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Mary of Antioch

Lynda Garland
University of New England, Australia

Andrew Stone
University of Western Australia


At the death of his first wife, Bertha of Sulzbach in 1158, Manuel I Comnenus was left with one surviving daughter, Maria 'Porphyrogenita' who was as yet unmarried. The need for a male heir to the throne was of paramount importance and Manuel decided to use this as an opportunity to cement his alliance with the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem and its dependent principalities. Whereas the emperor Manuel I Comnenus' grandfather Alexius I and his father John II had attempted to solve the question of Latin Crusader Principalities in Syria and Palestine through absorption, whether by treaty or by conquest, Manuel's policy differed from theirs in his acceptance of the independence of the principalities as a fait accompli.[[1]] So come Eastertide (12 April) 1159 Manuel made a triumphal procession through Antioch, waited on by the prince of Antioch and followed by the king of Jerusalem, who were doubtless pleased to have a powerful Christian suzerain in the region. At Antioch, Choniates tells us, Manuel took part in a tournament with blunted lances, in which the men of Reynald of Chatillon, prince of Antioch, were outmatched and Manuel excelled himself by unhorsing two knights with one blow.[[2]] About this time, Manuel conceived his idea of a marriage alliance with one of the principalities. Marguerite-Constance of Antioch, the daughter of Raymond of Poitiers and Constance of Antioch (who had married Reynald of Chatillon after Raymond's death), was one of the two main contenders for the position of Manuel's new bride, the other being Melisende, sister of Raymond III of Tripoli. After negotiations for an alliance with Tripoli had fallen through (Antioch being the better alliance), Manuel had Marguerite-Constance escorted to Constantinople by an entourage led by Alexius Comnenus, the Grand Dux (son of Anna Comnena), a certain Nicephorus Bryennius, and the eparch Andronicus Camaterus. The marriage took place in St Sophia on Christmas Day 1161 (we unfortunately have no rhetorical texts commemorating the event).[[3]] The princess had been born in the 1140s and so was probably in her mid-teens;[[4]] she now took the name Maria.

Maria's appearance

The alliance with Antioch clearly was more attractive to the Byzantines than that with Tripoli, and William of Tyre describes with some disgust Manuel's 'jilting' of Melisende and the ill feelings it aroused. He portrays Melisende as a maiden of fine character and ability, and itemises the trousseau that had been prepared for her as the future empress of Byzantium by her family and friends. This injustice to Melisende led to vengeful attacks by Raymond on the Byzantine empire in retaliation for his sister's rejection.[[5]] Indeed, one of the main deciding factors may have been Marguerite-Constance's exceptional beauty. Choniates describes her as of outstanding appearance, like the 'laughter-loving' Aphrodite or one of the other goddesses of ancient times,[[6]] while he comments on 'the radiance of her appearance, her pearly countenance, and her even disposition, candour, and charm of speech'.[[7]]Cinnamus in fact implies that she was chosen specifically for her beauty, after relating an unlikely story that an extended illness prevented Melisende from embarking for Constantinople, and during this period it was luckily discovered that she was of illegitimate birth, and thus unsuitable to marry the emperor. The envoy Camaterus was then sent to Antioch, and he picked out the younger, Marguerite, as the more beautiful of the two sisters and the future imperial bride, as her beauty was so dazzling that her escort were astounded, no Byzantines ever before having seen so handsome a girl. Constantine Manasses, too, one of the original embassy to Palestine in 1160 and later metropolitan of Naupactus, described her radiant beauty as so dazzling that the onlooker could only imagine a thunderbolt or the full moon fallen to earth: her skin was white as snow or marble, she was blonde, of good complexion, symmetrical of figure and upright in stature; her hair was thick and of a deep gold, her eyebrows well rounded, her eyelids well-shaped, her glance gentle and gleaming, her lips red, her mouth well-drawn, (if she smiled just a little her beauty was quite overpowering), her nose well-turned, her movement and gait easy and measured, and her manner sedate and most appropriate.[[8]] However stereotyped this description, it is clear that Maria was considered an asset in the public role of the empress (perhaps especially in contrast to the more prosaic Bertha of Sulzbach).

Maria is depicted in a Vatican manuscript next to her husband, with her pale rose complexion contrasting with his manly suntan. She is shown with blonde hair and as strikingly attractive. Her imperial regalia includes an ornate crown and a blue-patterned red dress with wide sleeves and a high collar decorated with pearls, while her robe is studded with blue and red precious stones. She also wears the red imperial shoes and carries a jewelled sceptre.[[9]]   She was, clearly, exceptionally attractive: after her assassination by her husband's cousin Andronicus, all public portraits of her were repainted in the form of a wrinkled old woman to prevent the passers-by from commiserating her fate.[[10]]

Choniates even recalls Maria's attractions as outstanding in his speech to celebrate the wedding of Isaac II Angelus and Margaret-Maria of Hungary c. 1186, perhaps because the Byzantines saw Margaret as Maria's western 'relative'. Maria's descent was viewed with pride by the Byzantines. Manasses considers her as descended from 'Caesars' and rulers of the West, while court poets address her as 'Italian-born' and 'daughter of princes' in poems in which she is described as dedicating offerings to the Church, praying for Manuel's success, making gifts to the emperor, and asking for the safe delivery of a child. She also appears in one poem which describes a work of art, executed before 1169, in which Maria, being blessed by Christ, is portrayed alongside the emperor Manuel.[[11]] However, apart from this commissioning of occasional pieces from court poets, she appears to have had no interest in acting as a patron of literature or commissioning more extensive works, perhaps surprisingly in view of the fact that Maria's father, Raymond of Poitiers, was also uncle of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Maria and Manuel I

