It’s tough to imagine a life more turbulent and extravagant than that of Andronicus Comnenus, Byzantine emperor and the last of his dynasty. Charismatic, contradictory, lover of worldly pleasures, expert military man, his strong character and lack of scruples led him to experience extreme situations, including twelve years of captivity, numerous military campaigns, scandalous love affairs, several conspiracies, exile, and a violent seizure of power. His own death, gruesome, was in line with that tumultuous existence.

Andronicus was born in Constantinople around the year 1118 and was of imperial lineage: his father, Isaac Comnenus, was a sebastokrator, an honorary title for someone very close to the throne, which was occupied by his brother, John II. However, it doesn’t mean they were a harmonious family, as Isaac didn’t readily accept his father Alexios I’s decision to have John succeed him. This led to Isaac being accused of treason, forcing him to flee, though he eventually received a pardon.

On the other hand, Andronicus’s older brother, also named John, decided to join the Ottomans and even converted to Islam.

Andronicus had occasion to interact with him in his new life because in the year 1141, he fell into a Turkish ambush during a hunt and spent a year imprisoned in Iconium. His cousin Manuel, the youngest of the emperor’s offspring, with whom he had been raised, paid his ransom. Shortly thereafter, three of Manuel’s brothers died from an illness, leaving only two: Isaac and Andronicus. Surprisingly, the emperor named Isaac as his heir, and when he also died in 1143, Manuel ascended to the throne. Everything seemed promising for Andronicus, but his strong personality was about to complicate things.

It happened when Manuel granted his nephew John Comnenus the positions of protovestiarios (in charge of the emperor’s wardrobe) and protosebastos (a dignity for close relatives of the emperor) to compensate for losing an eye in a tournament. Andronicus felt offended because his relationship with John was worse than bad, and since then, the affectionate bond he had with Manuel, whom he considered his favorite, shattered.

Perhaps to get back at both of them, he seduced Eudoxia, the sister of his enemy, drawing a parallel with the relationship that another sister of John, Theodora, had with the basileus himself.

Manuel I and his second wife, Maria of Antioch
Manuel I and his second wife, Maria of Antioch. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The scandal led Manuel to appoint him governor of Cilicia in 1152, where several Armenian lords had rebelled. Andronicus besieged the fortress of Mopsuestia, but his nightly revelries made him lower his guard, and the enemy made a surprise sortie, defeating him and looting the camp. He managed to escape to Antioch, although Manuel not only did not scold him excessively but also gave him a ducat and put him in charge of the army that was to pacify Hungary. There, he survived an assassination attempt organized by Eudoxia’s brothers, which made him suspect that perhaps the emperor himself was involved.

It was probably then that he began to plot a coup, seeking the help of the Hungarian monarch Géza II and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa. The plan included the assassination of Manuel by Andronicus himself, but it was discovered; although his life was spared, he ended up in prison for twelve years, during which he nursed deep resentment. In 1165, after several daring yet failed escape attempts (slipping through a latrine, getting the guards drunk, descending the walls with a rope…), which also resulted in Eudoxia’s condemnation (she was imprisoned with him and they conceived a child there), he managed to escape.

Some walachs recognized him and captured him in the Carpathians, but he eluded them one night by leaving a dummy covered with blankets and reached Kiev, where he sought the protection of Prince Yaroslav Osmomysl of Ruthenia, with whom he became good friends. He spent a peaceful decade there until he received an unexpected and surprising message: Manuel offered him a pardon in exchange for securing Ruthenia’s support against the Hungarians, with whom war had resumed. Andronicus accepted and personally led a cavalry force, participating in several battles and returning to Constantinople in triumph three years later.

Recreation of Constantinople in the Byzantine era
Recreation of Constantinople in the Byzantine era. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

But dark clouds reappeared. Manuel had only daughters and wanted a male successor to the throne, so he adopted Prince Béla, son of Géza II, and also granted him the hand of his daughter Maria Comnena. Andronicus led the almost unanimous protests of the Byzantine nobility, refusing to swear allegiance to him.

This led to his estrangement from the court, being sent back to Cilicia, where the Armenians had risen up again. He repeatedly defeated them but could not quell the rebellion definitively and, bored, he went to Antioch, engaging in a public romantic relationship with Princess Philippa, the emperor’s sister-in-law.

Obviously, this did not sit well with Manuel, especially when Andronicus abruptly abandoned her; deliberately, because what he really wanted was to upset his mother, Manuel’s wife, whom he couldn’t stand. To avoid her wrath, he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, taking the Cilician treasure with him and earning the favor of King Amalric I of Jerusalem, who granted him the lordship of Beirut.

