Andronikos I Komnenos: A Greek Tragedy

Andronikos I Komnenos

Andronikos I KomnenosAndronikos I Komnenos: A Greek Tragedy

By Harry Magoulias

Byzantina Symmeikta, Vol.21 (2011)

Abstract: The Annals of Niketas Choniates depict Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos (1183-1185) in certain aspects of his lifestyle as a mirror image of his first cousin, Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180). The life and death of Andronikos I Komnenos provide us with a window into the aesthetic, moral, intellectual, religious, economic and emotional world of Byzantine society in the 12th century. It was thanks to the Byzantine empire that the ancient texts were preserved and transmitted. Ancient Greek culture and reason, in particular, continued to inform Christian values while, at the same time, both could be in radical conflict. The tragic reign of Andronikos as presented by Niketas Choniates conforms to Aristotle’s principles of classical drama, but there is a fundamental disagreement between the author of the Poetics and the historian as to what constitutes tragedy, which underlines this conflict.

Excerpt: Andronikos’ relationship with Manuel was poisoned early on. Andronikos never forgave his cousin for refusing to pay his ransom when he was taken captive by the Turks while hunting game in 1143. In 1155 he was relieved of his command as Duke of Branicevo and Belgrade, accused of conspiring with the Hungarians to depose Manuel I. In the same year, Andronikos’ reckless adulterous behavior further infuriated the emperor. His incestuous relations with the widowed Evdokia scandalized both her brother John and brother-in-law. Setting a trap to catch him in flagrante delicto, they surrounded Evdokia’s pavilion where the lovers’ tryst had been arranged, intent on killing the sinner on the spot, but forewarned by his mistress Evdokia, Andronikos made a spectacular escape by slashing his way out with his sword.


unhappily for the flamboyant Andronikos, he was quickly captured and thrown into prison on charges of conspiracy and incest in the year 1155. Three years later (1158) while in the very act of breaking out of captivity, he unexpectedly came upon his wife on her way to be incarcerated in the very same prison, possibly because she was incriminated in planning his escape. Never one to lose an opportunity, Andronikos managed to engage in sexual intercourse with her leaving her pregnant with their son John. Andronikos was soon recaptured and incarcerated for another six long years. Thus the emperor robbed his cousin, in total, nine years of the prime of his life. Contriving an escape in 1164 Andronikos made his way to Galitza at the mouth of the Morava river. Apprehended here by the vlachs he made an Odyssean escape by using his ready wits. In the dark of night, Andronikos, feigning to be suffering from an extreme attack of loose bowels, requested of his captors to be allowed to withdraw to relieve himself. He took along his staff, wrapped his cloak around it, placed his hat on top, and making it appear that he was bent over in the act of evacuation, he took flight. Damned now to live the life of a vagabond in exile, Andronikos chose to distance himself “far from Zeus and his thunderbolt”.

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