The greater part of the life of Andronicus Comnenus, son of the sebastokrator Isaac (brother of John II), was spent in competition with his more fortunate cousin Manuel I, but what was no more than athletic rivalry in their youth became treasonable conspiracy. This rivalry weakened the “Comnenian system” in the later years of the dynasty. The date of Andronicus’ birth is not known, but he was cleaerly close in age to his cousin Manuel who was born in 1118. Andronicus was a womaniser and an adventurer, and, after spending some time in prison, roamed the known world once the exposure of his conspiracies had made it too difficult for him to stay in Byzantium. The death of Manuel gave Andronicus the break that he needed. With the oath he had sworn to protect the boy heir Alexius II as a pretext, he presented himself to the populace as the new emperor’s protector, inciting the mob by means of his demagogues. Quickly disposing of Alexius, he instituted a reign of terror, no doubt in part calculated to pay back the Byzantine nobility for the hardships he had suffered, but probably also in part to ensure that his branch of the Comnenian dynasty would stay in power. Then again perhaps there was a genuine programme of reform, an effort to curb the power of the nobles and better the lot of the populace, which was a reason for him to be demonised by such members of the intelligentsia as Eustathius of Thessalonica and Nicetas Choniates following his death. In any case, his popularity with the people rapidly deteriorated, particularly when the Normans of Sicily captured Durazzo and Thessalonica. He met a particularly horrible death once the mob had accepted Isaac II Angelus as his successor.
Conspiracy with the King of Hungary 1155
John Cinnamus[] (and, more briefly, Nicetas Choniates)[] tells us about Andronicus’ first conspiracy, with Géza II, king of Hungary. Andronicus had been a childhood companion of the future emperor Manuel I, indulging in wrestling and racing with him. As a result of Manuel’s regard for him, Andronicus received the governorship of Cilicia (1152) to prosecute the war against Thoros the Rupenid, although he achieved nothing of note. Cinnamus claims that the emperor’s favouring of his nephew John Comnenus (the son of one of his elder brothers, the sebastokrator Andronicus) provoked jealousy in Andronicus and was the root cause of the rivalry which arose between him and Manuel, although Manuel was to continue to show much indulgence towards his childhood friend (Choniates, however, attributes much of the ill-will between Andronicus and Manuel to Manuel, as we shall see below).
As a result of this indulgence, Andronicus was granted the governorship of Nish and Branitshevo (1154-1155). Andronicus had inherited his father’s aspirations to the throne and Cinnamus tells us that Andronicus wrote to Géza, promising to cede to him Branitshevo and Nish if he would support his own projected coup d’état. Manuel, who was wintering at his camp at Pelagonia, was alerted to the conspiracy, but did not at first act. Cinnamus claims that Andronicus even considered a personal attempt on Manuel’s life (with a concealed dagger, while Manuel was in his tent at night). Manuel’s guards, however, were alerted and the attempt aborted (Andronicus reportedly pretending merely to be defecating). It was not in fact until Andronicus’ intense jealousy of John Comnenus was apparent to Manuel that he had Andronicus imprisoned in the Great Palace at Constantinople.
Andronicus and his first wife
We do not know the name of Andronicus’ first wife, nor her nationality (perhaps Georgian?),[] although it is assumed that she was of noble extraction. She bore Andronicus two sons, Manuel and John, the latter conceived in prison, as we shall see.
Andronicus and Eudocia 1155
Apart from Andronicus’ jealousy of John Comnenus, another bone of contention between Manuel and Andronicus was the latter’s affair with John Comnenus’ sister Eudocia. This, according to Choniates,[] incensed John and other members of his family, to say nothing of Manuel himself. A plot was hatched by Eudocia’s relatives to catch Andronicus in bed with her. Eudocia, learning of the plot, warned Andronicus, and her dashing lover cut his way out of the side of her tent with a sword and bounded out of harm’s way before his ambushers could act!