The only involvement in politics by Maria of Antioch during Manuel's reign which has been recorded is when in 1167 the interpreter Aaron Isaakios, who had learnt 'the Latin tongue' when carried off to Sicily by the Normans at their sack of Corinth in 1147, advised western envoys during an audience not to accede too quickly to the emperor's demands. Maria, who understood what he was saying, later revealed his treachery to Manuel who had him blinded:

"While translating messages carried by envoys from the Western nations before the emperor, he perceived that they did not run counter to the emperor's wishes, and admonished the envoys that they were too quick to accede to the demand for payments, advising them not to concede so facilely, since the emperor would regard them with greater affection and they would be more highly esteemed by those who spoke their own language. The audience was concluded, leaving the emperor ignorant of Aaron's admonitions, these acts of insubordination concealed thanks to the use of a foreign tongue. The empress, a Latin by race who understood exactly what was said, pondered over the issues as they were set forth and disclosed everything to the emperor. Vexed by what he heard, he punished Aaron cruelly by extinguishing the light of his eyes and confiscating all his possessions." [[12]]

Clearly Maria was involved in the reception of foreign envoys and must have been a useful associate for Manuel in his diplomatic relations with the crusader states and western nations. However, for several years she was childless. The throne was still the inheritance of her step-daughter Maria and whatever husband whom Manuel might choose for her (in 1165/66 she was engaged to Béla-Alexius of Hungary and the couple named as his successors). In addition, Alexius, one of Manuel's illegitimate children by his niece Theodora, who greatly resembled his father, was prominent at court with the titles sebastocrator and Caesar, though Manuel did not envisage his succession to the throne.[[13]] When the empress suffered a miscarriage of a male child in 1166 it was considered a tragedy; Manuel at the time was investigating the doctrinal views of Demetrius of Lampe which were debated at the local council of Constantinople in 1166-1167.   When one of the imperial household quietly reported to him that the empress had suffered a miscarriage, Manuel threw himself on the floor at the priests' feet with the words; 'Just now, holy fathers, worl has come from the women's quarters, saying that a male child, my greatest hope, has been born untimely', and asking them to supplicate for the birth of an heir to the throne, should he have taken the correct side in the controversy.[[14]] The serious accusations which led to the downfall in 1167 of the commander Alexius Axouch, husband of Manuel's niece Maria, included dabbling in sorcery and consorting with a Latin 'wizard' who provided drugs to prevent the emperor having an heir.[[15]] Finally, more than seven years after their marriage, on 14 September 1169 Maria became the mother of a long hoped for heir, Alexius II, Manuel's only legitimate son.[[16]]

The birth of a legitimate son was therefore a time of triumph:

"The imperial birth chamber, the Porphyra, was adorned in readiness; the roof was covered with thick purple textiles 'woven in dense hemispheres' by the palace weavers, while the outside walls were hung with silks. Inside was a gilded four-poster maternity bed draped with gold-embroidered curtains and pearl-studded covers. Beside this stood a small couch, also richly covered, for receiving the new-born baby..."[[17]]

Choniates describes the preparation of the Purple Chamber and how the presence of the emperor eased his wife's labour-pains. Manuel kept frequently glancing at the astrologer in attendance who predicted a great and successful future for the baby.[[18]]

Manuel was concerned to ensure Alexius' succession shoud he die while Alexius was still a minor, and on 24 March 1171, eighteen months after Alexius' birth, Manuel had his officials, nobles and the patriarch and synod take an oath of fidelity to himself and his son. Should Manuel die before Alexius came of age, they swore to accept Alexius as emperor. Maria would be regent, as long as she became a nun and was canonically tonsured, and protected the interests of the empire and her son.[[19]] Maria actually headed a regency council of twelve, which included the patriarch Theodosius Boradiotes.[[20]] In insisting on Maria's becoming a nun and thus hindering her remarriage, Manuel was trying to prevent the possibility of her marrying again and thus endangering Alexius' rights to the throne. The oath included a clause that stated, 'And should I see or perceive or hear anything bringing dishonour to you or inflicting injury to your crown, I shall relay this information to you and thwart any such attempt as far as I am able.' Andronicus later made good use of this clause in his overthrow of the empress.[[21]]

Whatever her own wishes, after Manuel's death on 24 September 1180, Maria took the veil under the name 'Xene' ('foreigner'), the monastic name also taken by Anna Dalassena and Piroska (wife of John II Comnenus) and headed the regency for her eleven year old son Alexius II: of course, as the mother of the heir she took precedence over the patriarch.[[22]] The name perhaps signified her feeling of isolation in Byzantium. Unfortunately, Manuel's pro-Latin policies had led to intensive criticism,[[23]] and Maria was to be targeted as the most obvious 'Latin' in the capital and as a regent with clear pro-Latin sympathies. She did not, of course, retire to a convent, but merely changed her imperial robes for the monastic habit. The fact that she was personally not committed to becoming a nun can be seen by the fact that only a few months after Manuel's death she was rumoured to be involved in a love-affair with Alexius the protosebastos and protovestiarios, the most senior of the sebastoi, to whom she entrusted the affairs of state. Alexius was Manuel's nephew, son of his elder brother Andronicus, and had been protovestiarios (titular head of the imperial household) since 1176.[[24]] He could thus be seen to have a justifiable claim on the throne, especially in view of the fact that his elder brother the protosebastos John had died in 1176.

