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 | 8 Comments

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8 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.

  3. Neal Stultz

    Hi Robin, love the show and the work you have done. I binged THOR and THOB up until the “present” in the last 3-4 months. My question is this:

    Can you elaborate on the history of the triumph? You alluded to it a bit in different episodes (*icons now included, ends at Constantine’s pillar, etc.), but what processes changed and when between the triumphal Roman general of the Republic riding in a chariot with a man whispering in his ear up until the present? When did it finally end in the empire?

  4. orangehairboy

    I think it’s time you speak to the importance of POLO in the Byzantine world! Considering that Alexios was injured playing it, to the point where it may have caused his gout, and that some of the other emperors apparently died from injuries received while playing it, I’m just surprised it has never yet come up in the same way that we’ve thoroughly covered chariot racing.

    • Good question. Though obviously the major difference is that one was an elite sport played largely behind closed doors while the other was a spectator sport for the wider public to enjoy

  5. Vagmoust

    Do you think that a new east-west split would have favoured the empire at any point, we have clearly seen so far, that the empire couldnt fight simultaneously both in the east and west.Im talking mainly about the preriod between Justinians successors and Mantzikert. Were they ever considering such a thing?
    Im guessing a major problem would be that one state would have Constantinople and the the other wouldnt, but that could be a blessing in disguise, could Constaninople be sustained by half an empire anyway?

    • It was an idea that was floated by someone every century or so. But you’ve hit the nail on the head. Since control of Constantinople was everything it was difficult to trust any division of power. For example Emperor A has two sons B and C. He gives B the chance to run the East of the Empire to learn the job. Then A suddenly dies unexpectedly. The court think they can better manipulate C who is resident in the city so they raise him to the throne. Now B begins a civil war to recover what is his and so on…

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