We start with a look at the life and career of Anna Comnena, most famous as a historican, but who was also an important member of the dynasty in her own right. This is followed by a brief history of Byzantium and a look at the Macedonian dynasty, before we reach the first of the dynasty’s Emperors and the short rule of Isaac. Next is a look at the largely disasterous gap between Isaac and the dynasty’s second emperor, the famous Alexios. This period included the defeat at Manzikert, which was followed by the loss of large parts of Anatolia. The largest part of the book, a total of five chapters, looks at the well documented reign of Alexios. His son and grandson each get a chapter each, while the final two emperors get a single chapter between them. The last chapter briefly looks at the family’s final burst of power, as rulers of the comparatively tiny Empire of Trebizond, which actually survived for a few years after Byzantium had finally fallen.
This is a good readable narrative account of the last dynasty of a powerful Byzantine Empire (their successors suffered the Latin sack of the city and their successors the final Ottoman conquest). There is a good mix of military and political history, as we trace both the campaigns of these emperors and the constant disputes back in the city. The story is generally easy to follow, although some maps would have been useful. It does feel a bit like we rush to the end after the long look at Alexios I, although that is largely because of the detailed sources available for his reign.
I don’t agree with the author’s view that Byzantium found a stable way to deal with religious issues. A detailed examination of the topic reveals a seemingly endless stream of petty theological disputes, many of which upset the peace of the Empire, with bitter arguments and virtual civil wars caused by trivial disagreements about the exact nature of Christ or the use of imagery. It is true that you don’t get the same sort of open warfare that sometimes disrupted the relationship between the Pope and western rulers, but that surely has more to do with the maintainance of strong Imperial rule in Constantinople, which meant that the Patriachs never had the opportunity to develop the same sort of claims on power as the Popes and the close geographic relationship between the Empire and the areas controlled by the Orthodox church on the Byzantine side and the collapse of Imperial authority in Rome in the west. The entirely Christian nature of the early city is also exaggerated - while it is true that Constantine didn’t build any Pagan temples in his new city, the existing temples of Byzantum survived until a later bout of bigotry closed them.
There is also a tendancy to exaggerate the power of Byzantium in this period, with it sometimes described as the most powerful in the area, when by this period it was a massively shrunken power, having lost most of its Anatolian heartland in the aftermath of Manzikert. When the first Crusades arrived Byzantium was an almost entirely Balkan power, no larger than many of the western European kingdoms, and less powerful than many of their eastern neighbours. The book entirely lacks maps, which would have helped make this clearer.
Overall this is a good account of an interesting period in Byzantine history, but perhaps also a good example of the limits of dynastic rule – even a dynasty that includes several impressive rules can end in chaos, bloodshed and defeat!
1 - A Lady not for turning
2 - Constantine’s Legacy
3 - A hard act to follow: The Macedonians
4 - 1057: Isaac the Founder
5 - Interregnum: Diogenes’ disaster
6 - Enter Alexios
7 - Holding the Empire together
8 - The road to Micklegarth
9 - The ‘greedy Latin race’: Alexius and the First Crusade
10 - A fighter to the end
11 - John the Good: A soldier’s soldier
12 - Manuel I and the Second Crusade
13 - Bloodstained Finale: Andronikos I
14 - Twilight in Trebizond
Author: John Carr
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military