Boradiotes, the patriarch[[5]]. The new boy emperor (he was only eleven years old) took absolutely no interest in government, but indulged in his favourite pastimes of hunting and attending chariot races. In short order, the protosebastos and protovestiarios Alexius Comnenus, Manuel's nephew, prevailed over the other members of the council, and became Maria of Antioch's (Maria-Xene)  lover, much to the chagrin of Maria Porphyrogenita, Manuel's daughter from his first wife, who was thus excluded from power. Another party desirous of power was Manuel's cousin Andronicus, who, after returning from exile before Manuel's death to become reconciled with him, now sojourned in Paphlagonia. The situation was a veritable powder-keg, and would shortly be ignited.  Once in power, the protosebastos sold offices to the upper tier of the aristocracy at high prices, alienating the middle and lower classes of Constantinople by his greed and parsimony. We are told something of the condition of the provinces by the metropolitan bishop of Athens Michael Choniates. The great landowners were favoured by the régime, as were the monasteries (their fiscal privileges being reaffirmed in July 1181). The people at large however fell victim to the rapacity of the governors (praetors) in Hellas[[6]].  One notable diplomatic initiative of the protosebastos was the meeting between Byzantine envoys and Saladin in Cairo, May-June 1181[[7]].

Maria Porphyrogenita's plot and the associated riot (early 1181)

The kaisarissa Maria Porphyrogenita opposed the new régime openly and was forever scheming against it. An attempted coup (for 7 February 1181) failed, and the plot was revealed (March 1 1181). Some of the conspirators are listed for us by Nicetas Choniates, and also by Eustathius of Thessalonica[[8]]: important were two sons of Andronicus Comnenus. They were tried and condemned, Maria and her husband Renier of Montferrat seeking refuge in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia (before Easter, 5 April 1181). The protosebastos and Maria of Antioch (Maria-Xene) offered Maria an amnesty, which she refused, demanding that her co-conspirators be re-tried. She was emboldened by the fact that the populace was sympathetic to her cause. Accordingly, she had the Great Church garrisoned with supporters, including Latins and Iberians (despite the protests of Theodosius, as Choniates tells us[[9]]), and a riot broke out among the people, who proceeded to sack certain buildings, including the palace of the eparch of the city, Theodore Pantechnes.

Alexius the protosebastos decided to send soldiers against the kaisarissa, these soldiers rallying at the Great Palace. In the meantime, Maria's(Maria-Xene) men demolished the buildings adjacent to the Great Church and the Augusteum, which were her strongholds. On 2 May a great battle began between the imperial troops and the outnumbered troops of the kaisarissa Maria. After a while some of her supporters withdrew and the remaining survivors shut themselves in the Great Church. At first, neither side dared to risk continuing battle following this development. Then Renier led a sally forth from the Great Church, and held his own, but further fighting had to be left aside due to the lateness in the day. Theodosius in the meantime had sent a messenger to the regents asking for a truce on the kaisarissa's behalf. This was granted, and the megas doux Andronicus Contostephanus and the megas hetaireiarches John Ducas sent to negotiate with Renier and Maria. The result was a truce, and the kaisarissa did not lose her rank[[10]]. The protosebastos Alexius had Theodosius removed from the patriarchal throne for his alleged support of the rebels, and confined to the monastery of the Pantepoptes, but soon relented and reinstalled him.  Nicetas Choniates says that it was the sacrilege of the use of the Great Church as a fortress which was the immediate cause of the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade in 1204[[11]].

The march of Andronicus Comnenus and the massacre of the Latins in 1182

The protosebastos remained as unpopular as ever. Taking advantage of this, Andronicus passed from Paphlagonia, where he had been residing, into the Pontus, all the while writing letters in which he posed as the champion of the boy-emperor's rights[[12]]. He moved slowly, to give a false impression of a large and cumbersome army. However, Nicaea in Bithynia refused to submit, and John Ducas and the Grand Domestic John Comnenus were entrusted with her defence by the regency government. Andronicus Angelus (father of the future emperors Isaac II and Alexius III) marched out from Nicomedia and fought with Andronicus Comnenus at the village of Charax, to be roundly defeated in spite of his superior numbers. Andronicus Angelus was so worried about being punished for this failure in battle, that in the end he defected to Andronicus Comnenus' cause. So it was that Andronicus (Comnenus) arrived at the Bosporus, camping at Chalcedon (on the opposite shore from Constantinople). Although his force was small, he spread his men out, and the impression given by the campfires was of a much greater force[[13]].

