Episode 228 – Forgiveness not Permission

John hunting boar in Cilicia, French manuscript of the 14th Century

Last time we watched as John Komnenos attempted to untangle the Gordian knot which Anatolia had become. After campaigning against the Danishmends – John moved on to Cilicia and Antioch. The Emperor attempted to enforce his rights without angering the Latins. A trick which he failed to pull off. Today John will be forced to go through the whole process all over again. But when he reaches the gates of Antioch this time he won’t take no for an answer.

Period: 1138-1143

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16 thoughts on “Episode 228 – Forgiveness not Permission

  1. Ian

    My questions would be the following:

    1) What were John’s policies regarding the Roman navy? He must have realized that the only long-term way to break off the deal with Venice would have been to rebuild it. Did he attempt to start to rebuild it after the conflict with Venice, or did he lack the funds for it?

    I came across Lau’s paper on the subject, but I haven’t had time to read it yet.

    2) How did the pronoia system develop under John? Matter of fact, I’d like to hear a bit more about John’s domestic policies in general. Did he do anything differently from Alexios?

    One of the hard things I’m dealing with is understanding how a precarious but clearly recovering Byzantine state declined into the weak, corrupt state it was in pre-Fourth Crusade so quickly. I understand that 1204 is still well over half a century away, so it’s hardly fair to judge John’s reign as a failure based on that, but one is tempted to look for the potential things that would go so catastrophically wrong later. Were the Latins already in the state that would provoke such resentment that would explode with Andronikos?

    3) What was John like personally?

    • M.A.

      Hello, I really enjoy your show and have a question I would like to submit for your upcoming interview?
      Can you give us a rough idea of how much of the pomp and ceremony of the court of Constantinople accompanied the Emperor while he was on campaign. (I realize of course that this would of vary based on century, location, Emperor, and soforth.)

      • Hey, I’m afraid this came in after the interview but I can answer this one. The Emperors always took an ‘Imperial tent’ with them. Meaning a tent that could impress foreign visitors and underlings alike. This would be fully decorated with gold and silver ornaments and fancy robes and carpets etc. We know this in part because it was always a great shame when it fell into enemy hands. The Emperor and his mount would also be decked out in finery when marching around camp and inspecting troops etc.

  2. Great episode. I had a question for your forthcoming interview.

    To what extent is John’s reputation as ‘Beautiful’ borne out by contemporary records? It is reputed that he was a very just man who never put a man to death unfairly, as well as never killing or blinding his family who tried to betray him.
    How much of this is attested by the time, and how much came later on looking back with rose tinted glasses?

    • Constantin

      Peter, in our Greek tradition, John is remembered as John the Good (‘Καλογιαννης”) rather than the beautiful. He was repeatedly praised for his good, generous nature, and earned his sobriquet when he suspended the death sentence, at least for some time.

  3. Anthony Wilson

    Hi Robin,

    Very random question, which may not be appropriate for the interview next week, but may be something that you could look at in an end-of-the-century thing.

    Did the fact of John’s (and, presumably, other emperors’) habit of keeping the armies out in the field for years at a time have an impact on childbirth rates, or, more specifically, waves? I.e. if the men were away from their homes for five years at a time, was there a dearth of births during that time and then a large rush of children in the 9 months to a year after they returned? If so (and I imagine records are scarce, but may not be impossible to find out), did this have an impact on society, education etc.? And, as I imagine may be the case, did it have an impact on overall birthrate over the years that this was happening?

    Many thanks and best wishes,


    • Hey, that’s a fun question. But as you guessed we don’t have any records that could add much to that discussion for the vast majority of Byzantine history. It was fairly rare that an army would be gone from home for years at a time. And in most cases we’re only talking about 20,000 men. So I don’t know if that would be noticeable in a wider population of millions.

  4. A

    Is there some reason why there are so little sources on John’s reign compared to his father or his son? These few episodes are focused on his military campaigns and it seems we don’t know much else about him.

    • I’ll be asking Dr Lau about what we know of John’s personal life. But the reason for the lack of personal details is that both our Byzantine sources lived through Manuel’s reign and had no direct memory of John. I’ll talk more about this on the show.

  5. AndrewT

    Thanks for the great ep and your show in general Robin!

    My question is about John Komnenos and siege engines. They obviously had existed for centuries by now, but this is the first ruler I can recall such extensive mention of them. Was there some factor that brought them into more extensive use at this time? For instance, more frequent contact (military and otherwise) with Latin states, which are on both sides of the Byzantines at this point.

    Had they changed much over this time?

    And we don’t hear anything about Greek Fire any more. Was the technology lost by this time, or did it just fall out of use for some other reason?

  6. David Thompson

    Is all of the information we get on this era from scholarship of existing texts or is there any archaeology in process or any documents somewhere that we haven’t gotten around to examining that might give any future insight? Is a lot of the information we might be interested in just “lost forever”? Are there any big questions that you think need to be answered in this era?