Andronicus’ first escape from prison 1158
Once Andronicus’ intense envy of John Comnenus had caused him to be imprisoned, he remained incarcerated in this prison, a brick building, for a considerable time (1155-1158). However, he discovered a secret underground passage directly under his cell and hatched a cunning plan. He lowered himself into the passage, covering his tracks. The guards arrived to find his cell apparently empty, and made great hue and cry. Andronicus’ wife was accordingly taken prisoner and put in the same cell. Andronicus emerged from hiding, lay with his wife (leaving her pregnant with their son John), then, when the guards had relaxed their vigilance, made good his escape. He managed to travel as far as Melangeia before he was recaptured.[]
Andronicus’ second escape from prison 1164
Andronicus contrived to escape from confinement in the Great Palace a second time, six years after his reconfinement, by pretending to be ill. This obtained him the services of a boy, whom Andronicus instructed to make a wax impression of the keys to the tower where he was kept. This was then sent to Andronicus’ son Manuel and his wife, who forged duplicate keys. While the guards were overcome by drink, the boy let Andronicus out, and he hid in the long grass at the base of the tower until the guards had given up searching for him. He then made his way to a boat which was waiting for him under the care of one Chrysocoöpolus. The latter pretended that Andronicus was his runaway slave, and so Andronicus was able to make good his escape and take the road towards Galitza (Galicia, a city in the Ukraine). Although he was apprehended by Vlachs alerted to his escape, Andronicus feigned gastroenteritis, and then made a mannikin of himself in the shape of a man defecating. Fooling his Vlach captors in this way, he once again set out for Galitza. The governor of this city entertained Andronicus for quite some time.[]
Andronicus back in favour 1165-6
We find Andronicus back in favour at the siege of Zeugminon in 1165 (see Manuel I), in command of artillery, which was largely responsible for breaching the wall of that obdurate Hungarian city. Next, we find him again as governor (doux) of Cilicia. Andronicus harboured a personal hatred for his adversary, Thoros. When worsted by him in battle, Andronicus saw him alone and made an audacious charge at him, unhorsing him and himself evading the lances of the latter’s men. However, this short period of favour with Manuel was too good to be true, and we soon find Andronicus engaged in another amorous adventure.
Andronicus’ amorous adventures in the East
Andronicus was bewitched by the comeliness of Manuel’s sister-in-law Philippa of Antioch,[] and deserted his governorship of Cilicia to indulge in a love-match with her, although she was within the forbidden degrees of kinship. Choniates dwells on the amorousness of Andronicus at this phase of his life.[] Fearing Manuel, he soon forsook this lover and took up instead with Theodora, Baldwin III’s widow and daughter of Manuel’s brother Isaac, another forbidden liaison. When Manuel wrote to the king of Jerusalem to deliver Andronicus to him, the dispatch fell into Theodora’s hands and Andronicus found it apposite to resume his wanderings, taking Theodora with him. We are not told precisely where he roamed, but among the courts which received him was that of Saltuq, the Turkish emir of Coloneia. However, Theodora and Andronicus’ children by her (Alexius and Irene) fell into Byzantine hands, and Andronicus decided to try and regain Manuel’s favour. He presented himself to the emperor with a chain around his neck, and Manuel wept, and once more pardoned his errant cousin. Andronicus was exiled to Oeneaeum on the Black Sea, and he was still there at the time of Manuel’s death.
Andronicus and Alexius II Porphyrogenitus
The change of fortunes which Andronicus experienced during the rule of the minor Alexius II Porphyrogenitus (1180-1183), son of Manuel, is related in more detail in the article on that emperor. Suffice it to say here that, under the regency of Maria of Antioch and her lover the protosebastos Alexius, and with the failure of the attempted coup by Alexius’ elder half-sister Maria Porphyrogenita and her husband the kaisar Renier of Montferrat, the populace of Constantinople began to look to Andronicus as their preferred candidate for the regency. So Andronicus marched on the capital in 1182 from Paphlagonia, refusing attempts by the regents to buy him off. The protosebastos was blinded, and the Constantinopolitan mob massacred the Latins present in the capital, who had enjoyed so much favour under the protosebastos‘ régime. Andronicus took measures to consolidate his own position, marrying his daughter Irene to Manuel’s illegitimate son Alexius, poisoning Maria Porphyrogenita and her husband, having Maria of Antioch arraigned on a charge of treason and strangled, and finally, once he had been declared co-emperor with Alexius, having the boy himself throttled with a bowstring. The reign of terror had begun.