The new regent

Maria and Alexius the protosebastos surrounded themselves with Latins, a situation which the Constantinopolitans viewed with misgivings. Westerners had become increasingly unpopular during Manuel's reign, and the populace were well aware of Maria's origins, and saw the policies of her regime as pro-Latin.[[25]] This was to be exploited by both Maria Porphyrogenita and by Andronicus I in his bid for power. A second factor making Maria and her lover unpopular was their channelling of state revenues into their own purses.[[26]] With rank and revenue being diverted to the protosebastos, Maria became generally criticised at court, where she was surrounded by ambitious Comnenian relations, all of whom had designs on government and the revenue. Moreover, while her son, Alexius II, was the rightful emperor, he had not actually been crowned. Perhaps unconsciously, in this dangerous situation, she used her charms to win the support of her officials and courtiers. Eustathius, for example, sees her as deliberately employing her attractions, while pretending to hide them behind her monastic habit: 'she was a woman well ripened in love affairs, although she professed to hide them, veiling the sunshine of her charms in a spiritual manner with a cloud of dark garments'.[[27]] Naturally, the court was full of relations who felt that they would have been equally appropriate suitors and advisors to such an empress. Her 'lover' the protosebastos Alexius was a widower of about forty-five years of age, and hence a not ineligible match for the empress: Choniates records that it was rumoured that he was planning to depose the young monarch and to marry Maria and seize the throne.[[28]] However unfounded the accusation, it could only damage the empress and her regime. In order to marry the protosebastos she would have had to break her oath to Manuel: moreover she was, by choice, a nun (a decision which could not be revoked), while marrying her nephew by marriage would have been incestuous and strictly against canon law. It is, however, conceivable that the public reaction to Maria's supposed relationship with the protosebastos might have been affected by knowledge both of her sister Philippa's affair some years earlier with Andronicus (I) Komnenos and of her brother Bohemond III's divorce from one of Manuel's great-nieces to marry a 'witch' called Sibylla,[[29]] as a result of which Bohemond had been excommunicated by Patriarch Aimery of Antioch.[[30]] While a 'Byzantine' would of course never consider such outrageous conduct, who could tell how a 'westerner' would behave if tempted?

The protosebastos was not Maria's only suitor, of course: Choniates scathingly describes how some officials and courtiers started curling their hair, wearing fancy necklaces, and splashing on perfume to demonstrate their eligibility. Others focused their efforts on making inroads into the treasury and climbing inexorably up the public ladder.[[31]] The one person who was left out of the equation was the young emperor. In everyone's eyes, Alexius seemed an inexperienced pre-teen, who spent his time in such juvenile pursuits as hunting, chariot races and games of chance, while those who should have been his instructors neglected his education.[[32]]

Gossip about affairs at court spread like wild-fire and Andronicus Komnenos, Manuel's exiled cousin, was given the perfect pretext for arguing for the necessity for his return to the capital: not only was the protosebastos threatening the position of the rightful young emperor, but the ugly gossip about the emperor's mother was 'being proclaimed from the wall tops and lying in wait at the gates of princes and being echoed throughout the universe'.[[33]] Maria was not adhering to the oath sworn to Manuel and Alexius. The state clearly needed a strong guiding hand. Public morality needed to be supervised.

Indeed, the regime was clearly not a success. Choniates speaks of great extravagance: it was generally considered that revenues collected by earlier emperors (who had stripped even the poverty-stricken) were now being channelled into the pockets of the protosebastos and empress. In his discussion of the diversion of public monies, Choniates even uses the Greek satirical poet Archilochos' phrase 'into the belly of the whore', a very damning indictment, as his previous narrative had been careful to only mention the liaison between Maria and the protosebastos as a 'report' which was in circulation.[[34]] Unfortunately, the protosebastos, according to William of Tyre, was avaricious and 'as niggardly with the imperial treasure as though he had earned it himself'. This would hardly endeared him to other family members at court, and his unpopularity was exacerbated by his arrogance and failure to consult the opinions of other officials (who were after all mostly his relations).[[35]] The court saw it as particularly infuriating that anyone who captured the fancy of the empress and protosebastos could direct government policy and revenue.[[36]])Still worse was the regime's not unnatural pro-Latin policies: according to William of Tyre the protosebastos (doubtless under Maria's influence) 'availed himself of the advice and assistance of the Latins, and as far as possible made them his friends'.[[37]] The young Alexius II might have had no interest in affairs of state, but it was still quite unacceptable that he had been persuaded to ratify a decree that every state document he signed had to be validated by the protosebastos himself in 'frog-green' ink (green ink being an emblem of the rank of protovestiarios).[[38]] To make matters worse, the protosebastos was not particularly efficient as ruler: Choniates laughs at him for spending most of the day sleeping and shutting out the daylight with carpets and purple ('imperial') curtains.[[39]] William of Tyre speaks of him as not only hated by Latins and Greeks alike, but effeminate and given over to the lustful sins of the flesh.[[40]]

The 'holy war'

Maria in fact had two main enemies opposed to her as regent. The first, and closest at hand, was her stepdaughter, Maria Porphyrogenita who, together with her fiancé Béla-Alexius of Hungary, had been Manuel's heir before the birth of her brother Alexius II, after which her engagement had been terminated.[[41]] The other was Andronicus, Manuel's cousin, currently in exile, who was to achieve power by manipulating anti-Latin sentiment. Both enemies utilised the citizens' belief in the love-affair between Maria and the protosebastos, and the consequent danger to the rightful emperor.