  7. David Thompson

    Another question. I have been going around google earth to try to get a sense of Anatolia. Are there any places you think I could look at to get a idea of the challenges and opportunities from a military and economic perspective for the Byzantines? I always got the impression that the Byzantines were Constantinople focused and were not so adapted to the eastern frontier region like the Turks of this time were. Obviously there were magnates who farmed and ranched the area, people who lived in Cappadocia who lived in caves and seemed “one with the land” in an almost literal sense, but it seems like they were not adapted to the area in the sense the Bedouin could survive an thrive in the desert. In the 700s there seemed to be a strategy of holding mountain passes that worked fair to well to the Byzantines, but in this period something seems a bit off. Is it due to the collapse of the theme system?

    • Hey, I’ve talked about the geography of Anatolia many times on the podcast. I would encourage you to look at the maps page (link at the top of this site) and look at how the mountains surround the central plateau. They separate the plateau from the coast land. The coast land is all good farming land like the rest of the Med. The plateau isn’t. It’s always been a place for grazing animals rather than growing crops. The Romans held the plateau for century after century. People pushed herds around it all year long, living harmoniously. The Turks are a Steppe people. It’s a different lifestyle. It means living off the herds and raiding or trading with settled communities to gather the things you can’t produce. Once enough nomads gather together they create an army that is faster and harder to beat than most settled states can produce. We’ve seen over and over and over again Steppe tribes cross the Danube and run amok in the Balkans. Often the Romans can’t easily defeat them and have to wait for a specific opportunity to take them down. Here in the 12th century it’s the exact same situation except there are 2 Turkic states. That means the Romans have double the trouble and they have to deal with all the other competitor states in the Balkans and Syria as well. So there’s nothing about the Turks or Romans that makes them better at living on the plateau. It’s just that the Romans now had too many problems to deal with all at once. The reality is no steppe tribes had been on the Anatolian plateau since biblical times. The Romans were not used to them being there. It was a shock to the system. If you want a reminder of how the Turks broke through then obvs go listen to the episodes leading up to the Battle of Manzikert.

      • David Thompson

        You’re right. Please feel free to delete this comment

  8. Russ Rutherford

    Hello Robin, First of all, I wanted to say that I have been looking forward to the reign of John Komnenos for a long time in your podcast as he is one of my all time favorite emperors from one of my favorite dynasties and you, sir, did not disappoint. As is the case with this whole podcast I thoroughly enjoyed your episodes on his reign. I particularly liked your descriptions of the battle of Beoria and of the Anatolian conquests. One of my frustrations with most books I have read on Byzantium is that the sections on John tend to be very brief and not very detailed. And, it frustrates me when the empire has a nice string of successes but those are glossed over in an overarching theme of decline as we often watch the empire outlast contemporary state after state and survive shock after shock in a way that most rivals do not. All the pessimism and lack of detail for brilliant successes bug me. So having that viewpoint, I really appreciated the greater detail you provided and the enjoyable narrative you gave of this very successful emperor. Keep up the great work!

    As John is one of my favorites (as is this era) I have some questions that your work has inspired so here we go:

    1. Do we know anything about any updates John made to the defensive and administrative systems, tax, or recruitment in the empire? I am particularly curious about reconquered Anatolian territory in John or his father’s reign. As imperial control returned, did taxes and recruitment function the same way as before or has the Komnenos family made some updates? I understand that the empire can really only field one large force at a time, so how did local garrison recruitment work? Is there any vestige of the theme system left or are all troops centrally funded? Is Adrianople still the main recruitment ground for native soldiers or has recruitment expanded to other areas like Anatolia? Has there been any change to fortification patterns in reconquered territory?

    2. My second question is about the conflict with Venice. I guess what I wonder most is did John’s resistance to his father’s deal curb the excesses of Venetian behavior? I mean the conflict didn’t go well in that John couldn’t really fight the Venetians, but did they tread any more lightly after the deal was reinstated? Also, is the empire’s alliance with Pisa still active? Could the Pisans have helped fight the Venetians in this situation or could they have formed other alliances?

    3. Do we have any insight as to why John’s brother Isaac rebelled against him? John had given him a considerable amount of power and John seems to have a good reputation in most sources, as I understand, so I found this event curious. I also heard somewhere that John attempted to rein in the influence of his family in his administration. Did he have any notable differences to how he governed from Alexios particularly with regard to his family?

    4. Do we have any information about how the Turks were viewed in Byzantine society? I noticed that as some Turks had converted and joined the Roman army under Alexios and some had been absorbed into the empire from reconquests. Do we know how well they integrated into the life of the empire? I was also thinking back to older end of the century episodes where we discussed how the Arabs and the Romans saw each other. Do we get any interesting comments from either side on the other? Are there any useful Turkish sources on the internal workings of their states? As in the Danishmens or the Sultanate of Iconium?