The protosebastos Alexius first tried diplomacy, sending George Xiphilinus to Andronicus promising a pardon, vast rewards and high office if he would desist. When this failed, the protosebastos, realising how little he could depend on the populace or army, decided that a naval blockade was the answer. The blockading fleet was commanded by the megas doux Andronicus Contostephanus. The boy emperor sent a messenger to Andronicus (Comnenus) to promise him greater honours should he desist; Andronicus flatly refused the ultimatum, whereupon, in the next few days, Andronicus Contostephanus changed sides. Andronicus Comnenus' two sons, imprisoned for their part in Maria Porphyrogenita's plot, were released, and the protosebastos imprisoned in their place. Days later, he was ferried across to Andronicus (Comnenus) at Chalcedon and blinded as a punishment[[14]]. The populace, incited by Andronicus (Comnenus), now fell upon those Latins, particularly the Genoese and Pisans, who were living in Constantinople or there on business. The Latins abandoned their riches, some seeking refuge in the houses of noblemen whom they could trust, others escaping by galleys, others, less fortunate, falling to the sword. The populace persecuted the Latin clergy especially. Those who took to the sea were not pursued, and they retaliated by sacking those islands they encountered on their journey away from Constantinople[[15]].

Andronicus' regency (early 1182-1183)

At length the patriarch Theodosius crossed the Bosporus and met with Andronicus, who, Choniates tells us, feigned obeisance[[16]]. Shortly, Andronicus and his entourage travelled to Damalis (more precisely opposite Constantinople). From there, they crossed to the suburb of Philopatium, where once again Andronicus made a show of respect, this time to the boy emperor. After many days had been spent there, Andronicus paid his respects to the sarcophagus of his cousin the emperor Manuel I, with an ostentatious display of grief.  One of his first actions as new guardian of the emperor was to reward his Paphlagonian and other supporters with offices and money. Then the persecutions began, many punished, even by blinding, without a charge being laid formally against them. One who was a friend of the regent one day was the next day condemned as an enemy. Choniates accuses Andronicus of poisoning the kaisarissa Maria Porphyrogenita and her husband the kaisar Renier, despite their previous support of him[[17]]. They were obviously perceived as obstacles to his true aim, accession to the throne.
The next stage was to marry his daughter Irene (by his second cousin Theodora) to the emperor. To do so would have been within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and Andronicus therefore convened a synod of the bishops to give a dispensation. Theodosius remained opposed, but Andronicus obtained the necessary dispensation through strategic bribery. Theodosius therefore departed for the island of Terebinthos. Andronicus appointed his own man Basil Camaterus in his place, and the wedding proceeded, consecrated by the archbishop of Bulgaria[[18]].

In the meantime the sultan of Konya, Kilidj II Arslan, seized the opportunity to capture Sozopolis in Phrygia, with the surrounding towns, and John Comnenus Vatatzes, who was residing in Philadelphia, rebelled against the new régime. Andronicus sent Andronicus Lapardas against Vatatzes, who took ill, but did not die before seeing his sons Manuel and Alexius rout the army sent against him. Upon John Vatatzes' death, however, the inhabitants of Philadelphia changed sides to Andronicus. His sons took refuge with the sultan of Konya. Departing from Konya, they set sail for Sicily, but had to make a landfall at Crete, whereupon they were captured and deprived of their sight[[19]].

Andronicus' reign of terror

We are told by Choniates that Andronicus became more arrogant than ever, and sought to become co-emperor[[20]]. The main remaining obstacle was Maria of Antioch (Maria-Xene) . Andronicus incited the populace against her and when some of the judges of the velum (Demetrios Tornices, Leo Monasteriotes and Constantine Patrenus), who were to consider the charges laid against her, asked if prosecuting her was the wish of the emperor Alexius, they nearly lost their lives at the hands of the mob, so provoked by Andronicus.  Andronicus now tried to eliminate competition from among the extended imperial family, many of whom were holding long-established or recently invented offices, under the so-called "Comnenian system". For Andronicus Angelus, the son of Constantine Angelus, the megas doux Andronicus Contostephanus, and these two men's sons, along with the logothete of the drome, Basil Camaterus (not the homonymous patriarch), plotted the tyrant's destruction. However, the plot was betrayed, and although Andronicus Angelus escaped, Contostephanus, his sons and Basil Camaterus were not so fortunate, and blinded[[21]].   The regent Andronicus now instituted a reign of terror, imprisoning, banishing, and undoing in other ways. Maria of Antioch (Maria-Xene) still needed to be dealt with, so she was arraigned on a charge of treason (for she had sought the help of her sister's husband Béla III of Hungary) and a puppet court condemned her to imprisonment in a dungeon near the monastery of St Diomedes. The sentence was commuted to death, the decree affirmed by the signature of the emperor Alexius himself. Even Andronicus' firstborn Manuel, we are told, was disgusted at this sentence, and so the empress-dowager had a brief reprieve. In the end however men (in particular the hetaireiarch Constantine Tripsychus) were found to carry out the sentence of death by strangulation (? end of 1182)[[22]], another testament to the bloody nature of the new régime.

