The Komnenian Dynasty: The Byzantine Royal Family that Kept Coming Back
The Komnenos (also spelled as Comnenus) family was a medieval noble family from Paphlagonia, Anatolia, in modern day Turkey. During the 11th century, the Komnenian Dynasty was founded. This dynasty ruled the Byzantine Empire for about a century. Although the Komnenian Dynasty lost control of the Byzantine Empire, their descendants went on to establish the Empire of Trebizond, which was one of the successor states of the Byzantine Empire when Constantinople was captured during the Fourth Crusade.
Who Founded the Komnenian Dynasty?
The Komnenian Dynasty was founded by Isaac I Komnenos, who was the son of Manuel Komnenos, an officer who served under the Byzantine emperor Basil II. Isaac was raised in the court of Basil II, and became an important official in the imperial court after completing his education. In 1057, Michael VI Bringas was proclaimed Byzantine emperor.
The new emperor soon had strong disagreements with some of the military elite, and in the following year, a revolt broke out. The emperor‘s army was defeated at the Battle of Petroe, and Michael abdicated in favor of Isaac.
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Mosaic of the Byzantine Emperor Isaac I Komnenos. (Stig Alenas /Adobe Stock)
Isaac’s rise to the position of emperor marked the first stage of the Komnenian Dynasty. In 1059, Isaac fell ill, and as he believed he was soon to die, he abdicated in favor of Constantine X Doukas. The Doukid dynasty ruled the Byzantine Empire for the next two decades, after which the Komnenian Dynasty returned to power.
Since the death of Basil II, the Byzantine Empire was in decline. The century long rule of the Komnenian Dynasty, however, temporarily halted the deterioration of the empire. In 1081, the last Doukid emperor, Nikephorus III Botaneiates, was overthrown by Alexios I Komnenos, a nephew of Isaac I Komnenos.
Alexios I Komnenos and His Relationship with the Crusaders
Alexios successfully defended the empire against external enemies. He succeeded, for instance, to drive out the Normans, who, under Robert Guiscard, had occupied parts of western Greece. With the use of diplomacy, Alexios was able to halt further encroachment of the empire’s eastern territories by the Seljuq Turks, who had established the Sultanate of Rum in Central Anatolia. Alexios also sought to combat the Turks by requesting military aid from the Pope, resulting in the First Crusade. Alexios attempted to control the crusaders, though ultimately neither he nor his successors were able to do so.
‘Peter the Hermit and Alexius Comnenus.’ (Public Domain)
Alexios was able to strengthen the Byzantine Empire from the inside as well. For instance, he reorganized the administration of the empire and strengthened central authority. The emperor also built up a professional army and navy, which strengthened the military might of the empire, especially in its territories bordering hostile enemies.
Painting of Alexius I, from a Greek manuscript in the Vatican library. (Public Domain)
Alexios died in 1118, after reigning for almost four decades. His success was continued by the next two Komnenian emperors, John II, and Manuel I, both of whom enjoyed long reigns as well. By the end of Manuel’s reign, the Byzantine Empire had succeeded in retaking much of Anatolia from the Turks. Manuel was succeeded by Alexios II, who was a minor. After a short reign of just three years, he was overthrown and strangled to death by Andronikos I, a grandson of Alexios I. Andronikos reigned for two years before being overthrown by Isaac II Angelos.
Manuel I Komnenos, Alexios II Komnenos, Andronikos I Komnenos. (Public Domain)
The Gradual Fall of the House of Komnenos
With the death of Andronikos I, the Byzantine Empire passed from the hands of the Komnenian Dynasty to the Angelos Dynasty. This, however, was not the end of the dynasty. In 1202, the Fourth Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent III. The original aim of the crusade was to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims.
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A medieval depiction of the death of Andronikos. Original in the Bibliothèque Nationale, France. (Public Domain)
Although the crusaders failed to achieve this aim, they ended up sacking Constantinople in 1204, and the Latin Empire was established. Several successor states of the Byzantine Empire were founded during this time, one of which was the Empire of Trebizond. This empire was established by Alexios I Megas Komnenos, a grandson of the last Komnenian Byzantine emperor. The empire lasted until 1461, when it fell to the Ottomans.
Top image: Komnenian Dynasty mosaic in the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey. The Virgin Mary and baby Jesus are flanked by John II Komnenos and his wife, Irene of Hungary. Source: scaliger/Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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