Andronicus succeeds to the throne
Andronicus now married Agnes of France, previously Alexius’ wife, and lay with her, despite her minority. He rewarded his supporters with high office. He also obtained release from his oaths to Manuel and Alexius from the incumbent patriarch, Basil Camaterus (August 1183-February 1186), his own man.
As regent Andronicus, although he had had many statues of himself erected, had gone about the capital dressed as a commoner. Indeed, as emperor he commissioned a portrait of himself in which he was depicted in a strange turquoise tunic extending to the buttocks, slit all round, and white boots up to the knees.[] Later he travelled with a barbarian bodyguard, and spent increasing amounts of time in the suburban palaces with courtesans, concubines and dancing girls.[] He made fun of the men whom he cuckolded. As his prestige waned, he attempted to win the favour of the crowd with bloody spectacles, some of which will be related below.
At the time Andronicus gained the throne, the generals Andronicus Lapardas and Alexius Branas were engaged in the struggle against Béla III of Hungary at Branitshevo and Nish. Alexius took the side of the new emperor; Lapardas, however, no doubt fearing for his life on account of his family connections, had other plans. He made his way to Adramyttium, with the intention of raising revolt, only to be apprehended by one of Andronicus’ trusted men and blinded. Andronicus, since he had feared for his ill-gotten throne, upon being apprised of Lapardas’ flight, had craftily released letters which said that Lapardas was acting on his instructions, in this way hoping to prevent any large-scale revolt.
The spring of 1184 passed peacefully, but revolt did break out among the inhabitants of Lopadium, Nicaea and Prusa. Alexius Branas and the emperor himself led their combined armies first against Nicaea, one of whose defenders was Isaac Angelus (to be Andronicus’ successor). The city defended itself very capably and resisted the siege-engines of the imperial forces. Andronicus therefore had Isaac’s mother Euphrosyne brought from Constantinople and put on top of his main battering ram. This did not, however, deter the defenders, who used their artillery with a little more care than previously, and who, in fact, were able to rescue the woman. With the death of Theodore Cantacuzenus, who had made an attempt on Andronicus’ life, the Nicaeans looked to Isaac Angelus to lead them, but he proved irresolute and opened negotiations with Andronicus. In the meantime the archbishop of the city, Nicholas, in the face of the lack of food supplies, took matters into his own hands and led the women and children of the city out in supplication to the emperor. Andronicus pretended to have compassion on the city, but, once allowed entry, forced many into exile, and had others brutally cut down.[]
Andronicus now laid siege to Prusa, which defended itself as valiantly as Nicaea. The city was under the leadership of the young Theodore Angelus. However, its wall was breached and Theodore was blinded at the orders of the emperor, and set on an ass to be carried in whichever direction it should take him. Theodore’s co-defenders Leo Synesius and Manuel Lachanas were hung on vine-stakes along with forty others and various other men were cruelly mutilated. There was a general slaughter and the Prusaeans’ animals were seized as booty by Andronicus’ forces. Similarly at Lopadium no mercy was shown, with many impaled and left to rot in the sun.[]
Isaac Comnenus and Cyprus
The grandson of Manuel I’s elder brother Isaac, another Isaac, had been captured by the Turks, but was ransomed upon the pleas of his affines Constantine Macroducas and Andronicus Ducas. However, this younger Isaac proved, if we can believe Nicetas Choniates,[] to be even a crueller tyrant and greater lecher than the emperor himself. Isaac seized Cyprus as his own kingdom, and the emperor held Constantine Macroducas and Andronicus Ducas responsible, inciting the mob, through his sinister henchman Stephen Hagiochristophorites,[] to stone them.