On or before 2 March 1180 Maria (Porphyrogenita) had married Renier of Montferrat, when Renier was about seventeen years of age; this was on the same occasion as the celebration of the marriage of Alexius and Agnes-Anna of Savoy. Maria was almost elderly for a Byzantine bride at nearly thirty years of age (she was born in March 1152).[[42]] The empress faced especially vigorous opposition from this step-daughter, who had remained unmarried in the palace with her step-mother, who was after all not much older than herself, for more than a decade after the birth of her brother and for nineteen years after the marriage of Maria and her father. It must have been inevitable that a state of mutual hostility existed between the two Marias before the regency even commenced. A Byzantine princess would normally have expected to have been bespoken by a suitable imperial suitor in her early teens: she may well have felt her interests neglected, and certainly the poem written in 1180 by an admirer of the empress to celebrate the arrival of Agnes-Anna of Savoy, the young bride of Alexius II, had emphasised the superiority of the new Latin princess over her relatively elderly sister-in-law.[[43]] Maria of Antioch is herself spendidly represented in the manuscript at fol. 7r as one of the central figures.[[44]]

As early as February 1181, a number of family members, headed by Maria Porphyrogenita and her husband and Manuel's illegitimate son Alexius the sebastocrator, conspired to assassinate the protosebastos. The plot miscarried and later one of the conspirators betrayed it. Maria herself, with Alexius II, presided over the trial at which they were condemned. The four leaders of the conspiracy were imprisoned in the Great Palace, while others were set free, went into exile or were secretly executed. The empress' involvement in the trial is noted by Eustathius as quite inappropriate, while both Eustathius and Choniates record that it was a 'show' trial and unfairly conducted. Maria Porphyrogenita and Renier evaded arrest for their part in the plot by fleeing to St Sophia and launching a full-scale rebellion.[[45]]

Maria Porphyrogenita, in this insurrection against the regime of her step-mother and the protosebastos, had the support of the patriarch Theodosius, the clergy, and the populace. When she fled for sanctuary to St Sophia with her husband and supporters, they were welcomed by the patriarch. This encouraged them to refuse the offer of an amnesty and to demand the release of their fellow conspirators and the deposition of the protosebastos. The empress naturally refused to comply with these demands and Maria Porphyrogenita and Renier turned St Sophia into a fortress and employed foreign mercenaries in its defence, though the patriarch was not entirely happy with this development.[[46]] The populace enthusiastically supported 'the Caesars', and in their demonstrations in the hippodrome indulged themselves in violent abuse of the protosebastos and the empress, both of whom were publicly anathematised by priests.

The protosebastos and empress seem to have been reluctant to mobilise the army against the rebels, but did so when the populace started plundering the city; unfortunately for the empress's popularity the Latin inhabitants of the city joined in on the side of her regime.[[47]] The conflict won the name of the 'holy war' because of the regime's threat to the patriarch Theodosius. According to Eustathius the patriarch was seized during a visit to the palace to exchange the Easter kiss of peace with the emperor. The protosebastos had him confined in the monastery of Christ Pantepoptes and attempted to have him deposed. The empress did not approve of this action, and the patriarch was released as there were no convincing charges with which to convict him. However, this aggression against the patriarch gave Maria Porphyrogenita the opportunity of promoting her cause as a 'holy war' against the pro-Latin forces of evil. [[48]] Heavy casualties were to be the result.

The 'Caesars', as they were known, were finally driven back into St. Sophia by the imperial troops at the beginning of May. Warfare within St Sophia itself was inconceivable, and an amnesty was arranged after negotiations between the patriarch and the empress. Maria and Renier were allowed to return to the Great Palace.[[49]] But the end result was that the empress had become even more unpopular, though she deliberately took no measures against the rebels. Shortly afterwards the patriarch was reinstated with triumphal acclamation (and Eustathius seems to suggest that until this point numerous rebels were still harboured in St. Sophia).[[50]] However genuine the empress' clemency, this revolt by her step-daughter had done nothing but increase the hatred felt towards her regime and westerners in the capital.

An unpopular regime

Despite the amnesty orchestrated by the patriarch, Eustathius records that the downfall of the empress was now generally seen as a desirable contingency. From this point Andronicus Comnenus, Manuel's cousin, became a focus of the opposition to her regime. Two of Andronicus' sons had been involved in the attempt to assassinate the protosebastos, and Andronicus had been invited back from exile both by officials in the city and by Maria Porphyrogenita to take over the guardianship of the young emperor, on the grounds that his mother had conducted herself improperly as regent. In May 1181, Andronicus was joined by his daughter Maria, who could update him on current events.[[51]] Andronicus had also written to the patriarch declaring his loyalty to Alexius. Indeed Andronicus cleverly argued that he was needed in the capital not merely because of the threat to the young emperor posed by the protosebastos, but because of the fact that most inappropriate gossip about the emperor's mother was circulating throughout the city at all levels. [[52]]

With the empress' overthrow openly desired in the city,[[53]])Andronicus encamped across the straits at Chalcedon, and incited the people against the empress-regent by accusing her of actual conspiracy against her son. He criticised the empress and the protosebastos for 'corrupting the purity of the crown' and for insulting the young emperor with their conduct.[[54]] He demanded that the protosebastos be deposed and Maria retire to a convent, basing his demands on the grounds that Manuel had appointed him as one of the regents responsible for Alexius. The commander of the fleet, Andronicus Contostephanus, defected to Andronicus, and the protosebastos was seized in a palace coup and taken across the straits to Andronicus and blinded.[[55]] Choniates comments that had he not been such a lethargic weakling, he could have stopped Andronicus entering the city, but that he lost his nerve. Maria's regime may also have had some financial problems: she did not get around to establishing a convent she had planned. This 'house of Ioannitzes' was later founded by Isaac Angelus.[[56]]