The empire's frontiers

While all this was happening, Béla III had taken the opportunity to conquer the Balkan frontier towns of Branitshevo and Belgrade (he had already recovered Sirmium and Dalmatia) and he advanced up the Morava to Nish, proceeding even as far as Sofia, removing the relics of the local saint, even though he abandoned the latter. The Byzantine army, setting out in the summer of 1181 under Alexius Branas and Andronicus Lapardas, was ineffective against him. Stephen Nemanja and the Serbs of Rascia and Zeta made themselves independent, and Kilidj II Arslan of Konya/Iconium, after taking Sozopolis in Pisidia, destroyed Cotyaeum (Kutahya). His court became a haven for Byzantine refugees.

Andronicus co-emperor

Isaac Angelus and Theodore Cantacuzenus were fomenting insurrection in the city of Nicaea, and Theodore Angelus was harboured by the city of Prusa. Andronicus' supporters, the demagogues who incited the populace, said that this opposition could only be silenced by granting him the imperial office. Andronicus at first feigned reluctance to receive the crown, but, needless to say, was soon proclaimed co-emperor, to the accompaniment of much rejoicing by the people at large[[23]]. The following day, Andronicus was proclaimed first in rank among the co-emperors. He was subsequently crowned, and barely had this happened than he began plotting Alexius Porphyrogenitus' removal. It was decided, by Andronicus' supporters, that his co-emperor should become a private citizen. Before the populace could be apprised of this incident, Stephen Hagiochristophorites, Constantine Tripsychos and Theodore Dadibrenos fell upon the boy emperor and throttled him with a bowstring (before September 1183)[[24]]. Alexius' body was decapitated and while the head was being displayed to Andronicus, the remainder was being thrown into the sea.


The collapse of the Byzantine power was rapid. Now that there was no strong autocrat at the centre of the extended family of the Comneni to keep the various members of it in check, there was concomitant splintering into different factions. Civil war so occupied the capital that foreign powers could take advantage of it and begin the process of carving out enclaves from territory which previously recognised Byzantine authority. The process would continue under Andronicus, whose tyranny gave the process but a brief reprieve, and accelerate under the weak dynasty of the Angeli.


Primary sources

-Nicetas Choniates, Historia, ed. J.-L. Van Dieten, 2 vols., Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 11, 2 vols., Berlin and New York, 1975; trans. as O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, by H.J. Magoulias, Detroit, 1984.

-Eustathius of Thessalonica, The Capture of Thessaloniki, ed. and tr. J.R. Melville-Jones, Canberra, 1988.

-Eustathius Thessalonicensis Opera Minora, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, vol. 32, Berlin and New York, 2000.

Secondary sources

-M. Angold, The Byzantine Empire, 1025-1204: a political history, 2nd ed., London and New York, 1997.

--C.M. Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West 1180-1204, Cambridge Mass., 1968.

-C. Cupane, "La 'Guerra Civile' della primavera 1181 nel racconto di Niceta Coniate e Eustazio di Tessalonica: narratologica historiae ancilla?', in Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 47, 1997, pp. 179-194.

-F. Cognasso, "Partiti politici e lotte dinastiche in Bisanzio alla morte di Manuele Comneno", in Reale Accademia delle Scienze di Torino memorie classe II 62, 1912, pp. 213-317.

-P. Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180, Cambridge, 1993.


[[1]] Eustathii Thessalonicensis opera minora, ed. P. Wirth, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 32, Berlin and New York, pp. 250-260.

[[2]] eg. Eustathius, ed. Wirth, pp. 188-189.

[[3]] Eustathius, ed. Wirth, p. 45.

[[4]] cf. Eustathius, ed. Wirth, pp. 170-181.

[[5]] Eustathius, ed. Melville-Jones (see bibliography), p. 18; William of Tyre, tr. Babcock and Krey (see bibliography), XXII.5.

[[6]]Michael Choniates, Michael Akominatou tou Choniatou ta sozomena, ed. Sp. Lambros, vol. 1, p. 176

[[7]]Al-Makrizi, Histoire d'Egypte, tr. into French by E. Blochet in Revue de l"Orient latin 8 (1900-1), p. 539.

[[8]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten (see bibliography, p. 231; Eustathios, ed. Melville-Jones, p. 22.

[[9]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, p. 233.

[[10]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, p. 240.

[[11]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, p. 241.

[[12]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, p. 245; Eustathius, ed. Melville-Jones, p. 30.

[[13]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, pp. 245-6; Eustathius, ed. Melville-Jones, p. 32.

[[14]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, p. 249.

[[15]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, pp. 250-1; Eustathius, ed. Melville-Jones, p. 34.

[[16]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, pp. 252-3.

[[17]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, p. 260.

[[18]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, pp. 261-2.

[[19]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, pp. 262-4.

[[20]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, pp. 264-5.

[[21]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, pp. 266-7.

[[22]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, pp. 268-9.

[[23]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, p. 270.

[[24]] Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, p. 274.

Copyright (C) 2004, Andrew Stone. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Andrew Stone

Updated:1 May 2004

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