The flight of Alexius Comnenus to Sicily and the capture of Epidamnus and Thessalonica
Alexius Comnenus, who was the nephew of Manuel and his cup-bearer (a different Alexius Comnenus from the one whose régime Andronicus had overthrown), was banished by Andronicus to live among the Cumans. Alexius and a man named Maleinus fled to the court of king William II of Sicily. At the same time a certain holy man named Alexius Sicundenus was promoting a pretender who claimed to be the emperor Alexius II. Upon hearing of this, Andronicus is said to have commented wryly that Alexius Porphyrogenitus must have been a fine swimmer if he could surface in Sicily.[] In any case, William saw his chance, mustered an army of 80 000 infantry and select cavalry (5000 horse)[], and a fleet of 200 sail, and dispatched these forces under Count Baldwin and Count Richard of Acerra (who were in command of the army) and Tancred of Lecce (in charge of the navy) to the Balkan peninsula. Epidamnus (Durazzo) was taken without a blow (24 June 1185), and then the Normans marched on and laid siege to Thessalonica (the infantry arriving on 6 August 1185, the navy on 15 August). The local governor was the less than manly and incompetent David Comnenus, who lived in fear of and in rivalry with his imperial master.
The siege of the city of Thessalonica is the subject of a syngraphe, or short history, by its metropolitan bishop, Eustathius of Thessalonica. He relates how even women and clergy helped to defend the city, which was attacked primarily from the direction of the eastern wall. When the city capitulated (24 August 1185), the Sicilian Normans plundered every abode and there was a wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants, leaving 7000 Greeks dead; those who sought sanctuary in the churches did so to no avail. Indeed, Eustathius,[] supported by Nicetas Choniates[], says that the sanctuaries were desecrated, the icons trampled on, altars danced on, and sanctuary floors urinated on by the Norman profaners. The survivors of the massacre were shamefully treated by their new masters, and both Choniates and Eustathius describe the indignities to which the surviving Thessalonians were subjected. Eustathius had to find 4000 gold pieces as a ransom.[] He had elected to remain in Thessalonica and share the sufferings of his flock, and, with his eloquence, he interceded for it.[]
The plot of the Sebastianus brothers and Andronicus’ reign of terror
Andronicus had the Sebastianus brothers hung for conspiring to raise to the throne yet another Alexius Comnenus, this time the illegitimate son of Manuel I by his niece Theodora. This Alexius had married Andronicus’ daughter Irene; the marriage was dissolved and Alexius blinded and put in the fortress of Chele[] Among Alexius’ household a certain Mamalus was consigned to flames as one of the spectacles in the Hippodrome.
George Dishypatus, one of the lectors of the Great Church, who was on the point of being roasted alive on a spit, was reprieved only by the news of the capture of Durazzo by the Normans, which Andronicus interpreted as divine disapproval for his cruel punishments.[] This did not, however, stop him from having Constantine Tripsychus (see Alexius II) blinded. Andronicus felt so insecure on his throne that even past henchmen and women could be the victims of his wrath.
Andronicus’ acts of philanthropy
Andronicus, however, was not totally devoid of redeeming characteristics. He was an impartial judge in suits between the nobility and poor, even judging against his own man Theodore Dadibrenus.[] Furthermore he would occasionally give to the poor, and, even more remarkably, curbed the excesses of imperial tax collectors in the provinces.[] He stopped the sale of public offices and awarded them on merit. We have already seen how Andronicus tried to curb the power of the nobility. He also ordered that the underground aqueduct bringing fresh water from the Hydrales River be rebuilt.[] Finally, he forbade the plundering of the cargoes of wrecked ships.[]
The Normans advance
The Sicilian Normans, after they had taken Thessalonica, divided their forces into three parts: one remained at Thessalonica, one advanced on Serrai, and the third marched on Constantinople itself, camping at Mosynopolis. Andronicus sent an army of four divisions against this threat, one division being under the command of his son John. Only Theodore Chumnus dared to lead his division against the Normans, quickly beating a retreat.