The rise of Andronicus I

In April 1182 Andronicus organised a massacre of the 'Latins' in the city, on the grounds that the empress and the protosebastos had bought their support by promising them the chance of plundering the city. Some 60,000 Latins are said by Eustathius to have died in the massacre, though the figure must be exaggerated.[[57]]Alexius the boy emperor received Andronicus in April after he had crossed from Damalis to Constantinople in the imperial buildings of the Mangana in the suburb of Philopatium. Andronicus made profound obeisance to Alexius, but only acknowledged his mother the empress-dowager in a perfunctory way, this demonstrating his hostility to her. The patriarch Theodosius agreed to Andronicus' take-over of the city, while ensuring that the young Alexius would be crowned. The ceremony took place on 16 May 1182, a few days after Andronicus' arrival, and Andronicus carried Alexius into St Sophia on his shoulders and acted on this occasion as if he was his devoted supporter.[[58]]

In the article on Alexius II, we see how Andronicus rose to become the new regent in Maria-Xene's stead. From Andronicus' arrival, all the young Alexius' movements were closely guarded, and no one was allowed to discuss any matter of state with him. The only obstacle to Andronicus' seizure of power was now the empress and the decree that stated that she was to be the head of government until Alexius turned sixteen. Andronicus forced the Constantinopolitans to choose between Maria and himself. He threatened to leave the city because (he declared) the empress was opposed to the good of the state and conspiring against the emperor. To clear his way towards the throne, he then had Maria Porphyrogenita and Renier poisoned by their attendants. The main obstacle to the empress' removal was now the patriarch, and Andronicus threatened to turn the populace against him unless he cooperated. Theodosius was compelled to agree in writing to Maria's expulsion from the palace, and Choniates stresses that had the patriarch not done so he would have been lynched by the populace at Andronicus' instigation. [[59]] Theodosius later resigned in August 1183 over the issue of the marriage of Andronicus' daughter to Manuel's illegitimate son, and was replaced by Basil Camaterus and forced to retire to the island of Terebinthos. Andronicus by now had totally gained the support of the populace, which Theodosius had until recently enjoyed.[[60]]

Maria-Xene's treason and death

After the murder of Maria Porphyrogenita and Renier, Andronicus then turned on the empress and demanded that three judges of the velum (Demetrius Tornikes, Leon Monasteriotes and Constantine Patrenus) prosecute her for treason. When they first tried to make sure that her son had approved this measure, Andronicus labelled them supporters of the protosebastos and they were nearly lynched by the populace. This shows that Maria, or at least the system of law and order, was still not without supporters. Furthermore, a conspiracy against Andronicus included the very Andronicus Contostephanus who had earlier defected to his side, as well as Basil Camaterus the logothete of the drome, and this movement attracted many supporters.[[61]] The populace, however, was vehemently opposed to Maria.

Maria unwisely attempted to enlist the help of Béla III of Hungary, who was now her brother-in-law, by writing letters to him suggesting he ravage the lands around Branichevo and Belgrade to distract Andronicus' attention from events in the city. This gave Andronicus the perfect pretext to accuse her of treason and in a show trial she was was found guilty of treasonable conduct before a court composed of hostile judges. She was imprisoned in a narrow dungeon near the monastery of St Diomedes, where she was subjected to ill-treatment and mockery from her guards. Her son Alexius, who was probably not yet thirteen years of age, was persuaded to sign the document condemning her to death. Andronicus ordered his son Manuel and a brother-in-law, George, to supervise her execution. Neither however could countenance this, and the sinister Constantine Tripsychus, along with the eunuch Pterygeonites who had earlier poisoned Maria Porphyrogenita, was authorised to supervise the deed. As a consequence, Maria-Xene, perhaps towards the end of 1182, was strangled and buried on the sea-shore (Eustathius says her body was thrown into the sea). This left the young emperor vulnerable to attack: after Andronicus' coronation as co-emperor, Alexius II was himself strangled with a bowstring, and Choniates tells us that his corpse was brought to Andronicus, who kicked it and taunted the emperor's parents, Manuel as a liar and Maria as a well-known prostitute. The headless body of the emperor was finally thrown into the sea encased in a lead coffin.[[62]]

Reactions to Maria's death

Maria's execution was generally condemned even by her critics: she was after all empress and head of the regime until her son came of age. Though she had not been popular, Andronicus was obviously afraid of a resurgence of public sympathy for the empress for he felt it necessary to have all public portraits of her in the capital repainted to show Maria as a wrinkled old woman to stop passers-by feeling sorry for her.[[63]])It is interesting that the historians who criticised Maria's conduct considered her murder unacceptable. Eustathius states that those who committed the crime were later justly punished for their actions, when Andronicus deprived them of their reward.[[64]]  Choniates goes further: his brief epitaph for Maria describes her as 'mankind's sweet light', and he laments both her burial on the seashore and Andronicus' bloodthirsty exultation at her fate:

"And she, who was the sweet light and a vision of beauty unto men, was buried in obscurity in the sand of the nearby shore (O Sun, who didst look down on this defilement, and Thou, O Word of God, who art without beginning, how inscrutable is thy forbearance!). The bloodthirsty soul of Andronicus exulted at this, for with the extermination of Manuel's family, with the imperial garden laid waste, he would reign as sole monarch over the Roman empire and hold sway with impunity."[[65]]

Maria was unfortunate at being an attractive young women in the centre of a predatory crowd of relatives. It was hardly her fault that her hands were tied in the matter of a second marriage and that her manifold attractions and position of dynastic power ensured that 'these lovers of hers, as they themselves would know, set alight and kindled an evil which affected the whole world'.[[66]] Her birth made her vulnerable to anti-Latin elements in the city and her reliance on Alexius the protosebastos alienated the rest of the Comnenian family network, all of whom felt they had as much right to power as he did. She may have felt that it was in the best interests of the regency to hand over government to the most senior of her husband's nephews: but, if so, she miscalculated the strength of the rivalry within the Comnenian family. While ideally suited to the ceremonial role of the Byzantine empress, she was without the training or ability to handle the realities of court politics and accordingly was directly responsible for the downfall of her regime as well as playing a significant part in the rise to power of Andronicus I.


