8 – Manuel I Komnenos – 1180
The first three members of the Komnenid Dynasty were arguably the last great rulers that the Byzantine Empire had. When Alexios took the throne in 1081, the empire had lost Asia Minor, the Normans were threatening the west, and the Pechenegs were invading the east. Alexios stabilized the situation while his successor, John II, recovered territory in the west of Asia Minor. Manuel I became Emperor in 1143 and strengthened the empire’s position in the Balkans while his armies also began the difficult process of trying to take back land in Anatolia.
Of course, his reign was not without mistakes. He was far too ambitious in his territorial aims, and his great campaign against the Turkish Sultanate ended in disaster with a defeat at the Battle of Myriokephalon in 1176. Despite the vast sums spent on warfare which left the treasury bare, the Empire’s Western provinces enjoyed an economic revival which carried on from the days of Alexios.
Manuel was extremely popular with members of his court who referred to him as the ‘divine emperor.’ Chroniclers in the next century also lavished him with praise by saying he was ‘the most blessed of emperors,’ and he was ‘great in fine deeds.’ Even with the setbacks against the Turks, the Empire was still considered a great power and enjoyed a booming economy.
However, Byzantium needed a strong leader to hold everything together, and while Manuel certainly fitted the bill, his successors did not. When he died in 1180, his son and successor, Alexios II, was just ten years of age and was under the influence of his mother, Maria, who was a Frankish princess. Hostility towards ‘foreign’ influence led to the murder of Alexios in 1183 while his usurper, Andronikos I, was executed two years later. Subsequently, internal squabbling occupied the empire and allowed enemies to regain territory. Within a quarter of a century of Manuel’s death, Constantinople fell for the first time. It was the beginning of the end.