Byzantium Under The Komnenos Dynasty - Restoration Under John II Komnenos

Restoration Under John II Komnenos

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See also: John II Komnenos, Battle of Beroia, Battle of Haram, and Siege of Shaizar

Alexios's son John II Komnenos succeeded him in 1118, and was to rule until 1143. On account of his mild and just reign, he has been called the Byzantine Marcus Aurelius. John was unusual for his lack of cruelty—despite his long reign, he never had anyone killed or blinded. He was loved by his subjects, who gave him the name 'John the Good'. He was also an energetic campaigner, spending much of his life in army camps and personally supervising sieges.

During John's reign, Byzantium faced many difficulties: enemies confronted the empire on all sides. An invasion of nomadic horsemen from the north threatened Byzantine control in the Balkans, and the Turks were harassing Byzantine territory in Asia Minor. However, John soon proved himself just as determined and energetic as his predecessor. At the Battle of Beroia, John personally led the imperial armies against the Pecheneg invaders. With the aid of the emperor's elite troops, the Varangian Guard, the tribal horsemen were decisively crushed. The emperor's victory was so emphatic that the Pechenegs soon disappeared as an independent people.

John's marriage to the Hungarian princess Piroska involved him in the dynastic struggles of the Kingdom of Hungary. In giving asylum to Álmos, a blinded claimant to the Hungarian throne, John aroused the suspicion of the Hungarians. The Hungarians, led by Stephen II, then invaded Byzantium's Balkan provinces in 1127, with hostilities lasting until 1129 The Hungarians attacked Belgrade, Nish and Sofia; John, who was near Philippopolis in Thrace, counterattacked, supported by a naval flotilla operating on the Danube. After a challenging campaign, the details of which are obscure, the emperor managed to defeat the Hungarians and their Serbian allies at the fortress of Haram or Chramon, which is the modern Nova Palanka. Following this the Hungarians renewed hostilities by attacking Braničevo, which was immediately rebuilt by John. Further Byzantine military successes, Choniates mentions several engagements, resulted in a restoration of peace. The Danube frontier had been definitively secured.

John was then able to concentrate on Asia Minor, which became the focus of his attention for most of his reign. The Turks were pressing forward against the Byzantine frontier, and John was determined to drive them back. Thanks to John's energetic campaigning, Turkish attempts at expansion in Asia Minor were halted, and John prepared to take the fight to the enemy. In order to restore the region to Byzantine control, John led a series of campaigns against the Turks, one of which resulted in the reconquest of the ancestral home of the Komneni at Kastamonu. He quickly earned a formidable reputation as a wall-breaker, taking stronghold after stronghold from his enemies. Regions which had been lost to the empire since Manzikert were recovered and garrisoned. Yet resistance, particularly from the Danishmends of the north-east, was strong, and the difficult nature of holding down the new conquests is illustrated by the fact that Kastamonu was recaptured by the Turks whilst John was back in Constantinople celebrating its return to Byzantine rule. John persevered, and Kastamonu soon changed hands once more. He advanced into north-eastern Anatolia, provoking the Turks to attack his army. Unlike Romanos Diogenes, John's forces were able to maintain their cohesion, and the Turkish attempt to inflict a second Manzikert on the emperor's army backfired when the Sultan, discredited by his failure, was murdered by his own people.

John, like Basil II before him, was a slow but steady campaigner. His armies made careful, measured gains over time, rarely exposing themselves to excessive risks, but nevertheless advancing inexorably towards their objectives. However, the Turks were resilient, and they did not allow themselves to be decisively defeated in any one engagement. They knew that it was difficult for the emperor to remain in one theatre of war for a long time, as events elsewhere often intervened that required his attention.

John consolidated his conquests and the existing Byzantine holdings in Asia by the building of a series of forts. Historian Paul Magdalino explains this process in his book "The empire of Manuel Komnenos" by placing it in the context of the Komnenian restoration of the Byzantine empire as a whole; he points out that while John's father Alexios had fortified places on the coast, John now expanded Byzantine control into the interior by fortifying places such as Lopadion, Achyraous and Laodicea, which guarded the approaches to the valleys and coastlands of Asia Minor. This restoration of order under John enabled agricultural prosperity to begin a recovery that would eventually restore these war torn regions to their former status as a productive and valuable part of the Byzantine empire.

Towards the end of his reign, John made a concerted effort to secure Antioch. On the way, he captured the southern coast of Asia Minor and Cilicia. He advanced into Syria at the head of his veteran army, which had been seasoned by a lifetime of campaigning. Although John fought hard for the Christian cause in the campaign in Syria, there was a famous incident where his allies, Prince Raymond of Antioch and Count Joscelin II of Edessa, sat around playing dice while John pressed the Siege of Shaizar. These Crusader Princes were suspicious of each other and of John, and neither wanted the other to gain from participating in the campaign, while Raymond also wanted to hold on to Antioch which he had agreed to hand over to John if the campaign was successful. Ultimately, Joscelin and Raymond conspired to keep John out of Antioch, and while he was preparing to lead a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and a further campaign, he accidentally grazed his hand on a poison arrow while out hunting. The poison set in and shortly afterwards he died.

Historian J. Birkenmeier has recently argued that John's reign was the most successful of the Komnenian period. In "The development of the Komnenian army 1081–1180", he stresses the wisdom of John's approach to warfare, which focused on siege warfare rather than risky pitched battles. Birkenmeier argues that John's strategy of launching annual campaigns with limited, realistic objectives was a more sensible one than that followed by his son Manuel I. According to this view, John's campaigns benefited the Byzantine Empire because they protected the empire's heartland from attack while gradually extending its territory in Asia Minor. The Turks were forced onto the defensive, while John kept his diplomatic situation relatively simple by allying with the Western Emperor against the Normans of Sicily.

Overall, John II Komnenos left the empire a great deal better off than he had found it. Substantial territories had been recovered, and his successes against the invading Petchenegs, Serbs and Seljuk Turks, along with his attempts to establish Byzantine suzerainty over the Crusader States in Antioch and Edessa, did much to restore the reputation of his empire. His careful, methodical approach to warfare had protected the empire from the risk of sudden defeats, while his determination and skill had allowed him to rack up a long list of successful sieges and assaults against enemy strongholds. By the time of his death, he had earned near universal respect, even from the Crusaders, for his courage, dedication and piety. His early death meant his work went unfinished; historian Zoe Oldenbourg speculates that his last campaign might well have resulted in real gains for Byzantium and the Christian cause.

Read more about this topic:  Byzantium Under The Komnenos Dynasty

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