Primary sources

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

Nicetas Choniates, Orationes et Epistulae, ed. J.-A. van Dieten, Berlin & New York: Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, 1972.

John Cinnamus, Ioannis Cinnami Epitome Rerum ab Ioanne et Manuele Comnenis Gestarum, ed. A. Meineke, Bonn: CSHB, 1836; trans. as Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus by John Kinnamos, by C. M. Brand, New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Codex Marcianus 524, ' Ho Markianos Kodex 524,' ed. Sp. Lampros, Neos Ellenomnemon, 8 (1911), 3-59, 113-92.

Eustathius of Thessalonica, The Capture of Thessaloniki, ed. and trans. J. R. Melville-Jones, Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1988.

Eustathius of Thessalonica, Eustathii Thessalonicensis opera minora, ed. P. Wirth, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 32, Berlin and New York, 2000.

Eustathius of Thessalonica, Eustathii metropolitae thessalonicensis opuscula, ed. T.L.F. Tafel, 1832; repr. Amsterdam, 1964.

Constantine Manasses, 'Das Hodoiporikon des Konstantin Manasses,' ed. K. Horna, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 13 (1904), 325-33.

William, Archbishop of Tyre, Guillaume de Tyr: Chronique, ed. R.B.C. Huygens, 2 vols, Corpus Christianorum. Continuatio mediaevalis, 63, 63a, Turnhout, 1986; also in Recueil des historiens des croisades. Historiens occidentaux, I (1 & 2), Paris, 1844; trans. as A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, by E. A. Babcock & A. C. Krey, 2 vols, New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.

Secondary sources

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

M. Angold, Church and Society in Byzantium under the Comneni, 1081-1261, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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

F. Chalandon, Jean II Comnène (1118-1143) et Manuel I Comnène (1143-1180), Paris: Picard, 1912; repr. New York: Burt Franklin, 1971.

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

A. Christophilopoulou, "He antibasileia eis to Byzantion,' Symmeikta, 2 (1970), 1-144

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), 213-317.

P. W. Edbury & J. G. Rowe, William of Tyre. Historian of the Latin East, Cambridge 1988.

L. Garland, 'Morality versus Politics at the Byzantine Court: the Charges against Marie of Antioch and Euphrosyne,' Byzantinische Forschungen, 24 (1997), 259-95.

L. Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

V. Grumel, Les regestes des actes du patriarchat de Constantinople, vol. 1 (fasc. 2 & 3), revised ed., Paris: Institut français d'études byzantines, 1989.

M. J. Jeffreys 'The Vernacular eisiteroi for Agnes of France,' Byzantine Papers. Proceedings of the First Australian Byzantine Studies Conference, Canberra, 17-19 May 1978, ed. E. Jeffreys, M. Jeffreys & A. Moffatt, Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1981, 101-15.

A. E. Laiou, Mariage, Amour et Parenté à Byzance aux XIe-XIIIe siècles, Paris: de Boccard, 1992.

R.-J. Lilie, Byzantium and the Crusader States, 1096-1204, tr. J.C. Morris and J.E. Ridings, Oxford, 1993.

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

P. Magdalino & R. Nelson, 'The Emperor in Byzantine Art of the 12th Century,' Byzantinische Forschungen, 8 (1982), 123-83.

D. M. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice. A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

D.I. Polemis, The Doukai. A Contribution to Byzantine Prosopography, London: Athlone Press, 1968.

K. Varzos, JH genealogiva tw`n Komnhnw`n, 2 vols, Thessalonika: Kevntron buzantinw`n ejreunw`n, 1984.

P. Wirth, 'Wann wurde Kaiser Alexius II geboren?' Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 49 (1956), 65-7.


[[1]]This is the thesis of the benchmarking study of R.-J. Lilie, Byzantium and the Crusader States, 1096-1204, tr. J.C. Morris and J.E. Ridings, Oxford, 1993.

[[2]]Nicetas Choniates, Historia (ed. van Dieten), 108-10; cf. John Cinnamus, Epitome, 4.18-21 (ed. Meineke: CSHB, pp.181-8).

[[3]]Cinnamus, Epitome, 5.4 (CSHB 210-11); Choniates, Historia,116.

[[4]]K. Varzos, Genealogia ton Komnenon, 1.314-5.

[[5]]William of Tyre, Historia, 18.31; trans. E. A. Babcock & A.C. Krey, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea by William Archbishop of Tyre, II, (New York, 1943), 289, '....bracelets, earrings, pins for her headdress, anklets, rings, necklaces, and tiaras of purest gold. Silver utensils of immense weight and size were prepared for use in the kitchen and for the service of the table and the toilet, besides bridles and saddles...the workmanship alone was evidence of their exceeding great cost and easily surpassed the luxury of kings'; cf. ibid., 18.33.

[[6]]Historia, 116; Maria's sister Philippa of Antioch was also extremely handsome: Choniates, Historia, 139.

[[7]]Choniates, Historia, 244; cf. Eustathius, Eustathios of Thessaloniki. The Capture of Thessaloniki, 14, ed. and trans. John R. Melville Jones (Canberra, 1988), 18 (= De Thessalonica Capta, ed. B.G. Niebuhr (Bonn, 1842), 380-1).