In the end, the son of Géza II became Béla III of Hungary (lithograph by Joseph Kriehuber).
In the end, the son of Géza II became Béla III of Hungary (lithograph by Joseph Kriehuber). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

There, despite being fifty-six years old, he resumed his old ways by seducing Theodora, the young widow of King Baldwin III and the emperor’s niece. Manuel finally erupted and demanded her surrender, but the two lovers fled first to Damascus and then to the Caucasus to seek refuge in the court of George III of Georgia, whose sister had been Andronicus’s first wife.

From there, he led several raids against Byzantine interests in Trebizond until the provincial army managed to capture Theodora and her children, sending them to Constantinople. Fearing for their lives, Andronicus begged for mercy, agreeing to undergo a public submission loaded with chains.

Manuel granted it to him but preferred to keep him away from the court by appointing him duke of Paphlagonia, a city located on the coast of the Black Sea, between Bithynia and Pontus, where he caused no further trouble, but his resentment kept growing.

Holy Land and Asia Minor in the mid-12th century
Holy Land and Asia Minor in the mid-12th century. Credit: Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

Manuel died in 1180, and he was succeeded by his son Alexios II, as he had finally been able to father a son, although he was still an eleven-year-old child, so a regency council was formed, led by his mother, Maria. She not only left the convent where she had retired but also took the protosebastos Alexios, the deceased emperor’s nephew, as her lover, who would practically govern. The scandal was multiple due to the romantic relationship – considered incestuous -, because that man was considered an upstart, because of the nepotism he practiced, and because he autocratically directed state affairs.

Moreover, he pursued a pro-Western policy – latinizing, as it was said then – that was not well received among the Byzantine aristocracy because it exempted their merchants from taxes, who controlled the economy to the detriment of the local bourgeoisie, which led to an irrational hatred of anything of Italian origin among the population, with serious consequences soon to follow. A conspiracy emerged, and Andronicus, seeing a great opportunity, joined it. It was led by Princess Maria, a daughter of Manuel’s first marriage who was married to Rainier of Montferrat, who held the title of Caesar (at that time a lower rank than before). Patriarch Theodosius Boradiotes supported them.

Everything erupted in 1182 when the conspirators incited popular revolt against the regency council and a rebellion in the provinces. However, the plot was discovered, and they had to barricade themselves in Hagia Sophia. Alexios’s attempt to storm the temple, a sacrilege, infuriated the people, and they had to be granted an amnesty; in return, the patriarch was deposed, which did not help to dissipate the unrest. Neither did the Hungarians seizing the opportunity to regain their lost territories, the Turks seizing disputed border regions from the empire, or the Serbs and Armenians rebelling.

The Byzantine Empire in 1180
The Byzantine Empire in 1180. Credit: Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

So things stood while Andronicus marched toward Constantinople at the head of an army that swelled with dissidents; he did so deliberately slowly so that the situation would degrade as much as possible and he would appear as a providential savior. In fact, the only one who tried to stop him, a cousin of Manuel named Andronicus Angelus, was defeated and switched sides. Shortly after, the Byzantine fleet joined him, and Alexios was left alone; so much so that the Varangian Guard betrayed him, deposing him.

In the absence of authority, events quickly spiraled into tragedy. The masses unleashed their phobia and unleashed a bloody persecution against the Italian merchants (especially Genoese and Pisan), priests, and Catholics in general, without sparing their families, regardless of age or sex. This is known as the Massacre of the Latins, in which around sixty thousand people lost their lives or were forced to flee, leaving only about four thousand who were sold as slaves to the Sultanate of Rum. While Andronicus shared this hatred, he did not take part in the events because he had not yet reached Constantinople. When he finally entered the city, his presence alone was enough to calm the situation.

He crushed the last remnants of resistance and, assuming the role of tutor, crowned Alexios II. One by one, all who could challenge him fell. Maria and Rainier died poisoned, according to rumors ordered by him; the queen regent was once again confined to a convent and ended up being executed by strangulation, accused of conspiring; the same charge was applied to Andronicus Angelus and the fleet admiral, who had to flee; other alleged enemies suffered worse fates and ended up blinded, mutilated, and/or executed. The future of the adolescent basileus did not seem very promising.

In purple, the Latino neighborhoods where the massacres took place
In purple, the Latino neighborhoods where the massacres took place. Credit: Cplakidas / Wikimedia Commons

And it wasn’t. Supposedly responding to a demand from the court and the clergy, Andronicus fulfilled his old ambition by self-crowning himself co-emperor, he said, to confront the difficult circumstances and protect Alexios II. But he, of course, was the next to fall: two months later, he was assassinated, and his uncle finally became emperor openly.