Andronicus, for his part, inspected the fortifications of the city, and gave orders for those parts which had fallen into disrepair to be strengthened, but he nevertheless continued to pursue his usual life of sensual pleasure with courtesans and concubines, resorting to aphrodisiacs in an effort to be equal to the task.[]
Andronicus fears for his throne
There came a point where the Norman menace could not be ignored, and the Constantinopolitans became restive. Andronicus now felt even more insecure, and with the collaboration of one of his chief ministers, the bloodthirsty Stephen Hagiochristophorites, decided to decree that all those imprisoned for seditious intent be put to death. Not even his son, the sebastokrator Manuel, could condone this. Andronicus consulted a water-divining oracle to see who would succeed him. The oracular response, a crescent-shaped sigma and behind it an iota formed in the waters, therefore seemed to suggest someone of the Christian name Isaac. Andronicus assumed that Isaac Comnenus, despot of Cyprus, was meant by this, and heaped scorn on his judge of the velum John Apotyras for even thinking that Isaac Angelus could be the one intended (Andronicus considering Isaac Angelus as somewhat effeminate). Nevertheless Stephen Hagiochristophorites thought that Angelus should be put to death all the same, and went to his house to effect his arrest, putting into motion the chain of events that lead to Andronicus’ overthrow. The date was 11 September 1185.[]
Isaac Angelus’ coup
Faced with death, Isaac Angelus chose to fight. Indeed, he cut Stephen Hagiochristophorites down, and rode to the Great Church to seek sanctuary. At this stage, Isaac was concerned only about his life. However, the populace of Constantinople, which had been whipped into a frenzy by Andronicus so many times, now began to look to Isaac to overthrow Andronicus’ tyrannical régime. The mob broke the keys and bolts to the prisons, released the prisoners, and began to arm themselves, now openly declaring Isaac emperor. Isaac was somewhat bemused at these happenings, even when the crown of Constantine was set on his head by one of the sacristans of the Great Church. Now that his life was no longer under threat, he left the Great Church in the company of Basil Camaterus, the patriarch, who was acting under duress from the crowd. Andronicus, apprised of these happenings, took refuge in the Great Palace, at first defending himself with a few men and his own arrows. When it became apparent that he could not prevail he offered to set aside the imperial dignity in favour of his son Manuel, an offer which incensed the mob even further. Andronicus therefore fled, boarding a galley and taking with him his wife Agnes (of France), and his concubine Maraptike, headed for Russia.[]Isaac entered the Great Palace and was acclaimed emperor by the populace, which took the opportunity to plunder it, even desecrating the shrines it contained. Isaac gave orders for Andronicus to be apprehended.[]The capture and death of Andronicus
Andronicus arrived at Chele, from which he intended to take ship for Russia. However, his attempts to cross were thwarted by adverse winds. As a result he was captured, and his attempts to win the sympathy of his captors through lamentations failed. He was confined in the prison of Anemas. Then he was paraded in front of the new emperor Isaac. His beard was torn out, his head shaved, teeth pulled out and he was made the sport of those who were present, being battered even by women whose husbands he had executed or had blinded. Finally, his right hand was cut off with an axe, and several days later one of his eyes was gouged out and he was seated on a camel and paraded in the marketplace. Further indignities followed, including blows on the head from clubs and befouling of his nostrils with cow dung and the like. He was pelted with stones and one prostitute poured a pot of hot water over his face. He was led into the arena, and suspended by his feet. Despite all these indignities, however, Andronicus held up bravely and remained in possession of his senses. Worse followed, with assaults on his genitals and the thrust of a sword down his throat, and further wounds, the result of which was an agonising death.[] The Constantinopolitan populace had by now had their fill of Andronicus’ tyranny and cruelty.