    5. About John’s style of warfare, do we have any idea why John used catapults so extensively in his wars as opposed to other siege techniques? You mentioned a desire to save his soldiers, but were there any technological innovations in catapults that made them suddenly more effective than they had previously been? Or was it his technique that somehow improved? Also, has John changed the structure of the Roman army much in his reign? I know that after Dyrrachium, Alexious’ army was mostly Steppe archers and Western knights combined with Balkan native infantry and the retinues of Roman nobles. Did John change this dynamic much or did he create any new types of units? Did the Romans take up training native horse archers again like they did in Justinian’s day? (That last one is probably just wishful thinking)

    6. Were the Hungarians still fighting like Steppe archers or had they adopted a different style of fighting? I’m just trying to imagine the war John had with them more clearly.

    7. Do we have any update on the Empire’s relationship with Serbia? As I understood from the end of the century episodes, the Serbian kingdom’s relationship with Byzantium was mostly ceremonial lip service, But throughout the recent decades, there seem to have been several Serbian uprisings. Had the empire been asking more of them recently or exerted more control in some way? I guess I am wondering what it was they were rebelling against, I guess. Or were they just raiding Roman territory?

    8. Did retaking Cilicia and Trebazond supply the empire with more access to Armenian manpower for the army? As I understand, this was a major goal in retaking Antioch. Did these expansions provide any of that benefit?

    9. How do you think John compares to other great Byzantine generals? Like you said in the episode, I want to rank him with the best as well. After your reflections on Nicephorus Phocas and on the First Crusade, it strikes me how much his men must have trusted and believed in him. We saw lots of Roman Armies flee from steppe archers, but his soldiers kept going at Beroia and in difficult sieges and it impressed me that despite resentment, he was able to keep his men in the field for so long without rebellions or insubordination. (I’m thinking back to Maurice, and Belisarius) How do you think he was able to do that especially considering his more limited resources? Do you think that his failures to take those cities he wanted might have stemmed from the empire’s resource base and lack of flexibility?

    Ok, I know that is a lot of questions, and I totally understand if you can’t get to all of those, nor do I really expect you to, but I have been waiting on John’s turn at the top for a while now, and I wanted to leave no stone unturned, and I appreciate whatever you can get to, as I appreciate all your hard work on the podcast.

    • I’m so sorry to say that this came in after the interview had already happened. I can help briefly.
      1) The book will help with this a little. The fortifications John built or rebuilt in Western Anatolia contributed to the survival of that area under Roman rule after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 AD. So local garrison recruitment must have gone on and been a success. Yes Adrianople was still a major recruiting area. The majority of native Roman soldiers now came from Thrace.
      2) We will discuss this more during Manuel’s reign. The Pisans and Genoese were both allied with Byzantium. But since they are both on the other side of Italy they would always be far less influential than the Venetians. Conflict between these Italians within Byzantium is coming.
      3) Yes Dr Lau goes into great detail about this in the book and I cut it all out of the podcast for time. Basically Isaac had been in the capital on his own every Summer for the first decade of John’s reign. Then John’s son Alexios came of age and they stayed at home for a year so Isaac would suddenly have been pushed right into the shadows. So as John set off again to campaign Dr Lau suggests that Isaac asked around if his supporters would back him to take over and someone blew the whistle immediately. Dr Lau also suggests that the death of their middle brother around this time may have removed someone playing a peace maker role.
      4) We have a real absence of any Turkish sources which is a major problem in understanding life in Anatolia during this period.
      5) It seems like the traction trebuchet had reached a point of sophistication that it previously been at for the Byzantines. It may have been Western engineers who passed on their knowledge. No comment is made in the histories at the time about this being an innovation. But we know the Byzantines were impressed by the Latins’ siege expertise during the 1st Crusade.
      6) No I think the Hungarians were now a Western style army hence the ease with which Byzantium could defeat them.
      7) Serbia was divided into different smaller kingdoms who each jockeyed with each other as well as against Byzantine authority. I tend to leave the details out of the narrative since it doesn’t really affect the narrative and would only add more dates and places. But basically yes if they refused to obey the Emperor it inevitably meant they would raid Roman farms and stir up other people to get rebellious thoughts.
      8) Not enough to make a big difference. Plus the idea was to establish an independent army at Antioch which would then have recruited Armenians. The central army at Constantinople had no problem finding recruits from a variety of sources.
      9) Sorry I couldn’t put this to Dr Lau. I think Alexios’ long reign had established a solid army full of veterans which John inherited and built on. The contingents of Latin knights and Steppe archers in its ranks made it far more formidable than any neighbouring army. And John obviously did a good job leading and keeping morale high. The Empire’s restored currency kept everyone well paid too.

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