Isaac Komnenos: Tyrannical Villain or Renegade Emperor?

By Michael Goodyear

The island of Cyprus, the third largest in the Mediterranean Sea, was ruled by a cosmopolitan slate of leaders in the Middle Ages: Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, and Venetians alternately dominated it. For most of these rulers, Cyprus was simply a far-flung province of an empire. Yet one of the most notorious of Cypriot leaders, Isaac Komnenos, ruled Cyprus as an independent state, and it was upon this island country that all of Isaac’s alleged tyrannical tendencies would play out.

Although the sources that remain provide a poor evaluation of Isaac as a ruler, it is important to consider who wrote those sources and evaluate Isaac’s legacy in that light. But ultimately, despite the limited knowledge of Isaac’s reign through biased sources, Isaac is still remembered as a villainous imperial usurper of Cyprus.


Taking Cyprus

Isaac Komnenos (1155–1195/96) was born the grandnephew of Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143–1180). As a member of the extended imperial Komnenos family, once he reached maturity, Isaac was made governor of the key province of Isauria, on the border of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. However, Isaac was captured by the Armenians during a border war and was not ransomed for some time due to the death of Manuel. Eventually, years later, the ransom was paid by the Knights Templar.

Having finally been freed, Isaac beseeched the new emperor of Byzantium, Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183–1185) – who had overthrown Manuel’s young son, Alexios II Komnenos (r. 1180–1183) – to provide funds for Isaac to pay back his Templar rescuers. Pressured by Isaac’s friends and his own lover, who happened to be Isaac’s aunt, Andronikos obliged.


But Isaac, upset at how many years he had languished in captivity due to imperial non-action, now decided to make his own bid for power. With the money sent from Andronikos, he hired mercenaries and sailed to the Byzantine province of Cyprus. Once there, Isaac presented false papers that declared him the ruler of the island. Upon learning of this, Andronikos was furious. Andronikos already had a predilection for worrying about plots and coup attempts, and a prediction that the next emperor’s name would start with the letter Iota, or “I,” greatly concerned him. This was part of the AIMA prophecy that Komnenian rulers would have names in this sequence; thus far, five emperors in, it had proven true.

But Andronikos’ own tyrannical tendencies caused his downfall rather than any machinations of Isaac. The populace of Constantinople rose up against Andronikos, killed him in the Hippodrome, and crowned the usurper Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185–1195) as the new emperor. Angelos almost immediately sent a fleet to retake Cyprus. However, once Angelos’ army landed on the island, the ships were captured by a Sicilian pirate, Megareites, and the bulk of the Byzantine army was defeated by Isaac’s Cypriot troops or the Sicilian pirates. The reconquest having failed, Isaac was secure on his island throne, for now.

Coin minted by Isaac Comnenus – image by CNG coins / Wikimedia Commons

Reign of a Despot

We have a limited picture of Isaac’s rule on Cyprus due to a paucity of sources. However, there are several baseline assumptions we can make. Isaac saw himself not just as a minor lord but as emperor. Coins have been found minted with Isaac’s name and likeness, as well as the title of Βασιλεύς (Basileus), or emperor, demonstrating both his imperial claim and his adaptation of the island’s imperial mints.

He maintained Nicosia, the former Byzantine provincial capital, as his royal capital. His government must have either continued to use the local Byzantine administrative apparatus or adopted its own form of administration to regulate the populace and collect taxes. We also know that Isaac had a Cypriot army, although the exact numbers and composition of this army are murky at best.


The specifics of his rule primarily come to us from the contemporary Byzantine chronicler Niketas Choniates. According to Choniates, “[Isaac] diametrically surpassed those who were notorious as the most ruthless men who ever lived … Once he felt secure in his rule, he did not cease from perpetrating countless wicked deeds against the inhabitants of the island.” His crimes included the wanton murder of his subjects, subjecting them to horrific maiming, and confiscating their wealth and belongings. In addition to these “horrors which he wickedly inflicted on the Cypriots,” Isaac withheld all Cypriot revenues from the Byzantines. Choniates also remarks that Isaac was known for his wrathful anger.

The other sources that shed light on Isaac’s rule are written by Western European authors, foremost amongst them English sources, especially the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi. The Itinerarium similarly criticizes Isaac’s conduct as a ruler. It recounts that Isaac held for ransom or enslaved Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land who stopped on the island. It also notes Isaac’s extreme pride in his claimed imperial title and his inability to control his excesses.

However, Isaac did manage to maintain his rule over Cyprus for seven years, which implies that Isaac’s rule was at least fairly stable. This was in part due to Isaac’s successful diplomacy with William II the Good of Sicily (r. 1166–1189) and the great Muslim leader Saladin (r. 1174–1193). But when Isaac decided to confront Richard I the Lionheart of England (r. 1189–1199), his luck ran out.

Detail of a miniature of the landing of Richard I in Sicily. – British Library MS Royal 15 E I fol. 450v

Enter Richard the Lionheart

Richard was on his way to the Holy Land as part of the Third Crusade. He had already been forced to stop in Sicily to fight the local usurper Tancred (r. 1189–1194) and protect the rights of his sister Joanna, the widow of William the Good. After leaving Sicily, Richard’s fleet headed towards Acre, but a storm caused several of his ships to crash on Cyprus. Instead of welcoming the shipwrecked survivors, Isaac took them and their treasure captive; among these captives were Richard’s fiancée, Berengaria of Navarre, and his sister Joanna, who were trapped on their ship by Isaac.

