Coin depicting Alexios I Komnenos

Young Alexios Komnenos, Part 1: Roussel’s Rebellion

Alexios I Komnenos has been immortalized as the Byzantine emperor who returned strength and stability to the foundering empire. Ruling from A.D./C.E. 1081 to 1118, he wielded considerable martial and diplomatic prowess that made him a formidable influence in both European and Asian politics. Yet his imperial achievements often overshadow his other endeavors, for it was during his early years in politics and warfare that he became the powerful man who would eventually wear the purple.

Coin depicting Alexios I Komnenos
Alexios I Komnenos as depicted on a coin during his reign as Byzantine emperor

By his early twenties, Alexios had become the stratopedarkhes (commander-in-chief) of Byzantine forces in Anatolia, where he claimed one of his earliest victories. At the time, the region was in a general state of chaos. The sultanate of the Seljuk Turks loomed in the east, already controlling much of what is present-day Turkey. While a tenuous peace existed between the Byzantines and the Turks, the instability had thrown the remaining Greek holdings into a state of disarray and sedition.

Despite the situation’s external dangers, it was a turncoat Norman mercenary who proved to be Alexios’ most pressing concern. His name was Roussel Balliol (also called Roussel de Bailleul), a former hired officer of the Byzantine military who exploited the political disorder to acquire more power for himself. Unfortunately for the Byzantines, his efforts came at their expense, as he seized a portion of Anatolia and set up a semi-independent state under his authority. By 1074 (the same time as Alexios’ tenure as stratopedarkhes), he was in open revolt against the empire.

Few specifics are known about Alexios’ campaign against Balliol, although it’s clear in twelfth-century histories that he encountered some success, recapturing parts of the lost territory. Anna Komnene, Alexios’ daughter, asserts in The Alexiad that Balliol had more soldiers than her father yet decided not to use his full force. Instead, he attempted to ally with Toutakh, a Turkish commander, and asked him for help. Alexios discovered Balliol’s plan and opened negotiations with Toutakh in response. While the stratopedarkhes was a capable diplomat even in his youth, he was significantly disadvantaged in the negotiations and facing little chance of victory if forced to fight. The Turks had no reason to listen to the Byzantines, since the Turkish military was larger and the Seljuk state needed little of what its Greek neighbor could offer.

Regardless, Alexios set about convincing Toutakh to abandon Balliol through a variety of means. Allegedly, he explained that there would be three benefits if the Turks cooperated. First, they would receive a hefty payment for their troubles; second, they would cement their alliance and friendship with the Byzantines; and last, they would strengthen their own position by preventing Balliol from betraying them after he finished revolting against the empire. To sweeten the deal, Alexios also provided them with Greek hostages as a goodwill gesture for the payment. Eventually, Toutakh agreed to cooperate and captured Balliol sometime between 1074 and 1076, turning him over to Alexios, who in turn sent him to the town of Amaseia in north-central Turkey. According to Anna Komnene, it was Alexios’ superior diplomacy that persuaded Toutakh. However, it’s more likely that he was persuaded by the small fortune he could expect for his help.

Coin of Emperor Michael VII Doukas
Emperor Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071-1078)

Even with Balliol’s capture, Alexios still faced a massive problem: the Byzantine emperor, Michael VII Doukas, apparently couldn’t have cared less about the agreement with Toutakh and had no intention of providing the promised payment. When the money failed to arrive, the Turks grew angry, perhaps feeling that they had been duped by the Greeks. As the payment became further delayed, they demanded that Alexios either pay immediately or release Balliol from his custody. It was a difficult position, but young Alexios would soon show that he had the cleverness to find a solution.

 

This is part one of a series on Alexios Komnenos before his rise to emperor. The other parts can be found here.

Further Reading

  • Anna Komnene. The Alexiad. Revised edition. Translated by E. R. A. Sewter. Edited by Peter Frankopan. London: Penguin, 2009.

— A different translation can be read for free online, courtesy of Fordham University.

  • Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger. Materials for History.

(Both certainly are politicized accounts—written, no less, by relatives of Alexios—but they date from the twelfth century and give a glimpse of how high-ranking Byzantine courtiers viewed the events.)

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