Character and Legacy
Andronicus was a physically impressive specimen, tall, muscular, comely and eloquent. But it need hardly be said that he was not only a philanderer, but one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants to sit on the Byzantine throne. Eustathius and Nicetas Choniates both lived through the sack of a major city: Eustathius that of Thessalonica, Choniates that of Constantinople itself. They therefore interpreted such dire events as the result of divine wrath directed at an unjust reign (so Eustathius) or reigns (in the case of Choniates). Andronicus’ transgressions of Byzantine ethical codes gave them plenty of scope for criticism. What then do we make of Andronicus’ reforms in the collecting of taxes and his courting of the mob? Two scholars (other than Brand) who have studied the reign are Cognasso and Danstrup (see bibliography). Cognasso saw in Andronicus two conflicting personalities, one patriotic and reforming (as we have suggested), the other fiercely opposed to Manuel’s branch of the Comnenian dynasty. Danstrup, a little more cynically, sees all measures taken by Andronicus, including the reforms, as designed to keep himself and his immediate family on the throne. Magdalino wonders whether Andronicus’ behaviour was the product of his unequal rivalry with his cousin Manuel I. Brand, writing before Magdalino, prefers Danstrup’s mode of assessment. However we should qualify this argument: it should always be remembered that Andronicus did in fact have a good claim by birth to be the legitimate emperor. We might conclude with Nicetas’ verdict, that if Andronicus had not been so bloodthirsty, his more philanthropic acts might perhaps have ensured that he be remembered as not the least of the Comneni.[]
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.
John Cinnamus, Ioannis Cinnami Epitome Rerum ab Ioanne et Manuele Comnenis Gestarum, ed. A. Meineke, Bonn, 1836; trans. as Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus by John Kinnamos, by C.M. Brand, New York, 1976.
Eustathius of Thessalonica, The Capture of Thessalonica, ed. and tr. J.R. Melville-Jones, Canberra, 1988.
M. Angold, Church and Society in Byzantium under the Comneni, 1081-1261, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
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.
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.
J. Danstrup, “Recherches critiques sur Andronicus Ier”, Vetenskaps-Societen i Lund, Årsbok, 1944, pp. 69-101.
L. Garland, “And His Bald Head Shone Like a Full Moon…: An Appreciation of the Byzantine Sense of Humour as Recorded in Historical Sources of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries”, in Parergon. Bulletin of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ns 8 (1990), pp. 1-31.
________. “A Treasury Minister in Hell: a little-known ‘Dialogue of the Dead’ of the late twelfth century”, in Modern Greek Studies Yearbook 16/17 (2000/2001), pp. 481-499.
O. Jurewicz, Andronikos I. Komnenos, Amsterdam, 1970.
P. Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180, Cambridge, 1993.
[]According to C. Toumanoff, ‘On the Relationship between the Founder of the Empire of Trebizond and the Georgian Queen Thamar’. Speculum 15 (1940) 299-312 Andronicus may have married c.1145 a Georgian princess, sister of Giorgi III (father of Queen T’amar, who reigned 1184-1213).
[]The daughter of Raymond of Poitiers, and sister of Manuel’s second empress, Maria of Antioch (Choniates, Van Dieten, p. 139); for Andronicus’ love affairs, see L. Garland, “How Different, How Very Different from the Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen: Sexual Morality at the Late Byzantine Court, with Especial Reference to the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries,” Byzantine Studies / Études Byzantines, new series 1-2 (1995-6), pp. 1-62.
[]On Hagiochristophorites see L. Garland, “Stephen Hagiochristophorites: logothete tou genikou 1182/3-1185″, Byzantion, 69.1 (1999):1-5 and “A Treasury Minister in Hell: a little-known ‘Dialogue of the Dead’ of the late twelfth century”, Modern Greek Studies Yearbook 16/17 (2000/2001), pp. 481-499.