[[8]]Cinnamus, Epitome, 5.4 (CSHB, 208-10); Constantine Manasses, 'Das Hodoiporikon des Konstantin Manasses,' ed. K. Horna, in Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 13 (1904), 330-1.

[[9]]For the portrait of the imperial couple in a Vatican manuscript (Vaticanus graecus 1176, f. IIr), see P. Magdalino and R. Nelson, 'The Emperor in Byzantine Art of the 12th Century,' Byzantinische Forschungen 8 (1982), 137-40; J. Spatharakis, The Portrait in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts (Leiden, 1976), 209-10; L. Garland, Byzantine Empresses (London & New York, 1999), pl. 9.

[[10]]Choniates, Historia, 332-3.

[[11]]Choniates, Orationes et Epistulae, 40; Manasses, 'Hodoiporikon,' 330-1, lines 185-6; Sp. Lambros (ed.), 'Codex Marcianus 524,' Neos Ellenomnemon, 8 (1911), 55-6, 57, 126, 145, 178 (nos. 98, 100, 109, 221, 335, 336).

[[12]]Choniates, Historia, 146-7; trans. Magoulias, O City of Byzantium, 83

[[13]]For Alexius and Manuel's other illegitimate children, see Choniates, Historia, 54, 204, 231, 309, 312, 425-6.After Manuel's death, this Alexius was even approached by his half-sister, Maria Porphyrogenita, for his aid against the empress-regent, Maria of Antioch and the hated protosebastos. He was blinded by Andronicus I Komnenos, though married to his illegitimate daughter, and prior to this Andronicus, who was greatly attached to him, may have considered making him his heir over his own son John.

[[14]]Cinnanus, Epitome, 6.2 (CSHB, 193). Maria also suffered a serious illness in the middle of 1165: Cinnamus, 5.14 (CSHB, 240).

[[15]]Cinnamus, Epitome, 6.6 (CSHB, 266); cf. Choniates, Historia, 144-5.

[[16]]Choniates, Historia, 168-9. For the date of his birth, see P. Wirth, 'Wann wurde Kaiser Alexius II geboren?' Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 49 (1956) 65-7; Jones, Eustathios of Thessaloniki, note on Eustathius, 14. For Manuel's desire for a legitimate son, see Choniates 81--2 (when the patriarch Cosmas cursed the womb of Bertha of Sulzbach).

[[17]]P. Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos 1143-1180 (Cambridge, 1993), 243 (unpublished sermon by Samuel Mauropous).

[[18]]Choniates, Historia, 169.

[[19]]Grumel, Regestes, 1120; Choniates, Historia, 169-70, 228; M. Angold, Church and Society in Byzantium under the Comneni, 1081-1261 (Cambridge, 1995), 116.

[[20]]Eustathius, 14; Choniates, Historia, 253-4; William of Tyre, 22.5.

[[21]]Choniates, Historia, 228.

[[22]]Eustathius, 14.

[[23]]Choniates, Historia, 204-5; William of Tyre, 22.10; M. Angold, The Byzantine Empire: a Political History (London & New York, 1984), 203-205.

[[24]]Choniates, Historia, 224-5, 229-30; Eustathius, 14; cf. William of Tyre, 22.11.

[[25]]William of Tyre, 22.11; Eustathius, 28; Choniates, Historia, 246-7; cf. Choniates, 204-5; C.M. Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West 1180-1204 (Cambridge Mass. 1968), 28-32, 45-7; Angold, Byzantine Empire, 203-5.

[[26]]Choniates, Historia, 230.

[[27]]Eustathius, 14. Jones, Eustathios of Thessaloniki, 170, points out that Eustathius' description of her in his funeral oration for Manuel Komnenos (Eustathii metropolitae thessalonicensis opuscula, ed. T.L.F. Tafel (1832; repr. Amsterdam, 1964), 16) presents an interesting contrast to this image: '(Maria) appears like the sun from the east, even though a cloud now covers her, if one may dare to call that black habit a cloud, in which the divine sun of her righteousness shines even more brightly.'

[[28]]For Alexius, see Varzos, Genealogia, no. 132, 2.189-218; Jones, Eustathios of Thessaloniki, 234; his wife had been Maria Doukaina (D.I. Polemis, The Doukai. A Contribution to Byzantine Prosopography (London 1968), 191, no. 223); cf. Lambros, 'Codex Marcianus,' nos. 70, 108. For the reaction against the ascendancy of Alexius the protosebastos which changed the existing equilibrium between top-ranking bureaucrats, see Magdalino, Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 224-5.

[[29]]Choniates, Historia,139-41; Cinnamus, Epitome, 6.1 (CSHB, 250). According to William of Tyre, 21.13 Andronicus actually married Philippa.

[[30]]William of Tyre, 22.5-7; P. W. Edbury & J. G. Rowe, William of Tyre. Historian of the Latin East (Cambridge 1988), 106-7, accept that Sibylla was a 'practitioner of the black arts'. For Manuel's marriage policy, see Magdalino, Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 209-17.

[[31]]Choniates, Historia, 224-5, 227-8, 230; Eustathius, 14. On Maria's regency, see A. Christophilopoulou, 'He antibasileia eis to Byzantion,' Symmeikta, 2 (1970), 75-83; Angold, Church and Society, 116-18; L. Garland, 'Morality versus Politics at the Byzantine Court: the Charges against Marie of Antioch and Euphrosyne,' Byzantinische Forschungen, 24 (1997), 270-84.

