The Political Opposition to Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118)
By João Vicente de Medeiros Publio Dias
PhD Dissertation, University of Mainz, 2020
Abstract: The goal of my thesis is to survey the political environment and the power struggles during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118). For a while, the interpretation put forward by George Orstrogorsky strongly influenced how scholarship perceived the reign of Alexios I. This author states that the political scenario in Byzantium in the 11th century was marked by the struggle between the bureaucracy and the military landed aristocracy. The seizure of power by Alexios I was, therefore, the final victory of the latter.
Another important view is that, once in power, Alexios I established a family rule in which his relatives by blood and by marriage had a powerful role, for they held the highest offices both in the military and administration and had an informal influence on the emperor. This gave Alexios political strength to remain in power and crush the civil aristocracy that opposed him. Both interpretations have been partially questioned.
Although the approaches that perceive a binary division between bureaucrats and the military have been clearly disproven, their echo can yet be heard in recent work. Some recent scholarship on power or intellectual struggles during his reign still resorts to arguments that have a smack of the binary interpretation. Other scholars such as Jean-Claude Cheynet dismiss this binary division, but still see relatively fixed groups within the Byzantine ruling elite.
The role of Alexios’ family as a source of political support has also been questioned by scholars, mainly Peter Frankopan, who made extensive research about the power struggles during his reign. Although this recent scholarship has put forward relevant arguments, it was not sufficient to provide a convincing overview of this key-period for Byzantine History. A close look at the political alliances that formed the groups supporting an emperor or making opposition to him demonstrates that the opposition to Alexios I was not formed by clearly delineated blocks with clear goals. It was rather characterized by a wide range of interests depending on the existing political situation. His supposed lack of interest in reconquering Anatolia, which, according to current scholarship, is the greatest source of the opposition to Alexios, can be nuanced as being an important motivation only to a particular oppositional movement observed in one single episode.
A similar subtle approach is also important to understand the relations between the emperor and his family. Although the contemporary or near-contemporary reports seem to confirm the important role played by the imperial family, his relatives did not support the emperor automatically, which demands a more nuanced analysis of the sources. They present the emperor in constant negotiation with his relatives, sometimes granting and sometimes curtailing power, at times being autocratic, at other times almost submissive.
Besides the ad-hoc strategies adopted by the emperor to create a group of supporters marked by open contradictions, Alexios I adopted and adapted different discourses to project himself publicly in order to strengthen the support to his regime and discourage opposition, which dismisses completely the traditional image of Alexios as a crude and brutal soldier-emperor. Although his political and discursive strategies to energize his supporters, co-opt adversaries and repress opposition were at times unsuccessful, they were often successful, which allowed a long reign and the establishment of a dynasty: clear signs of political triumph in Byzantium.
Top Image: Miniature of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)