He even married Agnes of France, the widow, who was even younger than her deceased husband, thirteen years old; however, Andronicus, who was sixty-five, kept Theodora by his side. For that, he appointed a new sympathetic patriarch who officially forgave him for everything he had done before illegally or immorally.

The new basileus had a reign as short as it was bloody: from September 1183 to September 1185. A biennium during which he achieved significant successes: he signed peace with Saladin’s Seljuks to be able to focus on recovering what was lost to Hungary, which he achieved; he ended Italian piracy, which had been launched by Genoa and Pisa after the Massacre of the Latins, by agreeing to pay indemnities and release the Venetian captives who still remained; he suppressed with fire and sword a rebellion in Bithynia; and he restored relations with the Pope.

Alexios II in an illustration by Guillaume Rouille (16th century)
Alexios II in an illustration by Guillaume Rouille (16th century). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, he decisively ended widespread corruption by establishing meritocracy in the administration and improving the salaries of officials, which resulted in a significant improvement in fiscal revenues. Furthermore, he tried to win over the people by limiting feudalism and cutting back on the privileges of the aristocracy, promoting a populist iconography of himself as a simple peasant. Moreover, he promoted measures to alleviate the plight of the humble classes, which, combined with the above, earned him the opposition of the same nobles he had once defended.

So the external successes were overshadowed by internal problems, and above all, his inability to govern without violence. Opposition to his figure soon emerged, which he decided to nip in the bud, plunging the empire into a wave of summary executions. Every discovered or suspected conspiracy was met with executions, carried out with chilling brutality, and Andronicus’s already difficult character became increasingly unhinged, seeing enemies everywhere and acting accordingly. The mass executions of nobles instilled fear but gave way to indignation, and soon the goal was to get rid of him. The bad thing for him was that the people also turned their backs on him when they saw his concessions to Venice and the Pope.

Cyprus, an important source of income, became independent without being able to prevent it because there was no fleet for it, as the death of the nobles had decimated the army’s base. Alexios Comnenus, nephew of Manuel I, convinced the Normans to organize an invasion from Sicily, an island they controlled at the time: Epidamnos, Corfu, Cephalonia, Zante, Thessaloniki… one after another, they conquered cities, sometimes without much resistance from the defenders. By then, Andronicus seemed to have thrown in the towel and only paid attention to the parties he held in his refuge in Propontis between feverish signing of death sentences.

An aspron minted by Andronicus I; Christ is seen crowning him.
An aspron minted by Andronicus I; Christ is seen crowning him. Credit: Classical Numismatic Group / Wikimedia Commons

This apparent indifference may have been due, perhaps, to an oracle that prophesied that the danger lay with someone whose name began with “Is”, and he believed he could solve it by exterminating anyone who might be an enemy named Isaac. One of them was Isaac Angelus, a lesser noble who managed to escape the assassins and took refuge in Hagia Sophia, which became a gathering point for all the discontented. Thus, a riot erupted in which the masses crowned the fugitive, freed the prisoners, and stormed the palace, looting it. Andronicus, who had just arrived, offered to abdicate in favor of his son Manuel, but faced with rejection, he chose to embark for Crimea with his family. He wouldn’t get far.

The weather was adverse, and they caught up with him, taking him back to Constantinople, where the aristocrats beat him. It was only the beginning of the agony that awaited him: paraded through the streets on a lackluster steed, he received all kinds of humiliations, blows, and attacks until he reached the Hippodrome, where his hands were amputated, and his hair, teeth, and an eye were torn out, only to be then hung by the feet and pummeled by anyone who wanted to. A soldier ended his suffering by killing him with his sword, although burying the body was prohibited. His sons, Manuel and John, also met a grim fate, the former blinded by the mob and the latter murdered by his troops upon learning of his father’s fate; the rest of the family managed to escape.

It was the end of the Comnenus dynasty and the beginning of the Angelus dynasty, embodied in the aforementioned Isaac II, which would not last even twenty years.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on August 8, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en La convulsa vida de Andrónico I Comneno, que consiguió ser emperador al escapar tras 12 años de cautiverio


Georg Ostrogorsky, Historia del Estado Bizantino | Antonio Bravo García, Bizancio | Paul Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel Komnenos 1143-1180 | David Barreras Martínez y Cristina Durán Gómez, Breve historia del Imperio bizantino | Franz Georg Maier, Bizancio | Emilio Cabrera, Historia de Bizancio | Andrew Stone, Andronicus I Comnenus(A.D. 1183-1185) | Wikipedia

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