[[32]]Choniates, Historia, 223, cf. 227, 229, 257; Eustathius, 14.

[[33]]Choniates, Historia, 228 (trans. Magoulias, 129-30); cf. A. E. Laiou, Mariage, Amour et Parenté à Byzance aux XIe-XIIIe siècles (Paris, 1992), 50 n. 147.

[[34]]Choniates, Historia, 230, 224.

[[35]]William of Tyre, 22.11; cf. Choniates, Historia, 230. See Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, 31-4 for his rapacious government.

[[36]]Eustathius, 21.

[[37]]William of Tyre, 22.11 (trans. E.A. Babcock & A.C. Krey, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, 462) speaks of the protosebastos' party as 'our people (partem nostrorum)'; cf. Eustathius, 28.

[[38]]Choniates, Historia, 229-30; William of Tyre, 22.11; Eustathius, 14; Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, 31-4. For a poem accompanying the gift of a crown to the young emperor by the protosebastos, see Codex Marc. no. 108.

[[39]]Choniates, Historia, 244; cf. Choniates, 233 where Alexius is described as clinging to the palace apartments like an octopus to a rock.

[[40]]William of Tyre,, 22.11.

[[41]]Choniates, Historia, 112, 128, 137.

[[42]]For Renier and his marriage to Maria, see William of Tyre, 22.4; William himself was present at the festivities. See also Cinnamus, Epitome, 3.11 (CSHB, 118); Eustathius, 14; Varzos, Genealogia, no. 153; F. Chalandon, Les Comnènes II: Jean II Comnène (1118-1143) et Manuel I Comnène (1143-1180) (Paris 1912; repr. 1960), 212; Varzos, Genealogia, 2.439-52. According to Choniates, Historia, 170-1, Maria Porphyrogenita was over thirty, as strong as a man, and desperate for marriage. For Eustathius' oration celebrating the marriage festivities, see Eustathius of Thessalonica, Opera Minora, 170-181

[[43]]M. Jeffreys, 'The Vernacular eisiterioi for Agnes of France,' Byzantine Papers. Proceedings of the First Australian Byzantine Studies Conference, Canberra, 17-19 May 1978, ed. E. Jeffreys, M. Jeffreys & A. Moffatt (Canberra, 1981), 108: 'the obeisance performed by Maria to Agnes marked the formal acceptance, by one of the chief symbols of the anti-Latin cause, of a marriage which seemed to set the seal on the success of pro-Latin policy.'  Whilr Cecily Hennessy has recently argued that the manuscript is of Paleologue date, this has been rebutted by Cecily J. Hinsdale, "Constrcuting a Byzantine augusta: a Greek book for a French bride, " in Art Bulletin (Sept., 2005), 48.

[[44]]Jeffreys, 'Vernacular eisiterioi,' 111 with pl. 13.

[[45]]For the conspirators, who also included the general Andronicus Lapardas who went into exile, see Eustathius, 14-15; Choniates, Historia, 231. William of Tyre, 22.5 dates the discovery of the conspiracy to 1 March 1181.

[[46]]Choniates, Historia, 232-3; Eustathius, 16-17, 20-1; Grumel, Regestes, 1156.

[[47]]Eustathius, 28; cf. Choniates, Historia, 238 for Renier's Latin bodyguard.

[[48]]Eustathius, 18, cf. 28; cf. Choniates, Historia, 241.

[[49]]Choniates, Historia, 237-41; Eustathius, 22; William of Tyre, 22.5.

[[50]]Eustathius, 23; Choniates, Historia, 242; cf. Angold, Church and Society, 116-17 with n. 5.

[[51]]Choniates, Historia, 230-1, 243; Eustathius, 21, 24, cf. 27.

[[52]]Choniates, Historia, 228, 230-1, 240-1; Eustathius, 21-2; William of Tyre, 22.5.

[[53]]Eustathius, 20: 'her name was on everyone's lips, though not in any good way, and they longed for her downfall and removal' (trans. Jones, 27).

[[54]]Eustathius, 24; Choniates, Historia, 243-4.

[[55]]Choniates, Historia, 247-9: for his ill-treatment, see William of Tyre, 22.12.

[[56]]Choniates, Historia, 250, cf. 244. For the 'house of Ioannitzes', see Choniates, 419.

[[57]]Choniates, Historia, 250-1; Eustathius, 28-30. 4,000 who survived the slaughter were sold to the Turks as slaves. See also William of Tyre, 22.12-13; D. M. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice. A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations (Cambridge, 1988), 107-8; Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, esp. 41-2, cf. 204-6; Angold, Byzantine Empire, 196, 264-5.

[[58]]Choniates, Historia, 264-5; cf. Eustathius, 31.

[[59]]Choniates, Historia, 261-2, 265, cf. 252-4; Eustathius, 33-5. Basil Camaterus became patriarch in August 1183.

[[60]]Choniates, Historia, 255, 257, 259-60, 265; Eustathius, 34-5; Grumel, Regestes, 1158.

[[61]]Choniates, Historia, 265-7.

[[62]]Choniates, Historia, 265-6, 267-9, 274; cf. Eustathius, 35, 43; William of Tyre 22.13.

[[63]]Choniates, Historia, 332-3.

[[64]]Eustathius, 35.

[[65]]Choniates, Historia, 269 (trans. Magoulias, 149); Telemachus, son of Odysseus, is called 'a sweet light' by his mother Penelope and the servant Eumaeus (Homer, Odyssey 16.23, 17.41).

[[66]]Eustathius 14 (trans. Jones, 19): cf. Angold, Byzantine Empire, 263, who sees her here cast as a second 'Helen of Troy'.

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