Young Alexios Komnenos, Part 2: Disposing of Rebels

Gaining custody of the traitorous mercenary Roussel Balliol proved to be only half the task for Alexios Komnenos, the commander-in-chief of the Byzantine forces in Anatolia. The Seljuk Turks had agreed to give over the captive Balliol to Alexios, but it wasn’t a goodwill gesture. Alexios had promised Toutakh, the local Turkish leader, that he would be compensated, but the payment had yet to be made. Tensions grew, and Toutakh gave Alexios an ultimatum: come up with the money or release the captive Balliol. To the Byzantines, the second option was unacceptable, so Alexios set about doing the first.

Alexios’ first attempt at a solution showed his skill as a master orator, even at his young age. Since he couldn’t afford to pay and Emperor Michael of Byzantium wasn’t helping, he tried to persuade the wealthy citizens of Amaseia, the prosperous trading town where Balliol had been detained, to pay on behalf of the empire. Though composed decades after the incident, The Alexiad preserves the spirit of Alexios’ address to them:

“You all know . . . how this barbarian [Balliol] has treated all the towns of [your region]. . . . But now you have a chance to free yourselves from his evil deeds – if you wish. It is essential that he should not be allowed to get away. As you see, he is our prisoner, thanks entirely to the Will of God and our zeal. But Toutakh captured him and demands the reward from us. We are quite incapable of paying . . . it falls on you to contribute the money, which the emperor will repay in full on my promise.” (I.200)

It was a brilliant piece of wordsmithing that covered the circumstances from every angle. He reminded the citizens of their weakness under Balliol, yet he portrayed the payment as a way for them to empower themselves. His appeal to their shared faith and sense of urgency for justice could have been meant to win over the more pious or vindictive citizens. However, the crown jewel of his speech is how he made Toutakh look like a villain demanding payment against the Greeks’ will, when in reality the payment was Alexios’ idea in the first place!

Unfortunately for Alexios, it didn’t work. Despite his clever rhetoric the citizens refused to part with their money and almost started a riot in response. Alexios quickly restored order and dispersed the crowd before things could get out of hand. With the situation under control and the knowledge that words wouldn’t solve the problem, he withdrew to consider another strategy.

His second attempt at persuading the citizens revealed the extent of his ability as a cunning leader. To show them that he was serious about permanently handling the Balliol problem, he tricked them into thinking that he ordered Balliol to be blinded. In a public ceremony, Balliol was strewn out on a platform and an executioner brought a searing hot poker within centimeters of his eyes. Balliol screamed and pretended as though his eyes were being gouged out, and his face was wrapped in bandages before he was allowed rise, preventing spectators from seeing that the ceremony had been faked.

Depiction of Byzantine blinding ceremony
Depiction of a Byzantine blinding ceremony from the Madrid Skylitzes chronicle

The people of Amaseia apparently believed it was true, soon supplying the much-needed money. It’s possible that some approved of the “blinding” as a measure of vengeance against someone who had brutalized their province. On the other hand, Balliol’s supporters, as The Alexiad points out, might have lost heart when they saw his “punishment”; blinding prevented a person from leading armies and destroyed his ability to be a legitimate ruler in Byzantine society.

With the money collected, Alexios paid Toutakh and escorted Balliol to Emperor Michael’s custody. Although Alexios certainly had help from others, it’s doubtless that his own political skill greatly contributed to his success in Anatolia. Yet he wouldn’t have long to rest on his laurels; in just a few more years the soon-to-be emperor would have to work at a disadvantage once again, this time in battle against a general just as capable as himself.

 

This is part two of a series on Alexios Komnenos before his rise to emperor. Part One 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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