When Richard discovered this, he was outraged. At first, he attempted to parlay with Isaac, but when Isaac rebuffed his offer to negotiate, Richard besieged the Cypriot city of Limassol. Richard took the city, and Isaac was forced to flee. Although the Itinerarium mentions that Isaac had a sizable army, his forces were no match for the battle-hardened English knights, archers, and footmen. When the full armies engaged in a pitched battle, Isaac fled once again in defeat, although not before shooting two poison-laced arrows from horseback at Richard, one of our rare literary examples of Byzantine horseback archery. Following other losses in the field, Isaac, driven back to Nicosia, capitulated, offering tribute and effective vassal status.

Yet Isaac then fled Nicosia, and Richard took the city the very next day. Supposedly, Isaac feared that Richard was going to betray him and put him in iron chains, of which he had an immense fear. Eventually, Richard’s forces captured Isaac on Cape Andreas at the northernmost tip of Cyprus. Isaac begged Richard not to put him in irons, to which Richard agreed, only to place him in silver chains instead.

A 17th-century depiction of Richard capturing Isaac – Wikimedia Commons

The now-former emperor was transferred to the custody of the Knights Hospitaller, who imprisoned him in the crusader castle at Margat in Syria. Isaac was eventually ransomed after Richard was captured by Isaac’s relative, Leopold V of Austria (1157–1194), and forced to pay an enormous sum to leave. Isaac, ever the intriguer, went to the Sultanate of Rum and started to raise a rebellion against the new Byzantine emperor, yet another usurper, Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195–1203). But Isaac was poisoned in 1195 or 1196, putting an end to his life and his ambitions of imperial glory.


Meanwhile, Richard, after plundering Cyprus, sold the island to the Templars; Richard had no intention of ruling the island, and had Isaac not antagonized him, he likely would not have fought him or taken the island from him. The Templars tried to tax the Cypriots to make up for the price of the island, but the Cypriot populace rebelled, convincing the Templars to return the island to Richard, who then gave it to Guy de Lusignan (1150–1194), the last crusader king of Jerusalem, who had lost that city to Saladin in 1187. Guy’s descendants, the Lusignans, ruled Cyprus as kings for the next two and a half centuries, effectively making Cyprus the last crusader kingdom in the Levant.

See also: How Richard the Lionheart Got His Name (The epic version)

A Tyrant?

Choniates and the Itinerarium present a uniform picture of Isaac: a no-good, villainous, and greedy tyrant. But it is important to consider the points of view of both sources. Choniates was an important personage in the Byzantine court in Constantinople, serving the Angelos emperors. Seeing as Isaac resisted Isaac II Angelos and plotted to overthrow Alexios III Angelos, there is an overwhelming potential cause of bias in Choniates’ writing. Choniates treats other enemies of Byzantium similarly to Isaac, including William the Good, who is labelled as a tyrant repeatedly, despite Sicilian chronicles referring to William as an upstanding monarch, as noted by his epithet.

Similarly, the Itinerarium and other English sources were written on behalf of Richard or from a pro- English standpoint, framing Richard and England in the best possible light. As Isaac was an enemy of Richard and the English, it was in the best interest of the Itinerarium’s author to portray Isaac as a tyrannical despot. It similarly labels enemies of Richard or the Third Crusade as villainous on several occasions. Furthermore, the Itinerarium demonizes the Cypriots themselves in addition to Isaac, implying more of a wide-ranging bias than a completely accurate tale of Isaac’s reign.

It is important to consider the biases of these authors, our sole sources for Isaac’s reign, in evaluating Isaac as emperor of Cyprus. After all, both chronicles ignore facts that we know are true. Neither chronicle mentions that Isaac took power in Cyprus when a usurper had taken the Byzantine throne; nor do they mention that all Byzantine emperors against whom Isaac plotted were usurpers. They do not tell us who benefitted from Isaac’s rule, as certainly someone in Cyprus besides the emperor himself must have benefitted for his rule to last seven years, and perhaps even longer if Richard had not overthrown him. Nor do they tell us how the Cypriot population reacted to Isaac forging his way into power; perhaps the Cypriot populace wanted to escape from the far-off authorities in Constantinople.

Despite these doubts, however, there is no proof to substantiate a narrative of Isaac as a good ruler. We have no native Cypriot chronicles written during Isaac’s reign to provide a counter-narrative. Instead, his legacy, written by his Byzantine and English enemies, is that of a villain. This is likely true, at least in part. The specific instances of Isaac’s misconduct that are highlighted in Choniates and the Itinerarium may be exaggerated, but it defies logic to think that they are all mere fabrications to vilify Isaac. Not withstanding the troublesome sources for Isaac, therefore, his legacy is as the villainous renegade emperor of medieval Cyprus.

Michael Goodyear holds a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School and an A.B. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Byzantine history. He has been published in a variety of academic and general-interest publications in law and history, including Le Monde diplomatique, World History Encyclopedia, and the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law.

Further Readings:

Magoulias, Harry I., translator. O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

Neocleous, Savvas. “Imagining Isaak Komnenos of Cyprus (1184–1191) and the Cypriots: Evidence from the Latin Historiography of the Third Crusade.” Byzantion, vol. 83, 2013, pp. 297–337.

Nicholson, Helen J., translator, Chronicle of the Third Crusade: A Translation of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi. Ashgate, 1997.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Cyprus depicted in a 16th-century map by Egnazio Danti (1536 – 1586)