Episode 222 – The Good Helmsman

Alexios Komnenos by Diogo DaCunha

Alexios Komnenos by Diogo DaCunha (@diogos_tales)

Alexios tries to forge a coalition against Antioch but has to abandon his plans when Anatolia comes calling again. The Emperor leaves this world frustrated by his failure to outmanoeuvre the Normans but his record in office is impressive nonetheless.

Period: 1108-1118

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This beautiful drawing of Alexios is by Diogo DaCunha. Check out more of his work on Instagram, at his website or on Vimeo.

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Categories: Podcast | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Episode 222 – The Good Helmsman

  1. Ian

    I do think a comparison to Leo III is pretty interesting: they do seem like the same kind of personality, as best as I can tell. Both of these latter-day Odysseuses took over empires on the verge of imploding and salvaged the situation through their steady helmsmanship. Both were crafty, cunning fellows, in terms of personality. Both were inveterate realists, long-sighted, and while they rose to power through the sword, were extremely skilled at diplomacy. Both dealt with an imperial state that had been thoroughly discredited by constant catastrophe and wanted to restore it to primacy-and wanted to ensure that random holy men couldn’t usurp state-approved churches.

    It’s hard to tell given how little we know about Leo relative to Alexios, but there you go.

    One major difference besides the time period, though, is that Leo was an outsider from the hinterlands. It’s hard to say anything definitive here, because we know so little about Leo compared to Alexios, but I don’t think it is hard to imagine his religious and policy tastes reflecting a certain disdain for the monasteries and elites of the capital that he might have seen as parasitical ingrates-and it would certainly make sense if Constantine V, who was born in the palace and clearly was highly educated, nevertheless inherited that “outsider” disdain from his father. A greater difference from Alexios’ policy of elite consolidation and orthodox retrenchment is hard to see. Granted, the cult of icons did not exist in Leo’s time, and as I said, the two shared more in common than on first glance: they wanted to reassert state approved power over religion. But the contrast is still visible.

    I’m not sure what Robin would think of this comparison. I’d be curious to find out.

    • I think that’s an astute observation. Both men picked up the pieces after a shattering defeat but as you say had quite different reactions to the religious implications of defeat.

      This could be because of Roman perceptions of the Turks and Arabs. The Arabs were grudgingly seen as civilised people with a rival theology that needed to be addressed. The Turks were not. They were seen as just another Steppe people for quite some time. And as with most non-literate cultures the Romans dismissed them as unworthy.

      It may also reflect Roman perceptions of the permanence of each people. 717 was the culmination of a process where the Romans had to accept that the Caliphate was here to stay. Whereas Alexios probably believed that, to some extent, Anatolia could be reconquered.

      So Leo had to address the questions which arose from Christianity’s defeats in a way Alexios did not.

  2. David Thompson

    What sort of financial shape was the Byzantine Empire in when he left? I have heard it was near bankrupt when he took it over, and I have the impression that the situation improved markedly due to his efforts, but I am not really sure how. He seemed to spend a lot of money in getting the crusaders on side and at least a few of his own military operations, and I also get the impression that the theme system was pretty much no more and that mercenaries were very expensive to hire.

    I am also surprised that the loss of Cilicia wasn’t a bigger deal since I was under the impression that it was wealthy and that (at least when it was first conquered by Phocas) it had imperial estates that were a healthy source of revenue. If I remember correctly the newly won territory in Bythina/ Nicaea was not looted and Alexius had to give the crusaders at least something to compensate them

    The other thing is that I would have thought that introducing the hyperpyron would have taken new gold reserves since all of the old coins would still have been in circulation and the government would have to have a program of exchanging nomisma for hyperpyron.

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